09 September 2009

Secularism, a Disease of Heart and Vision

I was most struck by today's first reading (Col 3:7-13) and its relation to what Pope Benedict has described as a crisis of our world --- rampant secularism. It is common to think of secularism as an inordinate esteem for the profane, something that reaches idolatrous proportions at times. But contrary to part of this analysis I think that at its root secularism has more to do with the failure to regard reality, ALL reality, as fundamentally sacred, as gift of God, as that which is to be honored and regarded in light of the One who grounds and gifts it. Secularism occurs precisely when we compartmentalize reality into the sacred and the profane. It occurs when we refuse or are unable to see the innate tendency of all things to reveal to us the God who grounds them, or to participate in and contribute to the goal of human and divine history: that God might be all in all. In short, it is a failure to take a sacramental view of reality.

Once the sundering of reality from its ground occurs, once that is, we begin to divvy things up into sacred and profane`we actually ensure that secularism can gain the ascendancy. Religion occupies a compartment of our lives, business another. Prayer and worship occupies a piece of our lives, sex (or food, or relationships, or material goods and our relation to them) another. And on it goes through all the dimensions and activities of our lives. But the fundamental truth for Christians is reflected in yesterday's Gospel. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. In him the veil between sacred and profane has been rent in two and the distinction no longer holds. As Paul is at pains to convince the Colossians in today's first reading, in Christ all things are reconciled to God. In principle nothing is profane or "outside the temple". In him God (will be) all in all!

Evenso, we are called upon to make this truth real in our own lives, to embody it as fully as we are able. Secularism begins with the divisions in our own hearts, and the end to secularism comes only as we allow God to heal the divisions there and begin to see with the singleness and purity of what the Gospel writers call "new eyes" or with what Paul calls the remaking of our own minds -- eyes and minds sensitized and commited to honoring the sacredness of all of reality.

As Paul turns to the new church in Colossae he advocates "putting to death" all those ways of immorality which were so common as a piece of putting on Christ and becoming the imago christi baptism makes possible. His list of sins fall into two broad areas, sexual sins and sins of the tongue, or affective and expressive sins. What Paul knows I think is that there are two broad dimensions to us which are uniquely human. They are central and pervasive, and they distinguish us from mere animals and constitute us as reflective of the divine. Both are relational dimensions of our existence; they constitute us as capable of loving others, of giving ourselves and receiving the love and being of others in a way which creates abundant and expressive or revelational life. These two dimensions, the sexual and the expressive or verbal, symbolize the whole human being.

What seems clear to me from the list of sins Paul compiles, whether they belong to the dimension of speech or of sexuality is that none of them would exist if we were truly able to regard ourselves, others, and our world as essentially holy. How often sex is used in ways which trivialize it and those who engage in it! How often it is used to demean, exploit, punish, etc. The same is true with speech. How often we trivialize it, distort it, use it to separate, exploit or punish or demean! Our world is innundated in torrents of meaningless "speech," instead of speech which creates community and gives others a place to stand in our world and God's Kingdom; this grows more catastrophic almost daily as people simply treat everything as important to say --- and lose sight of the significance of real speech (not to mention the context required for this which is silence!). Beyond the actual trivialization of speech we have Slander, lies, rage. And yet, how possible would these be if we truly regarded reality, ourselves and others as fundamentally sacred?

Secularism is indeed a crisis today. The solution is what Paul calls putting on Christ, allowing our hearts to be remade, allowing our eyes to see as God sees, acting towards the world, ourselves, and others as they truly are in their profoundest reality. It was the answer and the challenge when Paul wrote from prison to the Colossians. It is the answer today as well.