Review – A Secular Age by Charles Taylor

A Secular Age is Charles Taylor’s massive (776 body pages) and welcome contribution to secularization theory. Taylor explores the question of why in 1500 virtually everyone in the West believed in Latin Christendom, but in 2000 there are a staggering array of belief options, including outright unbelief. Toward the end of the book, his focus becomes more prescriptive as he describes what he sees as the way forward for Christian, particularly Catholic, belief.

Although A Secular Age is complex and far-ranging, its thesis can be captured in a single word: reform. Taylor presents the modern age as the unintended consequence of reform efforts throughout the late Middle Ages and the Modern Age. Medieval society lived in an enchanted world in which saints’ relics could heal people or sin in the village could ruin crops. Dark, personal powers could get to you and you needed protection. They also lived in a mutually-complementing, hierarchical society in which each had his place: the soldiers fight, the peasants farm, the monks pray. Perhaps most importantly, there was a sense (though not uncontested) of the “transformationalist” character or religion. That is, people understood that Christianity was more than simply a means of ensuring normal human flourishing – food, possessions, health, etc.

Reform contradicts the complementary nature of medieval society by insisting that everyone be a 100% committed Christian. The first rumblings of this occur in the Fourth Lateran Council and various monastic preaching orders, but reform shifts into high gear in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Integral to the Reformers’ criticism of medieval Rome was their denunciation of the monastic tradition and their corresponding valorization of the sanctity of secular life. God now appeared interested in non-clerical work, marriage (maybe even sex?), and the events that make up what we think of as ordinary life. In Europe, dominated by Christendom, reform was simultaneously a religious and a societal event. Taylor skillfully traces the simultaneous rise of the ideal of “civility” and the activity of poor reform. Especially in the case of the Puritan work ethic, good Christians could make good citizens, and astute rulers were determined for it to be so. Christian ethics became mixed with ethics that make for good living in society; Christian goals moved closer to societal goals.

Reform set the stage for a later move to “Providential Deism.” Here we see a further aligning of Christianity with the immanent. God works now not through miraculous intervention but through an impersonal yet benevolent order. Christian goals become increasingly identified with the good of society.  People come increasingly to live in the “immanent frame,” a worldview, if you will, in which many of the actions of life can be explained without explicit reference to anything transcendent, although some still choose to relate them to various transcendent meanings. This sets the stage for what Taylor calls the “nova effect,” in which the  immanent frame crashes against various experiences – a starlit night, a sonata, poetry, Scripture, death – which seem to demand transcendence. The net effect of this is to generate an ever-increasing number of solutions, all seeking to capture transcendence without going back to Christian orthodoxy. Taylor explores the main features of the nova effect up to the present, but I will not replicate the details here.

At this point, the distinctive changes from medieval to modern are already apparent. First, there is the move from the enchanted to the disenchanted world. This includes in part the relative absence of ghouls and goblins, but perhaps more significant is the loss of sacred time and space, particularly among the Protestant nations. For example, the Eucharist is now understood primarily intellectually. Corresponding to this is the rise of the “buffered” self. With the advent of modern science, nature comes to be something that can be controlled. In deism, it is primarily conceived as a wonderful machine made for human happiness. No longer do individuals feel vulnerable to unseen forces. Also contributing to the buffered self is the rise of psychological and emotional exploration in literature. There is a vast inner space to the human soul generally neglected in earlier ages. Socially, there is the move from hierarchical to direct-access societies. In the modern era, we view “the people” as a pseudo-entity logically prior to the government. This was not the case in the medieval world, in which the nation was its form of government. Also, we relate to the government primarily as individuals, not as “soldiers” or “peasants” with a distinct function.

One of Taylor’s primary goals is to show the flatness and inadequacy of the “subtraction story” in secularization theory. The subtraction story sees the last 500 years as the triumphant march of reason and science crowding out God and religion. As our manifold delusions and distractions are stripped away (subtracted), we can finally flourish as humans. Taylor insists on the contrary that it is not “science” or “reason” but rather a different ethical framework, more tuned toward human flourishing and less inclined toward juridicial-penal views of God, that accounts for unbelief. Furthermore, he denies that religion as such is in permanent decline. The explosion of new spiritualities is proof enough that people who for various reasons reject Christianity nevertheless feel the need for the transcendent in their lives. As long as that need remains, the future of Christianity cannot be discounted.

The result of our Western history is that we live in a time of great cross pressures. Although some people, both believer and unbeliever, remain entrenched enough within a sub-group not to feel the pressure, most Westerners live in an open space in which they can feel pulls in opposite directions. Each person has to wrestle with a world which at many times at least seems devoid of the presence of God, yet at other times appears to demand a transcendent reality.

I heartily enjoyed A Secular Age. Packed with informational content and lucid analysis, it greatly contributed to my understanding of secularization. The descriptive portions (the first 500 or so pages) were exceptional. Since I am a Reformed evangelical Christian and Taylor is a progressive Catholic who denies hell, penal substitutionary atonement, and the infallibility of both Pope and Bible, the prescriptive portions were less appealing to me, although they were passionate and thought-provoking. In the last few hundred pages, his prose bogged down noticeably as he spent more and more space recapitulating his argument without adding much new. There is a steady decline in the value of the chapters after “The Immanent Frame.” His critique of the subtraction theory and exploration of the social and ethical dimensions of modernity make this a valuable book. I would heartily recommend it to anyone seeking to understand religion in our present time or the broad history of secularism. I wouldn’t blame you, though, if you skipped some chapters near the end.

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Published in: on April 29, 2010 at 11:37 am  Leave a Comment  
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