Charles Taylor seems to stand alone in his evaluation of what is wrong in our human condition, more specifically in the West. Once cherished values, which many say are responsible for human flourishing, are no longer held. It is not difficult to point out the cause of moral decay in society: increasing divorce rates, normalization of single-parent homes, alarming rates of suicide among teens1, distrust in political leaders, sharp divisions between the left and the right, gender dysphoria, emergence of the “nones” and many more of the same.
But if one asks leading Christian leaders (especially pastors) and thinkers today, all of them would strongly claim that a return to Judeo-Christian values is key to reversing the tide of secularism. Then and only then would we return to fullness2. Taylor however, thinks that because of the massive shifts in thought and practices which brought about the various reformations, including the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, a naive, nostalgic return to a former era is not the best way to confront secularism of the 3rd kind3, a concept he explains and is the primary locus4 of his project in A Secular Age.
As I am writing this, I have resisted the temptation to summarize his thoughts here. But that is seldom my aim in writing my blogs for this course to begin with. Besides, experts such as James K.A. Smith have already done a wonderful job at this. The reason for this internal angst is because the narrative Taylor and Smith weave appears so prodigious and incredibly nuanced that if I were to pick up on any point I would feel the need to support it, and then the point after that, so on and so forth. And if that happens, I would end up summarizing their ideas, which again, is something I want to avoid here. With that in mind I’m not going to start in the beginning, nor the end, but somewhere in the middle.
One of Taylor’s many theses is that the church after the Middle Ages moved from a default position of belief to unbelief. The notion that God does not exist was unthinkable during the medieval period. Atheism was inconceivable. We have become disenchanted.5 The church today, whether we realize this or not, camps in this immanent frame. Our world is closed — nothing comes in or out. It is disconcerting and embarrassing to admit that believers can be naturalistic by default. It’s true. Take for instance the dearth of miracles as perceived by Christians in the West. I’m recalling a story about a Christian leader from the U.S. asking his African counterpart why miracles are not as prevalent as they are in Africa. Apparently miracles such as the dead coming back to life, amputees growing limbs and other inexplicable events are not uncommon in developing nations. The African’s response was insightful. He said people in the U.S, when they encounter an emergency, their first impulse is to dial 911. In Africa, since there is no emergency services like 911, believer’s first impulse is to pray.
Each time I hear that story told in front of an audience the reaction that follows is one of relief, a kind of comfort and reassurance that God still perform miracles. Of course, God still performs miracles. But how have we developed a take6 on things in which apparently God no longer performs miracles? The believer’s behavior, when it comes to prayer betray their beliefs because prayers are prayed with little expectation that God hears, much less acts.
This is one example of secularism type 3 permeating everything in the church, its teachings and practices. This kind of secularism is such a lived-in, tacit and unconscious imaginary that the uninitiated is left with little hope of reform. But the situation is not beyond hope. Taylor offers a way out, starting points to engage the secularist. First, keep the conversations going and avoid conversation-stoppers such as the ones many street evangelists employ. There is enough common ground to supply civil conversations even with those whose ideas we disagree; and we need to be proactive and intentional about this. Second, keep pressing subjects on what Taylor calls cross-pressures that appear to grasp at fullness but never settling. He identifies three: Agency, Ethics and Aesthetics7. This is similar to what sociologist Peter Berger calls prototypical human gestures. All human beings, irrespective of culture, race, gender, age, past, present and future posses qualities that make us human. Qualities such as order, play, hope, justice and humor, according to Berger, signal transcendence. These all eventually point back to God. Lastly, we must find converts who have lived within the immanent frame, succumbed to the cross-pressures and found a way out. Converts such as the Apostle Paul, C.S. Lewis, and more recently Ravi Zacharias, to name a few, who tell a competing story.
As promised, this is not a summary of Taylor’s ideas. Instead it’s a feeble attempt to scrape together thoughts and impressions for a possible way forward toward human flourishing. The kind of human flourishing that finds its supply in the God of the cosmos.
1 Jean M. Twenge et al., “Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time – Jean M. Twenge, Thomas E. Joiner, Megan L. Rogers, Gabrielle N. Martin, 2018,” SAGE Journals, accessed January 16, 2020, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2167702617723376)
2 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018), 61.
3 James K.A. Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014), 142.
4 Taylor, 19.
5 Ibid., 25.
6 Taylor uses the word take to mean a construal of life within the immanent frame that is open to appreciating the viability of other takes.
7 Smith, 104.