From Deo Volente to Digital Video: The Flight to Secularism

Posted by on Oct 30, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

To keep the blog going while Rosemary and I are on holiday, I have drawn on some articles I wrote for Perth’s Advocate newspaper. This one originally appeared in 2012, and I have now updated it slightly.  We all sense that the climate in which we practice our faith is changing. This post examines the shift from a soft to a hard secularism. Though at times a little tongue in cheek, the underlying issues are of great significance. Hope you enjoy it…

My mother-in-law is a wonderful human being who has almost adjusted to life in the 21st century whilst clearly remaining a product of the 20th. You see it in the letters she writes – no emails or text messages from her! Liberally scattered around her correspondence is the dv abbreviation qualifying all statements of intent. So she writes, ‘Shoulder still worrying me. I will visit the doctor tomorrow (dv) and then have afternoon tea with Adie (dv).’

The news is long out of date when we receive it, but phone calls usually confirm that the dv proviso has been met. For those mystified by the abbreviation, dv is the abbreviation for the Latin words Deo volente. Lest you remain unenlightened, Deo is from the Latin root Deus, meaning God, and volente from the Latin root volens, meaning willing. Put them together and dv stands for God willing.

Adding the letters dv alongside all stated plans was a popular expression of piety in the first half of the twentieth century. Biblical scholars cite the text from which it arose, James 4:13-15 to be precise, ‘Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”’ If it is the Lord’s will – dv – Deo volente.

In our third millennium world, the dv habit has all but disappeared. Indeed, my Google search of ‘dv abbreviation’ (to check my Latin spelling) suggested that ‘digital video’ was the meaning of the mystery letters. Likewise my computer spell check insists that I am violating spelling conventions each time I type dv, and my iPad rather unhelpfully autocorrects all dv insertions to dvd. Suggestive images these. When did dv stop meaning ‘God willing’ and start to stand for ‘digital video’ or a misspelt ‘dvd’? Is the shift descriptive of our third millennium journey, a move away from an awareness of God and the provisional character of life?

There is no doubt that Australia is becoming an increasingly secular country. The latest census, whilst not a disaster for the church, reflects a continued slow but steady decrease in the number of people willing to claim some allegiance to the Christian faith, or any faith for that matter. Does our flight to secularism matter?

Given that we are in definition mode, perhaps it is as well to clarify what we mean by secularism. The free online dictionary (which my mother in law would never cite!), suggests that it means religious scepticism or indifference and that it reflects the view that religious considerations should be excluded from civil affairs, ethics and public education. If a secularist writes dv, you can be sure they don’t mean Deo volente.

There are however differing degrees of secularism. If we study the influence of the church in the broader society over the two thousand years of its existence, we quickly note periods when the church has been persecuted (a present reality in some parts of the world), whilst at the other end of the spectrum are times when the church has been hugely influential in society, sometimes even the power holder or power broker. Between these opposite poles, the church has often operated on the fringes of society. In Western society it has co existed with a soft secularism, though more recently we have seen a move towards a hard secularism.

Where soft secularism reigns, the church operates freely in the public space. The church cannot assume that its views will be upheld but it is free to operate as a valid player, and its longer term contribution to Western democracy is readily acknowledged and ensures that its views are taken seriously. Where soft secularism reigns, Christmas is not restricted to songs about Rudolph’s red reindeer nose, nor are we obliged to delete references to Christmas and to speak instead of the ‘festive season’. To the contrary, we can freely acknowledge that the festivities are sparked by the impact of the incarnation of Jesus the Christ. We also don’t have to pretend that the 2015th year that we use in our date is unrelated to the birth of Jesus. Indeed, we don’t have to reinterpret history, but can allow the impact of Jesus’ life to be acknowledged in the public arena.

Australia has largely operated within a framework of a soft secularism but there are signs that we are now drifting towards a hard secularism.

Hard secularism has an unacknowledged ideological bent. It is not willing to outlaw religion, but does its best to confine it to religious institutions. So long as those institutions operate as ghettoes, and don’t participate in the public arena, hard secularists are content. If hard secularists have their way, all religious schools would be banned. They certainly would never receive tax payers’ money – even though the parents supporting such schools have contributed to the public purse. Ethical concerns that stem from religious convictions would be overlooked and restricted to the realm of private morality. Where hard secularism holds sway, religious convictions (unless they are of the atheist variety) can in no way shape public morality. Chaplains are replaced by social or youth workers. God is banned from all public spaces… dv might stand for digital video, but deo volente – that would be seen as reverting to a primitive and superstitious past.

Hard secularism requires us to abandon our history and heritage. It is intellectually shallow and historically dishonest. It is immature and silly, but like it or not, it is the road we are currently travelling.

So how should the church respond at such a time? Two quick suggestions…

Rather than lament a past era (when a sympathetic, soft secularism prevailed) we should encourage a mature secularism. A mature secularism does not expect the church to be granted special favours, but nor does it allow the distortion of Christian faith to pass unchallenged. Mature secularism acknowledges that change is inevitable, but knows that a society that fails to draw from its roots will quickly vanish. A mature secularism welcomes a range of voices to the table of ideas. It looks for credible Christian voices to participate in the discussion of those things that most shape us as people.

Whilst encouraging a mature secularism, the church should commit itself to ‘faithful presence’ in society. A hard secularism seeks to push all religious talk to the ghetto. Christians who are faithfully present in society will refuse to buy this ideological line. They will live for Jesus, model the values he taught, and faithfully follow him in the marketplace. When appropriate, they will clearly speak for him. They will quietly commit themselves to being salt and light in a changing landscape.

Back to the dv as digital video or deo volente image. After speaking about it in a recent sermon, an older member of the congregation came bounding up to me. ‘Ah yes,’ he said. ‘The good old dv expression. When I was secretary of the cricket club I used it all the time.’ And then he chanted his oft used line. ‘The game next week will take place dv and wp.’ Seeing my look of confusion he expanded. ‘In cricket, that is always important. The game next week will take place God willing and weather permitting.’ In many parts of the world we have moved to indoor stadiums. Does that mean we will need neither the dv or wp qualification?

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