I first cared about being Catholic, not out of any profound love for the person of Christ, but out of a profound distaste for my other options. That Jesus came, died, rose, and established a Church under the authority of the Apostles united under Peter – I’m still learning it. That I’d sooner cut my own toes off than live life as, say, a self-proclaimed “freethinker” – that was an immediate judgment of taste, something akin to not wearing Crocs.
My Catholicism only bubbled up from this realm of sensibility to one of genuine commitment during high school, where, among other misadventures, I was asked to use CE and BCE instead of AD and BC as the approved acronym with which to divide history in half. The switch was explained as a secularisation of “Anno Domini” (In the Year of Our Lord) and “Before Christ” to “Common Era” and “Before the Common Era”, one which enabled us to refer to periods of history in continuity with the historians of the past – all without bringing in any “religious stuff”.
Now the problem with secularisation is that it is not secular enough. CE and BCE refer to the “common era” and “before the common era”, but this is a mere change of name. The entirety of history is still divided in accordance with the birth of Christ. Anyone with the vaguest spark of curiosity, upon learning that time itself has been split like a watermelon, can still ask: what inaugurated this “common era”, this Era Vulgaris – the age of all peoples? What is the reason for the division? The secularist has not secularised history, he has merely obfuscated a Christianisation of history, maintaining the fact and changing the name.
And far from diminishing the Christian tradition, this obfuscation highlights it, as a veil may highlight a face, or as the obscurity of a stranger makes him all the more intriguing. To assume the importance of Christ, to know that we live in this or that Year of Our Lord while the ancients lived Before Christ – this familiarity could well breed contempt. But to discover the secret of history, to uncover, out of the vague and seemingly arbitrary BCE/CE rift, the astronomic importance of a strange and brilliant rabbi who healed the sick and claimed filial relation to the Almighty God – this puts an innocent, unassuming student into right relation with the Christ.
So it’s not quite proper to say that it was a distaste for my “other options” over a love for the person of Christ that drove me to the point of the Church. Rather, the “other options” are so hopelessly Christian that they unintentionally accentuate the very person they try to downplay. I learned of the importance of Christ through the weird fire reflected in the eye of the secularist trying to avoid him. AD/BC showed that the birth of Christ was important; CE/BCE shows that it is indispensable. AD/BC was a practical bit of Christian reasoning; CE/BCE is a terrified inability to be anything but Christian. A website with the rather grandiose name of Religious Tolerance argued that “CE and BCE are notations that are not based on religion or myth … they can be embraced by all,” but can the religions of the world embrace a division of history based entirely on the birth of Christ, now that Christ isn’t in the name? What a subversive expansion of the Christian empire if they do!
The difference between Christianity and secularity is not the difference between two competing worldviews, faiths or philosophies, but a difference between a meaningful universe and universal meaninglessness. The project of secularism has not been to assert anything non-religious (one may as well ask how could one assert a “non”?) but to rename the religious. The cathedral becomes the museum, Christmas becomes Wintertide, charity becomes philanthropy, the ethics of Christ become the ethics of rational human beings (with minor modifications), the sacrament of marriage becomes a ceremony, the City of St Francis becomes San Francisco, baptism becomes a useful literary symbol, we forget the “holy” in holiday, the “God be by you” in goodbye, as the French forget the “a dieu” in adieu and the “sacre” in sacre bleu.
This “renaming” is really no more than a separation of things from their origins and of words from their meanings. The universe that results is obscure, awkward, ill-fit, absurd – everything without explanation. But this is the perverse blessing of secularism, that the degree to which everything is without explanation is the degree to which Christianity asserts herself as the explanation.
CS Lewis said: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” How much more will this be the case if secularism achieves some final form of renaming, and all things are Christian in potentia? Christ will be Saviour twice over, for by the power of his name, like a flash of sun through a slit in a cloud, all things will be illuminated. Every holiday, every word, every date, every building, every city, every name, every thing which has retained its factual existence but whose meaning and raison d’être has been held in suspense by a secular renaming – all this will be flushed with meaning, all will make sense, all be made new.
Who will doubt that Christ is the very meaning of life, now that he gives newfound meaning to the very food we eat, to our weekend and our clock, to our books and our hospitals, to our university education and our liberal arts degree? Who will doubt that he is Saviour, now that he has saved day-to-day living from the divorce of things and their names? The great secular hiding has only inaugurated the possibility of a greater Christian seeking.
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