As someone whose job is ‘words’ it should mean that I am more careful than many about how they are used and, indeed, which ones I use. I can get very picky about words – especially theological ones. I dislike ‘sloppy’ words which get one into a fankle when speaking of God. I dislike inaccurate words which are used incorrectly. Unfortunately, I am not immune from falling into the same pitfalls.
I recently wrote about the BBC programme, ‘A Church in Crisis?’. In that article I picked up on the issue of secularism, even suggesting that a fellow blogger had mistakenly promulgated a misconception. Peter very kindly replied to my article but his comment was caught by an over-zealous spam filter and didn’t appear until he questioned me about it. He questioned my interpretation of secularism and suggested that in its promotion of egalitarianism it serves a very useful function; undermining power structures (especially religious ones) and promoting individual control.
Peter’s usage is, I would suggest, more true to the root understanding of secularism – the separation of church and state. This is a part of the definition of secularism found on the Secular Society‘s website:
Secularism supports the individual against the pressure of the group and the individual conscience against the dogma of the group.
I can’t help but think that these are words which the church could easily get behind and endorse. And yet, here is the problem with words. They accumulate baggage that ends up creating division which isn’t present in the core definition. Or perhaps, one might say that words are twisted to mean whatever we need them to mean in our own context.
Secularism is one such. From a Christian perspective, it is often used almost pejoratively – the implicit threat it contains to the religious establishment turns it into something tainted. Yet, one cannot deny that it is a word which has been seized by many as a banner or slogan around which to rally in opposition to religion.
What’s the answer then? At worst, one falls into the post-modern malaise of having define one’s terms every time. It is, undoubtedly, necessary to separate the ‘word’ from the inherited baggage at times. Yet it is often the ‘baggage’ which gives a word its richness of meaning. The problem with words is that they’re all we have to explain things by. Yet, on the other hand, they’re not all we have to show Christianity by. We may be followers of the Word, but we are known as such by our actions.