Public Square & Theology 101

How the Sacred-Secular Divide Impacts the Church

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It has become commonplace to say that we live in a pluralist society – not merely a society which is in fact plural in the variety of cultures, religions and lifestyles which it embraces, but pluralist in the sense that this plurality is celebrated as things to be approved and cherished (Lesslie Newbigin).

In his classic The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Lesslie Newbigin helps us understand why, in our current pluralist culture, it’s difficult to present the truth that the gospel is a redemptive call to restore flourishing to God’s very good creation. One of the biggest obstacles to presenting this truth is the sacred-secular divide. Sadly, the evangelical church has bought into this idea, which has, in turn, given the idea power to be imposed by the culture as truth. Where did the sacred-secular divide come from and how is it impacting the church’s ability to be salt and light in the public square?

The Sacred-Secular Divide

Newbigin suggests that we in the West live in a “plausibility structure” that separates truth into two categories, one we call facts and the other we call beliefs. From the time of the Enlightenment, science is said to be the domain of facts. Religion, on the other hand, is a matter of values and beliefs.

No one would advocate for a diversity of views regarding the speed of light. Everyone, we believe, ought to agree, since it is a fact; scientific truth is absolute. But is this statement true?

The reality is that much of what we believed to be absolute scientific fact only fifty years ago ended up being wrong. Yet, because we live within this “plausibility structure,” that science represents facts and therefore absolute truth, it seems to be a perfectly reasonable way to see the world and few of us worry about these historical details. Newbigin suggests that accepting science as absolute and religion as a belief is a recent shift:

Throughout most of human history “it has been thought that all knowledge was one and that theology was as much a part of human knowledge as astronomy or history.”

This paradigm shift has produced a view that everything in our world falls into two categories: secular (things that can be proven like science) and sacred (things that have to be accepted by faith, like religion).

James K. A. Smith picks up on this sacred-secular split in his book How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor and suggests three definitions for secular/secularism:

  • Secular1 – references the classical concept of the sacred-secular divide in which the sacred refers to spiritual things and the secular refers to the earthly or mundane.
  • Secular2 – draws on the Enlightenment’s idea of a neutral or areligious space; “the public square is secular insofar as it is (allegedly) nonreligious.”
  • Secular3 – “…religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others” and therefore contestable. Philosopher Charles Taylor notes this shift in our culture from a time when belief in God was unchallenged and unproblematic to a time when belief in God is only one option among many and not the easiest to embrace. Thus, the title of Taylor’s book, A Secular Age.

With these different terms for understanding secularism, Smith breaks with the generally assumed “secularization theory” based on the “subtraction story,” which claims Enlightenment rationality is what is left after you subtract religious belief. Instead, Smith believes that modernity is more than the subtraction of God and religious belief. He argues that something is required to take religion’s place, which is what he calls “exclusive humanism.”

Therefore, we are not split between “believers” and “rational secularists.” Instead, it is a complicated range of different kinds of believers. In his book, Taylor calls our age “secular” not because we don’t believe, but because the culture sees no belief system as self-evident.

Why the Sacred-Secular Divide Must End

This explains one of the most significant problems in the current evangelical church. An overwhelming number of Christians today completely embrace Secular1 and Secular2 above, while many more struggle with Secular3 because of the exclusive claims of Christianity. They live schizophrenic lives, existing as a secularist at work and in the public square, but then as a religious believer in their private lives. They seem unaware of the Apostle Paul’s charge to do everything to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31) because they are caught up in this sacred-secular divide.

As a result, the gospel becomes only a bus ticket to heaven and, except for some private religious time, has minimal effect on how many Christians live their lives. They have lost the vision of work as a primary means God designed to bring flourishing to his creation (Gen. 1:28). They have missed the opportunity to be salt and light in the public square and help positively shape the culture around them.

It’s time we end the sacred-secular divide. Our response as Christians to our heavenly Father should be unlimited, all encompassing, and comprehensive. It should not be limited to church on Sundays and some personal devotions during the week. It should appear in every dimension of our lives.

By demolishing this dichotomy, we realize that God cares about everything we do. Our response to God’s power and glory can come from every thought, word, and action if we steward all we have to his glory and honor.

Editor’s note: Learn why there is no sacred-secular divide and why all work matters to God in How Then Should We Work?

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