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Charles Taylor

On Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age”

I have always found Charles Taylor’s writings to be insightful and stimulating. This was especially true of his Massey lectures The Malaise of Modernity and of the earlier, weightier study on which these were based, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity.

So it was with eager expectation that I bought – way back in 2007 – the even weightier work A Secular Age. I have to say, to my disappointment, I found it a real slog. In fact, I never truly succeeded in reading it right through! Part of my motivation in undertaking this essay was to propel a final lunge over the finish line.

Reviewers, I found, generally are agreed that Taylor’s text would have benefited from a good editor. One strongly suspects that it wasn’t edited at all, but rather accumulated layer upon layer, on top of Taylor’s Gifford lectures of 1999 titled “Living in a Secular Age?”.

Graham Ward, of Radical Orthodoxy, offers this vivid description of the final shape emerging from this sedimentation:

This is a mountain of a book, with panoramic views, unexpected outcrops, serendipitous glades for repose and a narrative path that zig zags over the variegated terrain that constitutes the secular age… before arriving at a final nova … then a supernova of religious possibilities.

Perhaps you have seen bumper stickers that read “This car has climbed Mount Washington”. Well I propose a new bumper sticker that reads “The occupant of this vehicle has finished reading ALL of A Secular Age”.

It is my hunch, if you look closely, you will find just such a sticker on the back of whatever car Francis now uses as his Popemobile. Because, amidst the multitude of take away messages in this work, A Secular Age certainly lays the ground work for a more seeker friendly evangelization.

Having revisited A Secular Age I now have more sympathy for its magpie accumulation of insights and explorations. For Taylor’s theme is itself vast and encompassing: he writes “in a way this whole book is an attempt to study the fate in the modern West of religious faith in a strong sense.” That is, “belief in a transcendent reality on the hand and connected aspiration to a transformation which goes beyond ordinary human flourishing on the other.” (510 – All page references are to A Secular Age unless otherwise noted).

I

Taylor provides a kind of taxonomy of the secular and in doing so comes up with all kinds of neologisms and acronyms: terms such as ‘fragilization’, ‘immanentization’, or ‘MMO’ meaning the ‘Modern Moral Order’; or ‘RMN’, that is, ‘Reform Master Narrative’.

In setting out on this challenging terrain, I suppose the most important concept for us to pin down is the word “secular” itself.

This is used by Taylor in three senses. There is, first of all, what might be called the classical sense of the secular, meaning the temporal, earthly order, distinguished from the sacred or eternal.

Taylor notes, but does not in my view underscore sufficiently, the revolutionary character of this bifurcation, brought about by Christianity. This new distinction of the sacred from the secular on the one hand demythologized and disenchanted the sacred cosmopolis of the Ancient Near East, while, on the other hand, granting a new autonomy and integrity to the human temporal order. Recall how Jesus distinguishes his own kingship from that of Pilate’s – asserting the primacy of the Father’s reign – while at the same time acknowledging the genuine sovereignty accorded Pilate within the human political order.

Another way of putting it is that Christianity, and Christianity alone, grounds the very possibility of the secular order. It is an expression of the distinction yet togetherness of the divine and human natures in Christ. By way of contrast, the unitarian monotheism Islam and Ancient Israel expresses itself in a theocratic order that has no place for the secular as such.

The secular then comes to have a second, more modern sense; namely as a neutral, non-confessional public space. This is the secular as areligious, a stance that can – but needn’t necessarily be – actively hostile to the religious or sacred. The separation of Church and State in the US would be an example of such neutrality in the public square co-existing with a relatively high level of religious observance.

Finally, we have what Taylor refers to as Secular 3. This, he claims, is the age we inhabit, the “Age” referenced in the title. He does offer a kind of definition or profile, but his true aim is to do much more than provide a detached view from nowhere.

His goal, rather, is to take us on a guided tour, as it were, inside our own lived experience of the contemporary. In his estimation the entire validity of his analysis turns upon its power to evoke an awareness of the conflicting, cross pressures experienced by believers and non-believers alike, and to trigger recognition of this condition as truly our own.

So Taylor’s study is not concerned with counting how many people go to Church and what in fact people do or do not believe. This kind of reductive pseudo-sociological analysis, in Taylor’s view, renders indecipherable the genuine factors in play in our own time. Taylor’s focus instead is on eliciting the felt context, the horizon which orients us and yet remains for the most part simply assumed and therefore hidden from our active awareness.

Now, even though I know next to nothing about computers, I will venture to use an analogy from the computer world to get at this hidden matrix or ‘frame’ as Taylor calls it.

I’m sure we’re all heavily invested in trying to ensure our data does not evaporate into the ether. To counteract this existential threat a friend of mine has everything backed up seven ways to Sunday. But there is something more involved in accessing this carefully preserved material. There is the whole matrix of interpretation, namely the codes, the programmes, that form the context that actually allow the bits and bytes to be reconstituted and made meaningful. Without the benefit of this matrix you won’t be able to bequeath your unused Air Miles and Shoppers Drug Mart points to your successors, even though you have all this data backed up on your thumb drive!

An alternative title for A Secular Age, then, might be “Surfacing” in this sense, that its aim is to bring up into consciousness literally our pre (dash) – conceptions, the factors which condition what we are willing to credit as believable or discredit, as unbelievable. So it’s not so much the what, as the how, the factors supporting or inhibiting believing, that Taylor wants to bring out.

II

Now there is another work which I highly anticipated reading but (so far!) have come up short of completing: Newman’s Grammar of Assent. So I am on thin ice in drawing comparisons, but I will venture to say that this what Taylor is up to: providing a grammar of assent for the contemporary context; to map the multifactorial sources that shape credibility and elicit conviction.

It is Taylor’s contention that these sources extend beyond the realm of ideas. What shapes believability is what Taylor calls the social imaginary. He writes: “this is broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality in a disengaged mode.” It concerns the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, their expectations and the deeper normative notions and images which underlie these expectations. (171-2)

Getting at our contemporary condition for Taylor requires narrating the shifting constellations of these moral and spiritual sources, the different visions of the good and ways of embodying it, that go together with shifting understandings of the self, and agency, identity and moral orientation. (Sources of the Self, p. 105)

The results of this narration run completely counter to the story I think we all have heard and partly buy into, about what secularization is all about and what drives it. What Taylor calls the Mainstream Secularization Narrative. This the ‘once upon a time’ story of an age of faith systematically undermined by science, told entirely as a story of loss, of subtraction, where layers of enchantment, and religious spirituality are peeled away over time, exposing to the light of day human identity as we now know it, one that was there all along, but just waiting to be liberated from the dark night of the soul known as religion.

It’s what Taylor refers to the as the view from Dover Beach, the world according to Dawkins, where the trajectory of history is inevitably a slide from what he calls Secular 1 to Secular 3.

What Taylor’s alternate narrative shows is how the exclusive humanism of our contemporary secular age is actually the fruit of new constellations, and newly constructed self-understandings powered by moral and spiritual sources ultimately grounded in Latin Christianity.

So while unquestionably there are losses with the arrival of modernity, including a flattening of life within a purely immanent, this-worldly frame, there also have been positive achievements.

Taylor’s genealogy of our secular age shows that it is both something new yet also continuous in certain ways with the old. Summarizing his survey of the social imaginary of the West Taylor concludes:

What springs out from this history is the long-term vector in Latin Christendom, moving steadily over a half a millennium towards more personal committed forms of religious devotion and practice. The spirituality of quest that we see today could be understood as the form this movement takes in an Age of Authenticity… The same long term trend which produced the disciplined, conscious, committed individual believer, Calvinist, Jansenist, devout humanist, Methodist … now has brought forth today’s pilgrim seeker, attempting to discern and follow his/her own path (532-3)

This deconstruction of the standard death of God story yields unsettling results for exclusive humanists and believers alike. First, it is clear that reports of God’s demise have been highly exaggerated. Our contemporary secular age is not an age of disbelief but of believing otherwise. (Cf James K.A. Smith’s excellent vademecum distillation of Taylor’s arguments, How (Not) to be Secular)

Modernity in Taylor’s account thus emerges as much more than merely what is left over after religion is removed from the equation; it is actually an achievement. Modernity is the realization of powerful moral spiritual affirmations having theological roots. This is why Taylor is so critical of the standard secular subtraction theory. Because it masks the genuine religious sources of the contemporary secular.

In Taylor’s account it is not the simple loss of religious adherents, but rather shifts the social imaginary, that result in what he terms as an “immanent frame”, which is the matrix or deep background against which we all do our believing. According to Taylor’s mapping, this is where “here and now” is for us all.

The issue, then, is not how to escape into nostalgia, or find refuge in reactionary denunciation, but rather how to inhabit this frame faithfully and fruitfully.

III

Now of course this diagnosis of what has become of Western Christendom might sound as if we all end up imprisoned within an iron cage of immanentism. But Taylor’s account is not a straight line narrative of necessity. The immanent frame, he contends, is our reality, but not an inexorable destiny.

As Graham Ward observed, the path Taylor traces is full of zig zags. The unfolding of the social imaginary of the West Taylor provides manifests contingencies, roads not taken but which nonetheless remained open to transcendence and an affirmation of more than simple human flourishing. Nonetheless the outcome is the immanent frame our contemporary social imaginary has assumed.

In Taylor’s view there are two basic stances or construals of this dominant frame: one open to transcendence and the other closed. The important thing to note is that these construals are not intellectual constructs. They arise out of our overall sense of things, which predispose us see this immanence in a certain light.

In this way our coming to see things as either open or closed, draws on an over all sense of things runs which runs ahead of the reasons we can muster for it. It involves a leap of faith, in the sense of being an anticipatory confidence rather than a definitive reasoned conclusion. (550-51)

The striking claim here is that both exclusive humanists and those open to the transcendent share in common this same itinerary: both traverse a stage beyond available reasons into the realm of anticipatory confidence.

Where one recognizes that such a ‘leap’ is in play in arriving at one’s own affirmations, then there can be an appreciation of the viability of other construals, what Taylor calls “takes”. Here one has the basis for a new kind of inter-faith dialogue so to speak, between closed takes on the immanence and those open to transcendence.

So these self-aware “takes”, understood as such, are positive, dialogue-enabling things. What is negative is something Taylor styles as “spin”. Spin, as James K.A. Smith formulates it “is a construal of life within the immanent frame that does not recognize itself as a construal and thus has no room to grant plausibility to the alternative.” (How (Not) to be Secular, 143)

Here again the spin given to the immanent frame can be either open or closed to transcendence. The critical thing is that the spinner takes his/her construal as a simple self-evident certainty. Clearly, under such circumstances there can be no genuine dialogue and engagement. Contemporary cultural warriors on both sides are plainly spinners in Taylor’s sense.

What Taylor’s work does is shift the site of engagement and encounter away from epistemic and doctrinal issues where there are winners and losers, boosters and blamers to the pre-doctrinal, “felt context” that enables or disables our capacity to believe.

Taylor’s response to the contemporary is able to offer greater validation to the diffuse yearnings and discontents of those on a quest, than can the new atheism or religion spun in a reactionary command and control way. So even though Taylor dares to tread into the battlefield of secularism, he does so in an uncannily irenic way.

Perhaps a bit like the ideal Canadian UN peacekeeper armed only with his turquoise blue helmet and walkie-talkie. Because he is not trying to win an argument. He sees there is no place or purchase left for the re-imposition of Thomism as the Church’s answer to modernity.

This is the way Taylor is the advocate for a seeker-friendly stance on the part of the Church. He wants to open a deeper dialogue between “dwellers and seekers”, that is, those who are fully within a faith tradition, and those who are on the periphery and beyond; between those who are moved by an inner-directed demand for authenticity and the outer-directed affirmers of transcendence.

It is Taylor’s contention that these are not simply two solitudes, that each experiences the cross pressures of the claims of the others. Both are “fragilized” as Taylor expresses it. And, as uncomfortable as that sense of insecurity and fragility is to live with, it also can yield insight, a heightened awareness of the contested and contestable character of our own convictions.

IV

The book concludes with exemplars of the kind of fruitful exploration Taylor’s account commends. Rather than deploy what I call the ‘QED’ apologetic mode of the early Socratic Club C.S. Lewis, Taylor is a follower of Pope Benedict’s dictum that “the only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.” (cited Smith, p. 134, n. 6)

Accordingly, the evidence Taylor adduces to mark the path of faith in this secular age comes in the form of the lived experience of two exemplars: Charles Péguy and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Both instances of what he calls reconversion, creative responses to and within modern secularity rather than flight from it.

In the case of Péguy, this reconversion came through an approfondissement, a deepening, that broke through the surface of the bourgeois Christianity of La Belle Époque to the genuine Christian sources of authenticity; and, in Hopkins’ case, by a recovery of articulacy about transcendence through the discovery of what Taylor calls ‘subtler languages’, a more allusive personal poetic, where language is given a constitutive, performative and revelatory capacity. (759) Similarly, Péguy turned to poetry in his Mystères as the medium best suited to access fundamental Christian realities.

It is Taylor’s view that such subtler languages can serve to find a way back to the God of Abraham. Precisely the sort of articulacy, I would suggest, that was the poetic gift of the late Leonard Cohen. After all, doesn’t he have everyone singing Halleluiah?

Finally, Taylor’s diagnosis of the course of Latin Christendom finds the good news in what sounds like bad news. The bad news – at least for some – is that our Age is secular, and that our contemporary secularization cannot be pinned solely on the secularists.

Fundamentally, the flattened, exclusive humanism of our contemporary age is the result of a self-distortion of Christianity, linked with certain fateful, yet contingent historical turns. By obsession with reform, codification and dogmatic definition, Latin Christendom undid itself, Taylor contends, by collapsing the complementarity of the secular and the sacred, the temporal and eternal, the spirit and the flesh into a rigorist authoritarian monism. A spiritual distortion that Taylor, following Charles Péguy, terms “excarnation”.

Excarnation refers to the historical shift in the West from embodied forms of religious life to those which are more in the head. (554) From the early modern period on from 1450 – 1650, in a movement Taylor broadly refers to as Reform, the distinction and relation of the temporal and eternal were fused in a moral formulation of the faith tightly tied to a European civilizational order.

So, while delivered in a non-combative, still small voice of calm, Taylor’s overarching thesis is trenchant and radical. In fact, none other than John Millbank sees Taylor as the true exponent of Radical Orthodoxy. Far from rejecting creedal orthodoxy, Taylor’s critique is that Latin Christendom has not been orthodox enough. In Millbank’s view, we now need to imaginatively grope our way back to a new sort of renewal that will not repeat the negative dialectic of the long term reforming process.

Of course the good news is that Christianity is not Excarnational but Incarnational, and so holds within itself the key to the overcoming of its own self-mutilation. Taylor’s work is an indispensable aid in this Christian self-discovery.

I have to confess to a feeling of dis-ease with where Taylor’s account leaves us. And so I wish to offer two quotations I feel I can more fully affirm.

The first from Austin Farrer (adapted): “The challenge of being a Christian in the twenty-first century is essentially the challenge of being a Christian.”

The second from Graham Ward, “The secular age is neither good nor bad in itself. It is just the time we have been given to redeem. And that redemption lies in the divine transformation of the cultural imaginary.”

By Jonathan Eayrs

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
[email protected]/map-year