Lowering (or Eliminating) the Bar
A Secular Age is a book I did not know I needed. I am indebted to James K. A. Smith for making it accessible through How (Not) to Be Secular, especially given the time constraints of this assignment. As Dr. Clark hinted at, I did find myself in the secularism story and have garnered more thoughts and questions than word count available.
The sweep of Taylor’s work is tremendous. I chuckled when Smith noted that roughly three-hundred pages into Taylor had only gotten us to the seventeenth century! Taylor’s brilliance and humility are a fascinating combination. His response to critiques of his tome show a rare humility and is surely a key to his brilliance. He concludes “that the misunderstandings have been largely of my own doing. Crucial points should have been made more carefully. But I’m learning from this and other discussions…” This is genius, I believe, to have written what he has and to still be growing.
While I found many rabbit trails to take, I will endeavor to stay on the path of my personal research interest. Taylor describes a tension preceding the Reformation that is of relevance. In last semester’s writing and research, I began to notice the pendulum swinging throughout church history between the vita contemplative and the vita activa. I had observed that the Patristic period appears to hold these two ways of living life with the least amount of angst. Perhaps their nearness to Christ’s perfect embodiment and that Christianity was not yet a state religion were contributing factors. But going forward, I notice a value shift from the active life to the contemplative life and back and forth.
But Taylor provides different language. He speaks not of a pendulum swinging back and forth as I used but of the tensions lived and held together. The pulls of a prayerful, spiritual life and the very real demands of work were tensions that the Church (at least pre-Protestant Reformation) was not trying to resolve. It was not a problem they were attempting to fix. That “the demands of the total transformation which the faith calls to” and “the requirements of ordinary ongoing human life” were inherent tensions that had to be lived.
But something has been lost. Smith expounds: “What changes in modernity is that, instead of inhabiting this tension and trying to maintain an equilibrium between the demands of creaturely life and the expectations for eternal life, the modern age generates different strategies for resolving (i.e., eliminating) the tension.”
Taylor sees this shift as a way of ultimately (though not intentionally) “lowering the bar” on what it means to flourish. To fix it, the options become either setting the bar higher spiritually or lowering the expectations that eternity impresses upon us. “That is, you can stop being burdened by what eternity/ salvation demands and simply frame ultimate flourishing within this world.”
I see my own struggle to live out and hold the tension of contemplation (God-ward attention) and action (both mundane and missional). I guess it is comforting that I am not alone in this; this has been a struggle for centuries. I, like others before me, am tempted to shrug off the call of transcendence and live for the here and now. Modernity calls us down to immanence and pulls us down to finding our meaning only in this world. Do and achieve and make meaning for yourselves while you can.
“We have constructed an environment in which we live a uniform, univocal secular time, which we try to measure and control in order to get things done.”
There is a certain heaviness in considering eternity and what a perfect triune God might expect from us. But is there not also a deep heaviness in considering immanence, His total absence and the pressure on us to construct meaning ourselves?
Taylor has given me much to contemplate indeed.
 James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 58.
 Charles Taylor, “Challenging Issues About The Secular Age,” Modern Theology 26, no. 3 (August 2010): pp. 404-416, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0025.2010.01615.x., 416.
 These terms are often attributed earliest to Augustine of Hippo and a great resource for Augstine’s explanation can be found in the following: Paul A. Lombardo, “Vita Activa versus Vita Contemplativa in Petrarch and Salutati,” Italica 59, no. 2 (1982): p. 83-7, https://doi.org/10.2307/479134.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 44.
 Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular, 33.
 Ibid., 33.
 Taylor, A Secular Age, 59.
6 responses to “Lowering (or Eliminating) the Bar”
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Andrea, your lowering and raising the bar comments have truly piqued my interest. This morning I watched my two children play with my two dogs. There was innocent laughter, joy, and “romp.” For a moment I caught myself in the “transcendence” of the act – there was something holy, almost mystical in that five minute period before I took them to school.
My hunch is that children and dogs playing together is a “low bar” example of the beauty and mystery of the divine. And yet, if in the secular world, humanity is unable to even acknowledge the awe of interaction, then perhaps the bar for the divine is misplaced.
As always your posts challenge and inspire me. Grateful for your words.
Maybe the best post of yours I have read to date (which is saying a lot because they have all been great:)). This: Modernity calls us down to immanence and pulls us down to finding our meaning only in this world, is amazing and so true. The more we have the answers without God, the more we are going back to the knowledge of good and evil. The tree of life calls us to be dependent on something outside of ourselves. It seems we are certainly repeating the past as we say we are moving forward.
Mario, thank you for your kind words. I thought after posting about how it does seem easier to in many ways to choose one way of being in the world – it’s hard to straddle active/contemplative or world/other-world or spiritual/earthly. I think I have a tad more compassion and understanding for those that choose to forgo the transcendent but I hope, like Taylor, the “haunting” leads them back to God.
Excellent connection, Andrea. You bring out a point to ponder, does immanence cause a greater to demand to make meaning? And if so, what else can be done besides work harder and achieve more? This means Christianity’s sabbath message is far more than resting from labor, rather it is about a sacred celebration of rest of a different kind. Great thoughts!
Andrea, I love how you broke this all down. I think the Gospel message stands the test of time as always, and that’s all God expects us to bring forward.
Thanks so much for connecting Smith and Taylor with both your research and your own challenge. Connecting contemplation and missional activity in a healthy life-giving “lifestyle”, as you have already discerned, has been challenging for the church and its leaders for centuries. I appreciate your distillation of Smith and Taylor into your summary statement, “There is a certain heaviness in considering eternity and what a perfect triune God might expect from us. But is there not also a deep heaviness in considering immanence, His total absence and the pressure on us to construct meaning ourselves?” Perhaps that is why Jesus lovingly admonished us to focus on the joy of connecting with him rather than the work of our challenge? Thanks again for a marvelous post!