Our adjective, secular, comes from the Latin noun, saeculum, which literally just means “century” or “age.” But more broadly it came to refer to the ordinary passage of time, the mindless ticking of a clock. The alternative to secular time was not Christian, or Islamic, or some other kind of religious time but time which has been made sacred or meaningful. At risk of sounding like a bad Boyz II Men song, anyone who has ever fallen in love knows how a moment can last forever and forever can fit inside a moment. The opposite of secular time is time that stands at the precipice looking into eternity in a similar sense.
Think of the distinction this way. Animals can’t help but live in the saeculum. They wake up. They hunt, gather, and compete for food. They lie down again. Today is no different than yesterday. Tomorrow is no different than today.
In this case, not being a “secular” person means far more than how we normally use the term. It means something like what the English thinker and humorist G.K. Chesterton intended when he said “The Church alone preserves us from the humiliating slavery to be a child of our time.”
Although I might edit Chesterton by saying “The Church, at its best, preserves…” otherwise, it is abundantly clear that many churches are just as embedded in “our time” as any unchurched individual, perhaps more so. They take one of two predictable stances on a hot button political issue without any critical thought as to what Jesus' “third way” might be in the situation. They adopt the simple moral code and customs of a certain cultural moment without any recognition that their worldview is being spoon fed to them, not by Jesus, the Gospel, or even the Bible, but by their family of origin, the majority outlook of their ethnic group, the town and class in which they were raised, and so on. Unchurched individuals at least have the freedom to question “our time” in a way that many churches disallow either implicitly or explicitly.
But Chesterton is right on point as far as what the church should be. It should be a place where a strange and alien story begins to conflict with the conventions of “our time” in forming how we see the world.
What are we to make of the inconsistency when Jesus equates adultery with divorce and then denounces both without exception in his conversation with the holier-than-thou Pharisees, but then shows mercy and defends an actual woman caught in adultery? What usable ethic should we draw from the Parable of the Dishonest Land Manager, where Jesus’ moral of the story seems to be “Hey, sure the dude lied and cheated his wealthy employer, but at least he made good friends so he’d have plenty of couches to sleep on when it all came crashing down?” What useful governing principle should we derive from the fact that the Son of God’s last words of affection and approval were for the criminal in the execution chamber with him rather than for all the guardians of good moral order that put him there?
The fact is, these stories just don’t fit in the conventional moral framework of our time or really any time. It’s not that they take an oppositional stance or even an unpopular stance on this issue or that one. It’s that Jesus is barely even speaking the language of the debate. Or he is measuring things on a totally foreign scale. It’s like we’ve been having this argument where, of course, the namby-pamby liberals have been saying, “black, black, black,” and the head-in-the-sand conservatives are shouting back, “white, white, white,” as we all predicted. Then everyone turns to Jesus to see what side he’ll take, and he says, “aqua-marine.”
And because they don’t fit, these stories give us an escape hatch “from the humiliating slavery to be a child of our time.” They give us an alternative to the saeculum.
But if that’s our escape hatch, then not being “secular” is much more than whether our name is on the membership roster of a conventional religious institution or whether we call ourselves “Christians.” And it almost definitely has nothing to do with the bloated and sanctimonious prayers before a House session or the right hand on the Bible stunt of a Presidential inauguration.
Becoming truly non-secular means learning to see the world through the third-way seeking lenses of Jesus. It means growing an imagination and seeing a future that is better than what everyone else says are our only options. It means not just winning wars but putting an end to the very fact of war. It means never making peace with injustice while still finding a way to love (not have affection for, necessarily, but love) unjust people. For many, it has even meant sacrificing one’s own secular time for the sake of eternal truth. We call them martyrs.
People of the saeculum wake up, go about their day, and go to sleep like animals with one thing on their mind, how can I get mine? They resist eternity like it’s the plague, because eternity implies a way that is more lasting and sustainable than the kind of rapacious grasping that it takes to sate their greed today. The role of a Christian is to put a bag over the saeculum’s head and drive it out to the edge of eternity where it can catch a glimpse of a kind of joy that surpasses the fleeting satisfaction of scoring and winning.
Cheers and Peace,
Jared Witt (Twitter: @realjaredwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.