Today Buddhism faces what is likely its greatest challenge ever, as it makes its way into a modern world completely different from anything it has encountered before. In sharp contrast to the traditional Asian cultures that have long been its home, Buddhism now finds itself part of a global civilization with apparently limitless possibilities, where new modes of communication and transportation enable us to interact on a scale unthinkable just a few generations ago. It is also a world where reductionist science and all-powerful technologies fuel the apparently irresistible value system of consumerism, which is converting more people more quickly than any religion ever has. The result is a ravenous economic juggernaut that is endangering the whole planet.
The common denominator of all these characteristics is their secularity. In contrast to all the major premodern civilizations we know about, the modern world is resolutely secular: earthly, nonspiritual, irreligious, materialistic. Many people today take such secularity for granted, assuming that—once superstitious beliefs have been removed—the modern secular view is an accurate description of what the world really is. Yet secularity is not simply the everyday world we actually live in: it is a historically conditioned understanding of where and what we are—a worldview, moreover, that becomes quite questionable when we look into its origins and implications.
The idea of a secular world was originally one half of a duality—and it remains haunted by the loss of its other half. Modernity developed out of the separation that ensued when that other half gradually disappeared into the clouds.
The term secular (from Latin saeculum, “generation, age”) initially referred to the temporal world of earthly travails where we are born, suffer, and die, in contrast to the eternity of one’s heavenly or hellish afterlife. The focus of the contrast eventually shifted to a division between God’s transcendence and a despiritualized material world. God was believed to be the source of meaning, value, and goodness; the world he created came to be understood as a material machine.
At the beginning of the Renaissance, Europeans still understood the earth and its creatures according to a hierarchical paradigm: everything, including human society, has its ordained place within a tiered cosmos not only created but also sustained by God. In the 16th and 17th centuries this medieval worldview collapsed. The main characteristics of the modern world—including the nation-state, capitalism, and mechanistic science—developed and converged during the religious chaos of those centuries.
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