A Brief History of the Secular/Sacred Split

In the previous post, I introduced a way of viewing human experience known as the secular/sacred split. In a nutshell, it is the idea that all our thoughts and actions belong in one of two distinct categories:

Secular—all that is physical, practical, tangible, and temporal

Sacred—all that is spiritual, abstract, intangible, and eternal

It is profoundly obvious that ideas shape history. However, I believe it may also be said that history shapes ideas. The secular/sacred split is an excellent illustration of the interplay between an idea and history writ large.

In this post, I would like to give an immensely oversimplified but hopefully accurate history of this idea.

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. So, if we see where this idea has taken us in the past, we can make the choice as to whether we want to go there again.

Early Christianity

The worldview of Christians in the first and second centuries was largely the same as that of the ancient Hebrews. The only difference, albeit a difference of eternal significance, was that Christians found what the Hebrews had been seeking for millennia: The Messiah. Christianity was (and still is) essentially Judaism that has found its redemption in Jesus Christ.

Historian Mark Noll explains, “The Gospels were written, in large part, as a demonstration of the way that Jesus brought Israel’s earlier history to its culmination….”[1]

This way of thinking was grounded in several Biblical foundations:

  • God created a good world which bears the fingerprint of the Creator. (Genesis 1)
  • God’s good creation has been corrupted by sin, but the created goodness did not leave. We live in that tension. (Psalm 24)
  • God has redeemed humanity from sin and will ultimately restore his intended goodness. (Revelation 21)

Ancient Hebrews, and therefore early Christians, saw our spiritual being and our physical being as two dimensions of a single ultimate reality. Thus, physical and spiritual life were deeply intertwined. All sacred ideas had practical expressions, and all secular activities had sacred purposes. Remember 1 Corinthians 10:31?

Platonism & Christianity

Then, beginning in the third century, the status of the Christian religion moved from illegal to legal. Christian leaders were given a more public voice to respond to the challenges leveled against Christianity. To do so, many early church fathers applied their training in Platonism.

 Platonism is a way of thinking that distinguished between matter and form, the former being imperfect, temporary, and changing and the latter being ideal, eternal, and unchanging.[2] While Platonism enabled Christian thinkers to employ logic as a means of defending their faith, its application became problematic. It forced a type of dualism on Christianity that had several negative effects.

Everyday life was eventually compartmentalized into mundane work and ministry work. The mundane work belonged to the laity and the peasants. The work of the ministry belonged to church leaders, especially monks who quite literally separated themselves from the things of the world.

The more separated one was from the material world, the more spiritual he or she was considered to be. This way of thinking grew deep roots, especially in the medieval Roman Catholic Church. In time, what began as a distinction between matter and form became, as Os Guinness explains, “a form of dualism that elevates the spiritual at the expense of the secular.”[3]

This early version of the secular/sacred split ultimately resulted in what Martin Luther described as, “conceit” of the popes, priests, and monks, and “contempt for the common Christian life.”[4]

Reformation & Reclamation

We are familiar with the multitude of ideas for which the Protestant Reformation took to task the Roman Catholic Church. However, prominent among them was this early secular/sacred split. Martin Luther wrote:

It is pure invention that pope, bishop, priests and monks are to be called the ‘spiritual estate’ while princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the ‘temporal estate.’ This is indeed a piece of deceit and hypocrisy. Yet no one need be intimidated by it, and for this reason: all Christians are truly of the ‘spiritual estate,’ and there is no difference among them except that of office.[5]

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Protestant Christians reclaimed the holistic view expressed by Luther. If every believer is a priest, then all work is worship. Furthermore, if all work is worship then our job is more than an occupation; it is a vocation.

The Puritans of England and Colonial America saw all our work, even the most mundane, as having spiritual significance. Whatever their hands found to do, they did all to the glory of God—an intrinsically Biblical idea that eventually became known as the Puritan work ethic.

Rationalism & Romanticism

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are often referred to as the Age of Enlightenment. The intellectual work of European scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers of the era forever changed the way we understand our world. It is for this reason that the period is often referred to as the Age of Reason.

While most of the Enlightenment thinkers were at least nominally Christian, their thinking took a decidedly secular turn. If the medieval Church elevated the sacred at the expense of the secular, the Enlightenment elevated the secular at the expense of the sacred.

At the beginning of the Enlightenment, Rationalism was the dominant philosophy. This way of thinking focused on facts and figures. True knowledge came only by way of logic and experimentation. Anything outside of that realm was ultimately unknowable, or at least irrelevant. In a Rationalist mindset, intellect was king.

In reaction to Rationalism, another movement developed known as Romanticism. Expressed more in literature, music, and art, Romanticism focused on values and emotion. They believed that while knowledge came by way of experimentation meaning comes by way of mediation. In a Romanticist mindset, intuition was king.

Modernism & Post-modernism

While Rationalism and Romanticism as movements are largely relics of a previous era they each have their respective heirs in our world today.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the cultural pendulum swung back from Romanticism to the heir of Rationalism: Modernism.

Having rejected religious compulsion, modernist thinking views the world in purely naturalistic, scientific terms. Things like morality, beauty, and spirituality are merely natural side effects of an otherwise pitiless, indifferent, and random universe. The cultural outcome of modernism is best seen in the atonal music of Stravinsky, the Cubism of Picasso, and the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Full of scientific ambition, modernism is empty of existential meaning.

In modernism, facts are real, and values are meaningless.

Much like Romanticism, a new movement arose in the mid to late twentieth century in reaction to Modernism: Postmodernism.  

Post-modernism actively sought the meaningfulness that modernism lacked. However, because it is so far removed from any religiosity, any meaning we find in life is of our own making. Spirituality is personal, morality is relative, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Full of expressive individualism, post-modernism is void of objective judgment.

In post-modernism, values are supreme, and facts are subjective.

So, here’s the thing…

We are still in a two-story house, but we cannot seem to decide which story we want to occupy.

Today we find ourselves in a cultural milieu still swinging between the secular and the sacred. While we in the West pride ourselves on our modern facts, we are obsessed with post-modern values. Living downstairs, science is infallible, and morality is relative. Unless, of course, science speaks against our personal values in which case we take a trip upstairs.

Our world needs clarity more now than ever, a clarity that can only be found in the truth of God’s Word. Thanks be to God that we have total truth! Truth with a capital “T”.


[1] Mark Noll, Turning Points, 16.

[2] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/platonism/#1

[3] Os Guinness, The Call, 62.

[4] Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

[5] Martin Luther, Three Treatises


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