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The Limits of a Secular Age

Remi Brague, French Catholic philosopher and winner of the prestigious Ratzinger Prize was at my university last week. Prof. Brague is one of those lecturers who loves to make interesting little side comments, something I am particularly fond of. In one of these little “asides,” he suggested that the “secular” are those whose lives are defined by a horizon of a hundred years. “That is simply what the word ‘secular’ means,” he declared.

I hadn’t thought about the word “secular” or its Latin predecessor saeculum in this way before, since the Latin root cent– (from centum, “one hundred”) didn’t appear in it. So I looked it up.

What I found is that, in the ancient Roman world, a saeculum was considered the length of time roughly equal to the potential lifetime of a person or the equivalent of the complete renewal of a human population. How long would that be?

Opinions differed on this point, but during the time of Caesar Augustus, the Romans decided that a saeculum was 110 years. Later generations settled on an even 100, and as a result, in Romance languages, words derived from saeculum have come to mean “a century,” as is true for example of siglo in Spanish, secolo in Italian, and siècle in French. Thus Prof. Brague was quite right that the word “secular” is related to “a hundred years,” although the relationship is much clearer in French than in English.

Consider, then, the difference between a “secular” view of the world as opposed to one whose vantage point is “eternity” (in saecula saeculorum). If you were living in Eastern Europe in 1940, for example, someone might have said to you: “Christianity is finished; Communism is the future.” Or let’s say you were living in the Rome of Caesar Augustus, you would very likely have heard: “The future lies with the Roman Empire, not with some crucified Jewish carpenter.”

To be fair, both comments would have made perfect sense from the perspective of a speaker extrapolating from his own lifetime forward. But extrapolation, as any scientist will tell you, is a very risky business.

People will often say: “You don’t want to be left behind by history.” I say: “If I had lived when ‘being left behind by history’ meant refusing to join the Communist Party in Poland, then yes, I would want to be ‘left behind.’ And in two hundred years, I want it to be very clear that I chose a different course than the one mapped out by the ostensibly irresistible forces of ‘history’ that relativized or subsumed human dignity to the march of ‘progress.’”

Rémi Brague at the University of St. Thomas, Houston
Rémi Brague at the University of St. Thomas, Houston

From the utilitarian perspective of the next hundred years, one can understand the claim: “Think of the good results we might obtain from killing this one unborn embryo.” One could certainly understand how tempting such a claim would be were one also led to believe that a cure for, say, Alzheimer’s might be found during one’s own lifetime.

From the perspective of eternity, though – from a God’s-eye point-of-view, so to speak – one innocent human life is of infinite value. That one soul is eternal, whereas everything that seems so crucially important to us now – getting wealthy, establishing great businesses, making the next “great” breakthrough in science and technology – these things, like the Roman Empire and the great historical Marxist movement before them, will all pass away in time. Indeed, in God’s own time.

One of the benefits of viewing current history from the perspective of eternity (or, quite frankly, from a historical perspective that includes more than merely the last hundred years) is that one sees more clearly how ephemeral “secular” history can be. “This too will pass.” The Roman Empire and the Caesars are gone. So too the czars of Europe. So too the Soviet Union. So too, some day, will abortion and euthanasia and stem cell research be looked back upon, as we look back upon slavery and Jim Crow laws – as tragic aberrations of history.

And yet, although history can certainly be ephemeral, viewing it from a Christian point-of-view provides a perspective from which to value it, even with all its limitations. Although we will not establish heaven on earth, each act, each choice, has an infinite importance – in eternity.

A “secular” age often devotes itself to illusory utopias that can never be achieved and that often enough give rise to tragic acts of inhumanity animated by the hope of achieving these impossible dreams. When these hopes are shown to be illusory (as they always are) a tragic sense of cynicism and nihilism can set in. If all that we strive for will be gone in a hundred years, why strive at all?

The modern “secular” world thus bounces back and forth schizophrenically between naive hopes for illusory utopian projects and nihilistic fears that life simply isn’t worth living at all. To counter “secularism,” we need an account of why human life, limited as it is, is good – is in fact worth living, even though limited and terribly imperfect. God, by sending His only Son into the world, tells us how good the world is, how good life is, even in its fallen condition.

The problem with “secularity” isn’t that it’s too “worldly.” Christianity cares deeply about the world: it tells us that God sacrificed his only Son for the world. The problem with “secularity” is that its view of the world is too limited, too “two-dimensional.” In a two-dimensional world, all you can see is what’s in front of you and in back. It would be easy to conclude from that angle alone that the whole page is filled with nothing but chaotic scribble. You’d have to get up a bit higher to see the shape of the whole beautiful drawing. Either that, or you’d have to have faith in the Artist.

In Christ, the temporal and eternal meet, and in their marriage is the world’s salvation and history’s only true hope.

Randall Smith

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, is now available at Amazon and from Emmaus Academic Press.