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From the Sacred & Profane to the Sacred & Secular. Kinder, Gentler Times in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.

Written by: on April 29, 2015

In a previous post I looked at the first three parts of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Here I will be focusing on the last two sections of his 800+ page text – “Narratives of Secularization” and “Conditions of Belief.”

Pausing for a brief moment of overview, we previously considered Taylor’s presentation that we exist in an age of secularization precisely because we have been through an age when the sacred pervasively permeated society at all levels. Taylor argued that without the sacred being encountered and navigated as so done we would not have arrived at the point we are at today. Today we are at a point of volitional disregard of anything Transcendent, Beyond, or otherwise Other (other than the so-phrased ‘Other’ in philosophical discourse 🙂 ). Supposedly, Rudolf Otto’s and Mircea Eliade’s Ganz Andere, Mysterium Tremendum, Mysterium Fascinans, Das Heilige, etc. is nowhere to be found.[1] In this sense, how appropriate that Taylor titled his work with the much gentler term of ‘secular’ as opposed to employing the terminology ‘profane’ — the term that the previous authors used in describing the antithesis of the Sacred. Now, as Taylor suggested in his first three sections of A Secular Age, there is essentially no antithesis, there is only the multiplicity of secularities. Of course, Taylor recognizes various spiritualities that continue forward, but argues that there is largely a subsumtion of these to larger materialistic forces at play. That is, for Taylor, even spiritual reform movements are seen as having been and/or being pieces of larger secularization movements at play.[2]

In part IV, Taylor moves into leading us to how we have come to be where we currently reside. Taylor begins by reminding us that we live in a world framed primarily by immanentism. Recalling Raphael’s School of Athens, Aristotle would be proud. However, he also notes that there is a resurgence of searching for more-than-is by many. Yet, because of the often multi-connected collusion of the nation-state and structured-religion and as well, due to structured-religion’s all too frequent tendency to prefer a powerful/wealthy in-crowd, current resurgence of seeking more-than-is often leans toward newly conceptualized versions of old religiosity more comfortable with loosely connected communities of ‘spirituality’ as opposed to more formal structures. That is, religion today is as often as not a free-floating spirituality as it is grounded religious adherence per se.

So, if one is going to believe something these days, how is it that such belief arises and is navigated? This is the focus of the fifth and final section of Taylor’s book — “Conditions of Belief.”

Too simply in almost all ways to do all of this any substantive form of justice, I have found Taylor’s work overall to be a bit of Shakespearean “me thinks he doth protest too much” and of “making much ado about nothing.” I offer this largely tongue-in-cheek, with much due humility and with significant caveat after caveat because it is quite obvious that some protest is needed and all of this is certainly not about nothing. Yet, I do offer a bit of, “really, 800+ pages?” because here again in the last section as at various points throughout we find Taylor writing, “Religions remains ineradicably on the horizon of areligion; and vice-versa.”[3] So, okay, there are choices that many are making now that really were not supposedly experienced in the same manner in previous societies, but at the same time all of this to say that the conversation between the ‘religion’ and ‘areligion’ remains current.? I recognize that it’s important to note the difference and that it is in fact important to conjecture, analyze, critique and ponder such difference, but at the same time, in some ways this is fairly close to saying “sacred” and “profane.”

Another hundered and twenty some pages forward Taylor writes, “Our age is very far from settling in to comfortable unbelief…Could it ever be otherwise? The secular age is schizophrenic, or better, deeply cross-pressured. People seem at a safe distance from religion; and yet they are very moved to know that there are dedicated believers, like Mother Teresa.”[4] Interesting, but certainly not groundbreaking insight. The final chapter (chapter 20) moves even more fully into articulation of spirituality/mysticism/renewal movements that have been occurring throughout history and a call for embodied, integrated faith over-against a Platonic dualism. Great. But…

So, there are some profound pieces in to be found in Taylor’s A Secular Age, but it overall leaves me where the writer of Ecclesiastes found himself long ago. Let’s end by quoting this short passage and you can decide whether this whole thing ends up being comforting or discomforting for you, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.”

 

[1] Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry Into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational [trans JW Harvey] (New York: Oxford University Press, 1923; 2nd ed, 1950; reprint, New York, 1970); Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion [trans. W. Trask] (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1959)

[2] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 424.

[3] Ibid., 592.

[4] Ibid, 727.

About the Author

mm

Clint Baldwin

One response to “From the Sacred & Profane to the Sacred & Secular. Kinder, Gentler Times in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.”

  1. mm Stefania Tarasut says:

    Two things…
    First, Taylor’s book left an ecclesiastes feel in my mouth as well… Sometimes I’m in awe of just how much things don’t change. We rebrand things, but at their core, they remain the same.
    Second, thanks for the recommendation of Mircea Eliade’s book. I bought it a few months ago and love it!

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