A misconception of Christianity arises from a supposed antithesis between the religious and the secular that has much more in common with medieval Christendom than with the New Testament. The Church is indeed described in the New Testament as a “holy nation” and its members as those “called to be saints,” and Christians are constantly exhorted to “follow after holiness” and to shun the ways of a wicked world. But the Church and its members are nonetheless required to get out into the world and involve themselves in its affairs, and this in no way contradicts New Testament Christianity.

In the great days of medieval Christendom, the whole of life, secular as well as religious, was in one way or another under the control of the Church. To be more precise, it was under the control of organized religion, which meant that it was essentially under clerical control. Hence, although the secular sphere was regarded as in itself unhallowed, it was given at least a veneer of sanctity through its association with religion; and what was more important, its resources could be used in the service of religion. Already in the Middle Ages there were the beginnings of revolt against this state of affairs; yet something very like it continued even after the Reformation, not only in Roman Catholic countries but also—mutatis mutandis—in large parts of Protestantism. But the revolt continued, too, and gained momentum, and an increasing number of areas of life became emancipated from ecclesiastical control. Now, in large parts of what used to be Christendom there is little or nothing left for the churches to control but their own private enterprises of education and charity.

In this connection, it is often said today that Christendom is dead, and it is fashionable in some quarters to add: Thank God! But a more appropriate comment would be: God forgive us! For in Christendom God gave his Church, and especially its leaders, the clergy, privileges it had not had since the days of David and Solomon. Failure to rise to the accompanying responsibility resulted in the division of the kingdom and the increasing erosion of its privileges, until now the Church is again going into exile—not in an alien land but in an alienated world. The alienation of the world, however, is not wholly the Church’s fault, nor is it simply or primarily a matter of the secularization of life, in the sense of its emancipation from ecclesiastical control. It has to do, rather, with the secularization of thought and feeling about life that has been going on in the West with increasing tempo for the past four or five centuries. This process began with the Renaissance and was powerfully reinforced by the Enlightenment, and it is now spreading rapidly round the world.

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The Renaissance was marked by a dramatic turning of interest away from the supernatural world to the natural, from heaven to earth, and from God to man. Both it and the Enlightenment were what may be called world-affirming movements—so much so, that in affirming this world they succeeded in denying any other. Both no longer reckoned seriously either with a “higher world” or with an “age to come”; they recognized no order of reality, no powers or resources other than those of what is commonly called “nature.” They were strongly prejudiced against the “supernatural”—a prejudice that in large measure was, no doubt, a quite understandable and not unjustifiable reaction to the excessive emphasis put on the supernatural and the claims made for it in ecclesiastical circles. But in consequence they lived in a one-story universe, which was the theater of a one-act play. It was a theater of incredible vastness, but without windows or doors; and the play was of enormous length, but the curtain was rung down on it by death. This is the outlook of secularism. It is utterly alien, not only to Christianity, but to all genuine religion.

We must distinguish, however, between secularism and secularity. Secularism implies a negative and even hostile attitude toward religion, but secularity does not. Secularity stands for what is simply non-religious, not anti-religious, and it implies neutrality in religious matters. The most obvious structures of secularity are the modern secular state and the system of secular education that goes with it. Here no special privileges are accorded to any religious group, and non-religious and even anti-religious groups share equality under the law with the religious. The same is true of other structures of secularity: science and the arts, industry and commerce, medicine, and a whole host of charitable and welfare enterprises both public and private that bear no religious label. In all these structures, Christians are or may be involved, and we now have to consider the possibility of holiness with them.

On this it might not be amiss to remark that we have every reason to be thankful that our environment is secular and not anti-religious or pagan. If it grants us as Christians no special privileges, neither does it put us under disabilities like those our forefathers endured in the ancient world, or those that multitudes of our brethren have endured and still endure in various parts of the world today. Nor is there anything defiling about secularity; it is not “unclean.” Although politics, for example, is often “dirty business,” it does not have to be; and when it is, the fault is with the politicians whose motives and methods are dirty—a point that suggests the urgent need for truly sanctified Christians in politics. The unholiness of men engaged in politics or any other secular business is no good reason for Christians to hold themselves aloof; for unholiness is not contagious, as Christ has shown by his association with all sorts of sinners.

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Christians should not make the mistake of thinking that because secularity is neutral in matters of religion, secular affairs are of no concern to God. Here we might learn something from the early Church, which held that even the rulers of the Roman Empire, pagan and far from neutral though they were, had their authority from God and were (unknowingly) servants of God and subject to the authority of Christ. That was why Christians were to pray for them and to obey them, as long as they commanded nothing incompatible with loyalty to Christ and obedience to God; if the rulers transgressed this, Christians were to disobey and take the consequences. Similarly, the structures of modern secularity are subject to the lordship of Christ, for this is no less a reality in a world emancipated from the control of his Church than it was in a world not yet under such control. With or without Christendom, Jesus Christ is Lord. His lordship, moreover, extends to the whole of life, not just to some religious fraction of it; it belongs to weekdays as well as Sundays. Christians therefore are called to bear witness to it, both with their lips and with their lives, amid the structures of secularity as well as in the Church.

Then what is there to prevent Christians from living holy lives today within the structures of secularity? Apparently nothing at all, provided they keep constantly in touch with the Divine Source of holiness through the means of grace he furnishes, and are open to receive from him the Spirit of holiness, which is the Spirit of Christ. This they are free to do, since the religious neutrality of the secular world demands no such neutrality on their part. They are also free to give expression to the Spirit, whether in doing or in suffering, as they meet the demands of daily life and fulfill their various vocations in faith toward God and love for their neighbors. There may be nothing outwardly very distinctive about them, for they will cultivate no peculiarities of speech or dress or behavior to mark them off from other decent citizens; yet there will be something in their whole way of living that bears witness to the mystery of a life that is hid with Christ in God. They will not be infallible, though they will be honest and reliable and will try to do everything in the light of their commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord. Nor will they be exempt from trials and temptations; but they will have the resources to meet them. They will know how to rejoice in tribulation, and like John Wesley’s Methodists they will “die well.”

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They will also rejoice in all the wonder and beauty and riches of the world, and the marvel of man’s mind; for the Spirit of Holiness is no disparager of God’s creation. William Temple used to say that Christianity is the most materialistic of the world’s great religions, and he was right. For with its three great dogmas of creation, incarnation, and resurrection, it affirms the essential goodness of the world, in spite of the corruption of sin and the ravages of Satan and the universal, ineluctable fact of death. With a vision, moreover, that is far wider than that of the world-affirming secularist, it dares to believe in a future for the world, from which not only sin but death itself, the last enemy of God and man, shall have been abolished. It can do so because it has had a vision of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, and has learned from him to see the divine fire that flames in every common bush. It cannot therefore simply sit around plucking blackberries, not even the very luscious blackberries that grow on the structures of secularity in our modern affluent society. Yet these two are gifts of God, to be received with thankfulness and used with reverence.

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