Transforming Secular Space?

Isn’t there something inherently contradictory about listing ‘transforming secular space’ as a core practice of a postmodern Christian communities?

In their book ‘Emerging Churches: Creating Community in Postmodern Cultures’, Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger identify ‘transforming secular’ space as one of the three core practices of Emerging Churches along with a further six derivitive practices.

But I just back up a bit everytime I hear this.

As I mentioned in my previous post on third places, one of the core features of post-modernity is a breakdown of the dichotomy between sacred and secular. This breakdown is not something that Emerging Churches are introducing to the culture, it is something that defines the culture before they have even entered it. Something that they should be finding is already there.

To put it bluntly, there is no such thing as virginal secular space within post-modernity. To the extent the context is purely secular it is not post-modern. To the extent that it is post-modern it is not purely secular. We may find secularlized SACRED spaces and sacrilized SECULAR spaces but either way we should be discovering that the dichotomy has already been undermined. If we are not finding it already there, and are under the impression that it is we who are  doing the deconstruction, I tend to think that says more about a lack of discernment than anything too profound about our efforts.

For me this is nowhere more obvious that the Emerging Church appropriation of tools like the Enneagram (as if it were a purely secular tool) and the prevailing apathy towards new religious movements (as if NRMs don’t have any relavance to the surge in irreligious spirituality). One who recognised that secular spaces have already been transformed by alternate spiritualities would also recognize that there is a significant overlap between the occult tools and psychological tools in the post-modern milieu and that new religious movements and irreligious spiritualities are mutually feeding and reinforcing one another in late capitalist consumer society. The transformation has already happened and people have moved on. We are playing catch up here folks.

The challenge facing us is not the spiritual transformation of secular spaces, it is the Christian material-spiritual transformation of post-Christian sacred-secular spaces.

3 thoughts on “Transforming Secular Space?

  1. Interesting reflections and observations.
    I think that the hall has been rented, the orchestra is seated, and it is now time to dance — the tunes are those from alternate and new religious symphonies reshaping culture. There are devotees who have re-enchanted cultural spaces and resacralised their experience of culture and life. The way devotees experience life is grounded in spiritual and religious traditions that are on the pioneering frontiers of where the 21st century is headed. This is way ahead of those still musing about agnosticism and scepticism about rituals, spiritual exercises, stories, and narratives of self.
    It does create a new paradigm for new forms of dialogue and witness. It is time for us to discern and intuit these trends and to discover what our praxis and theologies will be by way of response and conversation with these adepts of other paths.


  2. Great reflections, Matt. I think you’re correct here. We need to move beyond the sacred/secular split, not so much by bringing our sacred space into the secular, but by recognizing with the alternative spiritualities that all is indeed sacred, but also bringing a robust sense of a Christian sacredness to bear on such interactions, and to recognize that the alternative spiritualities are ahead of the church in moving beyond this divide.


  3. Hey John I think that we can also become a bit clearer in our use of terms.
    Secularisation is a process that has been underway since the first industrial revolution. Religious change has taken place whereby a religious source of authority has been dislodged in society by a non-religious authority.
    The descriptions of secularisation have been many and various and so many scholars collide with one another in trying to nail down the processes. What has often occurred is that the phenomenon of the actual process gets less and less attention while sociologists jostle with each other over whose theory best covers the field.
    Secularisation prompts religious responses in liberal and conservative patterns of theology and behaviour, and those who seek a middle ground between the liberals and conservatives (and middle grounders are considered suspect by the other two camps).
    In social terms the big factor in secularisation (shift in authority in society) is with the individual. The individual has been uplifted from traditional tribes, clans, family, and the interconnecting settings where sacred customs and duties are exercised. Individuals have over the decades become isolated from traditional structures and inhabit almost “anonymous” urban habitats where the older links to the sacred have been broken.
    What differs from the process of secularisation is the view that rejects the sacred altogether and replaces traditions and religious authorities with non-supernatural authorities grounded firmly in this world. The categories of the supernatural have been filled up with natural meanings. If the gods have been banished they have been exchanged for “secular” seemingly “scientific” replacements. The secular ideologies that persist have their point of reference for meaning located in this world (not another realm), but curiously they have their own counterparts to religious priests and prophets, their own categories for “orthodox” and “heretical” beliefs, places of veneration and so on. The secular is not coterminous with secularisation but rather is itself a product of the processes. It rejects the older order of things but shuffles the deck chairs around removing the supernatural deities and replacing them with ideological earth-bound “deities” of a non-supernatural character.
    Rapid social change has not banished religion at all and indeed in some contexts has stimulated many frontier religious movements such as those that sprouted in Japan (with many of these groups now found in Latin America) after 1945, and again in Korea after 1953 (like the Moonies).
    Part of the problem has been aggravated by the assumption of some people that religion simply or primarily equates to “beliefs”. Since “science” has ostensibly undermined the old religious cosmologies it is assumed that means religion as belief is discredited and so should evaporate.
    However religion is not encapsulated by mere beliefs, and beliefs anyway are never static things. Europe may have been formally “Christian” in 1914 but that did not make for a monolithic form of Christianity in Europe. Have we forgotten the Kaiser-led Germans had “Gott min uns” (God is with us) on their soldiers’ belt-buckles all assured of God’s blessing on their war efforts, while in France, Italy, Russia and England prayers in churches were about assurance of victory over the Huns!
    While beliefs do comprise one element in religions there are other equally important emphases: one’s duties (ethical imperatives), one’s experiential faith (emotions, worship, mysticism), one’s organisations (the networks formed where one belongs by way of marriage or caste, voluntary participation etc). Voluntary participation in religious settings is a product of the Reformation and ensues in new guises today (but it was something unheard of in traditional and non-western societies).
    As I mentioned in the Hong Kong gathering we need to recall that observance of correct rituals and rites is often far more significant to practitioners than the intellectual grasping of doctrines.
    Wouter Hanegraaff’s thesis on new age shows its capacity to celebrate the secularised world with self-spirituality and sacralises the world. The fluffy-bunny expressions of new age in psychic fairs in 2006 represents the tail-end of the serious stuff that burrowed into the fabric of society and academia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It is a shame that in 2006 Christians start to catch up on festivals but long after the serious stallions and mares have moved on to deeper pastures. If the fairs are used now as the primary barometer or litmus test for new age today then of course the impressions will be quite correct, “this looks superficial”. The commercialised and consumer-oriented end of it is what is left since the ponds have been all fished out and new breeds of fish are swarming in other locales.
    Meanwhile the serious stuff has overtaken many other facets of life and reshaped the perceptions people have relative to human potential, education processes, healing modalities, divinatory guidance, rituals and so on. And new age is not the only example we might point to of “what’s already happened” in western culture.


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