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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Secular Age

Written by: on February 23, 2017

Charles Margrave Taylor—Secular Age

 Introduction

Canadian born Charles Margrave Taylor is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at McGill University and the author of several books.  He is highly esteemed in the academic community for his intellectual endeavors pertaining to philosophy in the political, social science, historical, and intellectual arenas. He is the recipient of various awards of distinction for his contributions to philosophical thought and is a practicing Roman Catholic.

Taylor relates, “The story of what happened in the secularization of Western Christendom is so broad, and so multi-faceted, that one could write several books this length and still not do justice to it. This is the more so that my chosen area, Latin Christendom, is not homogeneous. As we will see below, there is more than one path here, and different nations and regions have trodden their own way at different speeds and times.” [1] His focus is on three major characterizations of secularity: (1) the lack of reference to God or ultimate reality in public and social spaces; (2) the abandonment of religious beliefs and practices and turning away from the church and God; (3) the conditions of belief that shifted focus from belief in God to one in which it is one option among others. “Belief in God is no longer axiomatic; there are alternatives.” [2]

Summary

Taylor states, “The change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.” [3] He takes us back to the time in history when ancient societies did not make distinctions as we do in our contemporary culture “between the religious, political, economic, and social aspects of society. In these societies religion was ubiquitous and interwoven into all aspects of life. The ancients lived in the  “enchanted world of spirits, demons, and moral forces.” [4] Disbelief in God was not an option in the enchanted world because God was the dominant spirit and the only guarantor of good triumphing over evil.  Taylor points out that one of the differences between earlier times and our secular age is that, “A secular age is one in which the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing become conceivable; or better, it falls within the range of imaginable life for masses of people. It is a matter of the whole context of understanding in which our moral, spiritual or religious experience and search takes place. An age or society would then be secular or not,  in virtue of the conditions of experience of and search for the spiritual.”  [5]

Taylor indicates we can understand secularity from the standpoint of public spaces because  they are seemingly devoid of God or any reference to ultimate reality. He further states, “As we function in various spheres of activity—economic, political, cultural, educational, professional, recreational, the norms and principles we follow, the deliberations we engage in, generally do not refer to God or any religious beliefs.” [6] According to Taylor this form of secularity is in stark “contrast to earlier periods, when Christian faith laid down authoritative prescriptions, often through the mouth of the clergy, which could not be easily ignored in any of these domains.” [7] Taylor accounts for the differences in these two eras to a primary shift in the understanding of what he calls “fullness between a condition in which our highest spiritual and moral aspirations point us inescapably to God on the one hand, and to one in which they can be related to a host of different sources, some of which deny God on the other hand.” [8] Taylor attributes alternatives to the God-reference of fullness to science because it was a catalyst in disenchanting the universe, thereby contributing to the ushering in of exclusive humanism.  Exclusive humanism is defined by James Smith as, “A worldview or social imaginary that is able to account for meaning and significance without any appeal to the divine or transcendence.” [9] Taylor states many people are content living for goals which are purely immanent and have no concern for the transcendent.

There emerged a new sense of the self and its place in the cosmos: “not open, porous, or vulnerable to a world of spirits and powers, but what Taylor calls buffered.”  [10] But, he remarks it took more than disenchantment to produce the buffered self, it was also necessary to have confidence in one’s own ability of moral ordering. The buffered self enables a disengagement from the cosmos and God, which in turn makes exclusive humanism a viable option.  This crucial change put an end to the concept of transcendence, or the goals which go beyond human flourishing for some people.

Reflection

After Taylor takes us through an esoteric journey of understanding secularization showcasing his knowledge in the classical languages, he puts things in the right perspective by concluding this work with what is really important for the whole exercise. For Christians our religion continues to be defined in terms of transcendence. “Our relationship is with a transcendent God who has been displaced at the center of social life and public spaces (secularity 1); it is the belief and practices of faith in this God whose decline is tracked in secularity theories (secularity 2); (secular 3) consists of new conditions of belief about morality and spirituality.” [11] In our Judaeo-Christian tradition loving God is our ultimate end.

But, I am concerned about those in Western societies that do not have a relationship of love with God and embrace the culture of authenticity or “expressive individualism” in which they are encouraged to chart their own way, discover their own fulfillment, “do your own thing.” [12]   The buffered, anthropocentric identify provides a sense of power, in being able to order our world and ourselves. Or perhaps a sense of pride in having gained knowledge and understanding, and in escaping vulnerability. The tragic thing about living in the disenchanted world is the tendency to no longer believe on the power of God and holding to a false sense of increased self-worth.   Additionally, the buffered identity is deeply anchored in a malaise sensing the world as flat and empty. There is a search for something beyond the world to compensate for the meaning lost with transcendence.  According to Taylor, it is the youth in particular who suffer from a lack of strong purposes in their lives.

 

Notes

  1. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007) 29.
  2. Ibid., 3.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 25.
  5. Ibid., 3, 19.
  6. Ibid., 2.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 26.
  9. James Smith,  How Not to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids: Eerdman  Publishing, 2014), 141.
  10. Taylor, Secular Age, 27
  11. Ibid., 20-21.
  12. Ibid., 299.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Claire Appiah

8 responses to “A Secular Age”

  1. mm Phil Goldsberry says:

    Claire:
    Your end statement is what is the sting of the reality of Taylor/Smith….the youth who suffer for a lack of purpose, AND I would add, and a world that is separated from the Almighty Transcendent God that we feel like we know.

    You said: Disbelief in God was not an option in the enchanted world because God was the dominant spirit and the only guarantor of good triumphing over evil.

    Two questions:
    1. What is the “dominant spirit” and “guarantor” of good triumphing over evil today? I agree that God has been removed as the center source, but what or who is?
    2. What can we, as believers in the transcendent, do to reverse the “disbelief” that IS prevalent in our world today?

    God help us!

    Phil

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Phil,
      I am not sure I can answer your questions, but right off the top of my head, I would say that the majority of humans thinking from a position solely of immanence assume they are the dominant force or power in the created order. They don’t need God anymore if they ever thought they did, because they are figuring out how things work as they go along without the help of God.

      By human reasoning, intellect, ingenuity, and agency humans are capable of creating good and evil, therefore they have become their own gods. There are no guarantors of good triumphing over evil, because humans devoid of the wisdom of God will invariable fail to make correct moral choices.

      I think believers can best reverse the disbelief that is prevalent in the world by being living epistles. Remember that the world is watching how we live our lives—how we conduct our personal and professional affairs, react to situations and crises (personal/global), how we love our neighbor (the disadvantaged, marginalized, the alien and refugee, the poor in substance and in spirit, orphans, widows and the fatherless, those without help, without hope, without an advocate, and those considered to be the scum of the earth). These actions speak volumes for a life committed to true Christian living.
      Another thing, once you get the youth in church try to keep them there. I heard a Christian psychologist say today that the youth who embrace God as a LOVING GOD and consistently and actively participate in the life of the church do not have the problems dealing with life as their unchurched counterparts. Studies have shown that these youth make good moral choices and make sound judgments no matter what the family or community situation is like.

  2. mm Rose Anding says:

    Thanks Claire
    You gave a thorough review of Taylor & Smith, but I was wondering about the shift in the Secular Age,you mention at the end of your blog this statement, “According to Taylor, it is the youth in particular who suffer from a lack of strong purposes their lives.” Do you think it could be in our era, parent taught and instilled godly principles to their children, but there are a few generations with younger parents, who failed to follow suit , therefore we have these youth lacking purpose…knows nothing about God.

    It was great reading your blog! Rose Maria

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Rose,
      You have to remember that when we were the youth of America, the general consensus in the American culture was that to be American meant to be a Christian. Thus, Christian themes and principles were taught in our homes and reinforced in our schools, churches, and communities. But, the youth of the past few decades have that legacy as well as the God is dead” legacy.

      There was a shift in the world culture that rebelled against Christian norms, morality, and ethics. Remember the 60s and 70s when people were going around “trying to find themselves”? Their pursuit lead them to traveling the globe, trying out various theologies, drug-alcohol additions, sexual promiscuity, gangs, dropping out of school…. In other words, trying to find transcendence in an increasingly immanent world.

  3. mm Garfield Harvey says:

    Claire,
    Thanks for an insightful blog. You stated your concern because of “expressive individualism” of the Western societies. One of the challenges I notice about the church is that we often label the people instead of finding a solution. For e.g., when people don’t understand our churchy terms or rigid practices, we call them unchurched instead evaluating our practices. There’s no doubt we live in an individualist culture but the time has come for us to evaluate process for change and not just label it. As you’ve always identified your passion to work with youth, I wonder how much will our use of technology affect receptiveness. In this secular age, we have to constantly shift.

    Garfield

  4. Claire Appiah says:

    Garfield,
    You made an observation I had not previously considered. One thing is for sure, change is inevitable and ongoing. It is imperative for the church to keep abreast of changes in our world, in and outside of the church. But more importantly, as you mentioned it also has, “to evaluate process for change and not just label it.”

  5. mm Marc Andresen says:

    Claire,

    I am captivated by the statement, “For Christians our religion continues to be defined in terms of transcendence.”

    Personally, what I love about this is that it is far from a “turn off your brain and just believe” way of life. I can’t imagine anything more intellectually challenging than to stretch the intellect as far as possible to understand what we can about that transcendent realm.

    What does it mean to you that our religion is defined by the transcendent? What does it mean that we engage with the transcendent?

  6. Claire Appiah says:

    Marc,
    For me our Christian religion is defined by the primacy of the transcendent in contrast to the immanent frame characterizing secularism that gives no credence to the transcendent. Christianity is a religion based on the Bible’s revelation of God’s essence/attributes and His relationship to His creation in terms of His transcendence and His immanence. (Psalm 8; Psalm 19).

    God is transcendent in that He is the ultimate reality, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient in all creation. He is the Creator of all things but distinct from His creation. God is also understood as immanent in the sense of His omnipresence and His concern for His creation. God is directly involved in the affairs of His human creatures. Though transcendent, God is still very close to us relationally. God cares about us deeply and is responsive to our needs. We can pray to Him for comfort and counsel in time of sorrow. He not only answers our prayers, but He will sometimes perform miracles on our behalf. For the Christian, God is their source in all things for all times.

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