The Impossibility of Secularism - Or, Who Are You In?

Eric Ortlund | Apr 27, 2010

We like to present our lives and our selves, both to others and to ourselves, as put-together and whole and basically unruptured. But it's not true. There is a kind of dislocation, a rupture, a breach in the wall, in each one of us. It seems to me that we make up for it by living out ahead of ourselves, but creating some ideal self, some bigger, more consistent, more beautiful person, which we constantly chase after and try to instantiate in the humdrum of each day. Or by immersing ourself in a cause or idea/l which produces the same effect.

I remember Walker Percy talking about traditional pagan spirituality (I'm not using the word in a derogatory sense: paganism can be quite sophisticated, intellectually and culturally), and how an individual could, in that system, think of himself as identified with (for instance) the moon god. Percy goes on to point out that, if you ask a Louisiana State University football fan who he is while he's at a game, he may very well say, "I am a Tiger." Looks pretty similar, doesn't it? The face-paint, the ritualized chants, the struggle between to teams (= cosmic principles. Perhaps. The difference between modern and traditional paganism is that something really was at stake in the latter - in the former, the team doesn't mean anything beyond your allegiance to it. And if they lose this year, you can always hope for the title next year. We try to re-create the system of paganism, but we're so individualistic that we empty it of its cosmic content.)

We sometimes ask each other, "What are you into?" And we list our interests. If you asked me, I might say: Gene Wolfe and Neil Gaiman, bujikan budo taijitsu (which I've never studied but sort of have a crush on), creative writing, hiking, Bruce Cockburn, Coen brothers films, Orson Welles . . . I could go on, but you get the point. Except, I'm not just telling you what I like - I'm trying to create a kind of aura which evokes the person I'm trying to become. It's less a question of what I'm into and more who I'm into.

Each one of us is "in" something bigger than ourselves, some cause or idea or practice, even if its only an idealized version of ourselves. It's a basically religious impulse - or, at least, really easily lends itself to all kinds of religious expression. Just because you might identify yourself as an atheist or humanist doesn't mean you don't do it - in fact, your humanism might itself be an expression of trying to be "in" something bigger than yourself which resolves your own incoherence. (Perhaps there are people who don't feel this impulse: but can you imagine how colossally boring they must be? But if you could be like that - i.e., without any breaches, entirely whole within yourself - that would be a consistent secularism.)

And God's answer to this human problem in Christ is not to insist that we become whole selves on our own before he deals with us - it is rather to meet the problem exactly on our own terms, incorporating us "in" Christ - quite literally (spiritually) uniting us to him, so that our own incoherence/dislocation/out-of-tuneness/however you want to describe it is resolved in relation to someone else - so that that bigger thing we're trying to live into is given to us, "in" Christ, and that eschatological, heavenly blessing comes backwards into real history.