Our American culture seems to have a fascination with the supernatural, the other-world. Whether vampires, zombies, fairies, or superheroes, Hollywood and much of the media continues to produce stories for us to be enchanted by. Even as I write this post Maleficent is playing on the screen in the airplane. The trailer says, “A vengeful fairy is driven to curse an infant princess, only to discover that the child may be the one person who can restore peace to their troubled land.” Is this the search? Someone to bring peace, solutions, leadership for these complex times?
In James K.A. Smith’s book, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor he walks the reader through the dense but critical work of Charles Taylor’s, A Secular Age. Taylor is a Canadian philosopher and professor emeritus at McGill University in Montreal and Catholic in his religious beliefs. Smith’s preface sets the stage for why Taylor’s work matters. We live in a “pluralized, pressurized moment…where believers are beset by doubt and doubters, every once in a while, find themselves tempted by belief.” The space we find ourselves is not neatly defined by the maps of meaning purported on both sides of the argument whether by atheists or religious fundamentalists. It is this unique place where Taylor’s arguments make room for a third consideration.
The secular age has been a common conversation among philosophers for decades with typically two causes being blamed: the separation of church and state, the sacred from the secular (Taylor calls this secular 1) and society’s diminishing religious engagement (secular 2). Taylor’s thesis is that neither of these are adequate to describe secularism. He argues secular 3 has been created by the pluralism of choice. Christianity is now just one belief among many human possibilities as is exclusive humanism. His focus is not regarding belief or not, but rather than conditions of belief. “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?” Taylor’s premise is, “For the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a human is, accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor ay allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true.”
One premise Taylor spends a significant time discussing in regard to exclusive humanism is transcendence versus an immanent frame. Transcendence deals with the supernatural, the world of enchantment, that which is beyond human limits. Immanence is framed by reason and disenchantment. The interesting argument Taylor makes is that we all live in this immanent frame, some just do so with openness while others do not. If exclusive humanism is confined to reason and everything found within the human then why the continual need for imagination, fantasy, and the other-world? This has been true for generations whether through oral story, television and radio, the screen, stage or now the internet, people are still drawn to the supernatural. There is much research by human development experts regarding “magical thinking” in children from preschool through early elementary ages. It is natural to their cognitive development to believe in something beyond what they can see. If an immanent frame is all that is needed and human flourishing the ultimate goal, why the childhood and adult intrigue with the supernatural?
Though many Christians see secularism as the dystopian reality of our day, Taylor believes this is “misguided and misses the point.” Because this is an age with belief conditions which allow anything to be acceptable, “a secular society could undergo religious revival where vast swaths of the populace embrace religious belief.” Though some believed in the early 1960’s that religion would die globally by the turn of the century, in fact the opposite was true and the global south has experienced an unprecedented openness and engagement with Christianity. Taylor would say, this still does not change the fact that this is a secular age. The human choice of belief, which belief, and/or no belief at all are acceptable perspectives.
What does secularization mean for the Church? This is the most pertinent question of all for spiritual leaders. Is the fascination with the supernatural simply societal entertainment or is there a deep inner knowing that humans are creatures that cannot be limited to an immanent frame? Must we have more to life than a few decades of flourishing only to become dust and memories? Was it truly that mankind simply progressed until we no longer needed spirits and gods and demons? Did we become so rational that we can explain with naturalist reasoning what we used to attribute to the spirit world? Taylor is critical reading for today’s leaders of the Church to rethink how we live and the mission of the Church midst the society we find ourselves. It cannot be business as usual and yet what a wonderful opportunity for creative imagination
 James K.A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Erdmans Publishing Co., 2014), 2.
 Ibid., 19.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 18.
 Ibid., 20.
 Ibid., 23.