Throughout the history of Christianity the authority of the sacred has never been taken for granted as a compelling moral and spiritual given of unassailable sway. Indeed, the lives of the saints have borne continuing witness to the vulnerability of religious faith, its bouts of frailty in the face of this or that eras challenges. Hence the word secular: the things of a particular time. Such worldliness need not be aggressively ideological, a philosophy that directly takes on a belief in God, a lived commitment to principles and practices upheld in His (or Her or Its)name. The issue, rather, has commonly been regarded (and in letters, essays, books pronounced) as psychological rather than cultural or sociological: the tug, seemingly inevitable, of our senses, our appetites, upon the direction of our energies. God awaits us, as do the various houses of worship that insist upon and celebrate the primacy of the sacred, yet we yield to or seek outright the profane: ideas and values and habits and interests that have their origin in our earthly lives, our day-to-day desires, worries, frustrations, resentments.
Saint Paul (arguably the first Christian theologian) stressed the rock-bottom implacability of such secularism: its hold on us that stretches over all generations--until, that is, we are back to God's first chosen two, the man Adam, the woman Eve, both nakedly unselfconscious and under no threat of disappearance, extinction. Secularism was born in that fabled "garden" of yore, when curiosity spawned knowledge. The first secularist, in a sense, was the serpent who is described as "subtle" (still no small virtue among many of us unashamed heathens), and who egged Eve on all too persuasively. In no time she and Adam were having quite a time of it--and the result, really, was the mythical birth of the mind as we know it today, countless centuries later. "The eyes of them both were opened"--a clear, sometimes scary awareness of themselves, of the world around them, of space and time: the intellect that peers, pokes, pries. But that intellect (those opened eyes) right away had to contend with a rush of emotion, an altogether new notion of themselves: "They knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons." Here is the first recorded instance of shame, and its consequences; here is a physical act (the sewing of leaves) as an expression of an inner state of alarm, regret, fear. Immediately thereafter such apprehension, prompted by an awareness of wrongdoing, is enacted, given dramatic expression: "And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day; and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden."
Soon enough those two, now mere mortals, and so destined to die, are headed "east of Eden," where their descendants (all of us) would try to make the best of a bad deal: a major transgression had elicited a swift, unrelenting punishment (of a kind that is utterly defining both psychologically and physically), and a kind of careless abandon, as a birthright, had been taken away, replaced by suffering and more suffering, though with a new kind of mental activity, driven by an acquired moral energy (what happened when that forbidden "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" lost its aura of inaccessibility).
In the biblical chapters that follow the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Lord's terrain, so to speak, much is made of the consequent and subsequent physical hardship, pain: floods and pestilence and drought; the hunger and illness that accompanied them. But there was, too, the subjectivity that this new life brought: human beings as exiles, as wanderers, as people paying (forever, it seemed) a price for an act of disobedience, a severe transgression that carried with it the death penalty. That inner state was, right off, marked by self-preoccupation--another first, that of a necessary narcissism as a requirement for a creature suddenly at the mercy of the elements, and with a fixed span of time available. True, after the Flood, the Lord (in Exodus) relents a bit, promises not to be persecutory in the extreme--hence the survival of humankind. But death is our fate, still. We are left to fend for ourselves, and to do so with apprehension either a constant presence or around any corner. But we are also left with a steadily increasing capacity to make the best of our fatefully melancholy situation: the freedom, and need, to explore, to experiment, to master as best we can what we see and touch. We are left, too, after that terrible Flood of six centuries duration, with a negotiation of sorts: "And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth." A newly generous turn on the Lord's part: those people once described as "fugitives and vagabonds" were entrusted with their own earthly sovereignty. An agreement was reached, and our secular rights, privileges were affirmed: "And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered." In vivid imagery God is said to have spelled out His promise--the so-called covenant of the rainbow, a partial retraction of an earlier curse, with the implication that an ingenious humankind can survive, if it pays heed to the environment, uses it as required.
But of course the Lord did not match His gift of a subservient outside world with an offer to subdue the minds and hearts and souls of this first among creatures. Put differently, covenantal Judaism addressed our progressive triumph over a raw, threatening, potentially destructive Nature yet gave us no leeway over our thinking and feeling life. Animals can be our prey, but the animal in us prowls mightily or stealthily, as the case may be.
Not that God lost interest in our attitudes, in what we held dear, and why. The God of the Hebrew Bible is repeatedly observant and testing. One moment He seems ready to let this big shot among "living things" simply be in charge, have a time of it on the planet; another time He concentrates His moral sights on us, wants to make sure we know how interested He is in how we behave, in what we believe, and, not least, in how we regard Him. This latter supposition about God--proposed by, among others, the twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth, who saw Him as a seeker--by implication plays into our secular life: we are desirable enough to earn His constant interest. Our self-preoccupations are affirmed by His preoccupation with us, and that egoism (or, these days, narcissism) amounts to a veiled variant of secularism: the self of the here and now in all its ceaselessly sought affirmations, in this instance one buttressed by theology, no less.
Before Barth, there was Søren Kierkegaard, who was no stranger to psychology, even if he preferred to use it as a means of understanding our search for moral meaning, rather than our search for the less obvious, if not hidden, sides of ourselves. Kierkegaard, unlike many intellectual contemporaries of his, took seriously not only the story of Jesus but the Hebrew Bible as well--and not only the prophetic (or later) Judaism of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, but the founding moments, they might be called, of that hugely demanding monotheistic faith. In Fear and Trembling, for instance, we are asked to consider Abraham's walk up a mountain in "the land of Moriah" with his beloved son Isaac. There God has sought him out in an apparently merciless (and inscrutable) way: the demand that a father kill his son as evidence of a compliant faith. Here are words of high drama, of staggering anxiety: "Take now thy son [The Lord insists], thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest ... and offer him ... for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.... And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order; and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son." Suddenly, though, the "angel of the Lord" calls from Heaven, tells Abraham to stop in his tracks, to spare his son, "for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou has not withheld thy son, thine only son from me."
For Kierkegaard such a moment was charged with a kind of moral irony almost beyond analysis or even description through man's distinctive gift, the use of words. Not that he didn't try--Fear and Trembling won't let go of Abraham and his willingness to follow God's direction, no matter the cost to himself, his wife Sarah, their son, Isaac. We are given, at one point, a metaphysician's abstract summary, a concept to keep in mind: "the teleological suspension of the ethical"--an occasion where our sense of right and wrong, even our ordinary sense of what we simply never could or would do, is forsaken in favor of an ascent toward a faith ultimately challenged (as opposed to a descent to the most brutish kind of criminality, callousness). For Kierkegaard our ordinary ethical standards don't apply when God calls, though in anyone's contemporary daily life (so it has been for a long time!) such an explicit summons from the Lord, or that "angel" of his possessed of speech, seems quite beyond the bounds of possibility. In a less theoretical vein, however, Kierkegaard leaves ethical contemplation for a simpler, more accessible (and affecting) narrative mode: "By faith Abraham went from the land of his fathers and became a sojourner in the land of promise. He left one thing behind, took one thing with him: he left his earthly understanding behind and took faith with him--otherwise he would not have wandered forth but would have thought this unreasonable."
Secularism is thereby acknowledged in its obviously compelling attraction--precisely the target of a God intent on a mind-boggling insistence: toss aside the loftiest of the secular, the commonsense family ties that, actually, are the bottom line, morally, for so many of us. No wonder, in Elie Wiesel's Night the full brunt of the Nazi horror as it got enacted in those concentration camps is realized when we learn of a boy's eventual indifference to his own father, a storyteller's personal acknowledgment that the most personal of ties, those that develop in a family, had been shattered in this precipitous downward moral collapse. But for Abraham the action was all upward: the climbing of a mountain, the hearing of a message from the heavens, the seemingly quick responsiveness on his part (he becomes a "sojourner in the land of promise"). The matter at hand, Kierkegaard reminds us, is a "heinous sin," and yet in some fashion (and without discussion or reflection) the man and husband and father Abraham becomes, with apparent effortlessness, a "knight of faith." Whence this "infinite resignation" that translated into a hand poised with a knife, ready to plunge it into a son's body? Here is a further irony: "Those ... who carry the jewel of faith are likely to be delusive, because their outward appearance bears a striking resemblance to that which both the infinite resignation and faith profoundly despise ... to Philistinism."
We know from Kierkegaard's This Present Age the posture he could summon for the philistine--the satirist's biting scorn. In that relatively brief essay he takes on, really, the Danish (and by extension European) bourgeoisie of his time, the restless yearnings of people who may go to church on Sunday for an hour or so, but who live strongly attached to a shifting assortment of possessions, projects, plans: things to own, things to do, things to dream of accomplishing. He notices the boredom that attends such activity, as if the secular world, in itself, provides little real inspiration to those who live there. Yet the alternative, a thoroughgoing commitment to the sacred, is beyond the imagining, let alone the aspiration, of most of us (certainly including, he says over and over, the multitude of professed Christians whose vows of loyalty to God, to Jesus, are regularly, loudly spoken). Indeed, for Kierkegaard organized Christianity, Catholic and Protestant alike, is one more aspect of the "philistinism," the prosaic secularism that he so evidently disdains. He needn't deign to remind us of the medieval Catholic Church, or the fat and sassy Protestant burghers whom he, a minister's son, knew by common sight. He assumes secularism as the mainstay of the Christian life for many centuries, even as he assumes that Abraham was no saintly creature, abruptly rewarded by a grateful God.
The historical surprise of a flawed father walking with his son to a destination that seemed all too final for the father, as he contemplated it, is meant to give us pause, still--no matter who we are, where or when we live. As for Isaac, we're never told what he knew, if anything, as he walked so trustingly alongside Abraham. Kierkegaard insists, though, that this was not a pair that could be quickly singled out, declared the winners of a divine moral sweepstakes: God's chosen (and most exceptional) spiritual combatants. Rather, he clothes them in a secular garb, even back then, several millennia before his time. In a sense, then, he is reprimanding his own caustic tongue, telling us that sociology and psychology, infant "sciences" in the middle of the nineteenth century, would be of no help in singling out a "knight of faith"; nor is there a course of study, or, alas, a religious practice, that secures for somebody such a spiritual station or "level" of success. Paradoxically, the secular can mask (that is, contain) the sacred--hence the mystery of faith, which Kierkegaard, with no embarrassment whatever, keeps trying to uphold, notwithstanding his cleverly modern, introspectively astute, socially watchful and discerning mind.
Kierkegaard attends carefully to Abraham's relationship with God precisely because in that encounter the assumptions of rational secularism are directly confronted, dismissed. Fear and Trembling takes on nineteenth-century romanticism and enlightenment, both, with a vengeance: "Abraham is therefore at no instant a tragic hero, but something quite different, either a murderer or a believer." True, by virtue of the absurd, Isaac is not at the last moment sacrificed--a decision, however, of God's, not Abraham's. We who consider that story have no real way of presuming to put ourselves in Abraham's shoes and can only, these days, "play" with such a story intellectually, as Kierkegaard did. Yet it is a biblical story and was meant to tell a sacred lesson to early secularists: God's ways are not ours, hence "fear and trembling" as a worthy response to that event, rather than an effort, say, of historical (or moral) analysis.
The thrust of Kierkegaard's essay is the unyielding disparity between the sacred and the secular. If Abraham had to surrender his son in a gesture of faith, we readers (of the Bible or of a brilliant and cranky nineteenth-century Danish theologian) have to surrender our usual (secular) assumptions about what matters and why when we try to make sense of a world utterly elsewhere. Nor was Kierkegaard unaware that a similar predicament confronted those who lived in Palestine when Jesus walked that land, taught and healed and exhorted the multitude--only to be killed in the company of thieves.
But between the time of Abraham's encounter with God on one mountain, and the time of Jesus as he preached and prophesied on another, there were additional efforts to confront the Jewish people with the demands of faith, none more important, of course, than that of Moses, who also went up a mountain to hear God's wishes--and did so at greater length, surely, than anyone else mentioned in the Bible. For pages in Scripture we learn of those conversations: they are true exchanges, and on occasion the lowly mortal one takes issue with his Lord, even turns Him around, gets Him to see things differently. Indeed, Moses and God collaborate together, plan a strategy meant to tame morally a people, bring them convincingly the Ten Commandments, of course, also bring them all sorts of other instructions, commands, announcements, recommendations. Moses is always called the great lawgiver of his people, but he was also a negotiator of sorts, a trusted emissary of no less than God, and, not least, an interpreter of the sacred for the secularist crowds of his time. He was, in that regard, a master of the details and habits and rituals that make up ordinary life; and he was constantly intent on shaping the way his fellow Jews lived their daily lives, in the hope that a people singled out by the Lord would, finally, dedicate themselves to Him in just the ways He wished.
No question he was, in secular terms, a "great man," or a "leader"--hence Freud's desire, in Moses and Monotheism, to see him as the victim of parricide, a conclusion that tells a lot about a particular theorist's unrelenting determination to see things his way at all costs. Not that Freud was the first one to take the Moses story and fit it to his secular requirements. During Moses' long life (he reputedly died at 120) he surely incurred the resistance of many: the Decalogue he transmitted to his people is a demanding call to God's ways, a rebuke to man's inclinations, impulses. Moses gave his fellow Jews a divinely sanctioned collective conscience; though if there was anxiety and anger, as a consequence, there was surely the gratitude that goes with a clear-cut mandate proclaimed in the name of the highest possible authority. Here was an unequivocal monotheism, but also rules about daily living, the rights and wrongs of it. An ancient kind of secularism was confronted head-on: the great man has heard, again and again, the word of God, and in His name (not that of some tribal seer or chief) has spoken out loud and strong.
Yet even God's direct message, conveyed through a chosen intermediary (himself commanding, intriguing, a savvy but principled spokesman and negotiator) will wane in its capacity to convince, exert control. The prophetic Judaism of Jeremiah, especially, bears witness to the betrayal of covenantal Judaism at the hands of a people become all too spiritually indifferent, if not callous. The intensity of Jeremiah's denunciations (the first jeremiads!) measures the moral decline of a people, their embrace of what is convenient, momentarily satisfying: the self-indulgence of the temporal order. "Run ye to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem," the great social and cultural critic exhorts, anxious that those who read/hear his words become aware of inequity in all its garbs and disguises abroad the land. But this is a condemnation, a remonstrance in the name of religion: "Therefore, I am full of the fury of the Lord." The prophet speaks, as Moses before him, in His name: "The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying...." A society gone secular, forgetful of God-given rules, laws, commandments, is vigorously chastised--and not abstractly. Repeatedly calling upon direct observation, Jeremiah is a documentarian of distant yore who regards closely and firsthand a particular fallen world: "Seest not what they do in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem?" These are words of spiritual alarm and dismay directed with righteous vehemence and near despair: "Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people."
As the caustic essayist or aroused moralist lets loose his scorn, he renders by implication a portrait of long ago secularism worthy of one of today's gloomy naysayers, grievously upset by a moral decline in this or that nation's public or private life. To be sure, some of our social observers are reluctant to betray even mild indignation, let alone outrage--a measure of the distance, with respect to moral conviction, that their readers/ listeners have traveled since Jeremiah's time. The lyrical heat in his statements, the raw passion he harnesses to his denunciations of an ancient secularism, tells us a lot about not only him but his intended audience: these are people corrupted, but within hearing distance, it can be said, of the very spiritual voices that were so evidently, flagrantly unheeded. In our time, among many who regard themselves as well educated and, too, philosophically inclined, ethically awake, a moralist of Jeremiah's rhetorical persuasion might be readily dismissed as all too caught up in his own "problems"--if not plain loony. Moreover, much of our influential social criticism is, naturally, secular in nature: the writer or speaker draws upon a particular civic or intellectual tradition. A good number of those who resemble Jeremiah in their words, their tone, are for many of us "fundamentalists," no compliment, despite the prime meaning of the word; or again, are consigned to the ranks of the mentally unsettled or worse.
Secularism links our age with Zion as it edged toward the time of Jesus Christ. His kind of life, for millions of us (at least in creedal expression) a continuation of prophetic Judaism, and more, a culmination of it, was unacceptable to the people of His time, and the same fate can await many who labor spiritually today. In this regard, I'd best jump from the Galilee wherein Jesus lived, spoke, to the Lower East Side in Manhattan in 1973, where Dorothy Day, a journalist, political activist, novelist, and onetime companion drinker to the likes of Eugene O'Neill, Mike Gold, John Dos Passos, Malcolm Cowley, reminisced about the perception of her that suddenly arose among some of her old friends, never mind various strangers: "I lived a Greenwich Village life for a long time. I wrote for liberal and radical journals. I didn't completely like being called `serious,' but it was meant as a compliment. I'd gone to jail [as a suffragette] and I'd criticized the country for its indifference to the poor--and my friends encouraged me and told me I was doing a good job. When I started saying the same things, actually, but in the name of God--well, that was a different matter altogether! The first wave of disbelief took the form of worry: was I all right? It's hard to fight that one! What do you do--ask if the person who is speaking those words is all right? Not if you're trying to invoke the Jesus who prayed to the Lord that He forgive those who were mocking Him! I began to realize that in our secular world there's plenty of room for social or cultural criticism, so long as it is secular in nature. But I'd crossed the street, you could say; I'd gone over to those crazy ones, who speak--well, one of my old drinking friends (he taught at Columbia) called it `God talk.' He said to me once: `Dorothy, why do you now need "God talk" to lay into America for all its wrongs? You used to do a great job when you were a muckraking reporter, with no "religion" sandwiched into your writing.'"
By then Dorothy Day was hopelessly, in her own words (the enemy's line of thought embraced!) "a fool for Christ"--and therein a twentieth-century echo of what Jeremiah and his kind must have heard, and, to a pitch of frenzy, Jesus of Nazareth, also, as he became more and more soul-stirred, more and more skeptical of prevailing principalities and powers, and willing to take them on directly or by analogy. Those parables of his were meant to hit the listener hard, give him or her plenty of reason to look askance at what passed for the popular, the conventional, the regular or customary. What to make of one who remarks that "the last shall be first, the first last": a direct slam at secular accomplishment and power, a direct embrace of the lowly, of people more than occasionally regarded as lazy, incompetent, or worse by those on the top? What to make, further, of the company Jesus kept: those fisherman and peasants, those sick ones, hurt ones, those scorned and rebuked ones? What to make, finally, of his considerable nerve: he who invoked the Lord regularly, and who spoke in His name?
No matter one's decision with regard to Christ's eventual divinity, while here on earth for a short thirty-three years he regularly took issue, we can surely agree, with the secular world of a powerful (Roman) empire in the name of the sacred. He was a spiritually aroused itinerant storyteller, a moral evangelist of humble background, who for a while attracted a large following, probably the reason for his undoing at the hands of those with political power. Nor did he endear himself to those of his own people who had religious power; he was, in a sense, a reform Jew deeply troubled by what he saw, heard in the temple: shades of Jeremiah, of course. His death was a secular one, at the hands of the state: the doing-in of a spiritually possessed young man who came to Jerusalem, a country boy, one might say--with an accent that bespoke lowliness, with no connections to the mighty, the influential, and with a record of fomenting a kind of civil unrest. His speech was unsettling in tone, if not specific word: "I come to bring you not peace, but the sword." He did, indeed, seem to want to cut a swath through the everyday assumptions of a people now under the imperial sway of generals and their lieutenants who were hardly interested in, sympathetic to Judaism, its monotheism, its long-standing ethical traditions, so intimately connected to its history. Jesus was not the first nor the last critic of that empire's values (or of his own people's moral subjugation--his target rather than their political servitude) to be killed. Rome was not Nazi Germany or Stalin's Russia, but it knew how to enforce its sovereignty; and so, years after Jesus had died, when his followers persisted in speaking in his name, living in accordance with his precepts, they, too, were done away with, fed to devouring animals, some of them, rather than strung up on a cross.
All of that--the stuff of the Christian legend as it has survived across two millennia--would soon enough be institutionalized (hence the undiminished collective memory of a seemingly obscure and unsurprising moment in the day-to-day history of a far-flung empire's provincial life). Put differently, Jesus and his followers preceded by several generations what became Christianity: an inspired and inspiring spiritual figure, who took on a particular secular world, became in a century or two the Son of God, with buildings dedicated to the perpetuation of His name and His words, and with men and women spending their lives doing likewise in those buildings and elsewhere. But in no time that sacred mission, that organization (with rules and regulations and a proclaimed moral and spiritual authority) itself became very much part of the secular world--to the point that, in the Middle Ages, the Holy Roman Catholic Church had become in many respects an empire: rich, complacent, a player in all the intrigues of the day. Thereupon, of course, the arrival of the latter-day Jeremiahs, the necessary scolds, who railed at corruption and degradation of all kinds at the highest levels of so-called sacred communities, in the Vatican and elsewhere. But such criticism, from within or without, can't banish the essential historical irony, that in the name of an initial spiritual remonstrance of established secular and sacred power, an institution of great influence emerged, and with that development, a new kind of secularism: bishops and popes sitting down with kings and queens, and, later, lay leaders of all kinds, to decide about all sorts of secular matters.
In protest of Rome's moral corruption, a Luther would rise to say no, to demand a more rigorous adherence to the sacred. But he, too, sat with secular leaders, and in fact Lutheranism would take the proclaimed sanctity of Christianity into a new domain of the secular: the church as a pillar of the nation-state's authority. No wonder Dietrich Bonhoeffer's special agony: he saw right away Hitler's hateful secularism, but he, a Lutheran, saw his fellow Lutheran pastors embrace that version of secularism, wrap themselves in the swastika, even in the brown shirts of the street thugs who had run interference (and worse) for the rising, Austrian-born demagogue. In the end, Bonhoeffer took aim not only at Hitler but at Lutheranism as it came to such easy terms with him--the supposedly sacred proving itself, in the name of realpolitik, the merely secular.
Such an accommodation may strike us as disgraceful because of the morally grotesque nature of Nazism; whereas we blink at, or simply fail to notice, the less dramatic accommodations that take place in our own more "civilized" countries, cultures. Here, for example, is Bonhoeffer writing from a concentration camp in the last year of his life (Hitler would have him killed in April of 1945, a few weeks before his own suicide):
There still remain the so-called "ultimate questions"--death, guilt--to which only "God" can give an answer, and because of which we need God and the Church and the pastor. So we live, in some degree, on these so-called ultimate questions of humanity. But what if one day they no longer exist as such, if they too can be answered "without God"? Of course, we now have the secularized offshoots of Christian theology, namely existentialist philosophy and psychotherapists, who demonstrate to secure, contented, and happy mankind that it is really unhappy and desperate and simply unwilling to admit that it is in a predicament about which it knows nothing, and from which only they can rescue it. Wherever there is health, strength, security, simplicity, they send luscious fruit to gnaw at or to lay their pernicious eggs in. They set themselves to drive people to inward despair, and then the game is in their hands. That secularized methodism.
Return to Book Description
File created: 8/7/2007
Questions and comments to: email@example.com
Princeton University Press