Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age, could easily serve as a textbook for a college course on “Western Civilization,” tracing history along the thread of secularization: the difficult journey during which there has been a shift in the modern age from a social imaginary wherein unbelief was unimaginable to a time when belief is unthinkable. Through time religious belief with its assumption of the transcendent “progressed” through deism which, offered religion with no need for transcendent revelation, to a period of “immanence” with transcendence being discarded.
Secularism is an appropriate thread to follow because the presence or absence of religious faith (and engagement with the transcendent) is one of the most important themes or aspects of civilization. Few dynamics affect society as much as the development of philosophical thought and the affect of living out religious faith.
James Smith summarizes this way: “Part 1 of A Secular Age...considered the late medieval and early modern reform movements that began to shift the plausibility conditions of the West, making exclusive humanism a possibility (especially via disenchantment and the newly buffered self)… Part 2…considered the positive shift that really made exclusive humanism a ‘live option’: a theological shift that gave us the impersonal god of deism…Taylor has now brought us to a secular-3 age – an age in which the plausibility structures have changed…..and theistic belief is not only displaced from being the default, it is positively contested.” 
This book (and the accompanying How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James Smith) presents many fascinating concepts and issues.
Taylor and Smith speak of “Social Imaginary.” The understanding of this term offered is “…the ways in which [people] imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others…the expectations which are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images which underlie these expectations.”  “…the social imaginary is that common understanding which makes possible common practices…It incorporates a sense of the normal expectations that we have of each other; the kind of common understanding which enables us to carry out the collective practices which make up our social life.” 
Social imaginary is how we conceptualize our society: what we understand to be normal in our realm of existence. If not the same as culture, social imaginary is at the least a cousin to culture.
While reading I begin to wonder, “What is the ‘Social Imaginary’ of the Kingdom of God?” This is key to the focal point of my dissertation, as we try to create a new “space” found at the nexus of American, Other Nation, and Kingdom-of-God Social Imaginaries. Students from each culture will bring to Cornerstone School of Ministry certain expectations of how students relate to students, how students relate to instructors, and what the expectations are for an academic community. Since every social imaginary has some values that are consistent with the Kingdom of God and others that are contrary, we must study the cultures of those with whom we work in order to create a more authentic Kingdom Social Imaginary.
From Medieval to Post-Modern
Why was it impossible not to believe in 1500 and unthinkable to believe in 2000 (a haunting question)? This change dealt with what Taylor calls “Bulwarks of Belief.”  These societal bulwarks supported some beliefs and prevented others. Following the Middle Ages a number of “barriers” had to be removed in order to allow in new ways of thinking. A significant factor was the relationship of the individual to the community. This factor was a surprise because today we live in an individualistic culture and what I have taken for granted in my social imaginary has not always been the case in Western society. But Taylor writes of the time when there was a much stronger sense of “team” and that there was societal pressure to go along with the community. (This “communal” nature of society is still prevalent in many cultures, as in Asian cultures, such as Chinese.) As individualism grew (throughout, Taylor refers to the “buffered self”) space was created for individual beliefs that differed from the predominant social imaginary.
Taylor repeatedly refers to the date of 1500. A quick internet search reveals some of the most influential historical figures whose lives straddle that date: da Vinci; 1452-1519, Copernicus (who presented the concept of a heliocentric solar system, circa 1508); 1473-1543, Luther; 1483-1546, and Columbus, who’s famous voyage is assumed to be in 1492, and who died in 1506. Born slightly later, but still in this pivotal period are Calvin; 1509-1564 and Galileo; 1564-1642. It can be little wonder that medieval naivete radically changed with the contributions of these people.
While doing a little extra-curricular research on some of Taylor’s vocabulary I discovered a blog written by two American Buddhist Priests: “Jiryu Mark” and “Hondo Dave.” Regarding A Secular Age they write, “On Taylor’s telling, what’s arisen, for the first time in human history, is what he calls an ‘exclusive humanism,’ a way of being in the world that locates the deepest sources of meaning with reference only to human life, rather than with reference to some reality outside of or beyond human life.” 
The Fractures of Modernity
“The fractured culture of the nova…becomes generalized to whole societies… And along with this, and integral to it, there arises in Western societies a generalized culture of ‘authenticity’, or expressive individualism, in which people are encouraged to find their own way, discover their own fulfillment, ‘do their own thing’.” 
If we were to apply a Biblical commentary on this trend we could recall a time in Israel’s history, captured in Judges 17:6; “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” Although secularism wasn’t the overt problem in those days, a functional individualism is common to the Modern age Taylor addresses. It is this student’s opinion that with modern secularism America has arrived at the place of ancient Israel.
Smith says, “Far from being a monolithic space or ‘experience,’ our secular age is marked by tensions and fractures. While exclusive humanism becomes a live option, it doesn’t immediately capture everyone’s imagination. Indeed, the backlash begins almost immediately.” 
This leads me to think that the current cultural and political fracture we are experiencing in America isn’t just about Republican vs Democrat, or Trump vs World. It may be that a deeper, more profound, longer developing fracture is now coming to full bloom.
1. James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), Kindle Loc 1393.
2. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 171.
3. Ibid., 172.
4. Ibid., Chapter 1, p 25ff.
5. “Enlightenment,” accessed February 21, 2017, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment/ accessed February 21, 2017.
6. “No Zen in the West.” Accessed Feb 20, 2017,
Charles Taylor, exclusive humanism, and the Dharma
7. Taylor, 299.
8. Smith, Loc 1405.