Some Implications of Charles Taylor’s ‘A Secular Age’ for Theology

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As one friend commented, Taylor’s book ‘A Secular Age’ is magisterial. It commands respect; it is an authoritative voice in the discussion on where we come from and equips and invites us to participate in the conversation of where we are headed or should be heading. Living between whence and whither we do well to heed Taylor’s wisdom and insight.

Taylor defines secularization as the movement from a situation in which people considered belief in God as the only viable option to one in which belief in God is just one of many option and where unbelief is often seen as more plausible. In order to get as close as possible to what really happened careful attention needs to be paid to the myriad voices and movements that contributed to the emergence of the new situation. This requires breathtaking scope of vision and Taylor draws from the resources of a life-time of research to pull off the gigantic task of a diachronic account (29). This is not the first time Taylor has undertaken such a project. His book bears strong resemblance to Sources of the Self, which explores a similar question, that of the opening up of the multiple moral sources that constitute the modern self.⁠1 Taylor meticulously describes the many little movement and motivations that position themselves on the way to change. He is not out to provide a causal account—that task is virtually impossible—but rather shows how many little steps make a big one in which the medieval cosmos is disenchanted until a neutral universe results with empty meaningless space governed by neutral time. These steps lead through the emergence of a buffered self, the rational disengaged Enlightenment person who is emotionless, removed from bodily life, self-governing, autonomous (136 pp.), to a Deism of the impersonal order that forms the gateway to exclusive humanism and atheism.

Taylor does more than simply explain the complex processes that have led Western civilization from an assembly of theocratic societies to a secular age. His achievement is indeed formidable, but isn’t Taylor a philosopher rather than a historian? Doesn’t he provide a subtle yet convincing argument to take the secular age of modernity with utter seriousness, not as an enemy but as discussion partner, a context for living out our lives, as a simple “givenness” that has come down to us from history, with both dangers and blessings, both challenges and chances attached to it?

Different accounts of modernity

There are multiple accounts of what has happened with the advance of the secular age. I am quite familiar with the evangelical-conservative account that blames the Enlightenment (thereby singling out Hume and Kant as prominent evildoers) for the loss of God. Human pride led to the elevation of human reason as arbiter over all of reality and especially revelation. Before long Christianity was ridiculed and the Bible became to be regarded as a purely human book. Schleiermacher abandoned revelation and located the center of religion in Das Gefühl, the inner sense of dependence and god-consciousness. Biblical criticism did whatever damage was left to be done. Luckily the valiant tradition of Christian apologetics rose to the task of defending historicity of the Bible, existence of God, supernatural accounts in Scripture, etc. The Kantian critical moment was simply ignored and modernism’s reliance on reason was mustered and enlisted to keep a pre-modern worldview alive. The idea that the truth is under assault and needs to be safeguarded is still very much part of the evangelical narrative. The modern world is seen as one of irreparable loss.

Another account, equally negative but not prone to talk in terms of loss, is that of the postmodern deconstructionists. Early attacks were leveled at the reliance on correspondence between language and reality. Before long the notion of absolute truth was rejected. Not only was such truth not available to human beings embedded in their respective cultures, narratives, and language games, truth itself was merely a human construct to deal with reality; it doesn’t exists. This provided a devastating blow for the modernist reliance on human reason. In the end it was exposed as mere sophistry, knowledge used as power, truth claims done for the purpose of dominating others. This deconstruction of modernity did little to rehabilitate pre-modernity or any notion of God. It merely took modernity to its logical conclusion: disengaged reason cannot be the foundation of a new humanity in a disenchanted universe from which God has been forced to retreat.

Yet another account, that runs alongside that of deconstruction, revels in what modernity has brought us: modern medicine, scientific advances, the information age, but above all liberation from the strictures and errors of religion, yes, Godself. All that remains is to get our act together, eradicate poverty, sickness, and death. Humanity and the future were made for each other.

An Age to Live By

If we ask Taylor where he places himself in relation to these accounts, we will find that his position is equidistant to all of the above options, in spite of the fact that Taylor is a Hegelian philosopher and Christian. Or better, his view seems to capture the totality of what led us to the current position in such a way that we would place him above all the other accounts. He rejects the metaphors of loss and liberation: “I will be making a continuing polemic against what I call ‘subtraction stories.’ Concisely put, I mean by this stories of modernity in general, and secular in particular, which explain by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge.”⁠2 There is an important message here. If Taylor disavows subtraction he proposes acceptance of some sort. The secular age is neither a liberation nor lostness. It is. It is an age to live by.

Taylor wants to describe the transformation of a pre-modern society into one that is secular. What process led to a world in which believing in God was the only option available to one in which many options are available? I argued that Taylor’s theme of railing against subtraction theories (both the positive and negative ones) gives reason to ponder the further rhetorical argument that underlies such discourse. Is it, as I suggest, to come to an acceptance of the secular age as a situation in which we simply find ourselves thrown. It is not all bad for it brings a certain kind of maturity and plurality in terms of having options available. It is not exclusively positive for it confronts us with challenges that previous ages did not have to face. The stance of disengaged reason has produced a buffered self that, after attempting to ground itself in its epistemology, is finally acceding to the impossibility of such a task. A return to an enchanted world, or a great chain of being, however, is no longer really possible. The rejection of negative and positive attitudes is not only related to the givenness of the current situation. Taylor’s phenomenological precision shows that one truly cannot really speak of subtraction either way. Too many steps are involved with too many divergent intentionalities. For Taylor, the Hegelian, this is a developmental process in which movements and counter movements (read theses and anti-theses) are combined into new movements and counter movements (read syntheses). A simple overarching meta-narrative in terms of having one particular teleology is not possible. Taylor’s post-Hegelian background comes out with particular clarity when he denies the objection of idealism as primary causal agent in the process of change (212). Indeed ideas and practices mutually influence each other so that untangling the web of history is impossible as is an ideological standpoint in these matters.

Implications of a Secular Age for Theology

What does it mean for theology? What do we as theologians studying philosophical methods and in particular phenomenology have to do with Taylor’s work? On the one hand we could consider secularism as largely confined to the Western world, a world ever decreasing in size and importance in a world that is overtly religious. Perhaps it is a period that will pass and make way for new religiosity and new paradigms and conceptions of the human person and the world. Perhaps not. Secularity is likely here to stay and will acquire and strengthen the component of plurality in the public spheres of globalism and the multi-cultural society. It will change but is here to stay. It is significant that Taylor talks about an opening up of options of meaning making in the secular age rather than closing them. He makes a similar point in his Sources of the Self, where he more or less welcomes the availability of moral sources in modernity.

This positive stance of a Christian philosopher reminds me of Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of the secular age as one that has come of age. Bonhoeffer no longer rejects this current age as something negative. Rather, he believes it is theology that needs to make a move into the direction of secularity. This is neither the place to discuss Bonhoeffer’s concept of a religionless Christianity nor his proposal of a radical reworking of Christian concepts for this age. But it might point us in the direction that Taylor wants us to look. Is theology to be a discipline that incessantly calls people to a story of the past in an attempt to retrieve that which is forever lost? Is theology’s field of operation a subculture that is ever decreasing in size? These are important questions for if affirmed, these questions invalidate theology as a meaningful disciple. Taylor suggests that the opening of options in the secular age of what to believe and what not to believe is simply something that needs to be accepted. He doesn’t even come close to being as emphatic as Bonhoeffer in a positive evaluation of the secular age, but he might well be endorsing in an equal measure a level-headed engagement with it. For theology this will mean the development of some form of theology of the public realm in which a degree of plurality and receptivity to otherness is present without relinquishing Christ’s centrality to reality (The Reformed theologian in me wants to say ‘Christ’s Lordship over creation,’ but I shall refrain from doing so). This is what we could call its external component. Internally such a theology would have to both affirm the Church in its commitment to its Lord while pointing it outward to a world that should not be feared but embraced. Missions will look different in an age of plurality and deconstructed truth claims.

These are not even the beginnings of a reworking of theology and I’m far from wanting to assert a solution. Let it open the discussion. If phenomenology has cleared the ground for theology by pointing to a possibility of speaking beyond the dead-end of modernist epistemology, Taylor shows that after we have moved beyond it methodologically, we can embrace it factually: this is where we are, let’s deal with it. There is no turning back. The Hegelian dialectical movement of history as interpreted by Taylor knows no regress. History moves forward and brings ever new constellations of ideas and practices. Only the theologian who accepts the givens and responds adequately to them will avoid marginalization or irrelevance and has a chance of being fruitful. Ours is an age to live by.

Notes

1 Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: the Making of the Modern Identity, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989).

2 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 1st ed., (Camebridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 22.

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