Is there such a thing as secular?Written by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
Googling the phrase “no such thing as secular” yields an extensive list of blogs, books and articles from a variety of perspectives, Christian and otherwise, discussing the idea that “secular” isn’t really a thing. The phrase even serves as the tagline for a digital magazine called Think Christian that explores the relationship between faith and popular culture.
Such a sweeping claim is bound to furrow some brows among religious and non-religious people alike. We’ve all grown accustomed to using the word “secular” as a boundary marker that defines which side of a particular fence we’re on. We speak of secular society, secular government, secular jobs, secular arts, secular people.
But do these labels offer an accurate picture of reality as God has defined it? Does a bifurcated view of the world, split between sacred and secular, reflect God’s design and purpose for his created order? In short, is there such a thing as secular – anything?
Origins of the word
It may or may not come as a surprise that “secular,” in its current usage, is not derived from the Scriptures. It comes from the Latin saeculum, which means “world” or “present age,” and is also the source for the word “century” in modern Romance languages– the French siècle, for example. The idea is of a fixed and finite period of time, or an era, something that is transitory as opposed to eternal.
As Latin became the dominant language in the West, Church Fathers began using saeculum to translate the Hebrew ‘olam and the Greek aion (our modern eon). All of these terms had the same basic meaning and stood in contrast to the Greek kosmos (or cosmos), God’s created order which he would redeem at the end of the age (aion), and which would thus be everlasting. There was no sense in any of this – at least at first – of the present world being split into religious and non-religious spheres of activity.
The influence of Plato
At the same time, some of the Church Fathers came to be influenced by ancient Greek philosophy, notably that of Plato. In Platonic thought, reality was divided into a higher, spiritual realm of ideas and a lower, physical world of the senses, which was an imperfect copy of the spiritual.
In its most extreme form, this world view laid the groundwork for various strains of Gnosticism, which saw the physical universe as inherently evil, to the point of denying that Jesus had come in the flesh or had risen bodily from the grave. But the same cluster of ideas also continued to percolate within the church and would eventually dominate Christian theology for centuries to come.
By the time of the medieval era, the line between the spiritual and the physical – or the sacred and the secular – had become sharply drawn. Consequently, those who were engaged in full-time religious life as priests, monks or nuns were seen as pursuing a higher and holier calling than those who were not.
This was still a long way from the modern religious-secular divide. In medieval Christendom, virtually everyone was considered a Christian. Secular was mostly a technical term of jurisdiction, to denote activities that fell outside the direct purview of the church. There were secular priests who worked “in the world,” in parishes or schools or hospitals, as opposed to “religious” men and women who had taken special vows, “left the world” and entered a monastic life of prayer and contemplation. But in no way did secular mean being faithless or outside of God.
Secular in the culture
It was only in the last century or two that people in Western culture began to think of themselves as secular in the sense of non-religious. At first, secular was used as a euphemism for atheist, a word one simply did not utter in polite company back in the 19th century. But over time, it acquired its present meaning, describing a society rooted in materialism and humanism, in which religious faith is pushed from the public arena to the fringes of private belief.
As cultural self-definitions go, however, this one is fatally flawed. It claims to be based on objective fact rather than subjective faith, and thus insists on being treated as the neutral, default world view of modern, enlightened society. It refuses to acknowledge that its beliefs about God’s non-existence and a purposeless, material universe are philosophical rather than scientific in nature. It can’t afford to accept that all belief systems, including its own, are based on metaphysical assumptions taken on faith. To do so would be to admit there’s no such thing as a secular world view in the strictest modern sense.
Secular in the church
While Western society was busy redefining secular as separate from God and free of faith, many factions within the church were adopting the same categories. They began retreating from culture and drawing lines between what was “Christian” and what was not. Full-time service in the church or on the mission field was spiritual, as was overt religious activity such as prayer or Bible reading. All other aspects of life – work, play, eating and drinking – had no real spiritual value. They were merely marking time this side of heaven. Any forms of cultural expression – books or music, movies or paintings – without an explicit religious theme were considered “secular” – neutral at best, anti-Christian at worst.
As with the wider culture’s definition of secular, this one is also deeply flawed. It fails to take into account that God is sovereign over his entire created order and is redeeming all of it to his glory. It seems to forget that for God’s image bearers every part of life, religious or not, is an act of worship either to God or to something else. Scripture knows nothing of this divide between the spiritual and the secular. Jesus taught in synagogues, healed the sick and raised the dead. He also worked as a carpenter, went to weddings and attended dinner parties with his friends. To suggest that some parts of his life were spiritual and others secular would be unthinkable, either to him or to his disciples.
For want of a better term, secular remains a useful way to distinguish between religious and non-religious spheres of jurisdiction within society. We can speak of secular authorities or institutions as opposed to religious ones, while recognizing that all of them are under the ultimate authority of God.
From a cultural perspective, the word “secular” also offers a good point of engagement with non-Christians. It’s an opening for discussion, to help people recognize that the so-called secular world view is neither neutral nor privileged, but merely one belief system among others. It may even lead to an opportunity to share the Gospel and lead them to Christ.
Within the church, however, we’d be of better service to our faith community, as well as to the culture at large, if we stopped talking about secular jobs and secular art and the like. After all, there are no Christian jobs or Christian art, only Christians who do the jobs and create the art.
A doctor or plumber or teacher may have the chance to work in a religious context, or they may simply be called to perform their job to the best of their ability, and thus make the world a better place. A musician or author or filmmaker may choose to produce art with an overtly religious theme, or they may decide to create objects of beauty and excellence without religious content, designed to give pleasure and reflect the creativity of God.
None of this is to suggest that all human activity is of the same value. Nor is it to ignore the fact that we’re broken creatures living in a fallen world. But it is to recognize that all of God’s created order is worthwhile, and every aspect of life is an occasion for worship. In the truest sense, none of it is secular and all of it is spiritual. As the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
In the words of the Dutch theologian, Abraham Kuyper, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” There are precious few truths as inspiring and life-changing for those who follow Jesus.
Sources and further reading
Think Christian: No such thing as secular. Think Christian is a digital magazine that strives to consider how popular culture and its cultivators interact with God’s story.
Iain T. Benson, “There are no secular ‘unbelievers’,” Centrepoints, No.7, Spring 2000.
Rémi Brague, “The impossibility of secular society: Without a transcendent horizon, society cannot endure,” First Things, October 2013.
D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, Eerdmans, 2008.
Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live?, Tyndale, 1999.
John Mark Comer, “There’s no difference between ‘spiritual’ and ‘secular’,” Relevant Magazine, June 16, 2021.
Kathleen S. Evenhouse, “There’s no such thing as secular history,” author’s blog, February 11, 2015.
Stephen Freeman, “There is no such thing as secular,” Glory to God for All Things, October 5, 2013.
Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity, Crossway, 2004.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.Our recommended resources
Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox