I saw this morning that the Catholic international news agency, Zenit, reported on September 12, 2008, that French President Sarkozy greeted the visit of Pope Benedict XVI with a speech that promoted what he called a “positive secularity.” Zenit quotes President Sarkozy as saying,
It would be crazy to deprive ourselves of religion; [it would be] a failing against culture and against thought. For this reason, I am calling for a positive secularity. . . . A positive secularity offers our consciences the possibility to interchange — above and beyond our beliefs and rites — the sense we want to give to our lives.
While Sarkozy unfortunately slips into a kind of “secular transcendence” by wanting an interchange “above and beyond our beliefs and rites” (if we talk above and beyond our beliefs, I’m not sure what kind of non-trivial things we would end up talking about!) I nevertheless like the basic connotations of the idea of a positive secularity (without knowing fully what Sarkozy really means by it). I like it especially if for no other reason than it highlights the potential for a different kind of societal ethos over against a “negative secularity” in which all religious interchange is ruled out of court in advance in favour of some supposed “neutral” (and I would argue, chimeral) non-religious standpoint. In fact, the notion of positive secularity arguably better allows for a fundamental commitment to freedom over against a negative secularity that finds itself in the awkward situation of having to limit freedom of religious expression and interchange of ideas to preserve a minimalist lowest common denominator devoid of all religious language.
Oliver O’Donovan rightly points out that a commitment to the Gospel is finally a commitment to freedom (cf. 2 Cor 3:18 – “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”), particularly freedom from the absolute political and religious claims of fallen humans. As he notes, by sending Jesus Christ, in whom all authority in heaven and earth rests, “God has done something which makes it impossible for us any more to treat the authority of human society as final and opaque.” (Desire of Nations, 253).
The challenges of what a positive secularity would look like are probably just as massive as the challenges of trying to figure out how to accomodate religious conviction in what appears to have been a failing experiement in “negative secularity.” But maybe this small shift from the negative to positive could be an interesting starting point for discussion about the place of religion in a secular society nonetheless.