Christianity and Secularism: Do They Need Each Other?

By George Elerick

Absurdism was a movement originally inspired by the existential theologian Soren Kierkegaard in the 19th-century. It was closely related to nihilism, in that it claimed the whole experience of life relied on the attempt to imbue meaning into all of the entirety of our existence. It is the need for meaning that hides its very absence at the centre of reality. That ultimately, meaning does not exist, so we need to create it, to hide ourselves from such a truth. Samuel Beckett was a 20th century playwright and author who wrote in the particular position of absurdist theory. One of his more popular scripts is entitled: Waiting for Godot. It tells the story of two men who are awaiting the arrival of Godot, someone they made prior plans with. In Beckett's play we find something most peculiar about this effervescent figure Godot. He never shows up. The dialogue is centred on this mysterious character who isn't there. Is this not what theology essentially does? Does it not speak of an absence? Into an absence? Is not theology in its essence one such secular-word-game? If this is the case, then is not Christianity a religion of the secular?

My claim in this article is that Christianity and Secularism are not enemies; but rather they are progeny. One begets the other. One needs the other. One is the other.

Paul and Jesus are quite revolutionary in their secularism. Do not these two Jewish rebels do just that with the place of religion in the ancient world? Implying that religion becomes more human, more imminent and less transcendent. Is this not the power behind the incarnation? That God disavows heaven for earth. Maybe the offer of Christianity is not to become ‘more’ Christian, but rather, more secular. What do I mean by secular? Traditionally secularism was defined as the following: “Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.”[1] However, I claim this definition is too short-sighted in that it seeks to situate itself in antagonism toward religion. Another issue with the traditional meaning is that it relies upon a biased assumption imposed upon us via dualistic thinking (i.e., good vs. evil and etc.). For me, the secular is an opening up, a widening up, and an entrance into endless possibility. It takes religion outside of itself to encounter not an inversion of itself, but simply another side of itself. Is this also not the radicality in God becoming human? That God did only become something ‘other’ than himself but rather encountered another aspect of herself. Secular is that which opens up religion, to a religion without religion. To a Christianity without Christianity. This article is about unpacking these implications and why we need to seriously consider that Christianity is not the enemy of secularism (or vice-versa) but rather that when investigated deeper, they are in actuality: one in the same.

There are three features to this claim that will enable us to encounter the very nature of Christianity as Secularism. These essential elements draw us into a new way of being human. This is not pretentious theoretical prattle as sometimes is categorized of theological discourse, but when properly applied will offer us a new perspective on our very own identities. Christianity as Secularism is not a claim of theory, but of identity. These three claims will help illuminate some of our own historical presuppositions along with a neoteric assessment of how we engage with reality. These can be found in the notions of The Lost Son narrative, our views of utopia and love as a form of existential suicide. We will interrogate these claims at a much deeper level as we traverse through new landscape and see why these three elements will assist us in understanding the importance of our place in the cosmos and how our roles can be altered to transform the very cultures we call home. 

The Lost Son & The Death of Fate

One of the most popularized interpretations of the parabolic narrative of the 'Prodigal Son' is that the story centres itself on the ultimate salvation of a defiant son. That the younger son eventually 'came to his senses', and the older one never did. Although this is one of the predominant caricatures of the parable, I want to offer an alternative reading that will lay the foundation for the rest of this article. What if the story of the precarious relationship between father and son was really about something much wider, maybe something that has cosmic ramifications? What if the story is about fate and all that that implies? 

Some modern-day Messianic Rabbi’s make the claim that if the son had stayed, that he would have been stoned to death by the very community he was a part of. Is not this then the cycle of fate being broken here?[2] The fact that the father lets the son escape challenges the social mores and expectations of the day through a form of disavowel. It is the freedom that releases us into our own subjectivity. If then the story of the lost son is about a relinquishing of fate then what does this mean for us as humans or even as people who pursue God? This newfound interpretation implies that the future is wide open. Because if fate existed, then there would already be a pre-planned beginning, middle and end. We would simply be myopic automatons helpless in our inability to choose for ourselves. The re-appropriation of the Lost Son narrative then forces us to re-evaluate ourselves as free agents; as free ethical beings not bound by some historical hegemony (i.e., the demand to follow those before us and etc.). Christianity as Secularism does not force us into a narrative where we are demanded to follows laws and structures, but rather, it invites us to think outside of them. When I refer to Christian laws and structures, I am including the presupposition that there is ‘one’ way to be Christian, or that to be a Christian one must follow the Ten Commandments and so on. Is not a law or a structure a form of fate? Meaning, that if we follow it, we will already know the outcome. For example, in most societies, if you steal, you go to jail or are fined; or, if you kill, then you are thrown in jail and tend to be shunned by society.[3]  Arising out of this is the possibility that something such as ethics can be found in contextual discourse, meaning our ethics (including relational ethics) will not be bound by some ancient monastic rule, for example, but rather will erupt out of new types of relevant discourse. The implication being that even in truth, there is an inherent plurality rather than some monolithic claim of ownership. Which Jesus himself seems to allude to when he makes the claim to be an embodiment of truth; then also claims where 'two or more are gathered' there I am. I take this to mean that truth is experienced in community, which neither you or I can offer truth on our own, but through wrestling with each other, we all might come to experience an iota of truth.[4] What this then does is open truth up to a universal experience.[5] This approach to truth also dismantles the conservative notion of a static 'G-ds' Will' somewhere out there, and leaves us to be responsible agents who have to make decisions, even in the midst of a God who has seemingly disappeared for our own good. Notice that another element in Jesus’ claim of where two or more are gathered- that these ‘two or more’ are not named; that they do not belong to a specific religion or grouping. What if the claim here is much more secular or universal than it is typically read? Meaning, that, could it be here that Jesus is saying that these ‘two or more’ could be anyone. That this phrase is speaking about a human experience. That the invocation of human community is the embodiment of the Christ spirit. That as in my claim, Christianity is secularism, the gathering of the human community is Christ materialized. 

Heaven & The Genocide of Difference.

When we speak of Christianity (or Secularism) as two distinct social movements, the insinuation is that there are groups of people who are subjectively dedicated to their hermeneutic over the other. One is pitted against the other. But who is right? I think that is an inefficient enquiry that evokes an unnecessary chasm between these two movements. However, be that as it may, this is currently the case in society today. When we approach human existence via the interior of anthropological factions we simply dedicate ourselves to a fear of the ‘other’.[6] This worldview produces obstructive antagonisms. Addressing Christianity as Secularism provides a possible exit strategy from such a seemingly impenetrable deadlock. When we approach secularism as an opening up, then our attraction to exclusion will ultimately recede, because in this radical opening is the inauguration of a new form of infinite hospitality that embraces the very enemy as neighbour. However, I think it is important we retain a level of apprehension when we speak of such an embrace; when I speak of a new form of encirclement I do not mean to imply – utopia. For the whole notion of utopia is one major consequence of why so much antagonism exists.[7]  For this approach to utopia is simply the end of difference. 

 Utopia has been embedded in the historical landscape of human progress and existence. It is the desire for some perfect whole where love and peace exist without their opposites. We also hear this desire for static perfection and the disappearance of pain in John’s letter to the seven churches: “….there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain…” (Revelation 21:4). Isn’t this the simple eradication of the very things that make us human? Not only is it an eradication of these things, it implicitly is the very demonization of our subjectivity. It is the disappearance of emotion in exchange for blind allegiance. It, in a simple sense, only creates Spock-like zombies who are only filled with the desire to praise some unknown being. Christianity as Secularism is not the end of one over the other; it is an embrace of the one as the other, coming to realize that in the embrace, the one is the other. The longer we clutch tighter to ideas like heaven the greater chance we will have of ostracizing the very characteristics that define our distinction. This is not to say that we can never experience harmony, but rather, that our primary intentions should not be fuelled by such idealistic desires. As we see in the above verses, everyone will be the same. No one will feel anything. This is not harmony, this is simply a new type of zombie-like existence, where thinking is demonized. Christianity as Secularism demands that we take a second-look not at the other, but at ourselves and begin digging deeper into our own desires and psyche of what drives us to want perfection at the cost of distinction. As a starting point, I think this is one of the most responsible things we can do.   

Love is Suicide.

Christianity as Secularism beckons us into a new practise of self-arrangement. For embedded in the nucleus of Christianity as Secularism one finds a revolutionary kernel awaiting a reply discovered in the recognition that for Christianity to find itself in/as the ‘other’ it must annihilate itself to do so. Where does this idea arise from? It comes directly from God becoming other, God finding himself in becoming human. God becomes human so she can experience the divine. There is another place that emerges out of the very pages of scripture that declares a new category of conscious subjectivity. Discipleship, to be more explicit. The rabbinic method of discipleship called the talmidim (student) to be just like the Rabbi. It would have been an honour for the student to walk in the shadow of their Rabbi, to at times, quite literally, get the dust of their Rabbi upon them. But to clear, the point of the process, was not to remain the same student then when one started – it was to become like the Rabbi – to become: other. To find one’s new identity in the Rabbi, in the other. For me, this is the radical space of Christianity, that we find ourselves not in sustaining our ego, but in the abandonment of it. We must become other to find ourselves, for me, this is the nature of one who embraces Christianity as Secularism.

Jesus says if we want to follow him to take up his cross. Death. A death to the ego is the way of the cross. A loss of the self, and finding it in the other. Is not the incarnation this very thing, God had to become other/human to find himself/experience the divine. 

The notion of ‘taking up our cross’ is a conundrum because if one takes Jesus literally then we are met with the idea that salvation is found through suicide. So we can then surmise that the pre-requisite to being a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth is to find one’s self at the end of ego. By dying to ourselves. Sabina Spielrein was a student and possibly lover of Psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, who blended his Christian theological roots with Psychoanalytic thought. Spielrein would eventually create her own system of thought that escaped her roots in Jung, mainly with a revolutionary claim of the self. Her system of thought included the necessity of the death of the ego. The ego is the self we present to everyone, it is in its fundamental sense, the ‘I’ we speak of when referring to ourselves. She claimed that only through the annihilation of the ego can one discover the possibility of life. That through the destruction of the mirage of self can one enter into real life. Is this not almost an exact mirror of what Jesus is offering? A new way to be human. In that, rather than relying on the ego, to become like this Rabbi one must come to the end of themselves for the sake of something greater. That when we comes to the end of the self, they find themselves in a community who lives by the same code of ethics; when one became a disciple they joined a ‘school’ of the Rabbi, thereby creating a community. In Christianity as Secularism, communal expression is universalized. It is not some esoteric band of believers, but rather now, becomes the human community. God shows us this very model in a re-interpretation of the Trinitarian relationship.[8] When God becomes human, God as ‘God’ (the idea) dies and is full immersed in the person (humanity) of Jesus, when Jesus dies on the cross, God as Jesus dies; and when the Holy Spirit emerges, it is found in the presence of a new form of spiritual community (Acts 2). A new humanity. This tripartite model is the very template by which Christianity as Secularism operates. It is in becoming something outside one’s self that the discovery of self is initiated. Is not this a simple metaphor also found in marriage? That for one to pro-create they must be with an ‘other’;[9] someone biological outside of themselves. Love is then a radical act of self-negation to then lose one’s self in the other, only to, in an instance, find themselves again in the other. In conclusion, and in the most simplistic sense: CHRISTIANITY does not need to distance itself from Secularism or become secularism, because it is Secularism.




3 The very person and journey of Moses demonstrates to us that God can even use murderers to stop a slave trade.

4 I use the phrase ‘iota of truth’ to imply that we can never encounter whole truths; that they don’t exist, but rather via postmodernism, we might encounter a little bit of truth, if it so arises. 

5 secularism

 6 I use the term the ‘other’ in the philosophical sense, to imply: that which is different to us.

 7 When I employ the word utopia I include all forms of future promises of a perfect kind of human experience, where all or an excluded band will live harmony.

8 This idea of the essence of God dying and that the human bond IS the holy spirit can be found/originated in the work of German philosopher: Georg Hegel.

9 This is in no way implies that homosexuality is wrong; but rather I am using the biological parameters as a metaphor for union and otherness.