I feel like there is way too much discussion in the Church about “secularism.” Secularism is often ill-defined and used to hint darkly and vaguely about how the “world” is becoming less moral and more evil as time progresses. First, the “world” does not seem to be increasingly less moral than any other time. For one, even in the time of Homer people were wringing their collective hands about living in an “age of iron,” and bemoaning a long, lost “golden age.” The hand wringing about living in the “end of days” and increasing immorality of the world can be found in literatures and mythologies around the world and throughout time. It is safe to assume that discontent with one’s present place in space-time is a part of the human condition. We’re either looking forwards or backwards in time to some perceived golden age. There are many problems in the world today. In the United States, we have rampant problems with drugs, violence, oppression of all sorts, etc, etc, etc…At the same time, there have been many improvements. For example, I can sit down and enjoy a meal with friends from different races and ethnicities without risk of lynching as would have been the case only a few decades ago. Divorce is at a tragically high rate nowadays, but I read a sociology study which pointed out that as soon as “no-fault” divorce was legalized in the United States the incidence of domestic violence “statistically” disappeared (not to say that there is no domestic violence, only that relative to where we were prior to no-fault divorce things are much better). Some things get better and other things get worse; part of the human condition is not being able to be perfect. We can only work on a few things at a time and then other things get a way from us.
All the above is merely preamble to point out that much of Christian hand-wringing about ‘secularism” is related to our human penchant for looking for some golden age. The problem for Christians is that our golden age is already begun. As soon as the Holy Spirit calls us to follow Jesus, and we accept His call then our golden age has begun. There is still much fight and struggle in our lives as we muddle toward theosis and the culmination of our golden age, but we have begun our journey.
We Christians seem to forget that we are working toward our golden age, the culmination of which is in Heaven with the triune God. In that sense I believe that secularism is a real problem not in the world, but in the Church. The letters of St Paul, in particular, point out that Christians are to hold themselves and be held to a different standard of living than are non-Christians. We want simultaneously to accuse the world of being secular (no shit, sherlock) while excusing ourselves.
Two examples, in particular have leapt out at me. The first was a new “ministry” to help Christians deal with addiction to gossip. This “ministry” is I believe an enormous problem and an example of “secularism” in the Church. I believe that addictions are real and for many of them people should seek help and treatment, but there is a problem when Christians start to adopt the language of psychology (the least Christian if not actually anti-Christian of the sciences) rather than the language of sin, confession, repentance, and forgiveness.
I have no problem with the language of addictions for non-Christians, but we should hold ourselves to a different standard. Christians should be seeking out their priests and spiritual fathers and mothers, seeking advice and confession, not seeking counsellors and psychologists to help us rationalize our sin as an illness which is beyond our control and needs treatment by a doctor. To the extent that Christians have lost influence in the Western world in particular it is because we trumpeted ourselves as being held to a different standard, but then lived as if we were living by the world’s standards. The world is rightly rejecting our hypocrisy.
The second example was an Orthodox priest responding to depictions of the Stations of the Cross in an Anglican church. The paintings depicted Jesus in His traditional garb carrying the cross, but the Romans were dressed as businessmen in suits and Simon of Cyrene was portrayed as a female union organizer. The priest’s response was a desire to “throw up on his shoes.” He was shocked and horrified by his perception that the Gospel was being subverted for political purposes. I wonder if he ever felt like vomiting as the “religious right” in the United States subverted the Gospel for political purposes? Perhaps the artist’s intent was to align the Gospel with the politics of the Left. Perhaps the artist’s intent was to point out that as individual Christians and as a Church we have left the care of the poor and suffering to non-Christian institutions like unions, governments, etc.
The Way to which we are called as Christians is to live in the world and to be a light to the world, but not of the world. We should meet people with love and humility and demonstrate the love of Christ. We should hold ourselves to a standard of love and service. If we focused on dealing with the sin our hearts and loving our neighbor, we would not have time to whine of the world’s secularism and excuse our own sin. We should only seek to love God and to love our neighbor.
I find one of the most important prayers for my own life to be the Lenten prayer of St Ephrem:
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.