One of the strange features in the Milbank article discussed in my previous post was his mention of the necessity to physically defend “the physical space” of the church “in the name of secular justice.” This surprising endorsement of “the secular” reminded me of a working document released a little while ago by the Roman Catholic Church, on the Church in the Middle East. This document laments the lack of the separation of religion from politics in the Middle East and proposes the necessity of a secular government (modeled on European forms of religion, secularity, and government of course). It seems a surprising move coming at a time when the pope is encouraging Europe to reconstitute itself through a return to Christian roots and the abandonment of secularism.
The secular is a precarious situation for these thinkers. It is the simultaneous promise and failure of Christendom (Western Christianity’s global triumph). The secular is an incomplete conversion, and therefore is both a failure of conversion and the grounds for, the first steps towards, conversion.
In Contracting Colonialism, Vicente Rafael explores the grammatical and theological modes of a dominating Spanish Catholic mission and its partial embrace, redirection, exploration, and reinterpretation in Tagalog society. It’s a book about “translation and conversion,” as the subtitle has it, and also about space (the same word, reducir, was used to speak about resettlement, translation, and evangelism, 90). The book recounts how Spanish missionaries had to convert the space–to “Europeanize” it–for the sake of the mission. As Rafael says, “For the Word of God to be delivered, the site of its exchange and circulation had first to be circumscribed” (87). Tagalog society was built upon aquatic channels; in fact, the word for their communities was the same word for a large boat, barangay (88). Out of this considerable fluidity, missionaries had to create order (meaning, an order they recognized). They had to resettle/translate/evangelize (reducir) and to do so, they restructured the communities based on schemas for reorganizing those in the New World and modeled on the cities of the Roman empire and the architectural tastes of the Renaissance (this is “the European”–Europe constituting itself beyond its borders).
It is this spatial reorganization that is, in fact, the birth of the secular. What the colonial missionaries and administrators realized is that social space could be converted without the conversion of the people. These missionaries created a Christian social space that was inhabited by people who did not confess Christianity (or whose confessions were deemed suspect). The social space was split, both Christian and also simultaneously not Christian. The Christian doctrines, beliefs, and liturgical practices are the inessential origin of the space: the city still runs even if the church is empty or filled with people who have no idea–or more accurately, a very different idea than the Spanish–of what is actually going in there. Religion becomes privatized, an internal affair of the mind, precisely because the social space–in an effort to prepare the society for conversion–was released from any essential connection to the church’s life. The secular arises in and as this partial conversion, a mark of the failure and promise of Christian colonial missions. The secular is a space that escapes Christian domination precisely through the advent of Christian rule: for the sake of evangelism, secularism, which simultaneously produces a space and mode of life that elides conversion. Or, alternately, the secular is the production of Christian domination: the secular is a world built by Christians to stand in continual need of Christian rule (grace perfects and completes nature).
If this analysis is correct, then I think it becomes a little more clear what is at stake in the simultaneous endorsement and rejection of the secular. The rise of the secular gave rise to the exigency of colonial rule: the social space was split, unstable, and therefore demanded rigorous and constant surveillance, domination, control by the European Christian powers. The secular marked a first phase in conversion, a dangerous, risky, violent, and incomplete severing of the social space from both Christian and indigenous beliefs and practices. Without its completion (its subordination to a fully Christian realm), it is a precarious realm on the verge of departing from true, divine order (i.e., from the rule of Christendom). However, within a world seen as sheer chaos, the secular is the first moment in and the promise of a future stabilization. The secular is the Christian production of a partially conquered space, a space that is simultaneously a promise (for completion, a beckoning for further Christian incursion) and a threat (the possibility of failure, of the space and peoples to resist this further conversion).