Monday, August 07, 2006

Secular authorities

How are Christians to think of 'secular' authorities?
In a comment from a recent post about political authorities, Matheson asked: what does it mean for our attitude towards participation (which Drew encourages us to take up responsibly) that these are merely secular authorities, in the sense that they are of this "age"?

This, of course, was a leading question.

Secular is derived from the Latin secularis, which is from seculum, meaning 'age or generation'. It was a term used by the medieval church to denote what belonged to the sphere of the 'world', or at least of the world of this age, as opposed to what pertained to the age to come. Thus, by calling political authorities 'secular', this was not primarily a way of designating a 'separation between church and state' (though this idea is thoroughly rooted in Christian conceptions of authority, despite its frequent misunderstanding and abuse in much contemporary debate).* Instead, such authorities are secular because their authority is temporally limited. Their existence will continue prior to the eschatological victory of Christ in which he will 'destroy every ruler and every authority and power' before handing the kingdom over to God the Father (1 Corinthians 15.24). Thus the primary Christian stance towards secular political authorities is freedom, knowing that they are passing away, that their authority is limited and temporary. The primary political duty of the church is to bear witness to the coming rule of Christ, reminding governments that their role has a use by date and that they are not to pretend otherwise by setting themselves up as absolute authorities. Within this freedom, the Christian is liberated for joyful obedience to these provisional structures while awaiting the resurrection of the dead and with it, the destruction of the ultimate resort of every tyrant: death.
* See Oliver O'Donovan The Desire of the Nations (and presumably also The Ways of Judgment) for this argument. Indeed this post is a brief summary of one thread in his thought, as Matheson was well aware when he made the comment.Since Matheson's comment sparked this post, I thought his smiling face should end it. Five points for the first to name the thing behind Matheson. Ten points for the institution in the first shot that is being turned into a mere silhouette by the rising Son. (Yes, groan all you like; I know you're sitting there wishing you'd said it first. And yes, I know the sun is actually setting - poetic licence).


Christopher said...

"Five points for the first to name the thing behind Matheson."

Looks like a man with his back to the camera, could be a woman... but I can't be sure.

psychodougie said...

Deutsche Reichstag (or is it the Bundesrat?)
I was reading Moltmann's Theology of Hope as you suggested (still there! at, in particular his thoughts on the use of the word 'eschatology'.
That we have lost this idea of our 'God of the future', who is active in the future, is perhaps why, in being happy enough to be subject to secular authorities, we forget that they are passing away, focusing too much on them, and their impact.

David Ould said...

it's the Reichstag.

The first picture is Westminster Palace, otherwise known as the UK houses of parliament.

David Ould said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
byron said...

Christopher: I wanted a 'name', not a description. Her name is Gretel (actually, I've got no idea, but the instructions just said to name the thing behind Matheson, which could simply mean to confer a name.

Doug: five points. Thanks for the reference. Yes indeed - a properly eschatological orientation to theology helps avoid a myopic view of politics (hence this blog).

David: ten points. Well done. Although, I'm now a little unsure about the 'UK' bit given the construction of the Scottish Parliament... (Just how much autonomy did Scotland gain in that little move?)

Christopher said...

I'm sorry Byron, I will pay more attention to the details in future entries.

byron said...

Christopher: two points for trying... ;-)

Renee said...

Es ist der Reichstag in Berlin! Ja?

Renee said...

Ja! I just noticed two people beat me to it. :(

byron said...

Renee: Korrekt, und korrekt!

(I love how many German sentences sound like English said with a German accent...)

byron said...

Hey, to get back to the actual content of my post, Rachel has just posted a great personal reflection on similar issues.

byron said...

And here's another nice quote on the topic:
‘“Secularity” is irreducibly an eschatological notion; it requires an eschatological faith to sustain it, a belief in a disclosure that is “not yet” but is absolutely presupposed as the inner meaning of what we know already. If we allow the “not yet” to slide towards “never”, we say something entirely different and wholly incompatible, for the virtue that undergirds all secular politics is an expectant patience. What follows from the rejection of belief is an intolerable tension between the need for meaning in society and the only partial capacity of society to satisfy the need. An unbelieving society has forgotten how to be secular.’
- Oliver O'Donovan, Common Objects of Love, 42.