Essay

Why we need some secularity

By January 16, 2015 One Comment
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The horrific events in France this past week raise some questions: How do we affirm democracy and freedom in the face of those who want to kill and destroy? How does the West keep this from becoming a “holy war” directed against Muslims–or any group of people who might be different? Will the Christian community remember that we have our own “radicals” and “fundamentalists” who have no problem using violence for causes they believe are God ordained? Hopefully these events will prompt Christians to have important conversations about these and other questions pertaining to issues of love, peace, and generosity in the face of violence. This morning I wonder if this might be a time for some in the Christian community to rethink our approach to secularity: Maybe secularity is a good thing?

The tradition in which I am currently immersed–the Kuyperian tradition–tends to use the term secular like a curse word. The argument usually begins and ends by showing that there is no such thing – there is no neutrality or objectivity. Everything has a direction, a telos, and some form of religious grounding. It might be the worship of the true God, or it might be the worship of some idol–the point is every part of creation is caught up in a religious direction or grounding. I get it. This, however, is much more an argument against “secularism” and not secularity. Secularity, I believe, is the freeing of the world to be the world. That trees in fact are just as mysterious being trees as they are being the conduit of spirits or even God’s grace to us. Maybe God is happy letting trees be trees? In fact, as Charles Taylor argues in his work The Secular Age, secularity of this type can be traced back to the reform movement of the 16th century. That’s us… those who stand in the line of Luther and Calvin.

So what does this have to do with what happened in France? Maybe reclaiming a healthy sense of secularity can be a tiny step toward preventing people from killing others over cartoons that, to be honest, are disgusting and offensive. (A colleague showed me a cartoon of the Trinity drawn by Charlie Hebdow… yikes!) But what if we all–Jews, Muslims, Christians, etc–recognized that these cartoons have no power, they do not strike at the heart of what we believe, and they are not all that funny. What if we learned to respond to issues like this with a collective “yawn” because the only power these images have is the power we give them?  Yes we need to be politically and culturally engaged, Christians should be part of the debate about important issues. But at the end of the day, Charlie Hebdow, Obamacare, or the Green Bay Packers, should not be a reason to hate our brothers and sisters made in the image of God.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

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