Skip to main content

🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

O’Donovan on the Secular

May 19th, 2020 | 2 min read

By Jake Meador

This pairs very well with yesterday’s excerpt from Dawson.

From Desire of the Nations:

Excluding government from evangelical obedience has had repercussions for the way society itself is conceived. Since the political formation of society lies in its conscious self-ordering under God’s government, a society conceived in abstraction is unformed by moral self-awareness, driven by internal dynamics rather than led by moral purposes. To deny political authority obedience to Christ is implicitly to deny that obedience to society too. Precisely such a conception arose from the sociology which emerged in the eighteenth and came to maturity in the nineteenth century. Society was an acephalous organism, driven by unconscious forces from within, an object of study and, to the skillful, of manipulation, but in no sense a subject of responsible action.

With this conception late-modernity, as we now experience it, stands on the threshold. This, after all, is society as it has been thought about in capitalist economic theory and in revolutionary socialism; it is liberal technocratic society, which functions like a computer constantly to extend the scope of its own operations in obedience to no rational purpose. The social sciences are the heartlands of this conception, but, to the extent that they have been methodologically self-critical and understood their own abstractions for what they are, thought-experiments designed to isolate and examine certain types of relation, they have also pointed to how it may be transcended.

Society so conceived presents itself as a ‘secular’ reality. Within the traditional meaning of the term, of course, society as a whole could never be secular. Secularity pertained only to certain functions within society which had their raison d’etre in relation to this age (saeculum), not the next. The distinction of spiritual and secular was a distinction of two kinds of government within the one society. When in pre-modern Christianity two societies were distinguished as ‘two realms’ or ‘two cities’, they were polarised as moral and eschatological alternatives. They were not a spiritual society and a secular society, only a society of the saved and a society of the damned. The appearance of a social secularity could, however, be created by understanding society as a quasi-mechanical system, incapable of moral and spiritual acts.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).