19 Jan Secular or Sacred ?
One of the phenomena noticed in our country in recent times is that the word secular used in the Indian Constitution receives a lot of flak from certain quarters. In one sense, Christians should agree with that criticism since the word is derived from the Latin word saecularis which means relating to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, or spiritual, whereas the opposite word sacred in English describes something holy, religious, eternal, or connected to God. The presence of the word secular in our Constitution is to suggest that although India is a country of many religions, they are to exist together with mutual respect. Discussion of this aspect from a political point of view is beyond the scope of this article.
From a Christian point of view, I want to draw your attention to the fact that we should not refer to the world as secular, because the Bible begins with a statement that Almighty God is the Creator of the entire universe. In that important sense, everything in the created world is sacred because God pronounced the whole unfallen creation – including humans – to be very good – Gen 1:31.
I am detailing below several reasons how the un-biblical sacred-secular divide has invaded our reading of the Bible and our Christian thinking as evangelical students and graduates:
We begin our general understanding of the Bible with Genesis 3 – Human rebellion against God – rather than with Genesis 1. Thus, the Bible is seen purely in terms of personal salvation from sin – although it is vitally important to each of us and to all humanity – and the reality of the created goodness of all creation is virtually ignored. The first two chapters of the Bible introduce at least 4 pairs of words which have to be held together in a healthy tension; I avoid the word balance because this word implies something like 50% of each of these words whereas tension implies 100% of both! Here, I follow the statement of Charles Simeon (1759-1836), an evangelical Anglican theologian based in Cambridge, in the UK; he is sometimes considered as the one who gave rise to the student evangelical movement, long before any of the IFES member-movements had come into existence. His statement that is relevant to our thinking is: Truth exists at both extremes. We shall look at one of those pairs: Gen 1:1 – God, Who is Spirit, creates the heavens and earth, which forms the material world; Gen 2:7 – God creates the first humans out of the dust of the ground – matter – and breathes into it the breath of life – spirit – and the first human being comes into existence. We are thus a unique combination of sprit and matter, and I may add that the Lord Jesus Christ, through His permanent incarnation, has put a seal of approval on this combination! The first commandment of God to humans in Gen 1:28 – I return to this point in the next paragraph – is to steward His creation on His behalf. So we are accountable to Him in our study and work. We need to hold the two realities together in our thinking without any value judgement that the spiritual is superior to the material. We need to reject materialism – the view that there is nothing beyond the material world – but affirm materiality – the reality of the God-created material world. [This pair of words is not dissimilar to rationalism – the view that reason is the only source of knowledge and there is no place for revelation, the view that we reject – and rationality – the rightful place of reason that I employ when I am writing this article and which you will be using when you read it]. In fact, the Bible constantly suggests, both by the ceremonial teachings of a book like Leviticus, and by direct moral commandments – Rom 12:1 – that offering our material bodies to God is an act of spiritual worship.
We appear to have substituted the first commandment – Gen 1:28 – with the great commission of Matt 28:18-20, instead of seeing both as two aspects of the same commandment. That is one of several reasons why our message of Christ to friends from other faiths tends always to be about saving ourselves from the punishment of hell; centrally important though this is, it is totally disconnected from the contexts of study and work in which our students and graduates are daily involved. Instead, if an EU student should tell her/his friend that the purpose of study is to qualify oneself for stewarding God’s creation, that friend may even suffer a heart attack, because that understanding is not emphasised at all in the normal thinking of humans! Please also remember that such evangelistic conversations are not one-off occasions that one may have with a fellow-traveller on a journey, but an ongoing chat that can take place every day with people one rubs shoulders with. Graduates can begin to view their work as well from a similar point of view and make this their conversation piece with their colleagues.
Over a period of time, the conversation can turn to the question of human rebellion and how our rebellion against God also affects our work. Gen 2:15 – God’s command to humans to cultivate the land – an apparently secular(!) work – contains dynamite; the two verbs in the Hebrew language respectively translated in the NIV as work and take care of are avad and shamar; they also respectively mean serve or worship God and keep His commandments! No wonder the Jews, though a very small percentage of human population, have made significant contributions to fields of science, technology, art, music, and many other fields. They tend to view work and Sabbath as continuous with each other and not contradictory to each other; please note that this is not to confuse work with worship. Similarly, the Greek word in Acts 6:2,4 translated respectively in NIV as serve [tables] and ministry [of the of the Word] is diakonia from which the English word deacon is derived. The secular sacred dichotomy is not seen in the inspired Scriptures.
Human rebellion against God at the beginning of Genesis 3 results in a breakdown in our relationship with nature: the woman will find child-bearing painful (Gen 3:16a) and the man will find work, which once was enjoyable and fruitful, toilsome (Gen 3:17-19).
I have lately begun to think as to how we have come to read the Bible only for therapeutic – what we can get out of God – and utilitarian – how to get God to do things for us – reasons. Please do not get me wrong – the very breath that I breathe at this stage of my life comes from Him; we also know that our personal and corporate salvation is a free gift of His grace, worked out through the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. We need to realise that the Bible is not to be reduced to the level of a religious book – although it is full of words of encouragement, prayer, and worship – but also as God’s revelation to us about significant aspects of all reality.
We seem to have a strong theology of redemption but a rather weak theology of creation; obviously, I do not mean that we believe in a purposeless, unguided, impersonal, atheistic, evolutionist beginning to the universe. What I mean to say is that we are not beginning to take God’s creation seriously enough in our study and work. We fail to realise that the scope of salvation in Christ is not limited to humans but embraces the whole of creation – Col 1:19, 20; Eph 1:9,10. The Bible ends, not with a reference to heaven, but with the renewal of all creation – Rev 21:1-5. The Church, beautifully dressed as the Bride of Christ, comes down to rule over God’s new creation – Rev 22:5 – in other words, our stewardship will continue into the new creation as well. The resurrection of Jesus – dealt with in the next paragraph – is the inauguration of the New Creation!
At the end of his long chapter (I Cor 15) on the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, Paul concludes his thesis with the statement, “your labour in the Lord is not in vain” (v.58). It should be remembered that in the first century, the phrase `labour in the Lord’ did NOT mean full-time Christian work; the same Paul could tell Christian slaves in the Church in Colosse that they should work for their masters as they work for the Lord because they will be rewarded by the Lord for their work – Col 3:22-24. I Cor 15:58 should be understood as a one-verse answer to the cry of vanity under the sun, uttered by the king in Ecclesiastes who had accomplished many things. The resurrection of Jesus introduces a new glorified materiality in the context of our present decaying reality.
A Biblical example: Before the Lord Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the stone at the mouth of his tomb had to be rolled away; after he was raised to life, the grave-clothes in which he had been bound head-to-toe had to be loosed so that he could move about freely (Jn 11:38-43). In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, the stone at the mouth of the tomb of Jesus is rolled away by an angel but we do not see Jesus walking out; instead, we notice that the angel tells the women who had come to anoint the Lord’s body that He had already risen from the dead (Mt 28:1-6); in other words, the stone was rolled away not to let Jesus out but to let us in! John, who goes into the tomb along with Peter, finds the grave-clothes in exactly the same position as the body was but the body is not there (Jn 20:3-8); [I must say here that vernacular translations of this passage are more correct, and the English is somewhat misleading]. This is what leads John to believe that something different from the case of Lazarus has happened! All the miracles done by Jesus and others are reversible miracles – Lazarus, raised by the Lord to the present life, would have died again. Jesus, raised to a new physical life, will not see death again – Rev 1:18. In Mt 12:39, He refers to His own resurrection as the unique sign! His resurrected physical body was of higher physical dimensions – that we are unable to understand fully here – that it could go through the grave clothes and the stone at the mouth of the tomb and also come through the wall of the upper room and appear to His startled disciples. When they continued to doubt, He came down to our dimensions so that He could be touched and He could eat – Lk 24:36-43.
How then shall we live here till Jesus comes again? During my 28 years in the Government of India, four Jewish political leaders in the Old Testament were my role models – Joseph, Daniel, Esther, and Nehemiah. They came to God-ordained positions of leadership in non-Jewish kingdoms. They were committed to the welfare of these kingdoms rather than like many of us, wanting to escape into a non-physical heaven where we would be floating around like ghosts, holding invisible guitars with intangible strings producing inaudible music!! Pardon my satire! If we reflect on the points made out above, you will be encouraged to be involved in all legitimate areas of life, not expecting an easy journey but pouring out your lives into society as salt of the earth and light of the world (Mt 5:13-16).
L T Jeyachandran, a former Vice-President of the UESI, did his M Tech at IIT Madras. He worked for 28 years with the Central Government of India and took early retirement in 1993. He lives in Pune with his wife Esther. He is on the Editorial Board of the Theology of Work Project. https://www.theologyofwork.org. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org