Where does the secular end, and the sacred begin?
Does the boundary lie at the property line of the local church? How are things categorized? Is the stained glass window of a cathedral more holy than a sunrise? What about music; is “How Great Thou Art” more sacred than Bach’s cello suites?
Many Christians embrace the idea that the sacred lives within the church, and everything outside of it—music, art, and the sciences, particularly—is “secular,” a loaded term that carries connotations of guilt and sinfulness.
But what if I told you that the entire divide between the sacred and the secular is a false one?
There’s an old analogy that drifts through churches in which the human mind is seen as an empty room. When someone reads a piece of literature or listens to a piece of music that isn’t directly Christian, the floor of this room is dirtied. When this person reads the Bible or goes to church or listens to a hymn, however, their mind-floor is swept clean. In this analogy, the secular is worthless—worse, it’s dirty. It’s detritus to be swept away, while only sacred pursuits are truly valuable.
But God isn’t so limited. He is capable of speaking to us in a variety of voices—through literature and art and science and nature and our very humanity. To confine God to the physical location of the church, or to the notes of a single song or book is to limit His transcendent nature. The Christian Church works so hard to be separate from “the world” that it has forgotten that God created it, and dwells within it.
Often, this separation is justified through 1 John 2:15-17, which reads, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.”
But the Bible isn’t an easy document. Its words, echoing forward from a distant past, must be interpreted in their historical context. We must ask ourselves the following questions each time we read a verse. Who is speaking, why are they saying it, who are they saying it to, and how does it fit into the rest of the Biblical canon?
In this case, John, a disciple of Christ, is speaking to a group of experienced believers. John is speaking further spiritual advancement. Take a look at what John is not saying. He never says that the world is evil. Placing this passage into the context of the Bible as a whole, God demonstrates many times that He loves the world, which is stated outright in John 3:16. God made the world, and said that it was good.
What John is warning against here is a worldview—a thing that is within us, not in the outside world. So rather than saying that the secular is evil, John is saying that creation should not be the focus of worship—God is. Just as if a bride loved her ring more than the spouse who gave it to her, Christians are not to love creation more than God. And so God does not command us to be separate from and in opposition to His creation—He bids us recognize and love Him as its Creator.
People learn in different ways. Christ knew this, and it’s why he spoke and taught in so many different ways. He didn’t even always talk directly about God—sometimes he spoke of nature or money or humanity. He channeled all of creation—the world—when he taught.
So when we make the assumption that everything outside of our little church world is useless, we make a grave mistake—we miss out on the fact that God can teach us how to be kind to our fellow humans through the empathy that literature engenders. He can bring us joy through a great inspirational film. He can reveal His glory to us through scientific discovery. And sometimes, these things speak to us more powerfully than anything in the church does, kindling an authentic sense of spirituality. In this, we find the sacred in the secular, and discover that there really is no distinction between the two.
This isn’t to say that all things have redemptive value. Some truly don’t—pornography, for instance, and things of that ilk. But avoiding such is more an issue of avoiding sin than avoiding the secular—the two shouldn’t be confused. Conflating secular with sinful has inspired many an unnecessary church book-burning and a life sadly lacking in the variety God intended.
The key here lies in discernment. We must be well-versed enough not only in scripture, but in the character of God, to know what is permissible, and what is not—both are equally important.We should be able to explore and learn from and enjoy the world God made us, the humanity He gave us, the minds and hearts He gifted us with, without guilt. And we should know, too, what to pass over.
With discernment, which should be worked and prayed for in earnest, we take God out of the box we’ve created for Him, and recognize His transcendent nature—that He exists in everything. If your find yourself able to see the spiritual dimension of your daily life as well as you do on your Sunday mornings, you’ll soon find yourself closer to God than ever before. He lives, after all, in the commonplace as much as in the glorious. He’s in the dandelion as much as in the cathedral, in the arts as much as the cross on the your wall. Seek Him in all things, and you’ll be surprised at what you find.
There’s a whole world out there. Go and enjoy it with God’s blessing.