[Research] Thank God for Secularity

In an attempt to investigate further the contemporary relationship between secularity and religiousroger-mitchell communities, Roger Mitchell offers us his thoughts on how the establishment of a fully secular society and a strong institutional separation between secular authorities and religious communities can lead to positive consequences for religious and nonreligious people alike.

My argument is that the progress of secularity as the new normal in British society is crucial to the recovery of a church that recognisably represents the Jesus of the New Testament gospel story. I make this argument by reflecting on the sermon that Giorgio Agamben gave in Notre Dame Cathedral in March 2009 (Agamben, 2012). The argument has three main components: 1) the church is understood to be a community of foreigners and exiles as opposed to citizens of a city, state, kingdom or empire; 2) the church is marked by a distinctive relation to time which is in tension with the chronological timeframe of a particular socio-political construct of law or state, in our case Western neo-liberal representative democracy; 3) the way that community can form and flourish is in an extraordinary kind of tension between the poles presented in the first two points, namely aliens and citizens and chronological and eschatological time. Taking these components in order, I will look at several characteristics from the genealogy of Western European Secularity that can help provide for this ecclesial recovery. I will then suggest that there can be a positive tension between secularity and a Jesus style of church, and that this can engender a flourishing community for all. I will then refer to the current refugee crisis as a context for this.


1. Secularity as space for positive alienation


William Cavanaugh points out that the word “religion” itself only came into use with the Renaissance (Cavanaugh, 2009:70). The only differentiation prior to that was of regnum and sacerdotium, that is to say the realm of the monarch’s power and the realm of the priests’ power, and the saeculum was simply the time that remained between the first coming and the expected second coming of Christ; it was by no means to be thought of as secular. In this context, the church was no longer the counterpolitical agent of community but the oppressive partner in the colonisation of the whole of socio-cultural and political space. My own work traces the genealogy of this occupation from the 4th century partnership of church and empire, which I suggest is best understood as a fall, or lapsis, in the history of the church (Mitchell, 2011). This idea of a lapsis is something that John Milbank and Michael Alan Gillespie,  among others, suggested happened at the Enlightenment (Milbank, 1997: 44; Gillespie, 2008: 11-12).  But, as well as locating this fall much earlier, I see it playing out right up until the present biopolitical fulness of neoliberal capitalism. In this context, the recognition of religion as a specific entity provides for the possibility of its eventual separation from the socio-political mainstream and the subsequent recognition of secularity as a norm, which in turn gives space for the re-positioning of the church as exiles and foreigners.


2. Secularity as the opportunity for interruption and surprise


The increasing displacement of the church, from a central role in the saeculum as a permanent partner in sovereignty, and the consequent establishment of a secular sphere of Law and State provides for the recognition of a de-sacralised secular realm. Now a reconfigured church can again have the opportunity to interrupt the existing constructed temporal order and be restored to its early identity of constantly surprising the ongoing hegemony of the socio-political system. The church can become what Paul Fletcher has described as impolitical (Fletcher, 2009: 176-178), because it does not and cannot fit the mainstream timeframe.

As is becoming increasingly clear, it is not all transcendence and spirituality that is banished from this secular realm, but the organised religion that was perceived to dominate it, or might have the potential to do so. This explains the increasingly post-material character of secularity as Graham Ward exposes (Ward, 2009: 115-117), and shows that secularity continues to carry both power from above and power from below, analogous to the two streams Linda Woodhead recognises within Christendom (Woodhead, 2004: 406) The stream from above continues to maintain the status quo, while the one from below has the potential to provide co-conspirators alongside any newly representative form of church.


3. Intensive engagement and the loving community


Key to all this is Agamben’s understanding of the tension between the expressions of corporate identity, which he defines as citizens and aliens, and his two distinct configurations of time. Here he introduces two Greek expressions selected by the Apostle Paul, hōs mē and katargēsis, to interpret what is happening. It is important not to be put off by Agamben’s vocabulary here, because it provides important insight into how the contemporary ecclesia may be understood as a net contributor to the overall wellbeing of society. The first word literally means “as not” and conveys the way that doing a particular job or having a particular role in the ongoing order can be used to subvert it to another end or purpose, in this context, that of loving community. The second word, katargēsis is used by Agamben to convey the idea of disregarding the role of “law” and of the “state” while affirming any motivation behind them that might promote a flourishing community.

For the radical church operating within the counter timeframe of Jesus’ rule, or what Agamben calls messianic time, this component is love (Agamben, 2005: 108). Some of us radical contemporary disciples have been attempting to configure this politics of love by means of the newly invented word kenarchy, from archy: a way of ordering or relating in social space and keno: the Greek word for empty, together signifying emptying out sovereign power and replacing it with love (Mitchell and Arram, 2014). A contemporary example of this love component at work would be the use of every available opportunity to show hospitality to strangers and to bend the powers of state and law to this end. It hardly needs saying that the current refugee crisis is calling for just this kind of innovatory expression of British and European community. By such means, out of the encounter between secularity and the newly disclosed church, the community of love is beginning to emerge.



Agamben, Giorgio. The Church and the Kingdom. Translated by Leland de la Durantaye. London, New York, Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2012.

———————–. The Time That Remains. Translated by Patricia Dailey. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Cavanaugh, William. The Myth of Religious Violence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Fletcher, Paul. Discipling the Divine. Farnham, Surrey and Burlington Vermont: Ashgate, 2009.

Gillespie, Michael Alan. The Theological Origins of Modernity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Milbank, John. The Word Made Strange. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1997.

Mitchell, Roger Haydon. Church, Gospel and Empire: How the Politics of Sovereignty Impregnated the West. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2011.

Mitchell, Roger Haydon and Julie Tomlin Arram eds. Discovering Kenarchy. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2014.

Oord, Thomas Jay. The Uncontrolling Love of God. Downers Grove Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015.

Ward, Graham. The Politics of Discipleship. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2009.

Woodhead, Linda. An Introduction to Christianity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Roger is a political theologian with a particular interest in the politics of love. He co-directs 2MT, a charitable organisation committed to managing change, is External Partnerships Coordinator of the Richardson Institute for Peace Studies and an Honorary Research Fellow in the Lancaster University Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion. He is a member of the Society for the Study of Theology, the Conflict Research Society and the United Kingdom Pentecostal-Charismatic Leaders Conference.  He is married with two sons and four grandchildren.


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