Erasing the Sacred/Secular Divide Should Come With a Warning Label

by John Ellis

I recently read a news story out of South Carolina about a pizza delivery driver who suffered a seizure during a delivery. Waking up, dazed, injured, and trapped in her car, she found herself in a water-filled ravine. Thankfully, two men who saw her car careen off the road sprang into action, rescuing her from her car. Apparently Christians, the two men struck up a friendship with the young lady via text messages, shared the gospel with her, and invited her to attend church with them once she’s out of the hospital and physically able, which she has agreed to do. For her part, she told the news outlet that she has come to believe in God because she now has proof of His existence. When I first read that, I rolled my eyes in arrogant dismissal.

“Sure,” I scoffed. “Obviously, God’s providence is always at work, but interpreting the actions of the two good Samaritans as miraculous proof of God’s existence is more akin to superstition than an honest reflection of who God is.”

Over the years, I’ve had similar responses upon hearing anecdotes about Muslims converting to Christianity after Jesus came to them in a dream and missionary reports of miracles and exorcisms. To be sure, I hold the belief that God can work in those ways if He so chooses, but I always add, He rarely does. My acceptance of God’s ability to subvert the laws of physics is “safely” guarded by a healthy dose of skepticism. And, frankly, I’m far from alone in holding on to a healthy dose of skepticism.

In that line of thought – my line of thought – God is imminent and transcendent, to be sure (bear with me, systematic theology nerds, my lack of transition makes for quite the jump, I know. But a jump I believe I can make.). Yet, if truth be told, even though that line of thought, my line of thought while reading the news story, holds both God’s imminence and transcendence, they’re not held in proper tension.

God is Creator of all, including us. We are created and are living in a created cosmos that God transcends. As John Frame reminds us, “Transcendence reminds us of the Creator-creature distinction.”[1] And that distinction is important to hold. Losing our grip on that distinction results in the reduction of “being” into a unified reality (univocal)[2] with, in the words of Michael Horton, “God at the top and rocks at the bottom, and human souls in between.”[3] Dr. Horton adds, “God [is] qualitatively, not merely quantitatively, different from creatures. It is not simply that God possesses more being, knowledge, power, love, and justice, but that God transcends all comparisons with us – even those that he reveals in Scripture [emphasis kept].”[4] Like Adam and Eve on the day of their creation, we are ontologically separate from God and will be for all eternity (thankfully, He provides a way for His children to be ethically united with Him). God is wholly other; His Being is not our being. Yet, at the same time, God is also imminent.

If God were only transcendent, He would be incomprehensible, and His presence would be little more than the looming shadow of a distant divine task-master keeping tabs on His creation from His perch on high.[5] Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer puts it beautifully when he writes, “life is divine-human interactive theatre, and theology involves both what God has said and done for the world and what we must say and do in grateful response.”[6] This finds agreement from Michael Horton, who reminds us that, “God is not distant, aloof, and uninvolved.”[7]

Away from the oft dry world of systematic theology’s definitions and explanations, though, lives the wonderous reality that God being both transcendent and imminent means, among other things, that our world is imbued with wonder and mystery. The Infinite communicates with and acts upon the finite. As Hamlet muses, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The all-encompassing, sovereign Creator of the cosmos is active in the cosmos. The only surprise would be if miracles didn’t happen and that postivist science and anthropocentric epistemologies never tripped over their own hubris.

Throughout its pages, the Bible reveals the proper tension/interplay between God’s transcendence and His imminence. According to one such instance, recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, not a single sparrow can fall to the ground apart from our Creator’s providence. Likewise, as Jesus pointed out, humans – me, you, pizza delivery drivers, and even David Hume – have something as seemingly trivial as the hairs of our head numbered because, being made in the image of God, our worth is incomparably greater than sparrows. The Creator of all is actively involved in even the numbering of the hairs of our head.

I confess that truth, even as the number of hairs on my head lessens. No doubt, if you’re a Christian, you confess it, too. However, across large swaths of white evangelicalism, paralleling larger Western society, transcendence has been subsumed by imminence to the point where transcendence exists as a conceptualist abstract and little else.[8] I know that God numbers the hairs on my head but do I know it in a way that holds real existential meaning?

We live in an age depleted of mystery, affecting some of us more than others. Often bordering on and even crossing into absence, this depletion of mystery fleshes itself out in various ways, depending on the context. For many of us, while paying lip service to God’s ability to perform miracles (as if He needs our encouragement a la clapping for Tinkerbell), our reality is more akin to the prayer warriors praying for Peter’s release from prison. Confronted with even the possibility of the miraculous, like my response to the news article mentioned above, we scoff.

It’s not just miracles that earn our cynicism. Mystery imbued throughout life – even things, things things – is viewed as a stubborn holdover of Comte’s theoretical state of the “theological or fictious.”[9] Propelling philosophy/theology to embrace the epistemic certainty of mathematics, Descartes did his job too well. We are all, whether we realize it or not, and regardless of how much we loudly protest to the contrary, Epicurean materialists. Our cosmology is small, the size of our self.

Explaining the story of the secularism that pervades our 21st century culture, Charles Taylor sees an anthropocentric shift in focus running concurrently/causally with reformation movements, political and philosophical revolutions, and the reordering of the epistemic hierarchy leaving science perched at the top as the West merged from the Renaissance into the Enlightenment. “People begin to be interested in nature, in the life around them, ‘for their own sakes’, and not just in reference to God.”[10] Now, even while monotonously chanting “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever” in response to the great catechism question, we demonstrate by our actions and our other self-composed words that we believe that our telos goes no further than our culturally constructed ideals. With secularist-shaped worldviews, to varying degrees or other, fed by post-Enlightenment ontologies, epistemologies, and ethics, our Western ease has dulled our desires and shifted our gaze, causing us to think that the calm waves around us are lovelier than Jesus. Among other causes, this reduction of human flourishing to the temporal has been allowed, if not encouraged, by the erasure of the sacred/secular divide.

Admittedly, and getting ahead of myself a bit, I’m playing around with terms. Any Kuyperians who may be reading this can relax.

I wholeheartedly affirm Job 41:11. Well, not so much affirm; doing so would unveil my kinship with the hubris of Job’s friends. Rather, and exercising a dash of humility I pray is Spirit given, I submit to God’s declaration in Job 41:11 that “Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.” As Abraham Kuyper famously said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” Drilling succinctly into the ethics of his quote, the famed Dutch theologian and politician also claimed, “that the whole of a man’s life is to be lived as in the Divine Presence.”[11] So, yes, the sacred/secular divide is an important distinction to erase, but only if the proper tension between God’s transcendence and imminence is held.

Pietism merged with the hyper-individualistic denominations that began to gain ground in America during the First Great Awakening, helping create theological systems that steered adherents into a post-Enlightenment, Neoplatonist version of ascetism. White evangelicals are very familiar with the fruits: Christian movies, Christian t-shirts, Christian fast-food chicken, the concept of “full time Christian service”, and an overall view that prioritizes “spiritual” things over “worldly” things with little to no thought to what the Bible actually means by the categories spiritual and worldly. So, yes, the sacred/secular divide is theologically problematic. Except, you see, for many of us, the pendulum has swung too far.

To reiterate, the sacred/secular divide’s meta-definition is theologically aberrant and ethically problematic. On that, you’ll hear no argument from me. However, the erasure of that divide didn’t take place in a cultural vacuum. Unwittingly, many of us who’ve battled to dismantle the contra-Biblical separation – my entire Christian life, I’ve argued against the secular/sacred divide – have failed to account for the social imaginary we all live in. Instead of creating a culture in our hearts and churches that sees the sacred in the so-called secular, we’ve gone the other direction. We have failed to elevate the mundane to the miraculous. In doing so, parallel with larger society, we’ve unwittingly reduced reality to the material and human flourishing to the temporal. What Charles Taylor calls a double move to imminence. You see, when evangelicals reject the secular/sacred divide, a replacement is already in place. A replacement that most are not cognizant of its existence much less equipped to battle. Anthropocentrism is in the social air we breathe.

Referencing Taylor again, the anthropocentric shift, especially the interest in nature “for their own” sakes can’t be reduced to a subtraction story; God wasn’t removed, and that was that. “To contemplate things in the perfection of their natures … doesn’t turn us away from God. Nature offers another way of encountering God.”[12] To reach the secularism of modernity, philosophical and sociological forces were at work, reaching all the way back to the Scholastics and ramping up throughout the late Renaissance, reaching full sprint during the Enlightenment, having overtaken us generations ago. For all his good intentions in doing battle with Montaigne’s skepticism, Descartes’ program intent on harnessing nature in the service of humanity’s happiness took us too far. Our Western society is grounded in a worldview with built-in replacements for God, and one of the more consequential replacements is a human flourishing defined by the individual. Without even being aware of it, we are trained to value the mundane because it feels like the mundane is within reach and we can control it. The transcendent, especially a transcendence that is wholly other, as God is, is a revolt of the highest order on our Western worldview and way of life.

This is manifest in a variety of ways. Two such manifestations are found in our voting ethics and interaction(s) with the ordinary means of grace. I’ve written here and here in more detail about voting ethics, but the renunciations and rebuttals to John Piper’s call to prioritize the heavenly above the American Dream (how you define flourishing) reveal how squalid, dusty, and anthropocentric our respective Towers of Babel are. At least the ancients tried to reach God, falsely believing they had a rightful claim to His level. We would be content if we could drag heaven to earth, falsely believing that we have the right to a god that conforms to our finite expectations.

We’ve also put the “ordinary” in ordinary means of grace. For example, while paying lip service to the value found in reading the Bible, we treat it as little more than a rule book or an owner’s manual. It tells us what to do and how to do it, what to expect, and the history of our faith. If and when we do read the Bible, it’s a box to check off. It’s a book, after all, and all books are “sacred”, on par with one another, once that pesky sacred/secular divide has closed.

Granted, and in fairness, that’s not how opponents of the sacred/secular divide (including myself, remember) view the Bible nor how we encourage others to view the Bible. However, our hearts – all of us – are naturally oriented towards the self. Swimming in the modernist waters of our social imaginary means that the destruction of the sacred/secular divide is at high risk of being a weight dragging us further into anthropocentrism. The category of God’s imminence that retains the mystery of God’s transcendence is vital. Elevating the reading of the latest Pulitzer prize winning novel to the sacred level of bringing God glory doesn’t require a subtraction of the mystery that God’s Spirit works in and through the reading of God’s Word. But it does require the intentional effort to preserve the mysterious and unexplainable. Reading the latest Pulitzer prize winning novel is not the same as reading the Bible, nor does it have the same very real existential/spiritual effects created by the Spirit when reading the Bible. Any erasure of the secular/sacred divide that doesn’t retain that mystery in proper tension is in service to secularism, whether intended or not.

God is mystery. Beautiful, wondrous mystery. As we reflect our Creator, and how we reflect our Creator, we do so as ectypes and not archetypes. Furthermore, our knowledge of God, in what He has chosen to reveal to us, is ectypal, too. With our system of thoughts, our attempts to battle aberrant theologies and rebellious ideologies, we would do very well to remember that God’s lordship over all creation doesn’t remove the mysterious inbreaking of heaven into our reality. Hamlet was right. There are things in heaven and the earth that even our sophisticated reformed theology cannot understand nor answer.

We also need to bear in mind that our words are not released in a cultural vacuum. Like most everything else, removing the sacred/secular divide is not a simple subtraction story. We’re all culturally hardwired to anthropocentrism (on top of our sin nature) and our efforts to encourage others (and ourselves) to enjoy and glorify God in all things, including Pulitzer prize winning novels, can be easily hijacked by hyper-individualism that disdains the sacred.

Who’s to say that God didn’t miraculously reveal Himself to a pizza delivery driver as she was being rescued from a ravine in South Carolina? I certainly don’t have that right. And scoffing at it reveals the possibility that when I erased the divide between the sacred and the secular, I also removed the proper tension between God’s transcendence and His imminence.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] John Frame, Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Beliefs (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015), 40.

[2] I think – think – I’m going to write an article exploring the question “What is Being?”. Even now, as I attempt to finish this current article (and with two others partially written), my mind is drawn to that question because, as prep work for this article, I reread Heidegger, or, rather, reread a little bit of Heidegger. Prep work, to be honest, that was mostly pointless for this article because it didn’t take me long to realize that one (me) can’t simply reread Heidegger and then plug it into a blog post unless one (me) is willing to wait the month or longer it would take to adequately redigest Heidegger before finishing the article.

[3] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: 2011), 43.

[4] Horton, The Christian Faith, 43.

[5] This is a characteristic of Islam. Allah is not known personally; he’s known through what he expects – his law as told to Gabriel as told to Muhammed. This is why the Quran is almost wholly prescriptive. Allah isn’t revealed, his commands are, and to “know” him is adjudicated through acknowledgement of his divine prerogative and obedience to his law. In contrast, the Bible is prescriptive in parts and descriptive in parts, and, more importantly, it’s covenantal.

[6] Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 37-38.

[7] Horton, The Christian Faith, 44.

[8] I would argue this holds true across the Pentecostal traditions, too. Instances of overt embraces of transcendent religious experiences – faith healings, speaking in tongues, etc. – are merely momentary returns to old social imaginaries. By and large, those in Pentecostal traditions hold a conceptualist abstract of transcendence in their daily lives. Patterns/habits as a voter bloc, consumer group, etc. reveal this. In short, even in those denominations and sociological groups that seemingly embrace transcendence, imminence is still, by and large, the defining category within a realist ontology that enslaves transcendence to individual autonomy.

[9] Auguste Comte, Introduction to Positive Philosophy trans. Frederick Ferre (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1988), 1.

[10] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 90.

[11] Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism: Six Lectures from the Stone Foundation Lectures Delivered at Princeton University (Columbia, SC: ReadaClassic, 2010), 15.

[12] Taylor, A Secular Age, 91.

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