Can secularism survive without Christianity? I think not. The positive values of the secular agenda, rooted in the Enlightenment, must have a moral truth basis to survive. But most public intellectuals do not understand this connection, especially since the 1960s, and thus refuse to embrace it.
In February of 2006 the secretary of the dicastery of the Vatican, Bishop Crespaldi, noted in a lecture that "[when] reason does not open itself to faith, it
[will] absolutize itself." That makes my point very well. The bishop noted in this same lecture that secularism eventually engendered the thought that politics and the state
should have nothing to do with ultimate truth, only with rational argumentation that follows correct procedure.
Ironically, by rejecting Christianity the Western state eventually rejected the kind of reason which
Christianity brought to the secular context. And by rejecting God secularism gave itself to the gods. When man "subtracts himself from God, the gods crash down on him," says the bishop.
The bishop further explained that Christianity never joined any of the myths that
abounded in the religious panorama of ages past. This was why it became the glue that held Western culture together. It centered rather on the truth of the
"Logos." The Christian God is not only the way and the truth but he is also love. But this fact that he is love never eliminates his being
the truth. This dynamic is what became the foundation for a proper secularism to thrive in the West.
Bishop Crespaldi, in the lecture I referred to above, lamented the emergence of a "dictatorship of relativism, which
leads to the nihilism of technology" and "decrees the untenability of
a secularism separated from transcendence." True secularism," he insisted, "is the one that not only admits
or tolerates transcendence but understands its necessity and promotes it. Only a secularism that does not exclude transcendence can be truly
secular," assuming at least the postulate of creation, that is, of an
"intelligent design that governs the world." That is a simple but brilliant insight.
Christian faith holds that "only creative reason . . . can
truly show us the way." It was Christianity that spread this conviction widely in our
culture and beyond. "Transcendence is therefore both an exigency of secularism itself and of the
assessment of the public role of religion. It is the
condition for secularism to be able to preserve itself from the temptations of
the dictatorship of relativism."
The problem the bishop cited in this address is very obvious to people who carefully observe the proper relationship between faith and reason a well as the relationship between religion and culture. If a people open themselves indiscriminately to everything external, without any confidence in themselves and their connection with their Christian moral roots, then the West will no longer be able to integrate anything intellectually, not even itself. By blowing up the bridges that connect us to a Christianity that is properly reasonable we are destroying our ability to relate to everything that is beautiful and meaningful. The result will be, and now is, moral and intellectual chaos. Thus Christian faith must be both private and public.
This is also why debates about the role of faith and morals in a truly secular society are so important. Many modern conservatives act as if the purpose of culture debate is to take back the "good old days" that we lost from the secular liberals through the Supreme Court’s wrong decisions.
But real liberals and real conservatives ought to pursue the same goal—a secular society rooted in the transcendent. (The problem has been that the political left has pursued the goal of a "neutral" or anti-Christian culture, which will surely fail.) All of those who accept transcendent realities as the basis for a truly secular society can find common ground to pursue real answers. Those who cannot will eventually destroy the very secularism that they cherish so highly. This is neither a Democrat or a Republican position. And this is a major way the Church can and should speak to the issues that threaten to destroy our secular culture in the end.
We can and should defend secular culture. The alternatives are with the religious intolerance of the left or various types of religious fundamentalism that seek to impose religion on the public. But we cannot defend secular culture without a proper basis and secularists generally fail to understand this difference. Another problem is that many Christians do not understand the connection well either and thus wage the wrong kind of culture wars, sometimes for good reasons. But good reasons can do real harm if they do not follow a proper distinction between the secular and the sacred.