Is Sacramentalism the Answer to Secularism? - D.L. Jones
The Eighth Day Institute recently held their annual symposium in Wichita, Kansas on the topic - Whatever Happened to Wonder? The Recovery of Mystery in Secular Age. Dr. James K.A. Smith and Rod Dreher were two of the invited speakers at this conference. It was a beautiful event, as all the Eight Day events are. I recommend everyone attend this event at least once in their lifetime and give their patronage as often as they can to Eighth Day Books. It is truly a pilgrimage experience. Refer to Rod Dreher's good posts here and here writing about his experiences at this event.
There is a growing chorus of scholars across the ecumenical boundaries (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant) that are making the argument that sacramentalism, a sacramental worldview which recognizes the centrality of the liturgy, as the antidote that counteracts the effects of the poison or disease of secularism. Several ecumenical great minds, thinkers, and writers are making this argument in a variety of different ways who include at least the following intellectual cadre: Brad S. Gregory (Roman Catholic), David Bentley Hart (Eastern Orthodox), Hans Boersma (Protestant), and James K.A. Smith (Protestant).
A lot of good historical as well as philosophical and theological points feed into their argument that sacramentalism is the answer to secularism. Nominalism which is a reduction of reality, a flattening of categories, is no doubt one of the root causes of our secular Western viewpoint. Therefore it makes sense that a recognition of the sacred would seem to get at the root of this disease. I understand this point and largely agree with it. Allow me though to ask some questions and bring an important perspective into this dialog that desperately needs to be considered and judged by these men as well as by others good thinkers and folks who are intrigued by this conversation.
I find far too much sentimentality and naivety without critical judgment in their argument that sacramentalism is the answer to secularism. As a person who has lived in both the Catholic and Orthodox world over the last 20 years allow me to inject some reality. Please do not misunderstand my own position though, I agree with them as you will see below but some important arguments, nuances and considerations need to be made to get at this complex problem of how sacramentalism relates to and interacts with secularism.
My first argument is a pastoral one. Sacramentalism causes the disease of Clericalism. Many bishops and ordained ministerial priests believe and have acted as if they are above positive (civil) law and in reality, moral law. Look no farther than the various embezzlement or sexual scandals. If there is a Hell, St. John Chrysostom is right. “The road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, with bishops as their signposts.” I have known far too many deeply scandalized former Catholics (or Orthodox) who left either the Catholic (or Orthodox) church never to return and are now secular than any who are secular because of MTV. One can make a convincing argument that sacramentalism does not prevent secularism but in fact causes much of it.
My second argument is a sociopolitical one. Sacramentalism creates the beast of Caesaropapism. There are very serious problems that develop when everything is considered in the realm of the sacred, when the sacred cannot be distinguished from the temporal or the secular. What about the autonomy of the secular order? Should that autonomy exist and if so, why? To get at answering those questions I would ask folks to look our history over at least the last hundred years, if not over our entire 2,000+ years of Christian history.
The Christian East, Eastern Europe and Russia, was thoroughly sacramental and liturgically centered societies. Why therefore did secularism get a foot hold in and so devastate the Christian East if sacramentalism is the antidote to secularism? In theory it should not have got past the front door of the house to enter within but it did, and we must deal with those substantial historical facts.
A part of the problem on why secularism so infected the body of the Christian East is due to a lack of separation between Church and State. So when the political ruling class was overthrown, the church fell with it and everything thing it stood for. This is not to deny or ignore the historic witness of millions of Christian martyrs who resisted to their death the advance of secularism. We are not exempt from this same critique in the West though. Look at our histories in both France and Mexico. Both of these societies were thoroughly Roman Catholic. Today they are mostly secular, and Western Europe in general as well. It would seem at the surface level that secularism has severely defeated sacramentalism over and over again, in both the Christian East and West. Why?
To exit out of the world of abstraction though and enter into the real contemporary world allow me to ask the following questions. In the U.S.A. we have religious freedom as one of fundamental core principles, as well as the conceptual and legal framework of the separation of Church and State. Therefore we struggle with the tension of a "naked public square", the impacts of Obamacare on religious freedom, etc. In Russia you now have the President and Patriarch united once again. Has the Russian Orthodox Church lost its prophetic voice regarding Ukraine, governmental corruption, etc? Are Christians better in the U.S.A. or in Russia when dealing with this topic of secularism or any other issue for that matter? Which model works better? Why?
My third argument is a theological one. Sacramentalism produces the bad fruit of Sacerdotalism. A valid priesthood or sacraments alone does not save anyone. I have known far too many Catholics and Orthodox who have checked all the right boxes of completing all their sacraments and lived the fullness of the liturgy but have never really encountered Jesus and know Him. Catholic and Orthodox churches are full of zombies in their midst. Nearly every Protestant pastor who have members in their churches that are converts out of Catholicism (or Orthodoxy), and there are many, would confirm this fact. If they have the fullness of the liturgy thru the distribution of the sacraments by the only true or real presbyters, why haven't these folks met Jesus? Why in reality are they still "secular"? Does the sacraments alone save you or does Jesus? Can He save us apart from the sacraments? Does it really matter what kind of society we live in, be it pagan, secular, or even Christian, if one does not really know and believe in Jesus?
I ask these questions as a friend, not as the enemy.
In agreement with the larger thesis of Gregory, Hart, Boersma, and Smith, Pastor Brian Zahnd beautifully preaches and teaches that there are at least four major ways we can confront secularism of our age. Those four ways are thru Prayer, Story, Sacrament, and Calendar. Today I would like to end by focusing on the just one of those ways, Prayer.
Liturgy is the public work of the whole entire people of God. It is the "work" we do as Christians. What is that primary work that we do? Prayer. In particular I believe contemplative prayer is the best means by which we Christians can battle the demons of secularism. It is thru contemplative prayer that we come to recognize the humanity of our brother's face, that we are all our brothers’ keepers, and of the interconnectedness of the cosmos.
One of the important lessons we can learn here is it's not solely knowledge, intellectually or academically superior or not, that will defeat secularism. Good arguments will not truly win the day for us regardless if what we are arguing is true or not. Folks must experience for themselves the effects of contemplative prayer. They must understand and be willing to sacrifice the time to really sit with Jesus in contemplative prayer. The apophatic tradition allied with mysticism will allow us to break thru the mist of our secular age to really know reality in all of its totality. It gives us the means by which we encounter a living God, to really know Him, and to really believe in Him.
I hope is some small ways my questions and thoughts lead to a deeper conversation about what is both good and bad regarding sacramentalism and the centrality of the liturgy, and how that worldview impacts the Church, its mission, its telos. God inhabits every square inch of the world and cosmos irregardless if we recognize Him or not in it. My job as a Father is to help my children to see Him, and that means being a family of prayer!
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and not the U.S. Army.
D.L. Jones holds a Masters in Theological Studies from the Institute of Religious and Pastoral Studies, University of Dallas. His writings have been published in the Clarion: Journal of Spirituality and Justice, Il Sussidiario, TRACES, Catholic Online, God-Spy, Traditional Catholic Reflections and Reports, The American Catholic, and in his home-town newspaper, The St. Joseph News-Press. He also runs a popular blog entitled la nouvelle theologie. D.L. Jones is married to Becky, lovingly referred to as the "General." They have four children.