Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age”: Context & Question

Wow, this book is 800 pages... really?!I write this morning proposing a project – over the next few weeks I’d like to present, synthesize and analyze some portions of Charles Taylor’s massive and massively important tome A Secular Age.  Aside from being Roman Catholic (and Canadian!), Taylor is, in my opinion, a brilliant philosopher.  He is currently Professor Emeritus at McGill University in Montreal.  Those interested parties among us can find a link to Taylor’s contributions to a website which sprung from A Secular Age here.  A good and recent interview with him can be found here, and (of course…) there’s always Wikipedia.

But let’s take on the tough question right away: if there’s all this material out there already, why add more to it on this blog?  It’s pretty straightforward actually.  I want to write about Taylor’s thought here because I see this community as, in some respects, a community of ministers.  As a ministerial community, a community of servant-believers, I am convinced that understanding the context of our belief and service will help us to do it better.  One significant Jesuit presupposition runs something like this: in thinking we believe and serve more effectively.

So… if you buy that and are sticking with me (!) I’m going to try to do this in six parts, six interlocking blog posts, each of which will correspond to a different aspect of Taylor’s work.  The first part of this effort, then, is to set the scene, to give a précis of Taylor’s project.   So to it, then!

Taylor opens and orients his book with a question: “What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age?”  I think we all would agree, at least in the 21st century west, that we do indeed live in a secular age.  But even though this is the case I think it must be admitted that we don’t understand quite what this means – what do we mean by secular?  Where does it show up for us?   In order to help us get a grasp on this concept of secularization Taylor proposes three different models; we might think of them as three different lenses through which we can see what is happening to religious belief and practice in the contemporary west.  Taylor, with the linguistic innovation of a poet, calls these three models “secularization 1”, “secularization 2”, and “secularization 3.” Let’s take a look at them.

  • By secularization 1 Taylor means the separation of religion/belief from public space.  He means the way that religion is kept separate from politics, education, and etc.  He’s calling “secular” the fact that all members the U.S. (or Britain, or France) can engage in politics or attend schools regardless of what or whether they believe.
  • Secularization 2 might be the lens that gets closest to what I usually think of when I hear the word “secular.”  Here Taylor means the general decline of religious belief and practice that we so often notice (and lament).  Secularization 2 means falling away from belief God and correspondingly no longer engaging in religious practices/communities (such as Sunday Mass).
  • It is secularization 3, however, upon which Taylor has trained his eye.  Here he is referring not to the separation of religion & public space, nor to the decline of belief/practice, but to the challenging context within which believers believe and practice their faiths.  Second try: #3 calls “secular” the embattled conditions within which we believe today.  And a third shot: secularization #3 describes not particular beliefs, but the context of believing; and it does this in order understand how and why belief today takes the forms it does.

Okay, yeah, a lot of verbiage.  But let’s narrow down what we’re focused on: context.  And Taylor describes this context of belief today as an “embattled option.”  Believing today, coarsely put, is an option amongst other options.  Taylor’s words: “belief in God is no longer axiomatic.  There are alternatives.  And this will also likely mean that at least in a certain milieu, it may be hard to sustain one’s faith” (p3).

When I step back and consider why I’m so enthralled with Taylor’s project it strikes me that it’s this little line about the difficulty of sustaining faith that hooked me.  It’s something that I think very very many of we believers encounter in the 21st century west, and I do not think that I am alone in wondering why this is case, or how we got here.  In a sense, it has felt to me in reading and thinking about this book that Taylor is telling me my own story, giving me the lenses to understand better my own experience as a believing man in the contemporary western world.  “Thank God,” I have often said in response.

What are you laughing at?!But we would be remiss not to include a few last remarks to sum up both Taylor’s project, and my own.  Religious belief and practice in the “post-modern” 21st century west are undoubtedly fragile and fragmented.  What Taylor attempts to give us in A Secular Age is a master-narrative for understanding why that is.  So, let’s think about belief and unbelief within this lens of the secular context.  Taylor isn’t particularly interested in discussing belief and unbelief as rival theories (I am, but now’s not the time).  Instead, he wants to see belief or unbelief as different ways of understanding and responding to our own lived experiences.

For Taylor, the prime example of this difference in understanding our experiences is the explanation we give to what he calls moments of “fullness”, moments where our lives are suffused with meaning.  We’ve all had these great moments, the difference is the meaning we give to them.  Those of us who believe understand these experiences of fullness through the context of relationship to a transcendent being (God) in one form or another.  But for unbelievers, those same experiences are given immanent explanations; that is, such an experience might be explained by the power of Nature, or by the idea of the beautiful, etc. and refers to an immanent human flourishing.

So, we might say that the key to understanding Taylor’s project is to recognize that these different explanations (explanations of belief and unbelief) simply were not always available.  These different explanations became possible at certain points in time through certain historical events.  That is the lens that secularization #3 (such an eloquent title) provides us.

Let’s close this initial blog in Taylor’s own words: “A secular age is one in which the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing becomes conceivable… for masses of people” (pp19-20).  Including us.  Including the people we seek to serve.  Hence the book’s importance for our self-understanding as ministers and for the context within which we minister.

I hope this was an engaging introduction to what we’ll do here.  Feedback on the project is always welcome.  It’s way better to think through all this together.  Thanks & prayers.

PG, SJ

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10 Responses to Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age”: Context & Question

  1. Henry says:

    I am looking forward to reading your posts.

  2. Brian A. says:

    Thanks, Paddy, for the intro to Taylor. He’s come up in many discussions but I’ve never had the opportunity to read his work.

    I’m interested in this last quotation of Taylor you give. Do you think that the perpetuating messages of mass media reinforces “the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing?”

    Is there a historical link between the secular age and mass communication?

    • Brian, first off: what’s up, big guy?

      Second (and this would be directed at Kristin as well): great insight, there is definitely a connection, but not necessarily in the way we might think (at least in Taylor’s understanding). He has the concept of “engines of secularization” by which he means social structures that are carriers of certain worldviews (what he calls “social imaginaries” – we’ll talk about them). The “media” – in some forms – is definitely one of those engines, but we have to recognize that – in other forms – the media is an engine of religiosity in different forms. See Vatican Radio, for instance, or even the fantastic old Bill Moyer programs on PBS.

      Here’s what Taylor says about the media particularly: “…we might be tempted to think that the spiritual condition of the elite became that of the masses largely through diffusion. This was aided by the expansion of standard education, the spread of literacy, and then of higher levels of schooling and more recently through the great growth in university training. The elite condition often became generalized too, by the fact that modern society inducts everyone into the same mode of life, tends to wipe out the distinction between town and country, and inculcates in everyone the same social imaginary, relating to the society as a whole, particularly with the penetration everywhere of electronic media” (p424).

      Hope that helps! Prayers.

      PG, SJ

  3. I, too, am interested in links between the secular age and mass communication, but hope that the discussion goes beyond a cause-and-effect relationship. It’s easy to blame the mass media for societal change (and ills), when, in fact, it’s not at all clear whether it’s society driving or the media driving. And if I had to choose, I’d choose the former!

  4. Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

    This is great, Paddy. I like Taylor too and am interested in what he has to say in A Secular Age… but it’s so long! Until I find time to read it in its entirety, I’ll look forward to the rest of your series!

    • William Atkinson says:

      tony: Secular age is on Kindle, down load it and read while watching tv or doing laundry, eating din din, or trying to get to sleep. Great app for your I-pad, come into 21st century and by reader edition and let some else read it to you.

  5. mydogoreo says:

    An excellent topic for your blog which you make understandable to all. Good job!
    One thing, though; Having recently studied the history of the Church, I see that not much has changed. There will always be that tension between the apathetic, the Church-haters and the faithful.
    Either we understand the significance of our experiences or we do not. I enjoy secularists because, while they trouble me, at least I know where they stand. More troubling are fellow Catholics who have made it clear to me that anything more than a cursory knowledge of the faith might upset the lives they have carefully crafted. It’s not the secularists who try to bury faith as much as the so-called faithful do.

    • Thanks kindly for your thoughts – I think there’s a lot I agree with in what you say, especially the division you point out between secular, “fallen away”, and believers. The (hopefully?) helpful response Taylor would give is to complexify those distinctions, however. He offers a helpful idea (for me at least) in this context, which is the idea of the “cross pressures” that we experience as human being living in the secular west. These cross pressures are, unfairly brevicized, the felt influences/pressures that both believers and unbelievers feel pulling one in the other direction. E.g., it’s the kind of feeling that I (even though a firm believer) sometimes have that materialism’s or Nietzsche’s or Freud’s critiques are right.

      So… all this to say that Taylor is helping me to see that all of us stand (to greater or lesser extent) within the crosswinds of belief and unbelief within the secular west. I’ll, of course, try to do a better job explaining this as we continue!

      Thanks and prayers.

      PG, SJ

  6. William Atkinson says:

    Great Paddy, what a topic in this age where everyone is a follower of some religious enity and a believer in God or gods; But when asked further to define and explain their beliefs “even of Unknown” come to screeching halt. Interesting how many of Jesuit followers fall into same areans, “I believe” but can’t describe or define my beliefs, when asked to explain Abrahamic roots, most so called believers are dumfounded, even Jesuits, long standing in their beliefs and faith are taken aback by asked to show their development as christian followers and members of greater Abrahamic faith. In end, all become participants of pagan and secular “Unknown” inner beliefs. You’d think older followers of Christ would be able to answer “who is god” and “what I Must do to be saved” ???? to younger folks now asking these so direct questions of well religionised christian theologians, Jesuit and magisterium leaders. Its great Paddy is taking on “Secularization” and all its different aspecs, looking deeper into this you often wonder if Jesuit lifestyle isn’t a bit secular in its “soldier of God” way of life…..

  7. What a great project. I agree that Taylor is perhaps one of the more important philosophers to emerge in recent time yet so little read or discussed.

    About reading the book: Taylor begins each new idea by offering a lengthy recap of what he just finished. You can speed up be skimming over this.

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