Beware the Secular/Sacred Split

Charles Spurgeon was famous for referring to the gospel as a caged lion. “It does not need to be defended,” he would say, “it just needs to be let out of its cage.”

Keeping that analogy in mind, when we Christians are commanded to give a reasoned defense for the hope we have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15), we must simply let the gospel out of its cage. The question we must ask is, what cage is preventing the gospel to move freely in people’s hearts and minds?

Christian philosopher Nancy Pearcey has a suggestion:

Today the cage is our accommodation to the secular/sacred split that reduces Christianity to a matter of private personal belief.[1]

The split to which Pearcy is referring was most prolifically discussed by Christian thinker Francis Schaeffer. Throughout his writings and lectures, Schaeffer explained that for centuries people have treated knowledge like a two-story house. They have compartmentalized different types of knowledge into what he imagined as a lower story and an upper story.  

Knowledge pertaining to the tangible—most would say physical—realm of facts has been resigned to the lower story. Meanwhile, the intangible—most would say spiritual—realm of values has been isolated in the upper story. Accordingly, all of life is collated into two detached categories, secular and sacred.

We can see this secular/sacred split in our cultural moment by the popular insistence on a separation between the public and the private spheres. In the public sphere, we discuss facts objectively by way of reason and science. In the private sphere, we discuss values subjectively in terms of experience and preference.

So, what’s the problem? 

The problem with this outlook is that it separates some of the most reliable means of knowledge from some of the most meaningful features of human experience.

Things like science and politics are subject to objective confirmation, while things like religion and morality are relegated to subjective opinion. The result is a total detachment from our upper story and our lower story. For example, any religious argument we may have for a political issue is strictly prohibited, and morality must have no bearing on scientific considerations.

I will describe the negative effects that the secular/sacred split has had historically in a future post. For now, suffice it to say that this dichotomy has wreaked havoc in the modern mind. It leaves people with a terribly divided view of reality.

Because of the secular/sacred split, people today view science as rigidly authoritative morality as definitively relative. It is because of this separation that people are typically accepting of anyone’s religion, so long as no one claims that theirs is objectively true. It is why people separate humanity—a biological reality—from personhood—supposedly a psychological experience. It is why people see the universe as deterministic clockwork and see themselves as autonomous spirits.

In sum, people are deeply conflicted because their worldview is dreadfully compartmentalized.

But, here’s the thing…

We must not fall for it.

If we are not vigilant, this secular/sacred split can infiltrate our thinking as well.

And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” Romans 12:2

We Christians typically think of being conformed to this world in terms of what we do and don’t do, where we do and don’t go, how we behave and don’t behave. However, the Apostle Paul appeals to his readers on a much deeper level—that of the mind. Long before conforming to the world in our actions, we conform to the world in the mind. Therefore, the solution is not reforming our behavior but transforming our minds.

Conforming to the world in our thinking causes us to see the gospel of Christ as a subjective experience and not an objective truth.

I read a story of a Bible teacher at a Christian high school who drew a heart on one side of the chalkboard and a brain on the other. “The two are as divided as the two sides of the blackboard,” he told the class. “The heart is what we use for religion, while the other is what we use for science.” How this man could reconcile this idea with loving God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind (Luke 10:27) is beyond me.  

Christianity is an experience that is felt on a profoundly personal level. However, it is an experience that is grounded in historical reality and rooted in objective truth.

If we are not careful in our thinking, we will begin to cut up Christianity into a lower story and an upper story. We will begin to see things pertaining to the spiritual, eternal, and unchanging upper realm as distinct from things pertaining to the physical, temporal, and changing lower realm. We will think of pastors, missionaries, and evangelists as having truly sacred callings in contrast to teachers, doctors, and mechanics who have exclusively secular occupations.

Conforming to this type of worldly thinking is in direct conflict with the Biblical command that whatever we find ourselves doing, we are to do all to the glory of God. (Colossians 3:23-24; 1 Corinthians 10:31)

Conforming to the world in our thinking causes us to see culture as something to either escape from or be absorbed into.

It has been said that Christians should not simply work to make this world a more comfortable place from which sinners go to hell. I think it should be added that we also should not consign it to be an uncomfortable place in which saints wait for heaven. Jesus calls us to be salt that brings savor and light that shines brightly. Therefore, we should work to make this world an increasingly comfortable place that points people to God. (Matthew 5:13-16)

This world is not our home, but it is our mission.

If we are not careful in our thinking, we will begin to forget that this universe is God’s good creation and people are made in God’s image. The world has been corrupted by sin, but that does not rid us of responsibility to steward it, cultivate it, and have dominion over it. Humanity is lost in sin, but as the Father sent the Son, the Son sends us to reach them with his gospel.

In an address at the University of Notre Dame in 1981, Francis Schaeffer famously declared:

Christianity is not a series of truths in the plural, but rather truth spelled with a capital “T.” Truth about total reality, not just about religious things. Biblical Christianity is Truth concerning total reality.

Let us remember that we Christians are not merely expressing a personal preference, we are asserting eternal truth. That is, total truth—truth with a capital “T.”

[1] Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth, p. 17.

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