Secularism and Time PDF Print E-mail
Written by Toby Sumpter   
Monday, 20 June 2011 14:32

James Montgomery Boice writes in Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace that secularism “means disregarding the eternal and thinking only of the ‘now’.” He notes that the word comes from the Latin word saeculum with means “age.” Secular things have literally to do with the present. Secularism is a deification of the now, worshipping this time as opposed to all other times: the past or the future. Boice continues by quoting R.C. Sproul who says: “For secularism, all life, every human value, every human activity must be understood in light of this present time…” Sproul goes on to describe the fundamentalist and exclusivist demands of secularism. This god demands supreme and exclusive allegiance: “We must make our decisions, live our lives, make our plans, all within the closed arena of this time – the here and now.”

This is very helpful since it frequently feels like the categories of sacred and secular default into spatial ones. Sacred things are over there, while secular things are over here. Or perhaps we attempt to draw topical distinctions: those subjects are religious; these subjects are non-religious. But our demonstrative pronouns still betray our spatial grooves. Sunday is a holy day, but Monday is a… a… another sort of day, and our calendars still organize our thoughts spatially. On the other hand, an eschatological description of the world like the one Sproul and Boice describe lines up more faithfully with the way the Bible actually speaks. Christians are called to live by faith on what Rosenstock-Huessy called the “cross of reality,” stretched between the past, the present, and the future because we serve the One who was and is and is to come. We worship the Man who is the Lord of all time, who is the Alpha and the Omega. He is Lord of this age and the age to come.

The good news of the Kingdom is that the “age to come” has already begun to invade this age. N.T. Wright describes this phenomenon particularly well in one lecture on the sacraments and time, using the story of the spies returning from Canaan with the enormous cluster of grapes carried by two men on a pole. He says that the sacraments in particular are the life of the Kingdom, the fruit of the Promised Land brought back into our wilderness, they are the life of the future brought back into the present. This signifies what the life of the Church is all about, what we pray for and work for. Our prayer is that the Kingdom would come and the will of God would be done on earth as it is in heaven. In other words, we pray for and work for the sanctification of the whole world.

Are human politics “secular?” Well, certainly, in so far as they are not yet fully what they are to become. But the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever. In this sense, our current human lives are also “secular”: our bodies groan under the weight of the curse of sin, awaiting their full redemption. Our marriages are “secular” in this sense: they are types of the marriage supper of the Lamb, types of the love that Christ has for His bride, the Church. They are not yet what they will become; they have not been glorified into resurrection love. But we are not secularists, and this means that we refuse to look at the present with tunnel vision. We will not look at today as though it has no relation to yesterday or tomorrow.

The classic critique of certain forms of postmillennialism and Kuyperianism is that it “immanentizes the eschaton,” we pretend the future has already arrived in full form before it actually has. We pretend to know the key to bringing our version of utopia to the present. We baptize a civil order and call it heaven. And I’m sure that has sometimes been a temptation. But I think the real failure is a lack of temporal sensibility. When we celebrate a child’s birthday, singing songs, giving gifts, blowing out candles, and eating cake and ice cream, no one is seriously tempted to believe that this child has arrived. The fact that the kid turned 8 years old is, what we might say, a good step in the right direction, but as Christians we won’t really be satisfied until the resurrection. Who among us has turned 30 and thought now I’m really grown up? We sometimes have childish impressions of certain ages, certain times: if I could only be 16, if I could only be 21, if I could only be 65.

We celebrate birthdays because God has been good, because life is good, because we are thankful. But as God’s people we celebrate birthdays because we pray that they mark progress in sanctification, they mark progress toward resurrection, and in Christ they already partake of that resurrection life in the Spirit. As it turns out, our glorious resurrection bodies will be a lot better than these current ones, but that doesn’t mean we won’t recognize them. These current shells are seeds that will go into the ground and disintegrate before they spring up into real trees of life, and so will our marriages, so will our nations, and so will our hobbies and games and stories. The present is being shaken by the voice of the One who speaks from heaven, by the voice of the One who speaks from the future, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain. And therefore we do not baptize a civil order and called it heaven; we are called to baptize every civil order, every marriage, every hobby, every lawful pursuit and call it the beginning of heaven, trusting that God will keep all His promises and still surprise us beyond all reckoning.  

And this provides a helpful critique of secularism in culture as well: who knows what clothes we will be wearing in the resurrection? Who knows how many and what sorts of piercings and jewels will be worn by the women of the resurrection? Who knows the breadth of music God will have on the Celestial iPod? We don’t know, and we can’t begin to fathom what God has prepared for those who love Him. But if you’re getting ready for that party, if you’re on that train, bound for that glory, it sure eliminates a lot of the schlock on offer from the Priests of the Present. But we are not bound; we will not be slaves of the Now. We have parents, we have a past, we have a people, a family, and we have been given the Spirit of the future.        

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