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.
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.