The Crisis of the Divide between Secular and Sacred

We do not speak up against injustice committed against/by our religious bodies or their adherents. When someone is suffering, raped, shot/murdered, assaulted, abused (faces domestic abuse), and so on, there is silence. If someone does speak, they are shushed by the people who believe that the sacred should not interfere with secular matters.

There is a tendency to differentiate the secular from sacred in the thinking and practices of contemporary Northeast India. Such a tendency has caused the divide between secular and sacred in their everyday life. This has caused a humanitarian crisis in their Christian practice, particularly within the Tangkhul community. The crisis comes from the assumption that religious institutions/organizations should not involve in social-public activities/events – if they do, they are ill-spoken, even by those who are well informed.

Secular and Sacred

This segregation is deeply connected with how religious institutions and their adherents see their task. Religious institutions and organizations are expected to gather for sacred activities and events. Within the Tangkhul community, the sacred activities are limited to morning devotion, prayer, Sunday/family worship, singing hymn, preaching (evangelism), and so on; the sacred events can be attending church service/programs, annual gathering, evangelistic camp, conference, seminar, workshop, etc. Those who are engaging in sacred activities and events are deemed spiritual by the society. By and large, these sacred activities and events are limited to the religious settings or their premises. Unfortunately, many people think that their task should remain there – and not move beyond secular matters. For example, if a pastor preached about Covid-19 vaccination, it is seen as stifling the secular matters.

What then is a secular matter? It is freely used to refer to activities-events that are not associated with spiritual-religious matters. It is used to identify subjects/concerns that are not bound by religious concerns, boundaries, and rules (or at least, that is the assumption). That which is categorized as a secular activity-event is seldom engaged by religious bodies or it is expected to be avoided by its adherents. In such thinking, work/workplace, place of study/research, culture/cultural studies, social work/service, politics/political concerns, economic (financial), scientific advancement, etc. are considered the things of the world (secular). Once an event-activity is labelled as such, it is generally neglected or rarely interacted in the public. This is the crisis of the divide between secular and sacred: the lack of interface between these two worlds.

The crisis at the concrete level is this: we do not speak up against injustice committed against/by our religious bodies or their adherents. When someone is suffering, raped, shot/murdered, assaulted, abused (faces domestic abuse), and so on, there is silence. If someone does speak, they are shushed by the people who believe that the sacred should not interfere with secular matters. As such incidents are in the secular world, it is seen as the task and responsibility of the NGOs, civil organizations, and lawmakers. This crisis, then, is a detachment from the everyday struggle of the religious adherents – as they live in the secular world.

Towards an Interfacing of Secular and Sacred

If we refer to the Christian heritage, you will notice that the tendency to divide secular from sacred was not always there. In fact, Christians are called to live out their faith in the secular world. In other words, what is preached and taught in the sacred world is supposed to help face the struggle and challenges in the secular world. The interfacing of the sacred-secular world is evident in the life and work of Jesus. In fact, his coming on earth and living like one of us is an excellent example of the sacred meeting with the secular world. A large part of his ministry on earth is an addressing of secular concerns – and in the secular world. For example, when Jesus confronted the religious leaders saying, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” it was a confrontation of a toxic socio-religious practice in the secular world. That which was wrong in the world (toxic values and practices) were confronted, while that which was good was constructively carried forward or reinterpreted (e.g., sermon on the mount).

If that is the case, we may ask: Where/when did the sacred-secular divide take its root? In our context (i.e., Tangkhul community), it is a recent construct. It was planted by Western missionaries and British colonials and ethnographers. Such a sacred-secular divide did not always exist. One of our earliest Christian scholars, Jonathan H. Thumra, argues that there was no divide between secular and sacred in the thinking and practices of the indigenous communities of Northeast India (In Search of Praxis Theology, 2003). Their religious beliefs and practices were always integrated with the social values and activities – in their everyday life.

Addressing the Crisis

The above reality then invites us to carefully approach the sacred-secular divide. If we need to address the crisis of this divide, there is a need to critically assess where/when such thinking emerged, was planted, and was carried forward.

My invitation to address this crisis is to echo the life and work of Jesus in the contemporary context. It may mean critically engaging with secular matters that are toxic, while constructively engaging with concerns that are beneficial.

Addressing this reality will help us to be more holistic in our thinking and practices. While remaining biblical in our values, it will help us to be more praxis oriented in how we see things as the task of religious institutions in the contemporary context. It will help us move towards a way of life that interfaces sacred activities and events with secular matters. Such sensitivity will trouble us by the cries of the secular struggle, while continuing with the sacred activities and events. It also means that we will begin to relearn to engage with the public (secular) world, both critically and constructively.

 Dr Taimaya Ragui is currently an academic research coordinator of The Shepherd’s Academy of Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life

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