Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is an enormous book in size–over 800 pages long–and scope–he sketches the rise of secularism. While at times it borders on turgid, the book teases out a framework for understanding how, over 500 years, Western culture gradually shifted from enchantment to disenchantment, from the transcendent to the immanent, from belief or unbelief to belief and unbelief coexisting.
Taylor pokes holes in the commonly held assumption that the Enlightenment and the rise of the Scientific Age paved the way for the death of religion. The assumption claims that reason and science enabled a stripping away of religious myth and exposed life as it ‘really’ is, void of the supernatural and no longer needing a god or gods to explain mystery. Taylor argues that this subtraction narrative is itself a myth.
Instead, he points to the rise of humanism, spurred in part by the Protestant Reformation’s removal of the sacred/secular distinction (I think especially of later Dutch Reformed thinkers like Kuyper and ‘all of life redeemed’), as the real reason that secularism found fertile soil in which to flourish. Humanism shifted arbitration of meaning and values from a transcendent God to the immanent self. This, Taylor argues, is giving rise to ‘secularism 3,’ which is a secularism in which belief and unbelief coexist side-by-side.
For Christians in the 21st century, Taylor’s work is important as it reasserts the importance of a belief in God in the 1500 years leading up to the ‘Great Disembedding’ as well as for how Taylor unmasks the subtraction narrative as fundamentalism in its own right. As I think about the context in which I live, I’m reminded of the number of friends and acquaintances I have who do not believe in God, or don’t believe in the same God I do. Taylor’s work with secularism explains why we can be friends and not wage some sort of holy war on one another.
More broadly speaking, Taylor’s work opens the door for building a bridge from the immanent back to the transcendent, from unbelief to belief, from disenchantment to enchantment (perhaps this is what the publisher had in mind with the cover photo). Instead of polarizing secularism and religion, maybe we need to understand religion’s role in giving rise to secularism. In some ways, secularism may represent an overcorrection which has its roots in the Reformation. In trying to re-energize the church by making all things sacred, the very notion of ‘sacred’ became void of meaning.
Yet we still live in a world where mystery has not been adequately explained by advances in science and rational thinking. Perhaps the West is gearing up for a shift back to transcendence, belief, and enchantment. If so, what role ought Christians play in ushering in this shift? Some will argue for a new kind of Christendom. Others will press for a gentle pluralism that makes Christianity the most tempting item on the belief buffet. What say you?