Certain narratives flow through our world defining and explaining where we have come, where we stand, and possibly where we are going. The television series Lost was a perfect postmodern tale. A mixture of genres colliding into a huge question of existence, reality, and meaning, played through characters with the names of famous philosophers, scientists and thinkers. Certain characters represented certain narratives of how human’s deal with reality and meaning. Furthermore, the Gilligan’s Island plot centered on a group of people “lost” on an island, all having the same déjà vu experience of having been on the island before. There is a creeping mystery of a bunch of lost people sensing that they are meant for more, and that the mysterious force of the island has something for them.
What is often amazing is that in a postmodern world, where meta-narratives no longer hold sway, so much of the world still ascribes to one or the other. This is of course ironic in and of itself, as postmodernism is an explanative narrative. What Charles Taylor enthusiastically jumps into in his A Secular Age is helping us to see how modern man understands history and time differently, so that we now perceive of ourselves as progressing through history. Taylor exhaustively chronicles Western society’s slow slide into secularism, or a time when believing is an option. As such Taylor thrashes the simplicity of secularization theory, that humanity through wit and reason has arrived at an enlightened state, banishing religion to the wayside for the betterment of the entire world. As a Christian, this often feels like tiresome elitist stuff… accusing believers as being bounded by cultural and epistemological prisons. Taylor turns the argument, taking us on a tour of the emergence of modern thought from the rise of Christian Reform movements which in attempting to raise all out of the medieval Catholic stratified nominalist mindset, essentially democratized church and society. This reform minded bent, when combined with the shifts to Deism (to better explain the scientific world) and the failures of Western society and church, called for a process of civilization of the world, which led to a radical shifts in elevating people out of a pre-modern mindset. Taylor calls it a “rage for order” against the disorder and magic of the pre-modern world (63). In turn, this necessity led to the disenchantment of the world, and the rise of humanism, which has come to roost in the sense of invulnerability of man, that he lacks nothing, and needs no God. Taylor hits the nail on the head by seeing the bigger shift in human epistemology here, and not in grand subtraction stories. Secular society finds it ultimate expression and reason for leaving belief in “authenticity, or expressive individualism, in which people are encourage to find their own way, discover their own fulfillment, ‘do their own thing (299).’” What emerges is that atheists and unbelievers are just as constrained and conditioned by the radical shifts in thinking. If we can get here, through iterations of human philosophical shifts, to a growing acceptance and idealism in humanism, then we can certainly get back, or get to another place. We are not fixed in deterministic time. We have been here before.
If anything, the Reformation and Protestantism opened up Christianity to new possibilities, and the shattering of homogeneity and corruption of power. He rightly asserts that gradual slide in Protestant countries, while highlighting the violent conflict in Protestantism which broke down the formal artificial walls between mystery, monks, professional priests of the true spiritual depth, with the nominalism of the average citizen. Unfortunately, its first steps went too far and not far enough all at the same time. They did not usher in Taylor’s network of agape, and banished mystery (setting the stage for Western disenchantment), but still opened the door to change, and democracy and equality. But, this is probably the church in its essence, always reforming, always seeking to be a network of agape, yet falling short, geriatric waiting for the next iteration. We see this soon after the Reformation with the Wesleyans and the rise of Evangelicalism, and now with Pentecostalism. What will be next? We have been here before.
Thus, for Taylor, secular modern society is that which finds human flourishing involving “no relation to anything higher (151).” It is important to note, that Taylor doesn’t see the society as totally lost. For him, secularity is not a full out rejection of faith, but the need for competition between the many, and the end of naiveté in belief. It cannot be taken for granted anymore. This is an important point, where many lament the loss of privilege in Christendom, or on the more Anabaptist side, revel in the ashes. But, neither is a proper response, and both are knee jerk reactions, that fail to grapple with their own approbation of victimization. As Taylor laments the dark side of modernism in hyper individualism, personal rights, which find it’s ultimate break from the stale bonds of the pre-modern in meaning in full sexual gratification and expression. Our society is drenched in this, and in the individualism to buy, be, to express one’s self for one’s own satisfaction and happiness. This is modern human flourishing. It is not found in loving God and loving neighbor. But, can it continue to be good and just? To express limits, or hesitations, is to offend (and to be pre-modern), which is now the highest order of oppression. In a society more concerned with battling housewives than wars and suffering, has exclusive humanism now begun to swing towards an inevitable collapse of meaning? Everyone is now a victim of someone else’s oppressive opinion, while real people suffer and die in places like Syria. As such, modern society finds very little outside of itself to believe in, to guide it, to give it actual meaning. It is fragmented, and lonely, chasing after nothingness. Hollow men indeed.
Taylor makes a keen observation here, in that Christianity has not had its full impact in Western culture as “what we got was not a network of agape, but rather a disciplined society in which categorical relations have primacy, and therefore norms (158).” God’s in breaking of radical love has not fully saturated the society and church. But, this is not to say that it hasn’t at times and even today. Taylor doesn’t lose hope here; instead he believes that modern society is effectually doomed by its lack of mystery, meaning and ultimate transcendence. Like the searching heroes of Lost mankind is still looking for ultimate meaning and purpose. Just this last week, brilliant writer Malcolm Gladwell wrote of his conversion back to Christianity by finding ultimate meaning, mystery, purpose, and agape power in God: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/culture/books/how-i-rediscovered-faith
This secular age, can and probably will pass. We can get back to where we were before, and if our churches and lives exhibit agape love, then all the more better to establish again societies where human flourishing in God can happen.