Seculosity and St. Paul

David Zahl didn’t put me up to this, I swear. But if the Apostle Paul […]

Todd Brewer / 7.11.19

David Zahl didn’t put me up to this, I swear. But if the Apostle Paul were alive today, I dare say he would have written Seculosity. Let me explain.

The secular world in which we live now wouldn’t have been imaginable to the Apostle Paul. In the first century, everything one did was connected to some official Religious entity. Civic religion and civic participation went hand in hand—even going to the butcher store to prepare a feast raised questions about idol worship (1 Cor. 8:1-6). Yet Paul’s opposition to meat sacrificed to idols is only mildly instructive for how he might have viewed our modern secular “religion,” or, as Zahl puts it, seculosity. Paul didn’t have an iPhone, Prius, or the right to vote. In the almost 2,000 years since Paul’s time, there have been vast changes to society, culture, and our mental universe. Which is to say that the actual writings of Paul do not directly answer the questions of one’s relation to the secular world. To do so, one must think about such issues with Paul rather than from Paul directly, and this is precisely what Seculosity accomplishes, by translating his Law-faith contrast into the modern world.

In his landmark 1977 book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, E. P. Sanders analyzed the letters of Paul and the writings of his Jewish contemporaries, contending that Paul’s faith-Law contrast is essentially a contrast between two different “patterns of religion.” The two are not wholly unrelated, of course, and it is their overlap which serves as the basis for the contrast. Whether it be the Law/Torah or faith, both promise the same goal, namely, life through righteousness (p. 549-552). The law’s pattern of religion attains life by way of Torah-practice, while faith attains life by faith in Christ. For Paul, Law-practice is not immoral so much as it does not provide what is given in faith—i.e., life. This particular desire for righteousness is not wrong, but misdirected.

Certainly, there is more to be said about Paul’s faith-Law contrast than Sanders himself would allow. The framework of his analysis is still essentially correct. Paul assesses the Law as a different pattern of religion, but the basis of the comparison between Law-practice and Christianity is their shared itinerary of seeking life through righteousness. Paul contrasts the two to demonstrate how what one seeks within a Law-practice pattern of religion (righteousness leading to life) is only given in Christ. The failure of the former, so vividly outlined in Romans 7, gives way to the triumph of grace.

But Seculosity does not speak of righteousness and life so much as “enough-ness.” Enoughness is a load-bearing concept for Zahl, and it is more than a gloss of righteousness. Enoughness adeptly spans Paul’s righteousness-life dynamic. Enoughness retains the moral character of righteousness, but achieving enoughness also implies a degree of self-satisfaction, wholeness, rest, and security. This move also provides a lens for Zahl to illuminate modern seculosities on their own terms, rather than an anachronistic analysis of seculosities in accordance with Christian texts. Enoughness, on the other hand, functions the same way for both Paul and many seculosities. This is the heart-beat of the book, as well as its brilliance. The quest for enoughness is universal and insatiable, and we will turn to anything to find it. Or, in Augustinian terms, everything we touch has become something to use rather than enjoy.

In terms as sympathetic as possible, Seculosity lays bear the vacuity of the search for enoughness. Zahl does not stand outside of the seculosities of enoughness he examines, but within them, living out their empty promises and gasping for the fresh air of grace. He gave up the smart phone out of protest, only to reluctantly re-up with his local supplier nine months later. Whether it be politics, food, romance, or even Christianity, the badges of enoughness they offer are the modern currency of belonging and acceptance. The sad reality, though, is that the things we use to become enough prove to be our new taskmasters. Zahl writes to those suffering under the burden of these new laws, proclaiming a gospel of liberation and comfort.

All of which brings me back to Paul. In his own day, the Apostle’s Law-faith contrast was articulated not in secular contexts, but where the Torah was practiced by those of faith. If Paul contrasts Law and faith as two alternate patterns of religion, Seculosity does not draw an analogy with Christianity and secular religions. Instead, it extends Paul’s logic into a different sphere. In no way does Zahl equate seculosities with the Law (Torah), a difference signaled by his use of little “l” secular law vs. capital “L” Mosaic Law. Outside of certain circles of Reformed churches, Christianity isn’t in danger of reintroducing the Law as a measure of one’s worth. Instead, the church’s legalism today usually manifests as an extension of modern seculosities, whether it be social activism, parenting, or identity politics. The Galatian church did not abandon the Gospel by becoming Instagram celebrities, hosting Zumba classes, or sponsoring political rallies, but no doubt Paul would have been equally astonished by such developments today.

Paul would have seen our seculosities in something like the same way he viewed the Law: as a rival pattern of righteousness that structures and gives life to their participants. In the same way, some of Paul’s indictments of the Law could be extended to seculosities. If one could genuinely find enoughness through romantic love, then Christ died for nothing (Gal. 2:21). We are not under Marie Kondo, but under grace (Rom. 6:14).

Everyone, whether Christian or not, is a devotee to some seculosities simply by virtue of living in the secular world. Zahl’s solution to this quandary isn’t to retreat into a holy enclave, cut off from the world (asceticism), nor is it to try and bless or harness our seculosities for the sake of ethics (legalism). Rather, Zahl preaches freedom from the world’s empty promises in order that we participate in and enjoy the world without needing the world to be enough. The world is never enough, of course, but grace is always given to the empty-handed.