Tag Archives: secular

How Can You Separate Sacred From Secular?

How many times have you heard someone suggest that there would be no religious problems in society if religious people simply kept their religion to themselves? It is a very common observation, and this view is not isolated to atheists. Plenty of people who self-identify as Christians believe they should not “make a big deal” of their faith. Pushed to explain this attitude, they say that everyone has a right to believe whatever he wants and nobody should try to influence that choice. In the USA where there is no state religion and where citizens individually choose to follow any religion or none at all, people more interested in etiquette than principle will advocate this point of view.

The problem with this idea is that adherents of many religions would find it impossible to comply. Buddhism sells itself as a “way of life” rather than a religion, despite the fact that most people consider it one of the world’s major religions. Actually, it would be hard to find a religion whose adherents are free to ignore it unless they are inside a worship space engaged in the unique ritual of the religion. The very nature of religion is to provide meaning and guidance in daily life. There may be a religion somewhere which exists solely in its worship forms, but if so it is obscure.

Secularists particularly promote the idea of separate space and time for religion. Most secular thinkers believe that there are two realms, the sacred and the secular, which must never mix. This notion simply does not square with most religious teaching. Religions are much more about the way people live than they are about the forms of worship. Some religions are extremely specific about the prescribed worship forms and spaces, but they all include teachings about the difference between right and wrong or good and evil, and they all advocate behavior considered to be good and proscribe and punish behavior considered to be evil. When secularists attempt to keep religion out of sight, they are attempting an impossible division.

Christians, in particular, believe that Christian religion is the life of the Christian, action that always takes place in a worship space, because each Christian is a temple of the Holy Spirit. It is this concept that the apostle Paul verbalized so eloquently in his call to faithful living. He said, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16) Then, he nailed down the argument by saying, “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” (1 Corinthians 3:17) He called on Christians to recognize that they could not act any differently on the streets of Corinth than they might act during worship, because God, in the person of the Holy Spirit went with them everywhere. He may have been thinking how Jesus had promised, “I will be with you to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) That comforting presence was also a constant admonishment to live and act in obedience to the call of Christ.

Secular thinkers believe that religion is what happens in worship spaces, while all other action takes place outside of worship spaces. They have recently begun to appropriate some of the forms of worship in churches as if that form would give them the kind of fellowship Christians have. Atheists in various locations around the country gather on Sunday morning to sing and tell stories to each other and listen to inspiring words. They actually believe they are mimicking whatever it is that creates the strong bonds and supportive service that is characteristic of churches. They think they need to borrow the forms of worship in order to get the benefit, and they believe they can get the benefit without needing God. This misconception grows out of a complete failure to understand what it is to live life in relationship with Christ.

The founders of the USA who wrote the Constitution understood that every person’s life is sacred space. They regarded humans as God’s hands-on creation. They knew that people who choose to live in relationship with their Creator can’t turn that relationship off and on depending on their surroundings. That is why they protected the free exercise of religion rather than defining where religion is allowed. It is important for Christians to be able to verbalize this situation when they are confronted with people who quietly fold their arms and say, “Well all this conflict could be ended right now if everybody just kept his religion to himself.”


A Christian Never Engages in Secular Activity


The Affordable Care Act has generated a great deal of discussion among American citizens. The 2000+ pages of this act contain provisions which encourage some citizens and outrage others. One of the more contentious issues is the act’s requirement that employers provide health insurance coverage of specific services at no cost to the covered employee. Jumping past the definition of contraception as a “preventive health service,” many individuals and owners of corporations have resisted the requirement to provide contraception as a component of health insurance coverage. For Catholics, contraception, sterilization and abortion are classified as sins, and no practicing Catholic engages in those behaviors. There are others who reject these behaviors for religious reasons, but the Catholics are a majority among employers who feel that their consciences are compromised by this requirement. They all recognize that the act does not require them to engage in the behaviors, but the act does require the employer to fund the behavior through the payment of insurance premiums. Their life as Christians is compromised when they fund something that is a sin.


The issue with the government arises because Christianity, contrary to a lot of opinion, is a way of life. It is popular to say that Buddhism is not a religion because it is a way of life, but the people who say that accuse Christianity of being nothing but a body of rules acted out in churches. It is exactly this notion that is at issue when employers accuse the government of forcing them to act in opposition to their religion while the government accuses them of trying to say that they are engaged in religious practice while operating a secular business. When Hobby Lobby sued Kathleen Sebelius for a conscience exemption on the basis that underwriting contraceptive services required Hobby Lobby owners, who are Catholic, to act against their religious beliefs, the government responded:


Plaintiffs’ challenge rests largely on the theory that a for-profit, secular corporation established to sell art and craft supplies can claim to exercise religion and thereby avoid the reach of laws designed to regulate commercial activity. This cannot be.


Nor can the owners of a for-profit, secular corporation eliminate the legal separation provided by the corporate form, which the owners have chosen because it benefits them, to impose their personal religious beliefs on the corporate entity’s employees. To hold otherwise would permit for-profit, secular corporations and their owners to become laws unto themselves.


                   Read the government’s entire response here


The government’s response embodies a notion consistently expressed by secular thinkers – when a person is not in a church building engaged in church activities, that person is exclusively engaged in secular activity. Such a separation is not even possible for a Christian. The perception that it might be possible is a sad commentary on Christian testimony for the past two thousand years. If Christians were consistent in word and deed in our witness to our faith, people would know that we are never, not anywhere, not anytime, engaged in secular activity. We are always the agents of the Kingdom of God, breaking into a world where Satan runs rampant, acting to bring people into God’s kingdom. Too many people do not know that this is what Christians really are.


In reality, every Christian is a little sacred space housing the Holy Spirit in his body. No matter where a Christian goes and no matter what he (or she, if you are so gender-knotted that you can’t use the masculine for a generality) is doing, a Christian is engaged in love and service to Christ. It isn’t even about obedience. It is all about relationship. A Christian bears the presence of God into every space. A Christian speaks the message of Christ to every situation. A Christian is always in the center of sacred space performing a sacred mission – gospelizing, disciplizing and baptizing. If secular thinkers don’t see that when they see us, we are failing. The evidence of our failure is a situation like the Hobby Lobby case.


The Bible teaches us that just as the Holy Spirit fell into Christ at his baptism, the Holy Spirit indwells every Christian at the time of baptism. Paul wrote, “Didn’t you realize that your body is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit?” (1 Corinthians 6:19) Christians cannot shed the Holy Spirit or their relationship with him simply by going to work, or by opening a shop, or by paying a bill. The Holy Spirit is present in all these activities. The owners of Hobby Lobby legitimately claim that to perform an act judged to be wicked by the Holy Spirit is an act against conscience. The First Amendment of the Constitution, written by people who knew their Bible, protects conscience, not just for Christians, but for all people of all faiths. It protects the owners of Hobby Lobby from being forced by government to commit an abomination against the Holy Spirit.


To say this is not to assert that every Christian at every moment is acting and speaking as the Holy Spirit directs. We would have no sin to confess if that were so. Christians are not perfect. Nevertheless, when Christians are committed to live their faith, the government must respect that commitment and back off. The First Amendment does not reserve the right to judge whether this Christian “deserves” the protection while that one does not.


In this particular case, the government alleges that not to enforce this act on Hobby Lobby would do harm to Hobby Lobby’s employees. The government response recites all sorts of dire statistics about unintended pregnancy as if pregnancy were an actual disease. The government further alleges that women cannot compete in the workplace as the equals of men if they are subject to unintended pregnancy. In other words, should the court decide that forcing Hobby Lobby to comply with the rule actually is an act against conscience, the government believes that there are compelling health reasons and social justification for this requirement that far outweigh any assault on the conscience of the owners of Hobby Lobby.


How this case will be decided remains to be seen. For Christians, the important thing about this case is not whether Hobby Lobby wins or loses. The important thing is a widespread perception that a Christian can be secular in one place and sacred in another. This is the misconception that makes it so difficult for us to share our faith. If we are not consistently testifying in word and deed that we are little Christs bearing the light of Christ’s love to a dark world, then we are failing in the only task that really matters. The health insurance coverage we pay for is a lot less important than our commitment to tell the world that Christ died for love of all people. We must be vigilant in every word and deed to keep that message clear for all to see. The people who lived in Antioch observed that people who followed Christ were so much like Christ that they called those people “Christians” – little Christs. If we are not being little Christs to everyone we meet, we need to re-examine the way we live and the way we speak. It must never be credible to say that any Christian is secular in anything he says or does.

Living in the Intersection

The Readings: 

1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34:1-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2;John :35, 41-51


In John 6:38, Jesus said, “I have come down from heaven.” The Jews murmured about this statement. When you read this verse, you can almost hear the susurration flowing through the crowd. “He came down from heaven?” “What does he mean, from heaven?” “Who does he think he is?” “Did you hear that? How could he have come from heaven?” “We know where he came from!” The whispers spread, but nobody actually wanted to confront Jesus after he had said “the name.” Jesus, the son of Mary and the carpenter, said, “I AM the bread of life,” and that was scary. Then Jesus said that he came from heaven. What gave him that idea? Yet nobody could quite explain how a carpenter’s son had fed five thousand people, either.

The Jews muttering about Jesus were exactly like contemporary secular thinkers who reject Christ on the ground that the notions of deity and heaven are myths. The Jews would never have gone so far as to say that God did not exist, but their faith that God existed did not extend far enough to wrap itself around a flesh and blood man who claimed that he came down from heaven.

The culture in the USA, bewildered over the question of whether Islam is or isn’t a violent religion, puzzled by the notion that a Christian could be spiritual and not religious, confused by celebrity writers and talk show stars who claim that every person is actually his own god, cannot wrap its communal mind around the idea that the universe of time and space actually is not all there is. There are a lot of religions and plenty more spiritual practices. They can’t all be right. Maybe they are all just a lot of wishful thinking expressed by good story-tellers. The culture is tired of trying to sort through all the myths. Pure reason says that if we can’t measure it, then it does not exist. There is nothing particularly wrong if people want to believe in the easter bunny or the tooth fairy or any sort of god or God Almighty, but the culture finds such ideas not particularly useful. The culture wants those ideas gathered up and swept out of the public forum. Put those fanciful ideas in little boxes, buildings, and let those who enjoy the fantasies go into the buildings and play their games all they want without bothering the rest of us.

The Jews were beginning to believe that Jesus was a good storyteller with great sleight of hand tricks who needed to be brought under control before he upset the Romans and made the government mad at the Jews for creating a public nuisance. That is the secular culture’s vision of Christianity, too – a public nuisance.

The Jews, of course, did have faith in God. They claimed faith in the God who, according to Jesus, had sent him down from heaven to earth. The Jews had a history with God, and one of the most important details of that history concerned the manna that saved their ancestors from starvation in the wilderness. They looked back to those days, remembered how Moses had taught the Israelites to eat the manna, and asked Jesus if he could show them something that miraculous.

Christ’s answer to the Jews was to point out that despite eating manna, all those ancestors were dead. Their wonderful story was wonderful as a time-space survival story, but even though the people who ate manna lived longer than they would have lived without it, they, nevertheless, eventually died. The miracle of manna was no different from the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. The people who ate manna, and the people who ate the miraculously-multiplied loaves and fish, were still destined to die. Ancient manna, Galilean bread – they were the foods of time and space.

Christ responded to the Jews the way he responds today to secular thinkers. He asked what becomes of the people who limit themselves to this world. The answer is that nobody gets out of here alive. Human beings limited to this world of time and space are limited to a world in which evil runs free and death is final.

Jesus closes with a reference to the bread in the Eucharist. He foreshadows his own crucifixion and the institution of the Lord’s Supper when he says, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” When the communion server says to me, “The body of Christ, given for you,” I am reminded that Jesus died in the flesh for me, but he did not stay dead. He rose again. He lives. When I eat the bread, I am reminded that Jesus said, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” The flesh of the living Christ is in, with, and under the bread I eat, and it nourishes my life eternal.

The lesson here is a reminder to all Christians that we live constantly at the intersection of time and eternity. We don’t live simply in the present. Our words and deeds have meaning in both time and eternity. Our lives, our testimonies to Christ, are both temporal and eternal. We cannot live in the eternal framework only when we are inside a church building. We cannot leave that eternal connection behind when we exit the building. Wherever a Christian goes, his location is always the same: the intersection of time and eternity. Our culture and secular thinkers in our government may think there can be a separation, but Christ teaches us that we are not discrete religious and non-religious persons. Each one of us lives eternally at the same time we live in time and space.

Christ’s interaction with the murmuring Jews should remind Christians of two things:

  • If the Jews who knew God and were, at least in theory, waiting for the Messiah could not accept him when they saw him, we have good reason to show compassion and love for the people in our culture who also do not recognize the Christ, in us or in the Bible. 
  • Our loving and faithful testimony will not always stir up a loving response. We can expect scorn and opposition, no matter how loving and faithful our behavior is.

This Sunday, when the server hands you bread and says, “The body of Christ, given for you,” listen intently for the voice of Christ in your heart, reminding you, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” When you leave the sanctuary and step out into the street, remember that no matter where you are, you are at the intersection of time and eternity. May all your words and deeds invite others, no matter how incredulous or scornful they may be, to join you in that blessed intersection.