My dear brother,
I finished a book this week that made me reminisce about our growing up years. The book is A Secular Age by Charles Taylor and it is long and wieldy, over 800 pages. I mostly skimmed this richly layered book but carefully and thoughtfully read the pages that address the historical and ontological problems we wrestled with as young Christians. How did our society end up so “secular”? What is reality? Is Jesus still the answer today?
Since you and I also enjoy history and philosophy as well as theology I thought that you might find Taylor’s ideas worth discussing with me. Just like Socrates we really enjoyed those dialogues that lasted far into the night, enhanced with many glasses of wine. We both have continued all our lives to search for the deeper things of God. The search for the answers is most of the fun!
Dr. Taylor gives us a broader understanding of secularization than the usual explanations of modernity or post-modernity – i.e. that the secular culture is one that increasingly leaves out God. The situation is more complex than that. In fact, Taylor claims religious attitudes have not only survived but in some places are on the rise. Religion and doubt both live in “cross-pressured” persons today.
Taylor believes that the modern secular society we have today can be traced to the Reformation. In the first part of his book he gives a history of the changes from the pre-modern (before the Reformation) understanding of how people saw themselves as embedded in a hierarchical, supernatural, “enchanted” world to a modern “disenchanted” understanding. This disenchantment came about when people traded “magic” and transcendence for scientific reason and immanence.
It is here that I did a lot of reflecting on our conversations about the Roman Catholic Church. We were both raised RC, we both left. I believe that the Bible is God’s authoritative word for my life and so I have stayed in a Reformed church. You have had a long journey and have recently rejoined the Roman Catholic Church. You even wrote a book about your journey where you say some pretty vituperative things about Luther and Calvin. I saw this ambivalence in Taylor’s book as well when he insists that Reformers were responsible for the disenchantment (taking away the mysteries) of Christendom and offered “a model for the later humanist hostility to mystery.” (p. 78) Taylor blames Calvin for many things that are not strictly true, leading me to believe that he is a better philosopher than historian. Or maybe like most of us he has his own presuppositions (he calls it ‘framework’) that show up in our writing.
But as far as “magic” goes, it is different than “mystery”. Frankly, Jerry, you know what I think about transubstantiation – and I think that the Reformers did not do away with “mystery” (that God is with us somehow in the Supper) – only the “magic” (that the host is really Jesus’ body). The whole triune Godhead is a mystery and Calvin certainly never did away with that.
To continue with Taylor, Christian ideas were further challenged by Deism and science. I agree with Taylor that originally men were studying science to know more about God’s creation but that the study of science mutated into a world view that increasingly left out God as Creator. For the secular humanists, scientific reason alone should govern. “Nature” is now governed by purposeless rules. But is nature really so cold?
Taylor says no; the warmth of beauty, art, music, and desires for meaning demonstrate that there is something higher than what is stifled in this immanent universe. While most moderns believe that the idea of a cosmos that could be transcended was old, antiquated and even superstitious belief, they feel some longings and perhaps the old belief system offered something beyond the mundane.
That is why Taylor says that secularization has not made complete atheists of everyone. It does not follow that there is a straight line from superstition to reason. Most people just live their everyday lives more concerned about the Super Bowl than phenomenology while things are going well. It is at times of particular evil, like war, that they begin to ask questions. If God is good and loving and all-powerful, then why is there suffering? This question – theodicy – is the one that kept us up so late in the night.
It is still one question that many ask – and not because they are so against God, but because they really want to know. I cannot answer the question but I can point to the God Who does.
Taylor assures us that the atheists and naturalists have their own philosophical conundrums to solve. Christians do not have to feel threatened but try to find an honest answer to the questions. You and I can agree that transcendence meets immanence in the life of our incarnated Savior. It is a mystery (not magic!).
What can we learn from this? Can we choose between the part about the “flourishing life” where we as individuals make our own decisions and at the same time dispense with the old autocratic monarchy with rules from somewhere outside of ourselves?
Why does it have to be either/or?
Our triune God shows us that there is a One and a Many. He is One but three Persons and the human beings that He created reflect Him. We can speak of universal feelings for love, beauty, and dreams. We can also love the fact that we are all unique individuals. This is definitely a “cross-pressured” way to live but any other way would be stifling or boring.
Taylor says that we need to return to an idea of community. I think that the church is made up of individuals who come together with all of their differences, shortcomings, and ideas about life to love and care for each other and then to go out and care for others. God’s rules provide the framework, but each community decides on the flesh and blood to hang on their ‘framework’.
One thing that you, my brother, and Taylor leave out is the Holy Spirit. Like Jesus, He is very real. I can’t prove the Spirit to an atheist. Taylor gives credence to feelings as real, but it still does not answer the ultimate epistemological question – How do you know?
I really love our discussions. Not just for their own sake, but because we do live in a complex world. How will we address the issues of our times?
As an individual, I am concerned with how to witness in this country where the integrity of the Gospel is questioned. As part of a community, I am concerned with the Church’s response to nationalistic exclusivism and racial bigotry, greed and power struggles over money. What is our answer? I still believe that it is to confess Jesus Christ as Lord along with a clear understanding of what that means. Does our faith help us to join in God’s mission? Does faith “prove” that it is true when in the power of the Holy Spirit we go and minister to the widows, orphans, and strangers? I think it does.