Sacred and Secular?

It is widely acknowledged that some of the early church fathers, such as Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Jerome, and even Augustine, were partially influenced by Greek philosophy, particularly Plato’s metaphysical philosophy of splitting reality into two realms: an upper level of atemporal, immaterial ideals, and a lower level of temporal, physical matter.[1] The higher level is called Form and the lower level Matter. This speaks to both cosmological and substance dualism. Speaking specifically about cosmological dualism, reason and rationality represent the Forms; evil and chaos represent Matter.

But speaking specifically about substance dualism, the human soul belongs to the upper level of Form, which is rational and immortal, and the human body to Matter, which is evil and mortal. New Testament scholar Gary R. Habermas comments as to Plato’s concepts of the immortality of the soul and its obstruction caused by the mortal body: “For Plato death is marked by the separation of the body and the soul. Until this time the body is a hindrance, as it opposes and even imprisons the soul.”[2] In Gorgias, a Socratic dialogue written by Plato, Plato borrows a line from one of the sages, “‘Our body is the tomb in which we are buried.’”[3] Walter Hamilton (1908–1999), honorary fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, comments as to this pun in Greek (σῶμα σῆμα, “a body, a tomb”): “the body (soma) was the tomb (sema) in which the soul (psyche) is buried was a popular religious idea (also found in Pythagorean philosophy).”[4] Randy Alcorn is right to point out that in this punning idea, “Plato suggested that the spirit’s highest destiny is to be free from the body.”[5] When it comes to this type of devaluation of the soma, I concur with Christians who believe that there should be a pushback to Greek philosophy obscuring biblical principles. Our physical body is not what imprisons or entombs the soul (or mind for that matter); it is our human or sinful nature, according to the apostle Paul.

Listen to Paul’s words to the Romans: “So letting your sinful nature [‘human nature’ (GNT)] control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace” (Rom 8:6, NLT). Here, he is describing the dueling and dominating spheres of spiritual influence: the flesh[6] (human nature) vs. the Spirit.

Furthermore, it is true that early church fathers, such as Augustine—the most influential Christian Platonist—bifurcated human behavior into two echelons, religious (sacred) and non-religious (secular): the sacred or contemplative life being dedicated to prayer and meditation, and the secular or active life being dedicated to trade and manual labor.[7] Mapped onto Plato’s metaphysical grid, contemplative acts belong to the Forms and they are regarded as more valuable than active acts that belong to Matter.

With that said, however, Augustine had good biblical reason to anchor his Greek philosophy to Judeo-Christian theology. For him, the sacred and secular—contemplative life and active life—complement each other and should be held in balance.[8] Although, for him, the sacred is the better way. To his defense, he quotes from the Gospel of Luke, whereby Christ advocates for one sister’s actions, Mary’s, over the other, Martha’s (see Luke 10:38–42).

In the story, when Christ entered their home, Mary sat at the feet of Jesus so “she might be fed by the Lord.”[9] Martha, on the other hand, was intent on “how she might feed the Lord.”[10] Martha thought Mary should be reprimanded for sitting and contemplating the words of Jesus rather than actively serving him. Ironically, Jesus rebukes Martha: “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Lk 10:41–42, NIV). Augustine explains why the sacred is better: “The labour of manifoldness passeth away, and love of unity abideth.”[11] But again, Augustine does not deny the merits of the active (secular) life. Both the sacred and secular are praiseworthy. He explains, “Both harmless, both, I say, praiseworthy: but one of labour, the other of ease: neither vicious, which the life of labour must be aware of; neither slothful, which the life of ease must beware of. There were then in that house these two lives, and Himself, the Fountain of life.”[12] Augustine goes on to say, “In Martha was the image of things present, in Mary of things to come. What Martha was doing, that we are now; what Mary is doing, that we hope for. Let us do the first well, that we may have the second fully.”[13]

So let it be said that although Augustine was a philosophical idealist, he was not a religious ascetic. He believed in living a spiritually and morally complementary life of both contemplative and active acts. Or, put differently, Augustine was an advocate of both the sacred and secular. Although he makes this distinction, which is foreign in Scripture, he is not denying their inherent worth. It is unfortunate that because of his dualistic view of psychology, well-meaning Christians after him have devalued the active life. They have reinterpreted the human dilemma, which is moral because we have transgressed God’s commands, for a metaphysical dilemma, which is ontological, simply because we are material beings.[14]

Because of this misunderstanding, Pearcey writes, “Manual labor was regarded as less valuable than prayer and meditation. Marriage and sexuality were rejected in favor of celibacy. Ordinary social life was on a lower plane than life in hermitages and monasteries. The goal of spiritual life was to free the mind from the evil world of the body and the senses, so it could ascend to God.”[15]

To the detriment of the church failing to use its abilities and activities, however sacred or secular, Christians today continue to propound this dualistic untruth (viz. soul or spirit=good; body=evil/sacred=good; secular=evil) in the name of humility and asceticism.

Thomas Merton (1915–1968), Roman Catholic theologian, wisely points out what is wrong with this “bad asceticism”: “Under the pretext that what is ‘within’ is in fact real, spiritual, supernatural, etc., one cultivates neglect and contempt for the ‘external’ as worldly, sensual, material, and opposed to grace. This is bad theology and bad asceticism.”[16] He moves to say, “In fact it is bad in every respect, because instead of accepting reality as it is, we reject it in order to explore some perfect realm of abstract ideals which in fact has no reality at all.”[17] Christian Overman summarizes the points being made: “The blending of Plato’s philosophy with the teachings of the church led to a religious dualism in which eternal concerns of the soul were set at odds with the temporal concerns of the body.”[18] Sadly, the church has interpreted holiness as “a matter of retreat, detachment, or withdrawal from this present life.”[19]

[1] Although the Forms are atemporal and Matter temporal, both are eternal. In the Socratic dialogue, Timaeus, the demiurge (god) shapes and maintains pre-existing, infinite Matter (viz. the physical universe) to imitate an unchanging model of the Forms (viz. Truth and Beauty).

[2] Gary R. Habermas, “Plato, Platonism,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, [1984] 2001), 928.

[3] Plato, Gorgias, 493a; rev. ed., trans. Walter Hamilton and Chris Emlyn-Jones (London: Penguin Classics, [1960] 2004), 81.  

[4] Ibid., (footnote #79); rev. ed., trans. Walter Hamilton and Chris Emlyn-Jones (London: Penguin Classics, [1960] 2004), 145.

[5] Randy Alcorn, Happiness (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2015), 58.

[6] The NIV, NASB, HCSB, and ESV translate the Greek root word σάρξ sarx, in verse 6, as “flesh.” Sarx is translated in three ways: (1) flesh or substance that covers the bones; (2) body of a person; and (3) animal or carnal nature. These definitions are best summed up in two ways: (1) external, and (2) internal. I understand that the majority of the ways sarx is used in the NT, especially in the book of Galatians, is external; however, in this circumstance, I agree with New Testament scholar Douglas Moo that the internal is being emphasized, such as “‘this-worldly’ attitude.” Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 487.

[7] Nancy Pearcey is right to point out that early church fathers, who were also Platonists, such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Jerome, and Augustine, “took a strong stand for the goodness of creation, rejecting the twofold origin of the world. Every aspect of creation comes from the hand of God and bears the stamp of His handiwork. Yet, on the other hand, in practice most of them absorbed at least some of the Greek’s negative attitude toward the material world.” Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton IL: Crossway Books, [2004] 2005), 76. 

[8] See Augustine, City of God XIX. 19.

[9] Augustine, “Sermon LIV,” in Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament. See Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, series 1, vol. 6. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, [1888] 1994), 429.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 430.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Pearcey, 76.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (New York: Image, [1996] 2014), 15 (emphases added). Regarding self-sacrifice, Old Testament scholar Donald E. Gowan argues, “[T]he Old Testament never advocates asceticism as a superior way of life, but insists that God wants his people to have plenty (e.g., Lev. 26:3–10; Ps. 72:3, 16; Jer. 31: 12–14).” He goes on to say, “How they get it and what they do with it is what matters to God.” Donald E. Gowan, Theology of the Prophetic Books: The Death & Resurrection of Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 31.

[17] Merton, 15.

[18] Christian Overman, Assumptions that Affect Our Lives: The Shaping of Western Civilization (Louisiana, MO: Micah, 1996), 102.

[19] Ibid., 103. I believe this cosmic dualism is also responsible for a related metaphysical untruth: God and the spiritual, eternal realm are more real than the spacio-temporal world. The seminal problem with this assertion, besides being biblically vacuous, is that it wrongly assumes that just because something or someone is eternal, opposed to temporal, it or she is more true. (By truth I mean that which corresponds with reality.) But there is no logical reason to believe that just because, say, someone exists longer (or in this case eternally) compared to someone else, she is then more real. This faulty assumption is made apparent if we consider a thought experiment using identical twins.

Consider a possible world where Twin A lives a full life of 95 years and Twin B only lives five short years. Are we supposed to believe that just because Twin A lives longer than Twin B, therefore Twin A is more real than Twin B? Of course not. How can we say then that the spiritual realm, although eternal, is more real than creation, although temporal? The Bible asserts that “[f]or what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor 4:18b, HCSB). But that verse is comparing what is temporal with what is eternal, and not the reality of their existence. One could argue, however, that “what is unseen” is more valuable or important than “what is seen” (as does v. 18a), but that is a different category altogether. A statement of value is not the same thing as a statement of metaphysical existence.     

Chester Delagneau

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