Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Christianity Must Be Secularized - and Liberated

That is the provocative thesis of a recent book by John Cobb, Spiritual Bankruptcy: A Prophetic Call to Action.  What does this mean?  Secularizing (a dynamic term) is contrasted with secularism on the one side and religion on the other (both of which are more static sounding terms).

Religion or religiousness tends to be supernaturalist and otherworldy to the point that it lessens concern for this world.  On the whole, it refuses to secularize its tradition.  It tends to be overly cautious about innovation and stubbornly, even unreasonably committed to the past (tradition, creeds, texts, historical individuals).  Innovation is something to be feared more than embraced.  It is constituted by an "us" vs. "them" way of thinking: we have it, they don't - we're in, they're out - we get it, they don't.

Secularism is concerned almost exclusively with contemporary experience and understanding, especially through the sciences, philosophy, higher education, and economism.  It is concerned to define and categorize based on presently available information.  As such, it accumulates vast amounts of information but is "barren of wisdom" through the critical appropriation of a traditional body of knowledge.  Unlike secularizers, secularists are open to other Ways but committed to none of them.

Secularizers are those who are primarily concerned about making the world a better place for everyone to live in, but they do so with the knowledge resources of the past and present in dynamic interaction.  They are fully open to the influence of other Ways, other wisdom traditions, even as they commit to their own.  They affirm their tradition even as they understand that tradition itself to make a secularizing imperative: critical, reasonable appropriation and transformation rather than fearful, unreasonable, and stubborn commitment to past modes of thought, wisdom, and action. They embrace innovation in conversation with their own heritage.

The great secularizers (who Cobb makes a short list of that includes Plato, Aristotle, the Hebrew Prophets, Jesus, and Paul) agree that "It is possible to recover, refine, and reappropriate the wisdom of the past and clarify its relevance to the present...it does not discard the past, but it [does] not take any one past formulation as beyond further critical discussion.  On the contrary, thinkers critically examine the inherited ideas, clarify their valid meaning and use for life in the real world, and organize the resulting thoughts so as to ensure their mutual coherence."  As an example, Cobb points out that the true prophets (as opposed to the false prophets) were those who did not accept past formulations or the present culture on face value but "were the most critical of society and of the economy of the time and particularly of its religiousness."  Jesus was similarly extremely critical of the political-economic situation of his time, as well as the religious status quo.  He proclaimed and created alternative communities of nonviolent resistance against the Roman empire.  The way of Jesus drastically differed from the violent way of the Zealots as well as the way of other Jewish sects who avoided innovation in favor of reverent obedience to the past, even at the expense of human well-being in the present.

But secularizers, especially those from the First World, from the West, must also be committed to the revolutionary Pauline experience of radical conversion, rebirth, the absolute paradigm shift.  Why? Because they also recognize the possibility that many aspects of their heritage may be so profoundly mistaken and aligned with those in power rather than 'the least of these', the poor (who are consistently given a preferential option in the Bible while the rich on the other hand will not even be a part of the kingdom without giving up their possessions and exploitative way of life) that it might need to be trashed rather than merely fixed, so to speak.  A revolution comes from below rather than from above - a point that cannot be missed in any talk of 'revolution.'  Christian secularizers attempt to recognize their privileged positions and to respond accordingly to the voices of the oppressed, the colonized, the marginalized.  Especially in today's globalized economy - which is merely another disastrous stage in a long colonial project - those of us who are secularizing Christians must recognize the need for more radical revolutions than reformist projects, a more complete conversion in solidarity with the subaltern.  This is what it means, I believe, to be a disciple of Jesus today: a commitment to both secularizing and liberation.  We critically appropriate the wisdom of our tradition for the sake of the common good.  But we also live in the humble and even uneasy awareness that perhaps our vision of the 'common' good must be radically challenged from the perspective of those upon whose backs we have built our Western identities, our economic and national projects, and - dare I say it - even our religious tradition as received from Christendom to the present.