To us moderns, the secular is fundamental. Even when religion is considered a universal sociological category, we almost always first translate it into something secular, such as its function: it synthesizes diverse perspectives and experiences, it knits people together, it makes the world coherent, it assuages the fear of death, it provides legitimacy for power, it constructs social roles, and so on. In this way, we are perhaps willing to accept that every society has a religion, but only if we first reduce religion to yet another aspect of the fundamental secular, to yet another ideology or worldview.
I contend that the Middle Ages were neither religious nor secular because the religious and the secular are two features of a single construction: the modern, Western social architecture of “Church” and “State,” “private” and “public,” “individual” and “market,” and so on. The societies of the Middle Ages had a different architecture based on different assumptions and different concepts, ultimately on a different vision of the cosmos.
One of the central arguments of this book is that we should abandon the use of “religion” and “secular” “Church” and “State” understood in their modern senses in our attempts to understand the Middle Ages, in this case the thirteenth century. This is not because the terms have no meaning—in our world they have a great deal of meaning. Rather, it is because one cannot get too far along in building a thick description of the thirteenth century before concluding that everything was religious or, if one is inclined to come at it from the other direction, before concluding that everything was secular.
Peter Berger has written, “By secularization we mean the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.” The problem, however, is that institutions and symbols are recognizable as religious only from the vantage point of the secular. This means secularization might be just as legitimately understood as being the process by which sectors of society and culture were construed as religious institutions and symbols. In other words, secularization is the process through which the “religious” as we conceive of it was created. Along these lines, Brent Nongbri has accurately remarked that we call religious “anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity,” and when Charles Taylor states that the British were more religious in 1900 than ever before, we might consider him to be, in a sense, defining the term “religious.”
[T]hirteenth-century France was built as a “most Christian kingdom,” a term that the papacy frequently used in reference to it. I do not mean that the kingdom of France was a State with a Christian ideology. I mean that it was Christian, fundamentally. There was no State lurking beneath the kingdom’s religious trappings. There was no State at all, but a Christian kingdom. In this kingdom, neither the “secular” nor the “religious” existed. Neither did “sovereignty.” I do not mean that the religious was everywhere and that the secular had not yet emerged from under it. I mean they did not exist at all … The people of thirteenth-century France, however, were not trying to figure out how to build a “Sovereign State” and they were not trying to disentangle the “secular” from the “religious.” They had never heard of these things. Their world made sense, and it was a world that did not contain these concepts. This is the world that I am after.
Andrew Williard Jones, Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX, an extended portion of Chapter 1 being reproduced at Postliberal Thought.
This was heavy slogging (I had to break in the middle for a game or three of solitaire), but worthwhile for one who, like me, thinks something has gone badly wrong and suspects it goes all the way down to our fundamental thought categories.
The world Jones is after is very hard to put into words, and I think he succeeded admirably. I’m not sure what use I can put it too, but I don’t think that’s a very important question just yet. (See Jones’ first paragraph quoted above.)
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