Secular Literature for the Spiritual Life
Caleb earned a B.A. in Religion from Luther Rice College as well as an M.Ed. in English and Literature at Carolina University. Currently, he is working toward a Ph.D. in Humanities at Faulkner University.
The Christian faith needs to promote a healthy relationship between what science produces and what the Bible proclaims.
Christians often have a negative outlook on secular sources of information. For example, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bill Nye, a prominent figure in the secular science community, posted a video on social media with an experiment that showed the efficacy of mask-wearing.
One prominent evangelical leader responded with, “He is an unapologetic atheist, so I don’t care about anything he says.” Not only is that viewpoint dangerous, but it is also antithetic to prominent philosophical thought within the history of the Church.
The opposite viewpoint – that Christians should seek out the truth from secular sources – might, on the surface, seem antithetical to the Christian call to remain separate from the world; indeed, a surface reading of some of Paul’s words seems to support that idea: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2, ESV).
However, Christians will find that literary, biblical, and scientific reasons exist as to why Christians should not only sanction secular philosophers, scientists, thinkers, and writers; they should seek them out—and, in doing so, improve their spiritual lives.
Christian leaders and thinkers throughout history have turned to the literature of secular writers. David L. Jeffrey provides an example: “Jerome himself defended a notably generous citation of pagan authors in his writings.” Jerome, one of the early Church fathers, did not shy away from quoting the words of “pagans.”
In addition to Jerome, Jeffrey quotes Augustine: “If those who are called philosophers, especially the Platonists, have said things which are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith, they should not be feared.”
Augustine went on to say that, as with Egyptian gold and silver treasures taken by the Israelites during the Exodus and repurposed, secular writers produce “disciplines more suited to the uses of truth” that can also be repurposed and used for the glory of God.
The Christian’s use of secular literature goes beyond finding the truth. James V. Schall uses Aristotle to make a point that secular writing should also be used for finding error: “the knowledge of error – even great error – is not something that we should reject knowing.”
Indeed, this knowledge of error is not simply for understanding: “It is part of being free.” This freedom comes from learning, a knowledge that, according to Cicero, comes from all backgrounds: “All literature, all philosophy, all history, abounds with incentives to noble action.”
Cicero adds specificity to his statement: “How many pictures of high endeavour the great authors of Greece and Rome have drawn for our use, and bequeathed to us, not only for our contemplation, but for our emulation!”
Most of these Greek and Roman authors were “pagan,” and an early Christian thought-leader declared them worthy of emulation. Cicero would find truth in their writings (as should modern Christians) but even in error, they – or their styles and thirsts for knowledge and truth – are worthy of admiration in the form of imitation.
Biblical reasons for seeking truth from secular sources also exist. Jeffrey states that Jerome appealed to biblical authors as the foundation for his prevalent use of pagan writers: “the Jewish biblical authors themselves make learned and thoughtful use of mid-eastern and Hellenic pagan literature.”
Indeed, Paul uses the words of the Greek poet Epimenides against his people: “One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons’ ” (Titus 1:12, ESV). As the Israelites repurposed Egypt’s treasures, Paul repurposes some words of the Greek poet Aratus while describing the Christian connection to God: “For we are indeed his offspring” (Acts 17:28).
Paul is exemplifying the argument from Jeffrey that “truth is truth from wherever it comes.” If the truth needs to be repurposed to fit the purposes of God, then according to Paul and other ancient Christians, that is acceptable.
Consulting secular writers also has scientific benefits. Jeffrey references Augustine to form a connection between the “two books” of God: “We can also, Augustine thought, expect there to be a harmonium between the books of Nature and of Scripture, rightly placed and understood.” The “rightly placed and understood” portion is the problem: Christians often interpret science through the lens of Scripture; secular scientists often interpret Scripture through science.
Instead of a dichotomy between the Bible and science, there needs to be harmony, not in information within the data but the interpretation of the data. Simply put, the Christian faith needs to promote a healthy relationship between what science – mostly secular science – produces and what the Bible proclaims.
Instead of concordism, there must be companionship: both revelations of God reveal specific aspects of his being and his purpose for creation. Christianity must foster an environment in which both Darwin and Calvin are consulted for truth. Where one speaks of the evolution of man, the other speaks of the redemption of man; where one connects man to all of God’s creation, the other connects man to God himself.
Through the secular and the spiritual, Christians have a more profound understanding of the supreme author of both.