I am not a fan of seeing secular/sacred as a binary, wherein something is either “sacred” or “secular.” Instead, I conceptualize them as a dyad, a construction that leaves a lot of room for the both/and instead of the either/or. In other words, while there may be some things that are purely sacred and others that are purely secular, there are many, many things that can be conceptualized as both at the same time. The notion that things are either “of God” and thus sacred, or “of ‘man'” and thus secular, has contributed to the ways in which we harm one another and the environment around us. Instead, realizing that the sacred is all around us as well as inside us can transform the way we walk with one another in this world.
Even so, I recently read a definition of “secular” as that-which-is-not-eschatological, rather than that-which-is-not-religious, that has opened up some new ways for me to see the sacred. Even though it means playing the binary game for a moment, if the secular is that-which-is-not-eschatological, then is the sacred that-which-IS-eschatological?
Back in my days as an Evangelical, eschatology was defined in a very narrow way–the Left-Behind-style apocalyptic end-times scenarios of Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, and David Jeremiah. I never bought into these scenarios–although I am certainly not a Biblical scholar, I am an astute enough reader to realize that the stories required taking much of the apocalyptic literature of the Bible out of context. So my response was to ignore the whole thing.
It wasn’t until I took theology classes at a liberal seminary that I realized that the Evangelical way of interpreting eschatology is only a small subset of a small subset of what has historically been pondered by theologians. In fact, the entire apocalyptic end-times scenarios so beloved of very conservative Evangelicals tends to be dismissed as such bad theology that it is hardly worth discussing. Instead, eschatology, properly understood, does involve the four Last Things of death, judgment, heaven, and hell, but not in a dystopian fantasy kind of way. Instead, the point of eschatology is that we view our lived lives in the light of the end. Thus, is not about controlling others through fear, but instead offers us the question, how then should we live? If we accept that life is finite, and that all things will someday draw to a close, how should this change our lived lives?
One way that this is commonly worded is that eschatology opens up the question of what it means to live in the “already” as though it were the “not-yet.” If there will be a point when a new heaven and new earth will come into being, this has implications for what we do today. How can we live so that the already–the world we live in today–can be made to look as much like the not-yet–the new heaven and new earth–as possible?
At its best, these questions can help us to transcend the daily trials and pains, and the daily temptations to be less than our best, that are some of the difficulties of the already. We can see much farther than tomorrow, or ten years down the road, or even our own lifespan–we can see into eternity. And this can give us the strength and encouragement not just to endure today, but to transform it. We get to have a part in making this world look just a little bit more like the City of God.
So if the secular is that-which-is-not-eschatological, then the secular is everything that is bound only in the day-to-day and has nothing that glimpses eternity. The sacred, then, has a vast field of possibilities opening before it–it contains everything that has any connection to the Great Beyond, to something more than the merely eternal. Thus, every human life is sacred. And the lives of all that live are sacred. All the abstract and intangible parts of our existence are sacred–love and joy and hope and peace, and sorrow and grief and pain. All relationships are sacred. Planting a garden, playing with a child, holding the hand of an elder, singing, making art, bringing beauty into the world . . . laughing and weeping and sharing food and living life with others. All of these are eschatological. All of them help to bring the not-yet into being in the already.
As we are living through this time of global pandemic, questions of death and judgment and heaven and hell can tend to take on an urgency they have not had for generations. But knowing that the sacred is all around us can offer hope and strength that enable us to live eschatologically, to remember that we are all channels for God’s peace and grace to be known in the already.