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Lately, there’s been much debate about the Benedict Option, a Christian response to secularism in the West. The focus is on a withdrawal from secular life in order to establish formative communities that support faith through a shared set of practices. There’s good things about this, namely, the recognition that our identity is formed and shaped by the communities we inhabit, and the language we use to give meaning to the world. I wonder, though, if it doesn’t concede too much. Secularity has a positive dimension, freeing the creation from the burden of having to be more than what it is. The mystery of radical transcendence gives way to the mystery of this world, the mystery of human life. Rather than an upward focus, secularity directs us back to the dirt, the grass, and the ordering of this world. This doesn’t have to exclude transcendence, but it does re-direct or redefine it.
A week from now I’l be walking with a group of students through the back country of Italy, making our way from Assisi to Rome. We will be walking in the footsteps of St. Francis as he made his way to Rome to see the Pope. Thinking I was being creative, I wondered if anyone had thought of the “The Francis Option”… only to find it’s already floating around the internet. My version? Instead of withdrawal, the Christian community should move out into the unmapped spaces of secular culture. The basis for this is St. Francis’ view of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, and the way in which that revelation reverberates in and through the creation. In this context, the creation is not something other than what it is, it’s what Barth calls a “secular parable” in which the creation functions as a sign of God’s love. The beauty, majesty, and mystery of the created world functions poetically—a sign of God’s love for the world, God’s love for humanity, and God’s love for all creation. Here we see that the emphasis is not on “going up”, it’s not on keeping ourselves cloistered, it’s to recognize the traces of incarnation already present in the creation. Creation is God’s speech to us, not as some form of natural revelation, but as a sign of the incarnation – a sign of God’s grace and love revealed in Jesus Christ.
This will be my first pilgrimage, so I can say more on the other side. From this side I wonder if the practice of walking, sweating, and having a sore body is an important practice of secularity. By this I mean it is a practice that will force me to pay attention to my body, to the creation, to my place in this world. As we walk we will encounter, not only my connection to the material stuff, but also new people, different cultures, and hopefully good food. Of course we will pray, read scripture, and attend worship, but in this experience these practices are about attuning ourselves to the presence of Christ in the world, and not some transcendent “out there”. A “secular spirituality”, if I can call it that, in a good way…if there is such a thing.