“Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is one of the most important books of the new millennium,” proclaims The Christian Century, describing the massive tome as imperative reading. The good people at Theos describe it as, “long, dense, academic, and often obscured by Taylor’s idiosyncratic terminology, it is not for the faint-hearted. Nevertheless, it is original, thoughtful, provocative and immensely erudite.” Both of these are true as A Secular Age provides unique background and commentary on the secular time in which we live, and the way our identities are crafted in relation to our environment.
A McGill professor emeritus, Taylor is the cultural product of Canada, where he was born into a bilingual household, excelled academically, studied in Oxford, and returned to Canada for a storied career in philosophy, social commentary, and (lucky for us readers) a handful of failed political campaigns. His goal both with his life’s work, and with his writing, seems to be surrounding the question of life’s meaning and purpose, in a Post-Enlightenment and Post-Reformation, globalized world. I don’t know this for certain, but I do think that Taylor would have enjoyed the play Avenue Q.
A Secular Age describes the deconstruction journey that has brought about the secular worldview of today, this involving a progression away from a religious world view in the public sphere, the lack of individual and personal religious institutional involvement, and then ultimately a splintering of ideas that had grounded the social norms of the prior era. Author and public commentator Stephen Prothero laments these realities in his book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and Doesn’t, from the perspective of a Boston University Professor. Numerous clergy ponder the potential outcome of the secular world as their communities of faith, and potentially even the fields in which they are trained, experience dwindling energy, resources, and hope. Proof of this lack of institutional involvement in my own tribe is brazenly demonstrated when the official headline from the denominational news service positively spins the reality claiming the decline has “slowed.” Pop the Champaign!
Luckily another Canuck, one who teaches in the great state of Michigan has written something that can help us through the momentous two-fold task of reading and understanding Taylor, and then applying that garnered wisdom into our lives and work. How did we arise at this secular age and how can we “share the good news?” James K. A. Smith has an answer in How (Not) to Be Secular. “These are the sorts of questions this book aims to answer. Think of it as a doctor of ministry program between two covers — a philosophical ethnography of the world you inhabit, and in which you minister. Think of me as an assistant docent to this new world — coming alongside the primary guide, philosopher Charles Taylor, whose book A Secular Age is just the resource you didn’t know you needed.”
And yet I wonder if Charles Taylor is more pointing us to the theologian we all know we already have. If the issues with secularism have arisen because society no longer sees the wonder, the mystical transcendence of “the divine” in the world, in one another, or in relationships, it causes me to ponder the issues of identity within every interaction. Taylor discusses the importance of incarnation and this certainly isn’t a Christian only spiritual theme. When I read on the pages of Taylor a suggestion for how the divine can still be somehow shared in this difficult age is that, “we should find the center of our spiritual lives beyond the code (of morals and laws) deeper than the code, in networks of living concern (agape) which are not to be sacrificed to the code, which must even from time to time subvert it.” If there is anyone who has ever preached, taught, or lived these type of words, it is Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus has called people for the last 2000 years to “follow me,” from the banks of Galilee and beyond; in a new light, and in a new era, Taylor appears to be doing the same.
 Smith, Ted A., “How (Not) to Be Secular, by James K. A. Smith,” The Christian Century, June 10, 2015, https://www.christiancentury.org/reviews/2015-06/how-not-be-secularm-james-k-smith
 “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor, Theos, August 11, 2011, https://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/comment/2009/02/01/a-secular-age-by-charles-taylor
 Dean, Sean, “Between Demons and a Secular Age,” DMINLGP, January 15, 2020, https://blogs.georgefox.edu/dminlgp/between-demons-and-a-secular-age/
 Rick Jones, “PCUSA Membership decline has slowed,” Presbyterian News Service, April 23, 2019, https://www.pcusa.org/news/2019/4/23/pcusa-membership-decline-has-slowed/
 James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, (Eerdmans, 2014), Preface.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 743.
7 responses to “Taylor Smith”
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So, how far through did you get? Really!
I found it a fascinating thesis (skimmed). The idea that reform theology created secularism (along with reformation bloodshed). I’m actually on board with Taylor. Yes, he is a philosopher, but he is also Catholic and has grasped the nettles of personal salvations theological and social ends. It’s left me pondering many things. I like the idea that it’s a DMin between covers. Some good thoughts, Jacob.
Great synthesis of Taylor’s ideas about secularism. If I only read your blog about his book, you’d make me want to read it.
You said ultimately Taylor is concerned about life’s meaning, purpose and is the foundation for his teachings on secularization. Couldn’t agree more.
By the way, what is Avenue Q?
Avenue Q is a broadway musical – with puppets.
Great post, Jacob. I agree we should really think about why the world does not see the wonder or the divine in Christianity. We really are responsible to proclaim the Good news of Jesus Christ to the world. Thanks for being a co-laborer in the efforts.
I do love how Taylor points to loving the marginalised as one of the key strategies to ‘loving deeper than the code’. In one interview he even points to Jean Vanier who gave up a career in academia to serve special needs adults who were without community. In the midst of the declines, may we also see the green shoots of the life that is emerging out of the ashes.
Thanks so much for deciphering Taylor and concluding with hope for us all. I heartily endorse your summary argument that divine transcendence can again be both experienced and therefore imagined in this secular age through the person of Jesus Christ. We as leaders and influencers of the church need to return to the foundations of our faith, connecting people with an authentic experience of the divine Jesus through the authentic humanity of his church. Thanks again, your writing style is most engaging!
This is really good Jacob, but mostly I want to know why you think he’d enjoy Avenue Q. I don’t think you’re wrong, but I would like to hear your argumentation.