“What is Secularism?” Pt. 1: The Ontology of Violence and the Nation State


The following is the first of four posts in which I will be exploring the question, “What is secularism?”.


A few weeks ago, I was eating tacos and having a dialogue with a dear friend when the topic arose of Christian worship in an age of secularism. “You and David always talk about ‘secularism’” my friend told me, “but you don’t ever try to define what exactly it is. I’d be interested to see how you would define it and scope it out vs. how I would.” I told him that I would have to think about it, and eventually would have to try and “hash things out” in an attempt to understand. This is my (hopefully humble) attempt to do so.


In the following, I will try to explore the nature and roots of secularism in the modern world, particularly from the perspective of Radical Orthodoxy’s deconstruction of the secular. The particularities of my agenda are fourfold. First, will identify three characteristics of secularism that especially narrate our understanding of reality: (1) John Milbank’s understanding of an ontology of violence and how such an ontology shapes the social and political imagination of the nation state, (2) the violent separation of nature and grace (and therefore the lack of transcendence and mystery) and (3) the privatization of religion/the absence of theology from public discourse. After identifying these three characteristics, I will briefly suggest Milbank’s claim that Christian theology deconstructs and outnarrates secularism, particularly in regard to the liturgical theology of the Eucharist.


So, that leads us to our question for today: What is secularism?


In short, secularism is the social and political imagination of modernity—an imagination where theology is absent from the public sphere and religion is radically privatized. This imagination is rooted in an anthropological vision of the human being which is radically different than the human as it was understood by the premodern mind. C.C. Pecknold notes that at the dawn of modernity, theologians like William of Ockham advocated for the primacy of the will of the individual rather than an ontologically prior call to communion through participation in the good, the true and the beautiful. The Anthropos was no longer a worshipful, liturgical, contemplative being. Instead, he was a being whose nature is rooted in an ontology of original violence.


What does this “ontology of original violence” mean? Well, in order to best understand this, we should take a closer look at one of the most influential political philosophers of early modernity, Thomas Hobbes. In his book, Leviathan, Hobbes asserts that human nature is, at the very bottom, violent. The state of nature is a “war of all against all”, and the individual struggle for power over the other is a fundamental reality. All of reality is hinged upon chaos and violence.


Each man for his own.


In order to subdue this conflict and for man to live together in harmony, individuals must make a pact, a social contract of the will, through which they constitute a single body. The image of Hobbes’s Leviathan (see above) shows a body which is constituted by the people, with the sovereign as its head. Pecknold notes that the people who constitute this body are all seen facing the head of the Leviathan (a posture that Hobbes must have borrowed from the Church, where the people of God gather together and face the altar during the liturgy of Holy Eucharist), and above him are the words from Job 41, “there is no power above the earth which compares to you.” It’s obvious that Hobbes borrowed heavily from the Church’s language of the Church being the corpus Christi, the Body of Christ. However, now instead of the people constituting the Body of Christ through their participation in the Eucharist, the people make up a new body—the body of the modern nation state. Here we can see the beginning of secularization, where religion takes a different place in society.


What we see happening in the world of Hobbes is a change in the way that people understood power and allegiance. It’s not that people in the modern world ceased to believe in God or participate in the Church, but rather that the role of the nation state took primacy over the role of the Church in society. The Church served the state, and in the new era of man cast by the reformation, the Church began to become understood in terms of national identity. Instead of the Church being first and foremost Katholikos, a cosmic society which transcends national and cultural boundaries, we see the arising of the German church, the Swiss church, the English church, etc.


This leads us to the final question: how does Christian orthodoxy outnarrate the myth of ontological violence and the modern nation state? John Milbank asserts that Christian orthodoxy speaks of a reality where ontological difference is understood not as violence or nihilism, but as harmony. Instead of an “ontology of violence”, Christianity offers an “ontology of peace”.


That sounds all well and good, but where is this supposed ontology of peace rooted in Christian history? It is the common narrative of modernity to assert that religion has been the cause of violence and oppression in the world (these are not questions we should avoid), so how could it be that Christianity speaks of a reality that is at its core peaceful? Milbank believes that the doctrine of the Trinity asserts a reality with ontological difference, but instead of the relationship between different things being violent, it is harmonious. God is one God, in three persons. Three persons, yet undivided. This is the foundational reality of the cosmos. This is, of course, the mystical relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit– the life found within the Living God which is offered for us to mystically participate in through participation in the Church.


In part II of my blog exploring “What is secularism?”, I will focus on the divorce of nature and grace, how the divorce relates to the ontology of violence and how the Christian understanding of creation tells us that “Grace does not destroy nature, but fulfills it.”

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