“Secular” Means “Of an Age”

“Secular” Means “Of an Age” August 3, 2023

The word “secular” today means having nothing to do with religion.  But originally the term had reference to time.  The “temporal world,” yes, but the original Latin meant an “age.”

For the Romans, a saeculum was a period of 120 years.   This word is the source of  the French word for “century,” siècle.

The word in its original meaning appears on our dollar bill, just below the creepy Masonic pyramid with the eye:  Novus ordo seclorum.  That is usually translated as the equally creepy “new world order.”  But it’s a quotation from Virgil that can be better rendered “new order for the ages.”

The adjective saeclaris means “of a saeculum“; that is, of a century or of a generation.  Or, we could say, “of an age.”  Thus, the adverb saeculariter means fashionable.

I dug into the etymology of the word “secular” because of an insight I gleaned from the Rev. Dr. Adam Koontz in his presentation at the recent conference of the Consortium for Classical Lutheran Education held at Concordia University-Nebraska.

Dr. Koontz pointed out the temporal dimension of the word “secular,” which literally means “of an age.”  Thus,  to be “secular” day, he said, is to be of our own time only.

I realize that the etymology of a word is not necessarily what it means today, but words carry complex semantic associations because of their history, the reflection on which can open up aspects of the reality that the word names.

To think in Latin, as it were, about the concept of “secularism” makes us think of it not just as a worldview that poses an existential threat to religion but also as a period of time that we are going through–an “age” like the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the modern, the postmodern, etc., etc., etc.

And the great fact about “ages” is that they keep changing.  One saeculum follows another.  None of them last.  That means that our current “secular” age–with its unbelief, moral decadence, and rebellion against reality– will not last either.

In his great tribute to his friend and fellow playwright, Ben Jonson hailed William Shakespeare as “Soul of the age!”  And, indeed, Shakespeare and his art exemplify the Elizabethan age in all of its richness and complexity.  But then Jonson went further, saying of Shakespeare that “He was not of an age but for all time!”

Shakespeare was not “secular” in the sense of his own age only.  His works speak to “all time,” to every age, to every saeculum.  Many writers are very much of their age and they are interesting to read for that reason, to learn more about the period in which they live.  But some writers are “for all time.”  They are the authors of the “great books” that speak to every generation.  This points to the nature of classical education.  It is an education “not of an age but for all time!”

Modern secular education is of our time only.  As such, it gives us the characteristic and idiosyncratic preoccupations of our own time, such as critical race theory, moral relativism, and the notion that children can change their gender, to the point of encouraging the mutiliation of their young bodies for that purpose.

In other ages, perhaps the next saeculum, such beliefs and practices and others such as abortion, will be seen as monstrous and barbarous–just like we today see the vices of earlier ages, such as medieval torture and 19th century slavery.

As C. S. Lewis noted in his essay On the Reading of Old Books, every age has its mistakes, but they are not the same mistakes, and being conversant in the thought of various ages can protect us from those mistakes.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. . . .

Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.

“The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” Lewis says, “and this can be done only by reading old books.”

Classical education is, of course, more than reading old books.  But its concern for objective truths, human nature, and an ordered creation cultivates an orientation to what is universal, applicable to every age, equipping students to keep their bearings no matter how the world changes around them.

More importantly, Christianity is not “secular.”  It too is “not of an age but for all time.”  The Bible says a great deal about “ages,” including these passages (my emphasis):

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age. (Galatians 1:3-4)

[God] raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2: 6-7)

Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. (1 Corinthians 2:6)

The word for “age” in the original language is aión  (αἰῶνος)–the source of the English word eon–which is the Greek word for the concept we have been talking about.  The Latin translation of St. Jerome in 382 A.D. renders this term in each case as some conjugation of saeculum.

So we do not need to fret too much at “the present evil age” or the prominence of the “wisdom of this age” or the power of “the rulers of this age.”  Our secular age is “doomed to pass away.”

This is because “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

Illustration:  “Secular” by Nick Youngson from Alpha Stock Images via Picpedia.Org,  CC BY-SA 3.0

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