A Secular Priesthood
Historically, the word secular is a positive word in the Christian’s vocabulary. The church has always had a good view of that which was regarded as secular. In the Middle Ages, for example, men were ordained to a specific role in the priesthood that was called the “secular priesthood.” These were men who had responsibilities which took them out of the institution of the church to minister in the world where there were specific needs requiring the healing touch or the priestly mission of the church.
There is a sense of which I was ordained as a secular clergyman because I was ordained to the teaching ministry, not to an ecclesiastical office within a local congregation. I was commissioned to go to the university and become a teacher in the secular world. It is this secular world that can be distinguished, to some degree, from that sphere we have set apart and called the church, or the sacred realm. Often, in the minds of many Christians, the distinction between sacred and secular is the distinction between the good and the bad, but that is not the way it has been used in church history. Secular was simply a different sphere of operation.
The word secular has its origins and its roots in the Latin language and comes from the word saeculum which means “world.” The secular priest is one who ministers in the world.
There is another Latin word for “world,” mundus. One notable place it is used is on the tombstone of Athanasius, a fourth-century bishop who was a leading defender of the faith. His tombstone read, Athanasius contra mundum—”Athanasius against the world.” If both words, saeculum and mundus, mean “world,” what is the difference?
The people in the ancient world understood that, as human beings, they lived in time and space. We still talk that way. Our life is spatial, geographical. There is a certain “whereness” to our lives. We live within a time frame. Jesus talked about “this age,” the present age. So in Latin the word for this world, in terms of time issaeculum. The word for this world, in terms of space, is mundus.
The secular refers then to this world in this time. Its point of focus is here and now. The accent of the secular is on the present time rather than on eternity. I live right now. I can look at the clock and watch the second hand move. I can hear it ticking.
Try a little experiment. Look at your wristwatch, if it has a second hand, or at a clock. Watch the entire face of the clock. Now wait until the second hand reaches 12. Look quickly at the 6. Watch the second hand sweep toward the 6. The 6 is still future as the second hand approaches it. What happens when the second hand reaches 6? Does it stop? No, unless your clock breaks. Now the 6 is past. It’s over, gone forever. That part of your life is gone in an instant. We have just experienced time as it passes us by.
The question we ask is this: Is that all there is? Is there only time? This time? This secular moment? Or is there something else? Is there eternity beyond this world and this time? What we are really asking is, is there a God beyond this world who has always existed and will always exist? Does my personal life extend beyond the limits of this world?
We could ask the question another way. We start with the easy one. Where are you right now as you read these words? Can you identify your location? Are you in Chicago or San Francisco? What are you doing this moment? (I trust that you are reading.)
Those questions are easy. Let’s make them a little more difficult. Where will you be tomorrow at exactly the same time? What time is it now? Add twenty-four hours and guess where you will be and what you will be doing. It has to be a guess, doesn’t it? You don’t know for sure because you can’t possibly know for sure. You may have plans for tomorrow. You may even have a specific activity marked on your calendar for this specific time. The odds may favor that your guess will be correct. But you don’t know for sure because you don’t know that you will be alive at this time tomorrow or that the place you intend to be will still be there tomorrow.
These are the limits of being time-bound creatures. We guess about tomorrow; we hope for tomorrow; but tomorrow is always shrouded a bit in mystery for us. That is because we are secular. We live in a world of time.
Let’s make the experiment even more difficult. Now note the time, the day, the month, and the year you are reading these words. Write them down. Now add one hundred years. Five hundred years. Where will you be one hundred years from now? Five hundred years? What will you be doing then?
Some of you are smiling. You’re perhaps thinking, “Hey, that’s not so difficult. I’ll be in the boneyard somewhere pushing up daisies. I’ll be fertilizer for the cemetery or part of the ingredients of ‘Soylent Green.’ ” Perhaps you’ll say, “I’ll be dead, but some of my genes will still be around in my great-grandchildren.”
This is precisely where Christianity and secularism collide. This is the point of conflict. The biblical world view has a long-term view of human life. The term is much longer than that of secularism.