The Construction of the Secular

John Milbank’s famous first sentence of his Theology and Secular Theory is “Once there was no secular.”

He goes on to explain how, in premodern times, the “secular” meant the period of time between the fall of man and the eschaton. Modernity, in service of the nation state, then began to construe the secular not as time but as (cultural?, political?) space.

Catherine Pickstock’s treatment of Plato’s Phaedrus (and of Derrida’s reading of the same) gives a terrific example of the spacializing of time.

Phadrus’ (and the sophists’, and Derrida’s) preference for writing over speech — seen in his fetish for his scroll of Lycius’ speech — is an attempt to “gather up the present moment with a view to offering it to an anonymous posterity, not for the sake of interpersonal benefit through time, but as a means to ensure lasting reputation, a reflexive ‘gift’ which does not freely inhabit time, but seeks to reclaim identically the anterior moment of donation, thus transposing time into a spacial domain.”

This spacializing of time is inimical to tradition, to the exchange of gifts, to the “contengency” of temporality, and to the community based nature of socratic dialectic. In these and other ways, it is quintessencially modern.

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