[this tom tome is a re-post from 2014]
The world is in itself secular. — Pope Paul VI
The laity have a secular genius which is properly and peculiarly theirs. — Vatican II
“I try to stay away from all secular music.” I overheard this comment over lunch during a retreat I gave, as the people sitting at the table next to me were talking about how difficult it is to live in such a “secular world.”
My interest was piqued, so I said to the woman who made the comment, “I hope you don’t mind my intrusion, but can I ask you a question?” She said, “Sure.” “What do you mean by secular music?” She replied, “Oh, I just mean all of the godless music out there. You know, the trashy music about sex and violence.” I said, “So secular music to you really means music that promotes immorality?” She said, “Yeah, I guess. But also music that’s about worldly things and not about God.”
I decided to press it further. “This is really helpful. I love to learn from other people’s perspectives. Do you mind if I ask more questions?” She seemed open. “So do you think that for music to be good or worthy to listen to it has to mention God?” She said, “Well, not really. I guess my problem is focusing on the world and the secular, and not on spiritual things.” I continued, “Do you think the world has a spiritual value?” “Yes, if it’s connected to God.” I replied, “What does it mean to you for the world to be connected to God?”
At this point I was worried she was becoming uncomfortable with my inquisition, and everyone else at her table stayed silent. But after a few moments, she said, “If you use the things of the world to do God’s will, that seems like it would be somewhat spiritual.” I replied, “That makes sense. So going back to your original comment about secular music. What does the word secular mean to you?” She said, “Godless. Worldly.”
That was it. The words “secular” and “worldly” were for her both entirely pejorative terms. So, I thought to myself, how can one possibly speak about the positive value of this life on its own terms? What word do we use?
I pressed her further, “Okay, so fair enough. Then if you were asked by someone who was not Christian, what word would you as a Christian use to describe the goodness of this life now that you live in? You know, the world that includes things like money, the natural environment, social and political institutions, science, art, business, human love, suffering, tragedy, and so on. If you can’t use the words worldly or secular, what would you say?”
She paused and said, “That’s a good question. I don’t know if I can find a word. Maybe creation?” Then she said, “What word would you use?” I said, “World and secular.” We all laughed. I continued, “Here’s the thing, secular and world are words that Christianity treasures in its vocabulary. ‘Secular’ comes from the Latin saecula, which simple means ‘age’ or ‘epoch,’ and refers to the realm of time and space we presently inhabit in this world, in contrast to the realm of eternity, which is called the saecula saeculorum, the ‘ages upon ages’ that never end. For Christians, God is the creator of the saecula, the secular time-bound age we live in, and the saecula saeculorum, the endless Age to Come. So secular and world are in a sense synonymous. So to be secular and worldly are the way God intended us to be.”
She seemed puzzled, and said, “Then why does the Bible tell us that the world is against God or that we shouldn’t be worldly?” I replied, “Because the Bible uses ‘world’ in several senses. First, it is the ‘very good’ world Genesis describes, created by God out of love in the beginning. Second, world is used to describe creation in rebellion against God, which is what you described when you said ‘worldly’ in a negative way. And third, world is a description of creation as the ‘theater of redemption,’ as loved by a God who wants to redeem and heal it from its rebellion. As in John 3:16’s famous ‘For God so loved the world that he gave…'” I continued, “So we have to be careful not to conflate all the meanings of the word ‘world’ into the Second negative sense only. That would be a disservice to God’s view of things, ignoring two-thirds of the Bible’s meaning.”
At this point, the woman said, “Please, join us at our table.” I sat down and we continued our lively exchange. I said, “Okay, so can I rephrase your original comment about music?” She said with a chuckle, “Sure. Why not!” “Okay, so what you really meant to say was, ‘I try to stay away from all music in rebellion against God.'” Everyone laughed. She said, “Exactly! You took the words out of my mouth!” I went on, “But music that is about anything in God’s good world — about humanity’s attempt to make sense of that secular world in all its complexity, or about the drama of evil and the struggle to find redemption — these worldly themes would be okay to enjoy as a Christian? Or even to write and perform such music as a Christian?” She said, “Yup, I guess so.”
“So,” I concluded, “you do enjoy secular music!” She and all her companions all laughed and she said, “Yes! Guilty as charged.”
Then the woman said, “So why does the word secular just sound so bad? Get such a bad rap?” I replied, “Because in the last several centuries, western culture has come to define the secular without any reference to God, as a closed system that is not open to transcendence; not open to an understanding of the world as filled with God’s presence and action and glory. God was seen as a threat to the world’s autonomy, in some ways because certain prominent strands of Christianity tended to treat the world as hopelessly corrupt, condemned by God. Or as a mere thing to be used, subordinated to the really important things: religion, spirituality, God. I like to say, when Christians feel the need to debase the world to exalt God, or debase the material to exalt the spiritual, the world feels the opposing need to debase God and the spiritual in order to exalt the world and the material.”
I continued, “And inasmuch as Christianity privileges the negative Second Sense of world, beats up on the secular world or trivializes the importance of this life in the grand scheme of things, Christianity promotes and emboldens the very atheistic secularism it abhors. A Christianity that highlights rejection of the world as hopelessly tainted, or as alien to what is truly spiritual feeds atheistic secularism. And a Christianity that idealizes ‘fleeing the world’ into a totally ‘religious bubble’ as the highest expression of what it means to be Christian, makes those 99% of people called by God to immerse themselves fully in the secular world feel they have to choose between God and the world. Between being spiritual and being secular.”
The woman said, “Never thought of it that way.” I replied, “Think about it, if your best option is to at least mildly disdain the secular world in order to fully love God, those who feel the innate and powerful mission to give themselves to the secular world will be left with little choice. Of course there’s much more to the story, but that’s an important part.”
“So,” I concluded, “we people of faith who live in the world have to love the world even more than our atheist secular neighbors. But we have to love it the ways God does, in accord with His commandments and the law of love. And we have to realize that sharing in God’s love for a broken world looks like the cross. But the point is we must be lovers of His beautiful, broken world. So we really have to get our language clear on this or we just continue to feed the ever-deepening divide that has tragically divorced faith from life in the secular world.”
If I had had my Vatican II texts with me, I would have concluded with this:
They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.
Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other. The Christian who neglects his secular duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation. Christians should rather rejoice that, following the example of Christ Who worked as an artisan, they are free to give proper exercise to all their earthly activities and to their humane, domestic, professional, social and technical enterprises by gathering them into one vital synthesis with religious values, under whose supreme direction all things are harmonized unto God’s glory.