A Secular Age

In writing A Secular AgeCharles Taylor has slowly, and thoroughly built what is in essence his life's work. He first lays out the terms that he intends to work with in defining secularism. This is more than what flies in public spaces, and the decline of belief and practice. For Taylor, secularity has to do with new conditions of belief, wherein the chief distinguishing figure is the loss of the transcendent. This theme of secularism--pushing for an immanence over against desire for a transcendent--is a theme to which Taylor returns again and again. It sums up the humanist agenda, which is entirely horizontal. Taylor, as he goes deeper, however, exposes some of the flaws or short-sightedness of such efforts.

First, Taylor seeks to take us back 500 years in order to trace through the historical chain of events which broad us from a place where unbelief was unthinkable to a place where faith is one possibility, and in fact, an increasingly less mainstream one. Much of this historical tracing looks from pre-enlightenment factors--such as belief in demons and to what Taylor refers to as a 'porous' world--to one where we now stand as 'buffered' individuals, protected from the intrusion of things that are not wholly rational. This belief in itself offered attractive value because it elevates human status to a place which is more invulnerable, even sometimes unrealistically so, and a self-determined reality, where the individual shapes the world and forms around him.

Through a series of multiple links, Taylor ties the advance of society, civilization, and order to religious development. As society advances, the goals of religion progress, and vice versa. People are freed from hierarchical power structures, and increasing levels of democracy and egalitarianism enter in. 'Neo-stoicism', as he defines it, becomes a balancing of mechanistic world of enlightenment and science, with high esteem for human passions.

However, these developments further and further create a sense of individuality, and the power of the will (what Nietzsche most clearly articulated as a destructive force). Nietzsche's philosophy, and the actions which flowed from it, becomes the archetype of what Taylor sees as the negative package of secularism--the triumph of human power over any obeisance to Divine structures and morals, so that the individual becomes Divine at the expense of any in his way. This is the unfortunate side of humanistic conclusions, when pushed in one direction.

Along the way, Social Imaginaries (which are similar to meta-narratives that emerge from humanistic direction, as well as their evolution along Christian lines) explain our place in this world, and our relation to others. One of the central battlegrounds between Christianity and secularism--which Taylor identifies as the two main competing forces throughout this book (oddly excluding, for the most part, the massive growing scope of Islam, even in 'developed' nations)--is how we think about time. From a secular standpoint, time is the 'here and now' in this world; whereas, for the Christian, time includes and gives primacy to the eternal, reconstructing how we see this world.

According to Taylor, Matthew Tindal opens the first real chink in the armor. He claims that all God's purposes were toward 'common interest and mutual happiness of his creatures' (i.e. that God really wants people to always be interested in serving the greater good). This cut against some of the embedded ideas of human depravity and opened up the possibility of elevating human interests as God's interests. From there, further developments occurred. Bertrand Russell pushed toward finding a divine-like nature as one of two within a human being; and, overall the trend swung to an anthropocentric focus, with a more impersonal view of God.

More and more, options toward humanism arose. Once the highest values shifted, the focus become horizontal, and religious experience trended toward the immanent, God could fade to the background. However, like many mainstream narratives project, the way that has worked itself out has not been a complete shedding of the skin of Christianity to emerge fully into the light of enlightenment; rather, it has resulted in more of a shifting of Christian focus and ideals--a morphing of the Christian message. Taylor conveys the narratives of the new secularism as having great mobility, and focusing on the importance of authenticity. For there, Taylor spends the remainder of his book in a more philosophical tone, debating the dilemmas secularism leaves us with in our current time-comparing humanism at cross-purposes with Christianity.


It is interesting to see how a non-triumphal secularist, like Taylor--who believes there are multiple trajectories, and ultimately is unable to point to one best solution toward the myriad of swirling dilemmas of the human--craves for religious and spiritual meaning. Although perhaps that is only what it means to encounter a truly intellectually consistent secular humanist. The most fascinating part of Taylor's work comes toward the end of the book, where he engages more unfettered and unapologetic in the work of a philosopher and theologian. There, Taylor attempts to propose the best way forward. He remains true to his academic identity in hedging his bets in every way he can, taking two steps forward, and another 1.85 steps back.

It is important that we credit Taylor with what he does well: he grasps ideological shifts well; although, like a typical historian, he tends to view everything through a strict cause-effect historical lens, where the actions and results come almost as inevitable developments of the ideas which birthed them. However, no sooner does he zoom his camera on the individual and his responsibility that he emerges holding the banner for individual self-creation. In doing so, he fails to restrain a certain form of awe and respect to monstrously selfish or depressing conclusions which emanate from the 'courage' to take hold and grapple with life on your own terms. He is unwavering in his commitment to the link between ideas and actions which flow from them. The difficulty is that he must acknowledge continuing human strivings in order to satisfy perennial longings for meaning, hope, and significance, which bubble out in ways shaped, but not defined by historical milieu.

Taylor stands out as a secularist who does two things better than his academic peers. First, he eschews the mainstream secular narrative which pretends that religion will vanish slowly and quietly into the night as humanity inevitably progresses on its long march forward toward enlightenment of more of a raw materialism and humanism. Of course, recurring atrocities of violence and evil have made these theories increasingly absurd to anyone who has their eyes open, but it is still impressive to see one who leans on that side acknowledge it. For example, he spots the contradictory effect of the push to minimize human accountability, by labeling what was formerly sin as 'mental illness.' However, in trying to defend against a lowering of human worth, the humanistic tactic does just that, because sickness cannot be overcome and conquered, it can only be treated. He also pushes back in repulsion over the shallowness and de-humanization that a disposal of transcendence leaves humanity with, recognizing this will be unsatisfying.

Second, Taylor recognizes his own assumptions, and reveals that he understands the true doctrines of Christianity. Taylor can't escape the allure of many aspects of Christianity--he just cannot accept it in its purest form. To do so, for him, would be a reversion. He would have to travel back to a less enlightened, more brutish time of human development, complete with its ideas on the spirit world, the wrath of God, Divine punishment of humanity, and even the necessity of a bloody cross. When he comes to the fulcrum of Christianity, the atonement of Christ, Taylor can't stomach the implications.

In the end, Taylor seems to offer a via media between Christianity and secularism, plucking the best strands of both, and joining together these two 'protagonists,' as he calls them. He treats these two worldviews as brothers-- who, once joined, have fallen out of favor, but who can both learn from each other to provide a better, more full orbed religious experience in the future. In reality however, this is exactly what secularism and pluralism has been from the get-go. Secularism is nothing but a thinly disguised exaltation of self. It becomes a smorgasbord at which Christianity is plundered for its moral qualities, its horizontal and transcendental expansions of the horizons of human experience, its betterment, and even wholistic transformation of the self--but where the unpleasant bones of supernaturalism, and accountability before the Divine Judge are spit back out.

Jesus says, 'If you do not hate your own father and mother, your wife and children (your self-assumed authority to judge which parts of my doctrine you like), you can not be my disciple.' (paraphrase). The demands of the exclusivity of Christ and His Lordship have served as a stumbling block and a laughing stock to every other religion and philosophy of this world, and it is that hindrance which makes Taylor's hopes for a synthesis between Christianity and secularism impossible.