In Praise of the Secular

This post has been adapted from the foreword to the 2007 printed edition of Lloyd Geering’s lecture series ‘In Praise of the Secular’ by Margaret Mayman.

Contrary to mid-twentieth century expectations, we are experiencing a global resurgence in religiosity. Religion has re-emerged as a political force in nearly every region and major world religion. Most of this religious revitalisation has taken place among fundamentalist movements, often in response to the inequalities and social destabilization of globalisation. It is particularly strong in the global south but is also seen in the culture wars within western democracies.

Holding to a progressive, or non-fundamentalist, faith in our time means facing criticism from both religious and non-religious voices. On one side, fundamentalists attack people of progressive faith for their failure to adhere to the truths of tradition. On the other side, militant secularists condemn all religion as dangerous, superstitious delusion. In these lectures, delivered at St Andrew’s on The Terrace in Wellington in 2007, under the auspices of the St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society, Professor Lloyd Geering charts a middle path, asserting that both fundamentalists and secularists have an inadequate understanding of the meaning of secular.

In academia, secularism has been used to refer both to the separation of church and state, and to the declining participation of people in organised religion. In popular speech, secular has come to mean anti-religious. Lloyd Geering reminds his readers of the etymology of ‘secular’, which refers to the period of life on this earth, in this time – in contrast to life in the age to come. He contends that it should never have come to mean opposition to religion.

With his inimitable ability to take us on whirlwind trips through religious history, Geering traces the process of secularisation. He sees within earlier forms of Judaism and Christianity, the seeds of secular thought emerging from the margins of previous dominant faith systems. He assures religious people that secular society is not a threat to faith, but is in fact essential for religious freedom. He also speaks to those who hold there is no longer a place for religion, reminding them that along with the freedoms of the secular, we need a ‘this worldly’ spirituality that will nurture the responsibilities that we have toward one another and the earth itself.

 

Humans continue to yearn for an understanding of life and for a meaningful path for living. Religious thinking and religious practice persist in the twentieth century in part as resistance to the forms of globalisation that render humans primarily as consumers. Progressive faith communities are those that ground this project in this time, and on this earth. They have a profound regard for nature and for the creation of just relationship. The sacred is no longer supernatural but deeply natural.

These lectures are an inspiring resource for those who seek to be both secular and religious, i.e. to express faith and spirituality in ways that relate to our corporate life on earth. The St Andrew’s Trust, expresses again its thanks to Lloyd Geering, our theologian in residence, for his lucid analysis of religion and society, and especially for his willingness to share his work with others through the lectures and this publication.

Margaret Mayman is Chair of St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society and Minister at St Andrew’s on The Terrace

  • Each of Lloyd Geering’s lectures from the series ‘In Praise of the Secular’ can be downloaded separately. They are:
  1. What does ‘Secular’ mean
  2. The Emergence of the Secular Age
  3. The Value of Being Secular
  4. Spirituality in the Secular World

Our thanks go to Lloyd Geering, Margaret Mayman and the St Andrews Trust for the Study of Religion and Society for allowing these lectures to be made freely available.

 

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