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Bridging the Sacred-Secular Divide ?

In his excellent booklet The Great Divide, Mark Green believes the Sacred-Secular Divide is "the greatest challenge facing the church today" and claims to show "what we can do about it". He begins with "four questions in search of an answer":

The answer, he claims, is that "These are all symptoms of the sacred-secular divide (SSD)." He goes on to explain what the SSD is, asking "Is the church herself limiting the gospel?"

This New View might offer a deep way to address the error of what is known as the Sacred-Secular Divide. It does not just answer these "Why?" questions but provides a theology that provides a different way of looking at things. So that not only are answers to "Why?" found, not only are answers found to "What can we do?" This page also takes the idea forward to suggest some ways in which the SSD infects Christians today that Mark Green had not thought about. It also suggests that the very questions themselves, which the SSD generates, fade into meaninglessness because they no longer need arise.

Results of the Sacred-Secular Divide

The Sacred-Secular Divide is a deep belief, even a presupposition, that many Christians have held for 1500 years, which goes against the Bible's message in very important ways. Many? Most! Mark Green believes 98% of Christians are infected by it. Under the influence of the Sacred-Secular Divide (from Mark Green and others):

  • We believe that only 'religious' aspects of life are of any real importance - in some churches, worship, prayer and prophesy are the answer to everything, while thinking is seen as 'worldly'.
  • We teach children 'gentle Jesus' in church, but in school they hear exciting things like nuclear physics, politics, or sexuality, and drift away from Christianity.
  • We treat such things as negative 'temptations' rather than grappling with them, as Scripture does (ok, except nuclear physics).
  • We have a negative view of the body and mind, and makes us diffident about celebrating the good things that Scripture celebrates.
  • We bring people to peace with God and forgiveness of sins, and then give them no further vision than the hope that they will enter heaven when they die - and wonder why many drift away. But Scripture gives a broader vision for life with God here and now.
  • We ignore environmental responsibility, and willingly absorb ('right-wing') media messages that sneer at it. But Scripture condemns those who sneer at responsibility.
  • We fail to see God's hand at work in the world today. We fail to hear what God is saying today and see what God is doing.
  • "Far from 'the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world' we have a small percentage of the church taking a partial gospel to far, far fewer people than are actually known by the Christians in our congregations." [Mark Green]

  • If the above are not true, and we desire to bring sacred and secular together, the only way we can do this is to make one absolutely serve the other. For example, about the 'secular' thing called money:

    • Make money primarily a form of worship and experiencing God - which leads to prosperity teaching.
    • Make religion or theology serve the interests of money - e.g. using Bible to argue for competitive capitalist economy.

This has caused no end of damage. Mark Green mentions some points at which the sacred-secular divide goes against Scripture.

The Quakers
In the early days, the Quakers upheld personal relationship with God through Christ, and the authority of Scripture, were upheld, alongside social responsibility. These went hand in hand. But the Sacred-Secular Divide was the 'spirit of the age' among Christians and forced them to choose one or the other. They chose social responsibility. A pity. Evangelicals now view Quakers with suspicion.

Challenge: Can we who hold the importance of both, relationship with God and responsibility in and to God's world, avoid this pitfall?

The Nature-Grace Ground-motive
The sacred-secular divide is today's version of a religious 'ground-motive', a term coined by the Dutch thinker Herman Dooyeweerd, to denote the deep presupposition about the nature of reality, including good and bad, that acts as a spiritual driving force of philosophical thought over centuries. Dooyeweerd detected four major ground-motives that have affected Western thought over the past 2,500 years:

  • Greek presupposition that reality is a dialectic between form and matter
  • Biblical presupposition that reality is an integral good, diverse creation, in which humankind fell but needed redeemed by the Creator
  • Scholastic (mediaeval Roman Catholic) presupposition that reality is a dialectic between nature and grace
  • Humanistic presupposition that reality is a dialectic between nature and (human) freedom.

The SSD is a variant of the third (nature-grace) and is particularly prevalent among Christians, but also is what gives Atheism its driving force.

However, human thinking, doing and yearning escapes the bounds of such a presupposition, so it is no surprise to find that, within the Nature-Grace dualistic culture, which emphasises the religious aspects of life and downplays the secular aspects various courageous individuals have discovered and proposed the importance of the secular aspects - striking examples being Francis of Assissi, Ignatian spirituality and Brother Lawrence with his little classic The Practice of the Presence of God. There is yearning for the full-orbed meaning of God's creation to be related to God, and no limited presupposition can completely suppress it. (See also Anglo-Catholicism).

The New View is an expression of the second.

Mediaeval Roman Catholicism and Anglo-Catholicism have an interesting expression of the Sacred-Secular divide. Steeped in the supremacy of the Sacred, thinkers in these traditions nevertheless feel the pull of the goodness of the 'secular' side of God's good creation. Anglo-Catholic composer Timothy Rutter wrote "For the beauty of the earth". Roman-Catholic Michel Quoist wrote about everyday life. Yet both see these things as of little value except as sacraments of the sacred.

Perhaps the Roman Catholic exception is J.R.R. Tolkien wrote not only the The Lord of the Rings and The Simlarillion but also Leaf by Niggle, which suggests continuance of the good we do here on earth.

(See also The Nature-Grace Ground-motive).

Overcoming the Sacred-Secular Divide

"This is not about giving God's people some teaching on a few key topics," writes Mark Green, "but about giving God's people new eyes to see the high and full-orbed calling of whole-life discipleship." The SSD has been in force some 1500 years (Mark Green says 2000), so it will not be overcome overnight. The main points Mark makes are:

Mark Green's booklet is compelling, and should be read by the 98% of Christians, so that the 2% who reject SSD become 4%, then 8% then 16%, then 32%, then 64%, then ...! However, it does not, perhaps, give all that this 2,4,8,16, ...% need.

Chris Gousmett pointed out to me that the idea of bridging a divide is a category error. In God's creation there is no original divide that needs to be bridged. He believes that any divide we experience is of our own idolatrous making as Western society. He wrote to me, "There is no division in creation, positing such a division is a category mistake, and an idolatrous attempt to carve off a sphere of influence legitimately separate from God's kingly rule." Good point!

(Ah but ... Does not Scripture prescribe "holy things" in relation to the worship of God in the Jewish Torah? Are not these sacred, set apart for God? Is not this important? Is there not a sacred-secular divide here? Indeed, certain things are dedicated to the worship of God, and must be kept carefully separated from ordinary things. But this is to do with one aspect of life not with the whole of life, which Dooyeweerd calls the pistic aspect, and in our functioning in this aspect the separation of certain things is what might be called a 'tool' of our functioning in that aspect. I think that what Chris Gousmett was meaning was that all aspects of life are important in God's eyes, and the pistic aspect is not to be seen as in any way separated from other aspects but intermingled and interacting with them all.)

So, when we talk about bridging the divide, we are talking about overcoming (what Chris Gousmett and I believe to be) a misunderstanding of the nature of reality, rather than building a bridge over a gulf that is there.

I have just heard a church service (BBC Radio 4, 09:10 hrs, 2 September 2018), which was supposed to be about Christ in everyday life. That seemed to aim at overcoming the sacred-secular divide. Yet I felt strangely dissatisfied. Then I realised: in fact, it actually reinforced the sacred-secular divide, not bridge it. It gave a recipe of 4 S's (silence, service, scripture, sacraments) which, they said, can be applied in the midst of the hassle and hurts of life. But what they were urging was not the healing of the divide but of reducing the secular to the sacred. The secular is unimportant unless it becomes sacred. There was a lot of emphasis on prayer and "prayerful", as though that was a kind of magic wand that turns the secular into sacred. The sacred was treated all-important, the secular aspects of life, essentially unimportant. That is like bringing peace between two armies by one obliterating the other, not by real peace in which both sides have dignity. I want real peace and integration, not obliteration. That explains my dissatisfaction.

(Ah but ... two questions. 1. Are not silence, service, scripture, sacraments good? Yes indeed they can be, especially in the right contexts. It was not those four things that I found dissatisfying, but the mindset with which they were offered. 2. Is not prayer good and should we not be prayerful? Prayer is good as a dynamic interaction with the Living God and prayerfulness is good when it describes an attitude of being always relating to God in all of life. But prayer should not be seen as a mechanism that we fulfil in order to achieve certain effects, as was apparent in the broadcase, nor an adjective that we add to things. That makes prayer into a magic wand.)

Be wary of apparent attempts to bridge the sacred-secular divide by trying to make the secular sacred. For example, by "re-enchanting" nature.

So am I saying that God is unimportant in our lives? Not at all. There is a huge difference, however, between God and sacred. Sacred means "set apart for God" and is a response to God, rather than God as such. As I will describe below, we can (and are intended to) walk and live with God in all aspects and parts of our lives, especially those called "secular". The historical sacred-secular divide has told us that in the secular aspects of life we cannot walk with God, because God is not interested in them, they are beneath him and are hindrances to God's plans for our lives. The desire to "sacralize" or "re-enchant" those aspects of our lives might suppress the symptoms of that attitude, but it does not actually deal with the sacred-secular divide. Its only answer is to turn all aspects into the secular (pistic) rather than as seeing each aspect as important in its own way in God's plans. The whole of life and indeed the whole creation, is referred-to God, so there is nothing intrinsically "set apart", except for certain things to do with prescribed religious ritual in the Jewish Torah.

First, let us see how New View supports and affirms the above, then we'll see how New View takes Mark Green's views further.

Role of the New View

The New View can help in all of these.

1. It provides a view in which the rest of creation (the 'secular' side) is seen as of central importance right from the start, rather than having to be 'bolted on' later, after we have dealt with personal salvation and relationship with God. Our responsibility to the rest of creation rests not just on a perceived characteristic of God (e.g. his justice) but also on the very cosmic plan of God in creating and interacting with the world in the first place.

2. It provides a sound theological foundation for affirming the 'sacred' side of reality in all three of creation, cross and future (see 'Reality Rejoicing, 'Rich Redemption', and 'God's Cosmic Plan'). The New View also goes further and deeper; see below.

3. The New View helps broaden imagination about ministering to others, being mouthpiece for truth and justice, and shaping the way things are done; see 'Engaging with the world' and some examples. It recognises we need new ways of being church (but this has not been developed yet). It too gives confidence; see 'Representing God'. But it also goes further and deeper in all these; see below.

4. Like Mark Green, the New View believes in the need to start with repentance (see). But, unlike Mark Green's short booklet, it also shows ways ahead after repentance. For example, in academic life, we can engage with secular thinking in a way that affirms, critiques and enriches rather than antagonises or acquiesces.

5. Like Chris Gousmett, the New View believes there is no original divide to bridge. All creation is interconnected, all is intended for harmony and rejoicing.

Taking It Further: Effective Reconciliation of All Things

Mark Green's booklet is compelling, but it does not, perhaps, give all that this 2,4,8,16% need. With New View, however, perhaps it could easily do so. Here is a table of pieces of Mark Green's argument, in what ways they are limited, and how the limitations might be overcome with New View. [Note].

Taking further Mark Green's attempt to dissolve the Sacred-Secular Divide
Mark Green's message How limited New View
Drawing on Colossians 1: "Visible things - toucans, elephants, bananas - and things invisible - electricity, subatomic particles. Now here are two reasons for Jesus' abiding interest in the material world. 1. He created it. 2. It was created for him. If 'all things' were created by and for Christ, why wouldn't he be interested in the impact that our activities in the kitchen, at school, in factories, fields and offices have on his creation?" What is created by God? Biological and physical things: toucans, elephants, bananas, electricity, subatomic particles. But what about poems, post offices, (computer) programs, projects? Poems, post offices, programs, professions, etc. are created by human beings. But the law-framework that makes this possible is created by God - in order that human beings might create these things to bless the rest of creation in His Name. See 'Radah'. So what human beings create, and why we create it, is of interest to God.
Ditto. If toucans are Christ's, then (it stands to reason) I should never kill one nor let one be killed. Similarly elephants. Similarly bananas. Does that mean I should not eat bananas? Of course not. In Genesis 1 Yahweh God gave humans fruit to eat. But does that also allow us to eat toucans? On what basis in Christ can I consider and discuss such issues? From where (from what theology) do I get such a basis for working such things out? Mark gives no indication. New View says that humanity is to 'shepherd' the rest of creation in the way God would, for its own sake rather than for our sake. And, if we do so, the rest of creation responds to bless humanity. And all together bless and bring thanks and glory to God. Scripture does not so much tell us what to eat (etc.) as expects us to work it out for ourselves with responsibility and the attitude of the Holy Spirit.
Ditto. I might want to prevent my post office closing - but is that really part of my non-SSD activity for the Kingdom of God, or is it just my own community-selfishness? On the other hand, I might be a politician or businessperson who wants to close the post office. On what basis in Christ can I consider and discuss such issues? From where (from what theology) do I get such a basis for working such things out? Mark gives no indication. Just as with toucan-eating, New View provides a basis for working this out, with self-critique. It emphasises indirect impacts, of attitude and worldview. And radical discipleship. Fruit of the Holy Spirit begins with 'love': self-giving. So the business reasons for closing the post office will seldom be acceptable before the Judgment Seat of God. But neither will the NIMBY attitude that demands my own convenience and comfort without considering how it would drain resources from poorer areas. And the adversarial attitude on both sides is condemned. Also, both 'sides' must remember that God wants to work with us, active in his world, even in decisions about post offices, and experience of those who trust him is that he often does the 'impossible'.
Page 20: "After all, if we want better schools ... we will need better teachers, whose own sense of identify as well as their teaching is shaped by the Bible; ... if we want trust in business, we had better start where we work." Mark Green gives two diagrams, with 100 dots arranged in a square, 94 grey dots, 6 red dots. Red dots represent God's people. In one, all 6 red dots are crowded into one corner, in the other they are spread throughout, so that no grey dot is more than 3 away from a red. Christians are not to become a ghetto in church, but should spread throughout society. We should be 'in the world'. About a computer program: Should I boycott (avoid using) the Facebook social networking system, because of the unholiness of its founding motivation? Or should I ignore such qualms, and use it because everyone else does, and I want to be 'in the world'?

About a profession: "I am an investment banker, and before the crash I made a packet, and thoroughly enjoyed do so, playing with other people's money. I am a Christian. I am anti-SSD. So I'll continue as an investment banker, to be a red dot among them. And, to ensure I remain among them I'll toe their line and love my bonuses."

Ditto. New View would remind us that we are not just to be 'in the world', nor just avoid being 'of the world'. We are called to represent God. That means being 'in the world' but in a particular way.
Whole-life & new imagination. "a whole-life perspective enables us to see that every context we find ourselves in is not just a place to display Christian character ... but also a place to minister to others, to be a mouthpiece for truth and justice and the gospel, to be a maker of disciples and to be a maker of culture - a shaper of the way things are done." This is very good. But it could be interpreted in a way that still expresses the Sacred-Secular Divide. For example: "minister to others" = give them Bible verses and pray for them, but little more. "be a mouthpiece for truth and justice and gospel" = "raise a banner against LGBT, pornography, evolution, atheism [Note], and any restrictions on proclaiming the gospel". "to be a maker of disciples" = try to preach the gospel or leave tracts around. "shaper of the way things are done" = persuade those in charge to be more lenient to Christians. Moreover, this does not affect structures of society, nor worldviews. How to prevent this? New View might replace the phrases with:

  • "minister to others" with "bless all around in ways that respect their full nature".
  • "be a mouthpiece for truth and justice and gospel" with "work to communicate God's whole plan in a way that others can understand and connect with, but such that they also understand how their current views and beliefs are challenged and stimulated to go further"
  • "to be a maker of disciples" doesn't need replacing as long as it is disciples rather than converts.
  • "shaper of the way things are done" with "communicate God's whole plan in a way that changes the way others think, what they assume and presuppose, and their attitude, towards God's honour, kingdom and will, so it changes how they do things and changes the structures within which we live.


Chris Gousmett sent me an email (26 November 2015) pointing out that speaking about bridging the SSD is unhelpful and misleading. I find his reasoning convincing, so have amended some of the above. See Chris' site Hearing and Doing.

Note about Celtic Christianity. There is perhaps a type of Christianity that is already less dualistic - Celtic Christianity.

Note re Atheism and some Christians' reaction. Atheism betrays itself as a negative thing, defining itself by what it is against rather than what it is for: against God and, usually, religion. It tries to widen the divide between the sacred and the secular. As such, it is a manifestation of a ground-motive that has passed its sell-by date and is failing. The idea that science excludes God and religion is likewise of that failing ground-motive. The Christian reaction against atheism, including the attempts to defend God, or prove the existence of God, are likewise of that passing era. So is the fight that some Christians and Muslims have against evolution. In my view, all these are of the past; they are fighting past battles. Yes, there may still be some pockets of battle still going on, but they are not the main action today. So I prefer not to partake of them. Even in the debate about faith and science I am cautious about getting involved. There is a valid version of it, but most is merely presupposing the Sacred-Secular Divide, which I do not want to do.

This page, URL= '', is offered to God as on-going work in developing a 'New View' in theology that is appropriate to the days that are coming upon us. Comments, queries welcome.

Copyright (c) Andrew Basden to latest date below, but you may use this material subject to certain conditions.

Written on the Amiga with Protext in the style of classic HTML.

Created: 2 November 2009. Last updated: 19 October 2011 deep, undermine, and more contrib of Nv. 25 November 2011 each pole serves other; corrected link. 8 July 2012 NGGM and Catholics; a few errors done; intro reword. 16 September 2012 Ignatian spirituality etc. and links btw nggm and a-c. 27 April 2014 what.God.doing in Discn. 26 November 2015 Thanks to Chris Gousmett who pointed out that speaking of "bridging the sacred-secular divide" is a category error. 29 July 2018 celtic. 2 September 2018 SSD as obliterating secular, BBC service, and more on Gousmett; new .nav, .end. 14 July 2019 atheism etc. note.