The Religious and the Secular

A lot of words are being thrown about regarding a so-called “return of religion” and the “post-secular” age in which we are now living. Amidst the apparent confusion of the once neatly divided “religious” and “secular” realms, it is crucial to realize the relative novelty of this separation:

The concept of “the secular,” as we use the term today in reference to a domain of social and political life that is decisively non-religious, is relatively new, dating only to the sixteenth century. Prior to the sixteenth century, the term “secular” was still closely related to its meaning within Latin Christendom of “age” (saeculum), and secondarily related to the idea of the present, temporal, mundane world in distinction to the divine and spiritual realm of eternity. This distinction is not equivalent, however, to the distinction between the profane and the sacred, or to our own between the secular and the religious. This inequivalence is due to the fact that, in medieval Christendom, even the saeculum was considered religious. The doctrine of creation meant that everything, including everything in the saeculum, is ultimately related to God (religio); whence Augustine’s characterization of the saeculum as a “mixture” of the earthly city (whose citizens ignore God and love themselves) and the city of God (whose citizens love God first and everything else on that basis). The distinction to make within the Middle Ages, therefore, is not between a purely secular realm and a purely religious realm, but between a mixed secular-religious realm (this world) and a purely religious realm (the other world—heaven), the former subordinated under the latter. (Cauchi, “The Secular to Come,” 3)

This careful historical observation reminds me of the grand, almost mythical, opening of Milbank’s “Theology and Social Theory”: “Once, there was no secular.”

4 thoughts on “The Religious and the Secular

  1. I’m not sure this holds, entirely. I’ve heard that in the largely mono-religious society of medieval Europe, the language of conversion was still used, but meant becoming a vowed religious. This comports with, at least, the typical Protestant critique of pre-Reformation Christianity, in which ‘Christian’ was a profession (cf. interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount as for monastic perfection).
    It thus seems there would have been a division between churchly types and common, ‘secular’ others. I wonder if this is not a universal fact of human experience.

  2. Yes, but the common ‘secular’ was still understood religiously, via the doctrine of creation. That distinction is still heard today, between ‘secular’ Catholic priests and ‘religious’ priests living in monastic community or part of religious orders. The difference in the sixteenth century is that ‘secular’ came to refer to a realm outside of reference to God, what can be known and lived as well if God does not exist as if God does.

  3. i’ll grant that, that it is now possible to choose to live within an entirely material world(view).
    all the same, i’m not sure of the difference on the ground the introduction of ‘the secular’ makes. i don’t know how much was gained by the impious Middle Ager’s grudging acceptance of God’s rule.

  4. Yes, of course. Bonhoeffer opens his Cost of Discipleship, as far as I remember, by pointing out the great impact of Luther came from his leaving the monastery for the world–the ‘secular’ world. What I fear, however, is that by saying the so-called ‘evangelical counsels’ are for everyone (rather than just for vowed religious, as in the Middle Ages), we’ve made it so that no one fulfills the call to poverty. This is an equally poor alternative to restricting it to just vowed religious. Maybe something like a new monasticism is needed…

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