A Walk in the Public Square

seurat-jatte
The idea of a naked public square is in actuality an interesting concept. The heart of the matter consists in establishing a domain of influence, and what has also been called a wall of separation between religion and public life. The reason why this is an interesting concept is essentially in the way that this concept, this ideology is presented and how it has been promoted.
 
One of the unique features, among other things, of Western civilization has been its historical separation, or at least its historical distinction between the secular and the sacred. This feature is in itself, unique, because it quite certainly stands apart the common experience of humanity whether this concerns East or West, or North or South. In fact, what we see is, I would say, a quite natural unity and a connaturality, that is to say an affinity, between the secular and the sacred, the political and the religious powers. Whether we are concerned with the times of the king David and his instauration of the great Judaic kingdom, or the reign of the Caesars with their mandatory cult of personality, or even with the great empires of the East; we see this unity, this union of the secular and the sacred often within the hands of one same ruler.
 
But the Western part of the Roman Empire, has effectively broken with that tradition. Gone is the quasi-divine worship of the great caesar, of the emperor. Gone also, is the deification of authority and the great subjection of man, who was up till recently a subaltern, a vassal to the crown. No, the West decided that it would no longer do with that, and it put an end to the traditional elevation of authority to the ranks of the divine. This tradition has in spite of but also thanks to Western efforts of expansion, and colonization for that matter, expanded to the whole world such that today this secular character, and the political and institutional consequences it entails to, has become a matter of common experience.
 
It is an interesting fact that, Western education likes to link the development and the inheritance of its democratic ideals to its classical Greek influences, and thus by default, the specific secularity of its political systems. But I think that, if we examined Greek society we might realize that, such distinctions hardly existed. No, for that matter, if we were to look for the reasons behind the existence of this wall of separation, this latent but perceptible distinction between the secular and the sacred, we would have to look to another source. It is difficult to know, how much this has been stressed to the mind of the modern educated man, but it would today hardly occur to anyone that the ultimate rationale behind secularism lay in the words of an obscure carpenter, living in an obscure region of the Roman empire during the first century of the Christian Era. I am of course, referring to Jesus Christ. 
 
<< Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and unto God what belongs to God >>. Alongside its universality, the otherworldliness of Christianity has operated a fundamental break in the Eastern, and also Western mind and even, in the mind of humanity for that matter. It might be said that, the distinction that the apostles, and their successors the bishops, were able to draw by distinguishing between the world of Man, and the world of God; the kingdom of God, and the kingdom of Man; the secular things pertaining to theearth and the world, and the divine things pertaining to the Church and the world to come; stand as one of the greatest contributions that Christianity was able to make to the Western political tradition. 
 
This essentially provides the example of a change in political mentality effected and rooted in the spiritual and religious experience of a community of believers. As such, when we traverse the history of the West, this dualism remains, it persists, and is visible in a constant struggle between two powers and two sources of authority of different natures: one temporal, and one spiritual and religious. Thecoexistence of these two powers as history shows, rested on a delicate balance, on a fragile equilibrium till one of the two was able to assert complete dominance over the other. The state, thanks to its coercive powers, but also due to its ideological strength, was able to progressively establish its authority over the different domains of life, progressively regulating civic activity in its different dimensions: economic, moral, political and even religious. 
 
The advent of secularism in its true sense, which is an effective and irrevocable separation between the religious and the temporal as well as a relegation of the religious to private (and emotive) expression such that it has a decreasing cultural and social influence, has been hailed and proclaimed as a triumphant break with the mentalities of the past. Certainly, this is quite true since secularism no longer admits of the authority of any divine principle that might supersede and intervene prior to the deliberative consensus forged within thedemocratic process. Secularism is, taken in that sense, quite agnostic, and in practice, almost atheistic. 
 
Nevertheless, it is quite astonishing that this secularity has been viewed as a development directly antithetical to Christianity, or at thevery least, as a development totally alien to Christianity both in concept and in form, when in fact, secularism simply is an abortive process, the fruit of a political development whose deepest roots draw their inspiration from the waters of Christian theology and Christian anthropology, but which has also received significant contributions both in form and content from its classical heritage in Antiquity; such that the reintroduction of the latter elements during the Renaissance effected a corresponding change in thinking to thepoint of later completely severing the collaborative ties between the secular and the sacred, that had traditionally characterized thewhole culture. 
 
This has resulted in the fact that with the cessation of the collaboration between the two powers, there has been the establishment of thewall of separation which, has been presented as an achievement realized in spite of Christianity; when in fact, it is more probable that secularism, even in its present form, would not have been possible at all, without the contribution of Christianity. Indeed, if Christianity has been able to introduce a distinction between temporal and spiritual authorities with their respective spheres of influence by upholding and defending early on the independence of its spiritual authority and of its religious activity, secularism has simply taken this specifically Christian distinction further, by completely separating temporal activity from religious authority, and by ultimately defining all temporal and political dimensions of life as an end unto themselves standing in need of no transcendent justification other than the interests of human communities and in need of no religious basis outside of the will of human agency. Hence, it is quite paradoxical to see that the contributions that Christianity has made to Western culture have somehow turned to its disadvantage.
 
With all things considered, it is seen that the idea of the naked public square has become a natural expectation, a singular characteristic which has nonetheless become a foundation, a cornerstone of the democratic way of life. In fact, it has come to define the Western political landscape in such a way that it has been defended aggressively just as it has been promoted actively partly in an effort to expand liberal ideologies to the four corners of the globe but also in an effort to stem the resurgence of the kinds of religious sentiments that have awakened throughout the world during the latter part of the twentieth century. In some respects, it can thus be seen that theidea of a naked public square, in its contemporary expression, rests on a fragile foundation. Since secularism as the rule of political agency and of civic activity, would admit of no principle that intervenes prior to the democratic process and which would be thefoundation of its temporal existence, it is quite dependent on the will of the ruling majority to sustain itself and can therefore be subject to legal adjustments and political accommodations to suit the purposes of the dominant ideology.

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