The Secular City: A Discussion

Larry Allums, Ph.D.

In the OED, the first of many definitions of secular is “of or pertaining to the world.” A useful distinction to keep in mind during this discussion is the New Testament admonition that one should be “in the world but not of it.”

Dr. Stroud, my response will be primarily to your thoughts on the Promethean Paradox, which you associate with “forgetfulness of divine guidance” and a “shift toward secularism, toward the abandonment of the sacred in our daily lives.”

In Aeschylus’ play Prometheus Bound, Prometheus outlines in detail the gifts-all “guided by goodwill,” as he says-that attend upon his primary theft and gift of fire: mind and reason, skill in building, climatology, astronomy, mathematics, writing, agriculture, sailing and navigation, medicine, augury (prophecy), mining and metallurgy. In summary, “all human skill and science was Prometheus’ gift.”

Prometheus, in short, through his theft makes possible civilization and culture as we know them, with the implication that without the gift of fire and all its attendant benefits, all the things of which it is the symbol and gateway (master fire and master all) the human race would never have survived. Prometheus’ gift is a gift of sympathy, but also of possibility-what the human race might achieve if given the right tools and advantages. Whereas Zeus was concerned with the dispensation of things among the gods and saw human beings as a miserable, annoying race worthy only of annihilation, Prometheus, with his ability to see into the future, discerned the potential in man.

But did Prometheus see clearly, or merely see, the advancement of man’s state into the future? In stealing the fire and giving it to man, he set himself up as, we would say, a Titanic “role model,” disposing the human race forever after to “overreach,” to be subject to what Dr. Stroud calls the “the inflation of desires.”

Dr. Stroud, you characterize that overreaching as a “forgetfulness of divine guidance” that reveals itself in culture as a “shift toward secularism, toward the abandonment of the sacred.” Is this forgetfulness an inevitable trait of human history? Once having been given the fire and been eased in some way by its both real and metaphorical warmth, do we necessarily forget the conditions that brought forth the pity and the gift? And if this is so, then what remedy is there for the human predicament? The answer of the Greeks is: tragedy, which interrupts the arc of history, redresses man’s overreaching, and gives man occasion for pause in his otherwise irrepressible progress. The answer of Christ is: grace, which at once reproaches and pardons man for his overreaching, pronouncing him guilty and relieving him of the guilt. “Your sins are forgiven; go and sin no more.” The modern counterparts to the tragic abyss of the Greeks into which Prometheus falls-like his proud successor-protagonists of tragedy, such as Agamemnon, Oedipus, and Pentheus-are Milton’s Adam and Goethe’s Faust, who discover at great cost the felix culpa, the fortunate fall that both damns and saves the individual soul and at the same time advances the human drama toward the final act in the way that Providence, and not Fate, ordains it.

And yet, Prometheus, Adam, and Faust aside, we must ask whether, in that advancement, our “forgetfulness of divine guidance,” to go back to Dr. Stroud’s words, is progressive, whether the “shift toward secularism, toward the abandonment of the sacred,” may ever become complete-whether, indeed, the secular city might be possible.

We should think about this carefully. At the beginning of your remarks, Dr. Stroud, you spoke at some length of the attribution to human beings of a natural spirituality-an inborn connectedness to the divine that man can resist but not deny. For Dante and Aquinas, this connectedness is a dependence that prevents the human soul from hating God. Quite the contrary, according to Dante in his work Convivio, “because [the soul] depends on God, and by him is preserved, it naturally desires and wills to be united to God, in order to fortify its own being.” For Wordsworth more than 500 years later, there is a falling off of the exactness of medieval beliefs about man’s innate connection to God, but it is still far from any notion of secularity: human life, Wordsworth holds, is a lamentable enterprise precisely because our “birth is but a sleep and a forgetting” of a divine source from which we all come, and even though the travails of living vastly diminish the “splendour in the grass” and the “glory in the flower,” still, at certain times of interior calm, “our souls have sight of that immortal sea which brought us hither, can in a moment travel thither, and see the children sport upon the shore, and hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.”

Wordsworth’s lament for an unavoidable forgetfulness exacerbated by the world’s fallen-ness is his own expression of a byword of Romantic thinkers and writers: the vast gap between the real and the ideal. The world, after all, is “too much with us; late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: Little we see in Nature that is ours; we have given our hearts away, a sordid Boon!” We are not moved, Wordsworth says, by the manifestations of the divine in nature because our souls are out of tune: “Great God! I’d rather be a Pagan, suckled in a creed outworn,” he finally exclaims, “so might I, standing on this pleasant lea, have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.”

Wordsworth’s note of lament for human forgetfulness coincides with the Promethean paradox, especially as you defined it at one point, Dr. Stroud, this way: “the inborn imagination as divine spark without any attribution or acknowledgment of gratitude due.” The debt of gratitude is, of course, exactly what Milton’s Satan cannot abide, and to escape it he has to attribute any gift or talent he may have to himself-and to buttress that self-attribution with evidence of things seen rather than unseen. That is, in his shift away from living with a sense of the sacred “toward secularism,” the invisible things, what Heidegger calls the suprasensory, take on a new kind of being-as creations of man rather than revelations from God. As Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo says, in answer to the question “Where is God in your system of the universe?”: “Within ourselves. Or-nowhere…. The evidence of your eyes is a very seductive thing. Sooner or later everybody must succumb to it.”

But the question remains, if we admit a decline either individual or collective in what we might call actual experience of the divine, whether a secular human being, a secular city, or a secular society is even possible, given this “innate urge to experience the spiritual,” as you put it, Dr. Stroud. Or to express it in Bachelard’s terms, if the “self-transcendence” of the Promethean paradox is indeed possible, if we succumb indeed to the temptations “to transcend our own natures, to experience the human, more than human,” what might that city look like?

Following Bachelard, you suggest that the “will-to-intellectuality, one aspect of an upwardly mobile imagination, easily turns into a Promethean complex,” which, according to Bachelard, involves the “intellectual mastery of fire.” That is, man examines the nature of his gift in a way that is detached from whatever might be due the giver. This is impiety, but if piety were observed, in this case it would be a gratitude not forgotten for the fire that would surely moderate the user’s use of it.

The heart of the Promethean paradox, then, resides in the fact that the intellectual mastery of fire is what we have come to call education, or at least a scientific or technological education-that is, education apart from the liberal arts, since the liberal arts themselves are contextual, aimed at a world view, and inclusive. So specialized education arises as, at once, a restricted-some would say myopic-examination of the Promethean gift and a gesture of impiety toward the bestower of the gift. And in this absence of piety, of gratitude due, there is a consequent unwillingness to accept or even to acknowledge limits, which is one of your main points, Dr. Stroud. As Milton would have it, this is what marks the Satanic or demonic imagination-or, to use Allen Tate’s designation, the Angelic Imagination.

Let me raise a couple of points in provocation of the secular question-both involving late refinements of the Promethean gift-before opening our discussion to the audience. First, it would seem that modern science, and its applications that we call technology, have responded to the Promethean gift in the paradoxical way that Dr. Stroud speaks of: unconsciously becoming secular in the exercise of a divine endowment. Second, an area that largely defines the American character in the world, the enterprise of business or, more specifically, the market system, appears to operate within the same moral and spiritual neutrality that marks modern technology. How are these aspects of America culture-technology and business-to be regarded in the context of secularity and the Promethean paradox?

© The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture – Permission is granted to copy and redistribute this lecture on the condition that the content remains complete and full credit is given to the author.

  • © 2016 Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture - Contact Us - Admin Login -