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n Missionalia : Southern African Journal of Mission Studies - Augustine's saeculum : contemporary possibilities
Augustine of Hippo was the first Christian thinker to seriously address the relationship between the sacred and secular realms within the Christian dispensation. The secular space was important for him and served a function independently of the sacred. In contrast to later historical developments where the secular was subsumed into a total medieval sacred society, Augustine saw value in secularity and freely used the learning and culture of the Greco-Roman world to expound Christian revelation. Indeed, a total Christian society prior to the eschaton would have been unimaginable to Augustine and would have been something he would have viewed with deep suspicion had he been able to do so. Since the Enlightenment the secular world has often, and more especially in contemporary times, been dismissive and even hostile to religion especially Christianity.
In a survey of contemporary approaches to the secular, three scholars' views will be presented: Charles Taylor, Jurgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger. In his survey of the rise of the secular age, Charles Taylor shows how in reaction to 'secular uniformity' (what he calls the ''omnicompetent code'') and attempts to eliminate various forms, he advocates instead a pluralistic, open society. Next, Habermas is shown to support what he terms 'communicative discourse' where the secularist and those of religious faith may learn to sympathise with a view contrary to their own. Augustine's view of the saeculum is shown in this paper to be still relevant to establishing a contemporary dialogue between the Church and secular society. Joseph Ratzinger sees philosophy as a dialogue partner for both secular and religious views and a means toward a universal process of 'purification' as he terms it. Philosophy can purify both the scientific and religious world views.
Augustine's contribution to a pluralistic, religiously neutral civil society is assessed. Augustine accepted in a very real sense the social, political and cultural pluralism of his world. The church must co-exist with the saeculum but Augustine's overall eschatological approach provides a corrective to any tendency towards a ''sacralization'' as it were of society and its institutions. There is always a critical scrutiny from 'beyond' as it were. No social order could ever be sacral and so beyond critical scrutiny. In the saeculum fallible humanity can seek only provisional solutions. Thus Augustine's acceptance of the secular based upon an assessment from 'beyond' implies the basis for a pluralistic, religiously neutral civil society. This is his great achievement. Augustine brings to the secular society a sensitivity for transcendence and yet a potential for liberation from present social and political idols. What could be more useful today or at any time?
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