Exploring “positive secularity” (?)


Rather than burying this in a comment to a previous post, I’ll just start a new post…

First off, I probably should have dug a bit deeper on the concept of “positive secularity.” Sarcozy was hardly the first to suggest this idea, but was suggested already in 2005 by Pope Benedict XVI himself.

I don’t think we know nearly enough about the concept of “positive secularity” (see earlier post) to engage in a fair critique, or even to speculate if this idea has parallels to Canadian ideas. My intent in citing Sarcozy was not to critique him (even though I gave an initial, perhaps unfair, jab myself) but to explore whether the very idea of “positive secularity” could be a fruitful way to help us to begin to clarify why allowing religion into the mix in public dialogue has been so problematic. (Whatever Sarcozy meant or means by the phrase, while not unimportant, it is somewhat beside the point here.) That is, the reason I can’t critique “positive secularity” here is precisely because it is an idea waiting to be filled out–something I want to do here. The idea may not prove ultimately to be fruitful, but it is far too early in the conversation to conclude that. Thus the deliberate question mark in the original title of the post.

Before filling the concept out, though, we do need to be clear that I (and many others) see an important difference between “secularism” and “secularity”–terms which have often been thrown about as synonyms, when in fact they are not. While probably an oversimplification, the main difference is that “secularism” is an ideological stance, while “secular” or “secularity” is meant to describe an “actuality” or “state of being.” That is, the reality is that the Canadian system of governance is “secular”–it is a system of governance which at a practical level operates in such a way that no one religious position is privileged in the day-to-day governance. The question is whether that secular reality in governance has led to a view of the State that is ideologically committed to “secularism,” where not only is no religion privileged (“secular”), but religion is, a priori, barred wholesale from participation (i.e., “secularism”). Further, I want to point out that it is still unclear (at least to me) where the Canadian state stands between being “secular,” on one hand, and being being ideologically “secularist,” on the other. But it DOES seem clear to me that the population of Canada is far from being “secular”–Canadians are still very religious in outlook, even if we grant that there are many who see themselves as completely secular or non-religious. And herein is the dilemma we face: Is it possible to live in a “religiously diverse” context which is governed by a “secular state” and yet allow religious people (with religious ideas, no less!) to engage in the public debate (i.e., “positive secularity”)? Or does a secular state necessitate that religion be barred a priori from public debate (i.e., “negative secularity”, or indeed, ‘secularism’)? 

A question of the how “tolerance” is used these days was mentioned by Barry and Bill. While there are many problems with the way “tolerance” is thrown around these days as a watchword, I don’t think having a commit to tolerance per se is necessarily the problem. There is a positive and negative sense of tolerance as well. And just because we may think that the form of tolerance often appealed to in Canadian society is in fact condescending and negative, (and frankly, intolerant of those with religious views!), this does not mean that there is not a good (dare I say, biblical) view of tolerance that could be translated into a politically usable concept. Can we conceive of a country where the state allows for freedom for religious claims to be included in debates concerning the public good without necessarily saying that we have thereby now committed to allowing one religion to be privileged? Again, the contrast between “negative” and “positive secularity” might be helpful to show that a “secular” country need not necessarily be ideologically secularist, even if that seems to be the path we have been on.  

I think Sarcozy’s phrase “positive secularity” might be useful in helping us to ask this: Since our society consists of religious and non-religious alike, why is it that the “late modern liberal democracy” can only be understood to work best by shutting out all religious opinion in public dialogue and debate in favour of purely non-religious opinions and options? (This is what I am calling “negative secularity”, or perhaps more accurately, just plain old “secularism”).  Is it not possible to conceive of a country operating under a principle of “positive secularity” in which no one religion is de facto favoured in reference to goverance, but which nevertheless does not see its role as suppressing the reality of religious plurality in favour of a “non-religious” position as the only legitimate point of public debate? Is there not a way to allow Christians to speak AS Christians, and Muslims to speak as Muslims, and atheists to speak as atheists in public debate about public policy without necessarily privileging, before the debate begins, the non-religious position?

It is this sense of “freedom” that I think O’Donovan (as noted in my previous post) is trying to get us to think about. It is a freedom that we as Christians believe is enabled by what God has done in Christ–even a freedom that allows non-Christians freedom not to be Christian, even while Christians are free to be and to speak as–Christians. We are free to speak as Christians, and we are free to allow others to speak as non-Christians, precisely because under Christ’s authority, there is no human authority that is ultimately binding to conscience and conviction?

I like the way Karl Barth poignantly puts it, “[Christ’s] kingdom is neither a barracks nor a prison, but the home of those who in, with, and by Him are free.” (Church Dogmatics, II/2, 311).


2 thoughts on “Exploring “positive secularity” (?)

  1. I knew Barth would come in some where 😉

    You rightfully point out that we don’t really know what this means, thus the reason I qualified my comments as a “first pass”. For that matter I still consider this to be a first pass.

    RE: “Is there not a way to allow Christians to speak AS Christians, and Muslims to speak as Muslims, and atheists to speak as atheists in public debate about public policy without necessarily privileging, before the debate begins, the non-religious position?”

    David, this is heart of my skepticism, the privileging of the so call “non-religious position.” I would offer that the secular does not exist, only the perception of the secular. You stated that the “Canadian system of governance is “secular”–it is a system of governance which at a practical level operates in such a way that no one religious position is privileged in the day-to-day governance.” I would agree to a point. The point I would push, however, is that such a position is itself a philosophical and ethical judgment based on the notion that human judgement can transcend “religion.” Matters of religion are necessarily subordinated to the secular judgment.

    While “positive secularity” may permit dialog, even the discussion of “religious” ethics in legislative environs, it presumes two things. First, that all religious positions are worth hearing (since otherwise one would have a privileged position), and second, that the philosophy / ethic of secularity is a higher ethic than any one “religion” (i.e. privelledged). (This is where I would make a loose connection to the Canadian ethic of tolerance.)

    From a strictly Christian perspective, I would agree with both O’Donovan and Barth. In here is the issue. They (Barth anyway) actually elevate Christ above the secular. Dialog is permit precisely because Christ is over all. The notion of the secular is not a self existent pleroma, rather it exists precisely because Christ permits it to exist, at least for a time.

    While positive or negative secularity may offer differing environs for dialog, the church must surely sit in discomfort that the secular, in any shape, would presume even equality with, let alone to judge the one who created and sustains all creation.

    I am left to question, how comfortable do we as the Church want to be with the “world”? Does this not lead to Athenian style debates (cf. Acts 17:16-34)? Is this really beneficial?

    For the record, I’m not entirely against the idea of “positive secularity”, but I do think we need to has some hard questions.

  2. All discussions of “secular” go off track by missing its definition as merely, and only,
    related to the present world. Secular = “thisworldly.” In this sense I would encourage all theological discussion and debate toward Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison where he rightfully speaks of Christian life as participation with God in the secular realm from the Incarnation….where God became present or ordinary as a human being; that is God became secular at Christmas. Jesus then is the authentic human being. The Christan can lay claim to no more than becoming human. Some religious types I know stand to benefit greatly from Bonhoeffer’s equation of secular with “religion-less” even if it means being less spiritual, that is less gnostic and more like God at Christmas.

    Rev. Dr. Paul O. Bischoff

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