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  • Beyond Secular and Sacred: an anabaptist model for Christian Social ethics1

    Earl Zimmerman

    In Western culture the sacred and the secular are imagined dialectically. In the ancient world, the sacred defined the secular. In the modern world, the secular gained hegemony at the expense of the sacred. Few people question that. We accept it as the way things are. I do not directly refute that way of imagining our world but identify it as a social construction that can be imagined differently. I challenge it to the extent that it is a dualistic system of ordering reality, because that dualism eviscerates religious social ethics by splitting the religious away from the social. As can be readily seen in the historical processes of secularization and globalization, the sacred and the secular are porous categories that penetrate, define, and shape each other. Consequently, I propose a theological construction that moves beyond a binary formulation of sacred and secular and recognizes the rich intersections that lie within these categories. My purpose is to provide a way forward for Christian social ethics that is rooted in the practices of the faith community and engaged in the social-political-economic challenges of our day.

    The Genealogy of Secular and Sacred In medieval Europe the “secular” referred to that which was not directly part of the religious sphere or under ecclesial control. While the secular and the sacred were thought of as two distinct spheres, both were believed to be under the rule of God. Such an understanding, combined with the powerful religious institutions of the medieval church, gave the sacred sphere a relational hegemony. In that context, “secularization” referred to the legal action in Canon Law by which a person forsook his or her religious vows and returned to the secular world. During the Reformation era it referred to the massive confiscation, usually by the state, of the monasteries, landholdings, and wealth of the medieval Catholic Church. During the Enlightenment era that immediately followed, “secularization” pertained to the struggle to free

    Beyond Secular and Sacred: an anabaptist model for Christian Social ethics1

    Earl Zimmerman

    In Western culture the sacred and the secular are imagined dialectically. In the ancient world, the sacred defined the secular. In the modern world, the secular gained hegemony at the expense of the sacred. Few people question that. We accept it as the way things are. I do not directly refute that way of imagining our world but identify it as a social construction that can be imagined differently. I challenge it to the extent that it is a dualistic system of ordering reality, because that dualism eviscerates religious social ethics by splitting the religious away from the social. As can be readily seen in the historical processes of secularization and globalization, the sacred and the secular are porous categories that penetrate, define, and shape each other. Consequently, I propose a theological construction that moves beyond a binary formulation of sacred and secular and recognizes the rich intersections that lie within these categories. My purpose is to provide a way forward for Christian social ethics that is rooted in the practices of the faith community and engaged in the social-political-economic challenges of our day.

    The Genealogy of Secular and Sacred In medieval Europe the “secular” referred to that which was not directly part of the religious sphere or under ecclesial control. While the secular and the sacred were thought of as two distinct spheres, both were believed to be under the rule of God. Such an understanding, combined with the powerful religious institutions of the medieval church, gave the sacred sphere a relational hegemony. In that context, “secularization” referred to the legal action in Canon Law by which a person forsook his or her religious vows and returned to the secular world. During the Reformation era it referred to the massive confiscation, usually by the state, of the monasteries, landholdings, and wealth of the medieval Catholic Church. During the Enlightenment era that immediately followed, “secularization” pertained to the struggle to free

  • An Anabaptist Model for Christian Social Ethics �1

    science, economics, politics, and philosophy from ecclesial control and to relegate religion to the private sphere.2

    Nineteenth-century social thinkers such as Auguste Comte, Émile Durkheim, and Max Weber inherited this secular/sacred dichotomy and thought within it. They imagined the ancient world to be dominated by the sacred and postulated that, because of the advent of science and reason, the modern world was gradually becoming more and more secular. This hypothesis was developed into secularization theories in which the secular and sacred spheres were assumed as given and left largely undefined. The extent to which the ancient world was dominated by the sacred or the religious was also assumed with little historical verification.3

    Scholars have now begun to question such assumptions. Little sociologically verifiable data exists on the intensity of religious beliefs and practices of the ancient and medieval worlds. While many devoutly religious people left us their writings, there is also ample evidence of corruption, hedonism, and ruthless political maneuvering, even within the papal court. We can hardly assume it was different among the common people, whose religious formation was more limited. One sixteenth-century account is that of Menno Simons, the former Dutch priest and Anabaptist leader, who decried rulers who make war and devastate cities, corrupt judges who accept bribes, and common people who gamble, drink, and fight.4 At least in terms of a transformative social ethic adhering to a given religious tradition, we can conclude that the ancient and medieval worlds were not especially religious.

    It is insightful to compare such accounts of religious social sensibilities in the pre-modern world with a recent article in Harper’s, where Bill McKibben argues that even though eighty-five percent of Americans claim to be Christian, most are biblically illiterate and get the central tenets of their faith wrong. For example, most believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” This über-American notion actually comes from Benjamin Franklin. McKibben says that when it comes to concrete religious social mores such as loving our neighbor, dominant American theologies actually “undercut Jesus, muffle his hard words, deaden his call and in the end silence him.”5

    An Anabaptist Model for Christian Social Ethics �1

    science, economics, politics, and philosophy from ecclesial control and to relegate religion to the private sphere.2

    Nineteenth-century social thinkers such as Auguste Comte, Émile Durkheim, and Max Weber inherited this secular/sacred dichotomy and thought within it. They imagined the ancient world to be dominated by the sacred and postulated that, because of the advent of science and reason, the modern world was gradually becoming more and more secular. This hypothesis was developed into secularization theories in which the secular and sacred spheres were assumed as given and left largely undefined. The extent to which the ancient world was dominated by the sacred or the religious was also assumed with little historical verification.3

    Scholars have now begun to question such assumptions. Little sociologically verifiable data exists on the intensity of religious beliefs and practices of the ancient and medieval worlds. While many devoutly religious people left us their writings, there is also ample evidence of corruption, hedonism, and ruthless political maneuvering, even within the papal court. We can hardly assume it was different among the common people, whose religious formation was more limited. One sixteenth-century account is that of Menno Simons, the former Dutch priest and Anabaptist leader, who decried rulers who make war and devastate cities, corrupt judges who accept bribes, and common people who gamble, drink, and fight.4 At least in terms of a transformative social ethic adhering to a given religious tradition, we can conclude that the ancient and medieval worlds were not especially religious.

    It is insightful to compare such accounts of religious social sensibilities in the pre-modern world with a recent article in Harper’s, where Bill McKibben argues that even though eighty-five percent of Americans claim to be Christian, most are biblically illiterate and get the central tenets of their faith wrong. For example, most believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” This über-American notion actually comes from Benjamin Franklin. McKibben says that when it comes to concrete religious social mores such as loving our neighbor, dominant American theologies actually “undercut Jesus, muffle his hard words, deaden his call and in the end silence him.”5

  • The Conrad Grebel Review�2

    We may conclude that the religiosity of people, as measured by social- ethical performance in relation to a given religious tradition, may be fairly similar in the ancient world and the contemporary world. At least we should not just assume that people in earlier centuries were demonstrably more religious. Sociologist José Casanova notes that such unfounded assumptions inform secularization theories that predict the gradual decline of religious beliefs and practices. He also challenges the notion that human history is a progressive saga of evolution from belief to unbelief and from religion to secularism. According to him, that