Secularism as heresy

Alexander Schmemann, in his book, For the Life of the World, makes some fascinating comments about the relationship of secularism and Christianity, noting particularly that secularism ought to be understood as a heresy, rather than something entirely distinct from Christianity:

[There is] a very real connection between secularism – its origin and development – and Christianity. Secularism – we must again and again stress this – is a ‘stepchild’ of Christianity, as are, in the last analysis, all secular ideologies which today dominate the world – not, as it is claimed by the Western apostles of a Christian acceptance of secularism, a legitimate child, but a heresy. Heresy, however, is always the distortion, exaggeration, and therefore the mutilation of something true, the affirmation of one ‘choice’, one element at the expense of the others, the breaking up of the catholicity of Truth (127).

As a result, Schmemann suggests that instead of seeing secularism as something we simply need to repudiate or condemn, we ought to recognise the opportunity it presents to the Church to witness to the truth:

But then heresy is also always a question addressed to the Church, and which requires, in order to be answered, an effort of Christian thought and conscience. To condemn a heresy is relatively easy. What is much more difficult is to detect the question it implies, and to give this question an adequate answer. Such, however, was always the Church’s dealing with ‘heresies’ – they always provoked an effort of creativity within the Church so that the condemnation became ultimately a widening and deepening of Christian faith itself… If secularism is, as I am convinced, the great heresy of our own time, it requires from the Church not mere anathemas, and certainly not compromises, but above all an effort of understanding so it may ultimately be overcome by truth (127-128).

Schmemann remarks further that whilst heresies in the early church were a result of Christianity’s encounter with Hellenism, the heresy of secularism is a result of the breakdown within Christianity itself in the modern age. That is quite an interesting observation, and perhaps evidenced in part by the fact that secularism primarily exists in the Western world, in cultures with a Judeo-Christian foundation. Still, whether or not you find Schmemann’s suggestion that secularism is a heresy compelling, he is certainly correct to note that if we are to minister effectively in a secular context, we must first understand secularism. Only then can the gospel challenge it at its most salient points.

On a different note, someone suggested to me that much of what Schmemann says here captures something of the nature and the spirit of Anglicanism. But that is perhaps for another time.


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