The Great Divide

by Ben Pugh.

Sociologists of religion often seem unable to break free of an understanding of secularity as the absence of something. They proceed on the assumption that diminishing recourse to supernatural means entails the subtraction of a social behaviour – going to church – and their task, therefore, is to account for this subtraction. Philosophers tend to ask a different question: what has been added that makes belief in God seem so superfluous? What ideology, what belief system is this? It is in these philosophical reflections that I find the most help as I look out across a culture that, by and large, remains resolutely indifferent to faith.

The more I look at what secularity is the more I am struck by how utterly dependent it is for its existence on dualisms. It survives by declaring that there is a division between two realms. The one it carves out for itself as the ‘secular;’ the other realm it leaves all around the edges and calls it the ‘religious.’ It thrives by being able to police this boundary. Blur the boundary between the sacred and the secular, between faith and reason, between nature and grace, or, worse still, launch a forceful invasion of the realm of the secular, in the manner of Islamic extremism, and secularity suddenly gets a new lease of life. It sets to work developing new bureaucratic systems such as the Prevent strategy which exist to keep the secular realm sanitised of religious delusion.

Once I unmask secularism as a coherent belief system I might feel that I have it licked, and I sneer at it. But then I soon feel powerless: it is so utterly pervasive, and so a degree of frustration sets in. But lately I am thinking it might be better to approach the secular world in a spirit of repentance. And I think the need for this humility becomes apparent when we look at history.

The high Middle Ages saw the Church reach the very peak of its power: it was as powerful then as secularism is today. But the more the Church’s power became threatened, the more violent it became. The crusades against the Muslims were soon followed by the internal crusade against heresy: the Inquisitions. Then the Reformation happened. This might have brought to an end such terror, but it actually resulted in further violence: the Wars of Religion. These wars were ended at the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 and were really the last straw for those who longed for a more tolerant society.  Religion’s association, in the European mind, with violence and contention runs very deep. After Westphalia, rational, secular government was hailed as the bringer of peace, and religion was put into what one historian has described as a “punishment corner,” [i] which is where it still is. The stage was set for secularism to take over the roles of Christendom piece by piece with a set of like-for-like replacements which kept God out of peoples’ thinking.

Meanwhile, long before the Peace of Westphalia, some subtle theological shifts had been taking place. First, William of Ockham’s philosophy led to the separating out of all earthly tangible things from heavenly transcendent things. He encouraged the notion that this earthly zone was the proper sphere of secular government while the mysteries of theology and religion were the business of the Church alone. Other theological developments gave us an all-powerful, overwhelmingly wilful deity who was utterly sovereign and inscrutable, a God removed from intimate involvement with his world, making deism, agnosticism and then atheism look more possible. Despite the efforts of Aquinas, the worlds of faith and reason had split asunder within Christianity itself.  

Over the following centuries, the Enlightenment project finished the job. Tragically, the push of Enlightenment naturalism was accompanied by the pull of supernaturalist Christian counter-cultures that preached the importance of true faith, of being holy and separate, or of being able to offer the dramatic counter-claim of supernatural gifts and signs and wonders. ‘Such a dualism,’ said Henri de Lubac, ‘just when it imagined that it was most successfully opposing the negations of naturalism, was most strongly influenced by it, and the transcendence in which it hoped to preserve the supernatural with such jealous care was, in fact, a banishment.’[ii]

Both of these factors: political and theological; deliberate and unintended, perhaps give some clarity to the unique situation we have in the West where religion is privatized. And, perhaps now more than ever there is a wide consensus that the convictions of religious people are best kept as a strictly private affair. It is assumed, in any case, that the true destiny of historic Christian morality is today’s tolerant, humanistic utopia governed by secular reason.

And so, I am wondering if the first step in reaching out is to recognise that, even though parts of this story I have told may involve forms of Christianity with which we would not personally identify, it is Christianity itself that is largely to blame for secularism’s triumph. Maybe our reluctance to say ‘sorry’ to our culture is precisely because it is always somebody else’s Christianity that is culpable, not ours.


[i] William T. Cavanaugh, “’A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House:’ The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State,” in Modern Theology, vol.11, issue 4, Oct 1995, 410.

[ii] Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, trans. Lancelot C. Sheppard and Elizabeth Englund (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 313–314

20 thoughts on “The Great Divide”

  1. I wrote a response to last week’s post before reading this week’s, but it struck me that, as a very young child living in a non-religious family, I managed to connect religion with my own life experience, without any prompting, when my brother was born!
    Ben, this week’s topic will take me a while to digest but my first thoughts are:
    I agree, Christianity does owe the world an apology for the atrocities that have been committed in the name of Christ, but we can’t re-write history. We must repent and start over, which is the heart of the Gospel message anyway, so we shouldn’t have a problem with that.
    Both religion and secularism have relied upon dualistic thinking. Religion puts good and evil on opposing sides, and secularism puts itself and religion on opposing sides. Surely both are wrong?
    Personally I see good and evil as a spectrum, with pure goodness at one end and pure evil at the other. We are all on the spectrum, but no-one is at either extreme, and no-one is immoveable. We all have the ability to choose, moment by moment, which end of the spectrum we are facing and moving towards. Every thought, every word, every action can make a difference.

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  2. “The West” includes the proudly Christian USA, where the political and the theological have become intertwined and extended the faults of historical Christianity into the present. Many Christian churches, including some of the most high profile leaders, have succumbed to the three temptations that Jesus rejected. Prosperity Christianity promises tangible rewards for beliefs and contributions to the church, feeding their followers’ hunger for a better quality of life. Some church leaders attract high attendances, large television audiences and hefty donations through their use of faith healing ‘miracles’. Christian nationalism groups seek political power and a theocracy, which has been amply illustrated in the way Donald Trump has been acclaimed in some church services as a Messiah and supported by many Christian leaders uncritically. (Listening to Christian leaders defending immigrant children being taken from their parents and put into cages gave a fascinating insight into just how far the notion of Christianity can be stretched.) This has had an impact on the perceptions of Christianity among an increasing number of the younger generation.

    In The Heart of Christianity (2003) Marcus Borg describes how his university students consistently use “five adjectives to describe Christians: literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted.” David Kinnaman, working with the Evangelical Barna Research Group in the USA in 2005, found the percentages of young people outside the church who think that the following words describe present-day Christianity: Anti-homosexual 91%; judgmental 87%; hypocritical 85%; old-fashioned 78%; out of touch with reality 72%; insensitive to others 70%; boring 68%. This was in the USA and a whopping 80% of the young non-Christians surveyed had spent at least six months attending church. They are young people who have tried a version of Christianity and found it wanting. But the thing that really shocked Kinnaman was that one in four of these young non-Christians made an unprompted comment to the effect of “Christianity in today’s society no longer looks like Jesus.” These young non-Christians have very little respect for the church but they still have tremendous respect for Jesus and for his message of peace, love and compassion.

    How does today’s church in the UK fit into this pattern?

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  3. Conversations about the religious/secular divide always seem to go the same way: Everyone agrees there should not be a division, but when someone points out the consequences for our beliefs, especially credal beliefs, ranks close and we are back where we started! If Christians appear to be “literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted”, could it possible be because we accept biblical inerrancy as an option, we suppose that a childlike faith means unquestioning obedience, we judge those who do not confess their faith (those out there) to be sinners and non-Christian, and hold to the bigoted notion that we who do attend are God’s chosen people?
    Having had a good moan I ask myself – what are we going to do about it!
    As I see it, we/I need to deconstruct the religious/secular binary opposition. We/I need to stop thinking of people as either religious or secular and recognise that we are focussing on real people – friends, neighbours and strangers (especially strangers) that are all equally worthy of our care. Deconstruction, among other things, is inclusive and non-judgmental; it secularises faith and is invariably ethical. In simpler words we are to follow Jesus, the greatest deconstructer of all, and aspire to love our neighbour as ourselves. Church then is primarily about love not faith (I spite of what Paul says) and is a community or communion where we get on with the business of trying to create a world based on justice and fairness for all.

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  4. No need for a choice between faith and love, Robert. Despite all the emphasis put by many on beliefs and creeds, that’s not what faith is about. [“Even the demons believe and they tremble in terror.” James 2:19.] Faith is found in our relationships with God and with others. (cf the two love commandments.) Beliefs are our attempts, always inadequate, to describe and explain those relationships. Unfortunately, there is no verb form of ‘faith’ and using ‘believe’ as a substitute has distorted our approach.
    We begin the Nicene Creed with: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” In Latin the word we translate as “I believe” is “Credo”; but ‘credo’ is much stronger than ‘I believe’. It has the sense of “I give my heart to.” So this opening statement is originally much stronger. “In my heart I place my trust in, and commit myself to, the one God, the creative force and the source of all life in the universe, whom I experience as a loving father.” Faith is so much more than accepting an idea; it involves a response, a commitment, a giving of oneself. Belief is passive; faith is active. Faith is about transformed lives. Believing something is true is empty, unless you do something about it, unless your life is different, unless your relationships are different, because you believe it.

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  5. Patel, Brilliant! Over sixty years listening to sermons and I don’t think anyone has explained the difference between faith and belief so clearly. And faith as something we do, as response and commitment, makes a lot of sense. It is unfortunate that faith is used to describe a religion – Christianity, Buddhism etc. Faith as a noun. All people, or any faith or none could assent to faith as a verb “I give my heart to”, and wouldn’t mission, interfaith dialogue and interdenominational dialogue be easy then!
    I also liked the implication that faith is ethical, a commitment to love others. I fact I go further and affirm that God only comes to mind in the context of my ethical concern for others.
    Still thinking about the implications for “belief” when we adopt a deconstructive approach to theology. Does it result in a Unitarian or a Jewish religion or something completely different? My best guess so far is that a follower of Jesus motivated to love unconditionally would prioritise ethics and be wary of assenting to anything that brought exclusiveness and judgement into religion. Thanks again.

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  6. I would be very concerned if God only came to mind in my ethical concern for others, Robert. That all sounds a bit too self-congratulatory to me. Without God, there would be no I and no ‘others’ to feed my need to be needed.

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  7. I reckon that “I” is a social construct: That who and what we are is created in relationship with others. Theologically we are invariably a threesome, I, God and others that we love. God is Love and therefore interrelational and He/She does not hold private conversations. A Church is not a meeting of individuals but a communion.

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    1. What makes you think we can’t have a private conversation with God?
      Is it because you have never had one with Him? You ought to try it sometime.
      Abraham did. Isaac did. Moses did. Jesus did. The Psalmists did. Jacob even wrestled with Him!
      Why are you so afraid to break down your barriers and let God in?

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  8. More to say on the Great Divide. Still feel that the church needs to engage with secularisation rather than avoid it. I suggest that it is not the faith that is the problem, but the religion we are stuck with. In particular the aspects of belief (doctrines) that are exclusive and judgemental. In my opinion they are not ethical and alienate the very people who have need of our unconditional love! I could even argue that they contravene the second commandment! I am not sure that the strength of feeling about this is recognised: For example: In 1972 a very angry young woman in Derby went to see the vicar after a disturbed night and said that the next time anyone told her 7 year old daughter that she was a sinner in need of redemption, she would scratch his eyes out!
    I have been reading about the Sunday Assembly movement and other secular “atheist” churches that attempt to live out this ethic. They ignore most of the creed and Christian beliefs yet are obviously motivated by the commandments Jesus gave us and the example of his life. Also read something by Jordan Peterson who stated that he is a Christian, but he did not believe in God! To me these are examples of Christian faith that engages with secularisation. They lead me to wonder – is this what Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant by religionless Christianity?

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  9. Maybe you should change your church, Robert!
    In most towns these days there are numerous activities which help the communities. Foodbanks, Street Angels/Pastors, drop-in centres for people with mental health issues, support for refugees etc, to name but a few. All these things are generally run by volunteers from all Christian denominations. They are there to serve, not to preach or convert. Haven’t you noticed them? If there aren’t any in your town, why not start something? My problem with Methodism is it’s becoming too secular, which is why I often worship with the Catholics!
    (Apologies to Ben Pugh for hogging his blog, but at least it has stimulated a conversation.)

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  10. Thinking about the Great Divide has brought up some interesting questions for me. Is the religious/secular an either/or situation so those who are not with us are against us? Is the ethical deconstruction of the division possible? Can we just pretend there is no problem and hope it will go away? How did Jesus deal with the religious/secular division, in a far more divided society than ours? Is the best option for each church community to avoid contamination by the secular, even if this means continuing down the path of becoming an otherworldly sect, excluding those we judge as unacceptable and excommunicating those heretics we disagree with?

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    1. Who talks about contamination, excommunicating and heretics these days? I think you have a very old-fashioned view of Christianity, Robert. Are you actually going out there and experiencing how churches and communitites are coming together in all sorts of ways and working togehter for the good of the people? We don’t need to fathom out clever solutions or theories about how we can go about this. It’s not rocket science! All we need is mutual respect for each others beliefs (and even atheists have beliefs; they believe there is no God.) Change is already happening. God is at work in all people of goodwill, religious or otherwise.
      Let those of us who do believe in God worship in whatever way feels right for us, be open to those who are seeking faith, and respectful to those who do not share our beliefs. In other words, love and let live.

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      1. Nobody talks about excommunication these days?! – If only that were true. Just this afternoon I was talking to a Catholic friend who was excommunicated, because she married a non-Catholic and is still to this day refused communion in her local Catholic church. Another Catholic friend of mine, now widowed, was also excommunicated for the same spiritual ‘crime’. After her husband’s death, at a time when the then pope had declared an amnesty on certain issues, she approached her local priest, who told her that, as she wasn’t sorry and deeply penitent for marrying her husband, he still wouldn’t let her take communion. The husband of an Anglican friend of mine left her and had a baby with another woman. She was told by her vicar that she couldn’t take communion, until she was back living with her ex-husband.
        For many years I worked with broken families, when I led the local child contact centre. I know all too well the hurt a church can add to an already painful situation by making pronouncements about a family’s situation without making any attempt to understand the underlying circumstances. In the space of two months alone half a dozen people told me how they escaped from an unhappy, unhealthy and even downright dangerous domestic situation, only to be told by their vicar or priest that they were unacceptable to God – and therefore banned from communion – until they and their children returned to the marital home. If these people later find happiness with someone else, many clergy will refuse to recognise their second marriage.
        Such attempts by clergy to control people’s lives and to interpose themselves between the people and God have far from disappeared.

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  11. There are good and bad clergy in every denomination, Pavel. The Catholic Church sticks to its principles even if they do seem a bit extreme and old fashioned. It doesn’t surrender to the secular world just to get people into its buildings, and yet in my experience the Catholic churches have the biggest congregations with the widest range of ages. I am going into it with my eyes wide open. Yes, people have been hurt in all denominations, but in the end we have a choice to either stay with the church or leave.
    Robert’s vision of an atheist or secular church is ridiculous. I do believe we can have God without church, but there is no way we can have church without God.
    For me, the Catholic tradition is the gold standard among Christian denominations. I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Look up Keith Nester on Youtube and read the comments in response to his videos.
    Oh, and have you read Tutti Fratelli, written by Pope Francis? I can only claim to have read small parts of it but I liked what I read, and I am looking forward to seeing his book Let Us Dream.
    I’d keep an eye on Pope Francis if I were you. If church leaders were racehorses, I’d say he’s one to watch!

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  12. I am with you Pavel having met many people distressed and hurt by a church or a preacher that has excluded and alienated them. Of course I could pretend this was not happening, even in Methodist churches, but I feel this matter is too important, and in fact ignores the second commandment. What can be done about this? I suggest it comes down to how we respond to the question: Is God’s love conditional or unconditional?
    There are preachers who say we have to make a deal with God in which by repentance we are saved from our sin, and then we can receive His/Her love. I feel this is individualistic and loveless in that it justifies exclusive and judgmental attitudes.
    There are also preachers who tell us of the unconditional nature of God’s love in that it is freely given to all, so our obligation to others is to be inclusive and non-judgemental: We are to give our love unconditionally.
    Here I stand: I can do no other.

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    1. Salvation can be viewed in terms of healing our spiritual failings, restoring us to wholeness. It is taking into our lives the empowering love that enables us to realise our full potential as human beings. Jesus provides us with an example of how someone filled with the spirit of God can aspire to the ideal of selfless love. He set the normal human values aside – the priority given to survival and to satisfying the individual’s own needs and desires. He broke down the barriers of prejudice and self-interest that separate us from others.

      Jesus reached out to people rather than judged them. He associated with those considered ‘undesirable’ by the religious authorities. He responded to their needs and saw potential within each of them. As a result of meeting him, these people felt themselves to be of value in God’s eyes and were able to live more fully as a result of the hope, self-belief and faith that this created in them. This is what salvation offers to each of us.

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  13. How I would love to be as loving, compassionate, merciful, gracious and totally selfless as you two are, Pavel and Robert. Alas, I am only human, as are the clergy and all Christians everywhere. I just can’t be that perfect, which is why I need God, and why I am so thankful of His unconditional love and mercy, even for useless, worthless wretches like me who just keep getting it wrong!
    Happy Christmas to you both, and I wish you, and everyone who reads these comments, a peaceful and hopeful new year. God bless.

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  14. Pavel. Thanks again for bringing clarity. I agree completely and would add that for me responding to the empowering love of God brings meaning to the evident meaninglessness of a self-obsessed existence and the knowledge that this is the way the world, and God, works! This is a wonderful and amazing love far beyond what I would have expected!
    My issue with salvation is not what it is, but how it arises. I contend that It is not the case that we are beings or selves that find salvation and then respond to God’s law, but that salvation arises in everyday life as we respond to the ethical demand which is written on out hearts. A brilliant example of this was the occasion when a 6 year old child I was teaching commented on the behaviour of a bully, saying “That’s not fair”. And I asked myself, knowing the bad example set by his parents, where did that come from? This ethical demand for sympathy, empathy, love, justice and fairness is universal. I would even go further and suggest that our sense of self arises as we respond to this ethical demand that God places upon us. So salvation is not an achieved state, or part of a deal with God, or an excuse to divide people into saved and not saved. It is the recognition and response to our infinite responsibility, as human beings to care for each other.
    I submit that salvation is a purely secular matter and it is certainly not the case that religion is good and secularism is bad. I am aware that many businesses and workplaces are run as competitive hierarchies with a rat-race mentality based on power, conflict and mutual distrust. This makes responding to God’s Law difficult, but there are many organisations that work well with cooperation, creating an enabling environment in which there is mutual respect. I would hope that this is the way the church functions – at every level.

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