Saturday, April 13, 2013

Why "Secular" Doesn't Have to be a Bad Word

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Today I'm happy to share a guest post from Ryan Kuramitsu. Ryan blogs at A Real Rattlesnake Meets His Maker on the intersections of faith, spirituality, sexuality, and social justice.  He's passionate about liberation, learning, and learning about the kingdom of God.


Growing up, like many of you, I was raised in a faith tradition that split my world and the American political landscape along the Great Conservative Fault Line.

Things were either Sacred or Secular, Red or Blue, and of God or given over to godlessness.

I came to understand two things: that society was inseparably segmented between the religious and the pagan and that anything secular was naturally the enemy of Christianity.

But lately I've been wondering why Christians consider 'secular' such a bad word.

Oxford dictionary defines secular as "denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis."

Well, sure enough – this seems antithetical to Christianity.

But (with the help of the Internet) we actually can trace the etymological origins of this word back from English (secular) to Old French (seculer) to its Latin roots: saeculāris

Saeculāris can be translated as that which pertains to this generation, this age.  The word speaks of things in our world, and carries with it a set of earthy, physical connotations.

Secularists today are typically those who have rejected institutionalized religion in favor of being wholly concerned with the state of this world; they don't see the split between the sacred and the secular, faith and reason, heaven and earth – they are all recognized as somehow connected.

But this obsessive (some would decry 'idolatrous') concern with the suffering of this world harkens not images of godless men and women but presents us inspiring glimpses of some of the greatest Christian leaders this world has ever seen: Mother Teresa, St. Francis of Assisi, Junia the Apostle, Yeshosha of Nazareth, Dr. Martin Luther King, William Wilberforce.

Abolitionists, social reformers, champions of justice, advocates for the poor. Bold prophets heralding economic, spiritual, and racial equality.

You'd be hard-pressed to name any of these individuals who wouldn't feel more comfortable healing on the sabbath (or leading a hunger strike, marching on Washington, or giving last rites) than sitting silently through another one of our church services.

Not one of these men and women could be found hiding in a church or a synagogue waiting for the Lord to come rapture them away from this horrible planet.

In this sense, some of the most Christlike people I know are folks I wouldn't hesitate to call fully secular.

I think this is what Pope Francis means when he insists that atheists are not enemies but "precious allies" to the Church, especially in her quest "to defend the dignity of man, in the building of a peaceful coexistence between peoples and in the careful protection of creation."

It reminds me of that one time Jesus was teaching and some religious leaders put the question to him, When is the kingdom of God going to come?

Luke records his response: "Jesus replied, 'The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.' "

A heavenly kingdom, cropping up right here.

Right now.

In the dirt of this world.

That's what I've come to understand as properly secular.

Not a withered word wielded as an weapon against those who do not share our beliefs, but as a central expression of the Christian faith.

And so even though I often find myself tired of a religion I have to keep making excuses for, when I look at the lives of the Christians throughout history who really got it – who understood the dualistic spiritual and secular nature of their calling – I don't feel embarrassed about my faith anymore.

I fall in love with it all over again.

A secular approach to life, then, is not to be laughed at precisely because it is so profoundly Christian.  The secularist represents the polar opposite of desperate Christian escapism, a way of living that's inextricably intertwined with each of the affairs of this God-breathed world.

And if there's one thing I'm learning lately, it's that Christianity is not about intellectually affirming a certain set of abstract beliefs, but about seeking after Jesus of Nazareth.  I'm beginning to understand that being a follower of Jesus Christ means living a life soaked in the power and the presence of the Divine, a life in which the glory of the resurrected One is made powerful and present in our broken world.

Here, today.

In the next world, yes, but also in this one.

In this light, we see that we no longer have to choose between loving Jesus and caring for the environment, between religion and reason, between going to heaven and helping others.

They're false dichotomies.

Rather, it is in forsaking our mad dash for heaven, by embracing the radical spirit of Christlike "saeculāris," that we're able to partner with our Creator to herald the kingdom of God to this earth.

A kingdom pregnant with possibility...that's being birthed right here in our midst.


To read more from Ryan, check out his blog: A Real Rattlesnake Meets His Maker.

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