A Secular Age by Charles Taylor prescribed as the first reading for this semester is a fascinating read exploring the empirical understanding of the historical development and implications of western secularism both for the present and the future. Taylor introduces the term “exclusive humanism” at the beginning of his analysis of the present condition of secularism. As I reflected on the reading, this term and the worldview it represents captured my attention.
While Taylor traces various reasons as to how exclusive humanism could have evolved to be the worldview of the Secular Age, he states that the Reformation itself paved way for birth of it through a ‘disenchantment’ with religious beliefs and practices that seemed irrelevant to a modern social order. Moreover, Taylor posits that exclusive humanism became an evolutionary outcome of modernity resulting from ‘subtraction stories’ of the pre-modern era, creating a self that is “buffered”; “a new sense of self and its place in the cosmos: not open and porous and vulnerable to the world of spirits and powers”.
This ‘buffered self’ of the secular age, on the one hand, while retreating from the idea and belief in God, is still seeking for meaning and purpose higher than just a sense of fulfillment and prosperity of human life. Exclusive humanism, therefore, is centered on the belief in the relevance of the human self to be both immanent and transcendent which appeals to a rational, ‘disengaged’ buffered self. In simple words, exclusive humanism is a way of being in the world that locates the deepest sources of meaning with reference only to human life.
What intrigues me more about this paradigm shift from “enchantment” to “disenchantment,” a porous to a buffered self, is that the idea that exclusive humanism did not come about negatively, but is imagined and serves as a substitute for agape. This probably, among other reasons, explains the growing emphasis on issues of social justice. Perhaps for the unbeliever living in this secular age, tackling issues of justice, advocating against social evils, creating opportunities for the betterment of human life, engaging in service and charity is both and expression of the deeper human self and longing to gain greater meaning.
The challenge for the church’s relevance in such an age is to not to make the truth about God and the Gospel of Christ mysterious but relational and practical. The church faces the responsibility to share a faith that is deep-rooted in the tenets of scripture, a hope for the human soul through the message of Christ’s redemption on the cross, and love by sacrificial living. And finally the church’s response to social and physical needs should based on firm theological foundations and not simply on human goodness and gratification.
Taylor, Charles. A secular age. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.