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The Rise of Secularism: What Happened to the Church’s Political Vision?

Posted by Steve Turley ● Jul 31, 2017 6:04:00 PM

In a previous post, I explored what constitutes a distinctively Christian political vision. There I argued that a truly Christian politics recognizes first and foremost that the church is the true politics; the church is the only everlasting city and its members are the only true and everlasting citizenship. And we looked at the political significance of the Greek term, ekklēsia, which is the New Testament term for the ‘church,’ and found that it was not so much understood in the first-century Roman world as a ‘religious’ term but more as a ‘political’ term, one that designated the assembly of adult male citizens who had ultimately decision making authority in the polis, the Greek city-state. And so a Christian politics recognizes the church as the center of all political thought and life; and this was relatively normative from the conversion of Constantine in the fourth-century all the way through into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This of course leads us to the question of what happened to this Christian vision of politics: Why does the church appear so ineffective in social and cultural life today?

Well, you have a number of political changes that took place starting in the seventeenth-century. We can point for example to the emergence of what is called the Westphalian Order, which brought an end to the Thirty Years War by establishing the civil magistrate as the sole representative of national sovereignty. So while the state had in many respects been accountable to the church, now with this new social order, it was more the church that was accountable to the state. The state became the central institution that represented the sovereignty of the nation. And we see this arrangement continuing on into our day.

Now as part of the Westphalian order, the universities came under new management. We have to remember that universities were founded by the church in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but starting in the eighteenth-century, universities started coming under the auspices of the state. These social reconfigurations elicited a dramatic transformation in the legitimation of knowledge. Before the eighteenth century, knowledge was defined primarily in two ways: what was called scientia, which was the practical knowledge of problem solving, and theoria, which was essentially theology and philosophy, it’s the deeper more contemplative knowledge that bound together all the diversities of scientific knowledge into a single coherent theological vision. These two forms of knowledge give us the term university.

However, with the state as its master, the university largely did away with the practice of theoria, or contemplative knowledge that sought to understand the world in terms of divinely inspired wisdom and virtue, and instead gave primacy to scientia, because it was scientia that was thought most conducive with the task of the bureaucrat and administrator, which placed a premium on control and management. And so theology and religion were effectively expelled from the realm of knowledge, and increasingly were reduced to personal and private opinion.

The universities were not the only institutions to go through a process of nationalization. Indeed, with the advent of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth-century and social democracies throughout Europe after World War I, there was in effect a massive recalibration of the totality of social and economic life around the state. According to economic historian Lars Magnusson, this was a social process wherein a ‘particularist’ state transformed into a ‘territorial’ state; the state that was once but one of a plurality of mediating institutions that organized and governed social order transformed into a territorial monopolist of regulation, taxation, and arbitration over the public square. Indeed, the change was so dramatic that German scholar Andreas Osiander suggests that what we now call ‘the state’ had no social reality prior to the nineteenth-century, such that terms like the English translation ‘city-state’ for the Greek polis are in many respects anachronisms.

And as political theologian Bill Cavanaugh has observed, it is here that secularism plays a key role, for it is through secularization that the state is able to perpetuate and protect its monopolization over the public square. Secularization is in effect a network of social strategies whereby the church is pushed out of public life and marginalized to the private sphere of life. And the primary mechanism by which such monopolization is maintained is the redefinition of religion: beginning in the eighteenth century, religion was re-conceptualized as something that one believes but cannot know. The state thus effectively marginalized the church by re-inventing our conception of faith and religion in accordance with its own secular norms: faith and religion are no longer civilizational expressions of divinely ordained social obligations, they are now little more than instrumental means by which individuals find personal meaning and purpose for their lives.

With the emergence of this new conception of public life, theological reflection on modern civic arrangements have fallen victim to two distinct yet interrelated impoverishments. On the one hand, modern public theologies have found themselves all too willing to uncritically accept these social permutations as somehow normative or privileged, and with the canonization of modern assumptions, scholars reduce theology to frames of reference foreign to the Christian gospel. In fact, this was the critique of sociologist Jürgen Habermas, who believed that modern public theology was a contradiction in terms, since theologians had to suspend their own distinctive claims to objective knowledge in favor of dominant values of the modern civic arena: namely public opinion rooted in rational inquiry. So, too, Religious Studies Professor Charles Mathewes: “Typically, public theologies are self-destructively accommodationist: they let the ‘larger’ secular world’s self-understanding set the terms, and then ask how religious faith contributes to the purposes of public life, so understood.” (A Theology of Public Life 1-2) In this sense, then, public theology simply acquiesces to the dominant ideological metanarrative that religious beliefs and practices have ceded authority to forms of truth and reasoning that no longer require religious grounding. With such public theology, the secularization story remains unchallenged in providing the one narrative of progress and competence in relation to which all spheres of Western life have been shaped and defined.

The second impoverishment involves the consequences of privatization for the church, specifically in the loss of its capacity to speak authoritatively on civic issues. This is because the public and private fields of life operate according to incommensurable social dynamics and metrics; what belongs to one does not necessarily belong to the other. Among many other differences, public life consists of the objective, while private life consists of the subjective. Public life involves the obligatory, while private life involves the optional. Public life involves rules that apply to all, while private life involves rules that apply only to some.

And so, to the extent that Christianity has been successfully reassigned to the private sphere of social life, the church has been robbed of her capacity to witness to truth, and this is because truth is public, not private; it is objective, not subjective; truth is obligatory, not optional; it applies to all, not merely some. Similarly, when we speak out in defense of classical Christian morality, whether in regard to the sanctity of life, or marriage or sexuality, we find out very quickly that our moral claims can no longer be socially sustained. This is because morality, like truth, requires the highly unambiguous, definite, invariant, and formal frames of reference that constitute public life. In order for something to be either right or wrong, true or false, it cannot be placed in the social equivalent of a food court that operates according to recreational, optional, and preferential dynamics. Indeed, having been relocated approximate to strip malls, our churches can no more declare definitive moral pronouncements to our wider society than can pizzerias or dry cleaners.

And we can see the dramatic effects of this privatization within our churches. It has been well documented particularly by Gordon-Conwell professor David Wells how every study on the internal life of the church shows that Christians are becoming increasingly less biblically literate and morally distinct.

Our twin impoverishments might be summarized thusly: the church all too often simply ‘amens’ the practices of the secular world, and the secular world could care less.


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Topics: politics, blog, church and society, privatized faith, secularism, secularization

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