Secularism 2

It came to my mind, as I was reflecting on “secularism”—my son, Doug, remarked in passing that he was a “secularist” and I got to thinking about how good a term that is—that it was an “extent of time” word, like “day” or “hour” or “age” or “era.”  In Secularism-1, I said the crucial question was whether there was only one age—ours—or whether there is also another one.  I called Doug and me both “secular” because both of us think “this age” is the only one there is.

Nothing I have noted so far has a religious connotation to it, but we have come to the trap door.  If “this age” means “an era bounded by time” and is to be opposed to the notion of “eternity,” then we will have to ask what “eternity” means and that is going to get religious really fast.  (I’m going to come back to touch on one good way to pose the “eternity” question at the end of this note, but only lightly.)  If, on the other hand, “this age” is to be contrasted to “the age to come,” then we get religious even faster.

My view is that neither of those ways of putting the question presents us with the alternatives we need.  I propose, instead, as the second question: “Is this age under the authority of a Being, who has constructed it, who rules it, and who will see to it that it comes out right?”  Since I am writing within a Christian frame of reference myself, I need to say “…a Being who…” only once.  Now I can say “God” and allow the other parameters to be handled by Christian traditions.[1]

If these are the right questions, then we may ask anyone (Question 1)whether there is one age (this age only) and expect yes, no, or “it depends” as the answers.  Then we may ask anyone (Question 2) whether there is a Being, an Agent (“God,” after this) whose rightful authority extends to the governance of this age.  Again, we may expect yes, no, or “it depends” as the answers.

Question 1 puts Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Doug and me in the same camp.  This “age” is it.  All of us are “secular” in this understanding of the word.  Of those seven people, the first five never considered whether there was an age to come or did consider it and rejected it as pagan.  Egyptians were big on “the age to come;” that is what all the pyramids were about.  We Israelites don’t take that path.  Doug and I have considered it and have our doubts.  We are, then, “secularists” or “only one age-ers,” if that is the meaning we can all agree to give to Question 1.

Question 2 divides us differently.  Those who are both theistic and secular will please form a line at the left.  Of the named people, I am the only one in the line.  The gospel writers are not in that line; the apostle Paul is not, post-Exilic Judaism is not, and, for other reasons, Doug is not.[2]  I really do believe that there is a God who has brought this era into existence, who rightfully rules it, and who will, in the end, bring its story—the story of this age— to an appropriate conclusion.    That makes me a theist and a secularist and makes Doug a non-theist and a secularist.  I have been trying to build a set of pigeonholes that will accommodate Doug and me and this is my best try so far.

I promised that I would come back to touch on the “eternity” question before I finished.  I don’t have anything philosophical to say about it.  Physicists seem willing to talk about things that exist within the space/time continuum or outside it.  I honor their efforts, but I don’t know enough to follow them.  My approach will be a good deal simpler.  I want to deal with “eternal life” as “the life of the ages.”  The Greek is zoein aionion in John 3:16, its most famous location.  The adjective aionion may be understood as an indefinite extension of time—“everlasting” is a way to represent that—or as a different kind of “time.”  I take it as “of the ages” or “for the ages,” which is a perfectly legitimate translation, although it is not the only perfectly legitimate translation.

The contrast I want to make, and I believe the one Jesus had in mind in John’s account of the conversation with Nicodemus, is that there is a kind of life that is lived without meaning or consequence and also a kind that will be meaningful as long as the age lasts.  The former is a life oriented toward transitory goods; toward “use it once and throw it away” goods.  The life that is aionion –significant on the scale of the ages— or, more simply, the life God intends, is not like that.  That life matters now and it matters enduringly.  How enduringly?  Well, all the way to the end of the age.[3]

Acting in a way that matters (that supports the story the Creator is trying to tell through us) all the way until this age is over seems a very attractive meaning of “eternal” to me.  And I think that a lot of us secularists might feel that way.



[1] Needless to say, fobbing the other questions off on Christian tradition does not establish their truth or even they plausibility.  It does clarify things, however, so I don’t have to do it here.

[2] The Jews seem to have brought a new interest in “a life after this life” home with them from exile in Babylon.  I know that’s too simple, but this is a short piece and I think it is close enough for that.

[3] See Matthew 28 for Jesus’ use of that time scheme.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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4 Responses to Secularism 2

  1. Erik Andrulis says:

    “the story the Creator is trying to tell through us”

    You are the Creator. This is Your Story. Or, as You would say, “My Story.”

    Peace, Ik

    • hessd says:

      I know a lot of people feel that way, Erik. And if we are the source of our stories, the conclusion you draw is the only possible conclusion. Thanks for the comment. Dale

  2. Karl Hess MD says:

    Dale, if you are convinced that there is no age to come, then reading the bible seems to me to be foolish or at least of very marginal utility

    • hessd says:

      I don’t think so, Karl. Let me put the case the other way around. “It is the significance of the world to come that supports practices such as Bible reading.” I think that is the position you described, although you might have backed into it. My view is that Bible reading is absolutely crucial to being a disciple of Jesus. I think it gives an opening to guidance by the Holy Spirit that would not otherwise be so prominent. There are no parts–none at all–of my life that must not engage in dialogue with the sacred texts of our faith.

      None of those values has anything at all to do with whether there is an age to come and all three of them are important to me. On the other hand, you seem to be saying that they are important because of things that will happen in another age or time. I really don’t think that is the view you want to hold, but maybe I am wrong.

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