Forgetting How to be Secular

In a pregnant passage of Common Objects of Love, O’Donovan argues that, rightly understood, “secularity” is in fact a Christian concept, and the modern retreat of Christianity means, ultimately, a loss of secularity, since secularity consists in the patient suspense in wait of ultimate validation, and modernity rejects faith in any ultimate validation to come:

“The Christian conception of the ‘secularity’ of political society arose directly out of this Jewish wrestling with unfulfilled promise.  Refusing, on the one hand, to give up what it knew of God, itself, and the world, accepting, on the other, that what it knew was incomplete and demanded validation, Israel understood itself and its knowledge and love of God as a contradiction to be endured in hope.  ‘Secularity’ is irreducibly an eschatological notion; it requires an eschatological faith to sustain it, a belief in a disclosure that is ‘not yet’ but is absolutely presupposed as the inner meaning of what we know already.  If we allow the ‘not yet’ to slide toward ‘never,’ we say something entirely different and wholly incompatible, for the virtue that undergirds all secular politics is an expectant patience.  What follows from the rejection of belief is an intolerable tension between the need for meaning in society and the only partial capacity of society to satisfy the need.  An unbelieving society has forgotten how to be secular.”

3 thoughts on “Forgetting How to be Secular

  1. Brad Littlejohn

    No, I think that would be unfair. Part of O'Donovan's argument is that this is how "secularity" was understood historically by the Christian tradition up till early modernity, and we need to reclaim that definition if we're to accurately describe and critique modern secularity. Such a stance enables us to recognize the goods of modern secularism and more accurately name the evils, rather than seeking to just turn back the clock a few centuries and wipe the slate clean. Charles Taylor is up to something similar in A Secular Age, though O'Donovan's not too friendly to that book per se.


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