The Sacred, the Secular, and the Sciences

The Sacred, the Secular, and the Sciences

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December 3, 2020

In a knowledge of God all true knowledge and real development have their source. . . . Whatever line of investigation we pursue, with a sincere purpose to arrive at truth, we are brought in touch with the unseen, mighty Intelligence that is working in and through all.” (Ellen G. White, Education, 14)

A discussion of education often involves the broad fields of study of “the arts,” “the sciences,” and how we, as Christians ought to deal with particular topics relating to them and their proper place in the Kingdom of God. It should be noted that “education” is of course not confined to college campuses, school classrooms, or, more recently, Zoom calls, with teachers mustering students from living rooms and basements across the globe. However, for simplicity’s sake, I have focused here on the formal education system in hopes that what is applicable here (in the “organ” of the education system, as T. S. Elliot refers to it) is relevant to the broader “organism” of human thought and education.

The Arts

While the question of the origin of the universe probably reigns in the science domain as the most agonized-over topic of education in the longstanding Christian Education v. Public Education debate, the question of what to do and not do with “secular” media (literature, music, art, etc.) holds this status in the arts and humanities.

The idea that there is a permanent fissure between the “sacred and the secular” is old and is taken for granted in the current age, but there are a number of ways in which to approach this perceived dichotomy. In his concise book An Invitation to Academic Studies, Jay D. Green attributes perhaps the most famous early expression of this sentiment as relates to education to Tertullian: “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, the Church with the [Platonic] Academy, the Christian with the heretic? . . . After Jesus we have no need of speculation, after the Gospel no need of research.”

Dr. Green outlines the three traditional Christian methods of approaching this dynamic between “Jerusalem and Athens” (Loma Linda and LA or Berrien Springs and Boston, if you will). Here, I outline the three views and note the common Adventist position with regard to each:

1. Withdrawal

The proper response to secular media/education is to avoid it; this position is characterized by the idea that anything of non-Christian (or possibly non-Adventist) origin is inherently antagonistic to the Christian mind and should be avoided. Practically, this results in a lifestyle that allows one to remain uncorrupted by the corrosive secular thought and education by ending formal education early (or at least not attending college) for this purpose and finding employment on a small farm, family business, or self-supporting ministry. While there are some in Adventism who hold to this approach, mainstream Adventism has acknowledged that some interaction with non-Christian media is, for the most part, inevitable.

2. Defensive engagement

This is to go in with sword drawn, attempting to “fix” the problems with media that is not of Christian origin. This view, too, is based off the belief that non-Christian education is by nature hostile to “the truth.” Students will often read a little Shakespeare, perhaps Animal Farm, and some poetry by Emily Dickinson, but the overall posture of this view focuses on the contrasts between what one reads and what one believes. In my current and past experience, Adventist education falls most uniformly in this category; some secular literature is engaged, but often hesitantly and with a focus on where the work diverges from Adventist doctrine/outlook/mindset.

3. View of a dualism

Jerusalem and Athens indeed exist in distinct spheres. But, unlike in the previous two strategies mentioned, they are not in conflict with each other so much as they are carrying out mutually exclusive kinds of cultural work. Generally, Adventism gravitates away from this view and toward the other two views that preserve the traditional view of a necessary interaction between the sacred and secular.

A “fourth way” is needed, relevant to Adventist education, one that acknowledges the divide between the sacred and the secular, but is not blinded (as by a constant posture of being in defense) to the beauty and usefulness of many works that are indisputably “secular.” “What if we reimagined our work within them not as a reconnaissance mission, driving us deep into enemy territory, but as an act of holy worship done humbly before the face of God? Not as something we must do, holding our noses for the good of the kingdom, but as something we gratefully embrace, because through it God will extend to us some of his wondrous gifts?”[1] To rephrase Kennedy’s immortal maxim, it is necessary that we not only ask (as in the defensive engagement view) what we and our faith can do for our particular disciplines, but what those disciplines can do for us and our faith.

When we think of creation, we’re probably most apt to picture snow-covered mountains, flowering dogwood trees, a herd of buffalo, or a majestic sunset. We are less likely to include, within our vision of creation, human endeavors like music theory, mechanical engineering, experimental psychology, or graphic design . . . But the modern academic disciplines are, in fact, part of God’s good order. All are examples of humans cultivating nature’s raw materials and the human imagination as collective responses to God’s general command to care for the earth. As part of creation, these fields of academic inquiry are precious and astonishing gifts from God.[2]

Here, however, I find it necessary to pause for contemplation on this idea of a dichotomy between the “sacred and secular.” I have been hard-pressed to come up with a satisfactory definition of “secular,” but the most pragmatic definition, for the purposes of the discussion above, may be “not of Christian origin” (expanded to “not of religious origin” elsewhere), but even this exposes a gaping morass of undefined terms and historical eras and disputes over who is/isn’t considered Christian (the definitional minefield continues). There is an ongoing dialogue of thought and writing on this concept that is worth raising for internal discussion: the idea that the divide between sacred and secular is a human “self-imposed dichotomy,” and is a “divide [that] disrupts our perception of God’s creation and reorders it by making categorical distinctions between things, people, and places that are holy and those that are not.” To continue to quote from an insightful article on the topic by theologian and professor Ryan Stander:

Presbyterian theologian, Douglas Ottati, draws upon the Psalmist and St. Paul’s claims, “The earth is the Lord’s and fullness thereof” to articulate God’s stance toward creation. He argues that nothing is truly godless or profane because “God always stands in relation to all.” In this, all things, including the arts, exist as part of God’s intricate and encompassing web of divine power, presence, and grace. Nothing stands wholly apart from God’s presence regardless of how we may try to define who and what is part of God’s redemptive plan. . . . Codifying God by demarcating spheres of presence and absence closes us off from surprise movements of God’s Spirit in the world around us. It closes our eyes and ears from seeing Christ at play in 10,000 different places.[3]

As a current student at an Adventist university, I have often been perplexed by the wilting numbers of fellow students studying arts and humanities. The current, decades-long trend towards the sciences is of course not unique to Adventists, but I am curious as to whether there may be somewhat of a unique motivation behind our collective withdrawal or hesitation for investing in the humanities. While this is a topic in need of further analysis elsewhere, and I defer to those who have watched our education system evolve over a longer period of time, I would think that the root of this is not primarily economic, as may be more predominant of a motivation for the general public. It seems that, as in academies, university education is philosophically inclined toward disciplines and subjects that offer training for more “practical” service and relief such as medicine, nursing, etc. While the virtue of these methods of serving goes without saying (I myself am pursuing a career in medicine), I am more than tempted to think we are missing something fundamental by our neglect of the study of the human condition. Because Christ was human, to study our own nature is, in part, to study His, and vice versa. As Ellen White notes, “The humanity of the Son of God is everything to us. It is the golden chain that binds our souls to Christ, and through Christ to God. This is to be our study. Christ was a real man; He gave proof of His humility in becoming a man.” (Ellen G White, Selected Messages, Book 1, Chapter 33)

The Sciences

The popular maxim “all truth is God’s truth” may be, in my mind, the most concise way to summarize the proper Christian response to education in general, most obviously in the sciences. The debate over what to do with scientific findings that appear to deviate from biblical accounts is as old as those findings themselves, but a level-headed and useful approach emerges in the writings of Galileo, who was himself a loyal church member before being arrested and charged with heresy for resurrecting and popularizing Copernicus’ heliocentric theory. He cites Augustine in a 1636 letter in defense of the orthodoxy of his methods:

Astronomers seem to declare what is contrary to Scripture, for they hold the heavens to be spherical, while scripture calls it “stretched out like a curtain.” St. Augustine opines that we are not to be concerned lest the Bible contradict astronomers; we are to believe its authority if what they say is false and is founded only on the conjectures of frail humanity. But if what they say is proved by unquestionable arguments, this holy Father does not say that the astronomers are to be ordered to dissolve their proofs and declare their own conclusions to be false. Rather, he says it must be demonstrated that what is meant in the Bible by “curtain” is not contrary to their proofs.

He concludes that once a scientific finding has been properly tried and examined and not found wanting, the next work to be done involves reconciling biblical interpretation with what has been demonstrated to be scientifically accurate.[4]

No discussion of education, particularly education in science, is complete without an examination of questions that can’t be answered, things that can’t be known, and the Book of Job: “What is the way to the place where light is distributed, or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?” (Job 38:24, ESV)

After the final chapter of lament from Job (in which he identifies himself as “a companion of ostriches” 30:29) and a “post-hoc-ly” debated interlude by young Elihu, the Lord answered Job—with seventy-three verses of profoundly unanswerable questions. (“Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew?” Job 38:28)

In his 1929 essay, “The Book of Job,” British essayist G. K. Chesterton reflects on the speech of God that explicitly answers virtually none of the questions raised in reams of dialogue between Job and his companions:

This, I say, is the first fact touching the speech; the fine inspiration by which God comes in at the end, not to answer riddles, but to propound them. The other great fact which, taken together with this one, makes the whole work religious instead of merely philosophical, is that other great surprise which makes Job suddenly satisfied with the mere presentation of something impenetrable. Verbally speaking the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.[5]

If education is to follow a model that is biblical and historically tried and proven, it must deal not merely with the answering of questions and the feeding of information, but with the raising of questions, not all of which may be immediately answerable.

It is worthwhile to consider both the “problems” of what to do with new scientific findings and things we just generally know very little about. Likewise, a contemplation on the right treatment of the “sacred and the secular” in the arts is needed if we are to be most effective and spiritually benefitted from the vast array of unexpected creativity and creation we have been given to learn from. These considerations are practical in the realm of how we structure our educational system. But more than that, they are relevant to the greater portrait of God-designed human nature and to our own individual growth in the knowledge and the likeness of our God.

To restore in man the image of his Maker, to bring him back to the perfection in which he was created, to promote the development of body, mind, and soul, that the divine purpose in his creation might be realized—this was to be the work of redemption. This is the object of education, the great object of life. (Ellen G. White, Education, 15-16)

 

Notes & References:

[1] Jay D. Green, An Invitation to Academic Studies (P & R Publishing, 2014), 8-23.

[2] Green, 8–23.

[3] Ryan Stander, “The Relationship Between Faith and Art” in In All Things (May 23, 2017), inallthings.org/the-relationship-between-faith-and-art/.

[4] Galileo Galilei, “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” in A History of Science in Society, edited by Andrew Ede and Lesley B. Cormack (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011) 139-144.

[5] G. K. Chesterton, “The Book of Job” in In Defense of Sanity, selected by Dale Ahlquist, Joseph Pearce, and Aidan Mackey (Ignatius Press, 2011).

 

Christina Cannon is an undergraduate student at Southern Adventist University. 

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

 

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