Have you ever wondered how the church came to be what it is today? Or where it’s going to be in the next thirty years? Many long-time Christians long for the good-old days where whole communities participated in regular Sunday worship services while younger generations sense the possibility for a vibrant faith that may be connected less through a denomination or local parish and more through a way of living in the world. Regardless of perspective, baby boomers, gen-Xers, and millennials who have grown up in the church have all felt a shift in the way the church and society relate.
This change in the relationship between Christianity and the West is something like the tectonic plates always moving beneath the earth’s surface, effecting the atmosphere and all that lies on the surface. The movements are unrecognizable but ever present, causing major change over time, whether by creating new land masses, bodies of water, earthquakes and volcanoes. As Christianity and culture continue to rub up against one another there is a friction that continues to take place. At times noticeable movement happens (such as mass conversions through Billy Graham crusades or mass slaughter from the Crusades) but more often than not, there is a slow evolution over time.
Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age, has dedicated his life’s work to understanding the history of the shifts in Christendom. As a professor of philosophy and Catholic who grew up in an astute Canadian family where politics were regular dialogue, Taylor’s interest in the intersection of the church and the broader Western world are embedded in his own story.
A Secular Age is, as Taylor describes, “a set of interlocking essays” spanning five hundred years of history, in which he “provides the means of conceiving how religion and specifically Christian faith are at once captive to the present age even while they shape and determine our outlook.”
Taylor has shaped his thesis around the frame of two major questions:
1 – What makes up the secular age?
As Taylor assesses, there have been three variations of the secular since approximately 1500AD, with the West currently emerged in the third. Each of the three have been concisely defined by James KA Smith, as
Secular 1 A more “classical” definition of the secular, as distinguished from the sacred – the earthly plane of domestic life. Priests tend the sacred; butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers carry out “secular” work.
Secular 2 A more “modern” definition of the secular as areligious – neutral, unbiased, “objective” – as in a “secular” public square.
Secular 3 Taylor’s notion of the secular as an age of contested belief, where religious belief is no longer axiomatic. It’s possible to imagine not believing in God. See also exclusive humanism.
The West has thus moved from a secularity that began with the separation of church and state, moved into non-religious based on the age of reason, and finally has shifted into a mode of freedom of belief based on the lack of Christian mores guiding the culture.
For those concerned that this secular age dooms Christianity, one reviewer recognized, “In the end, as sociologists have seen, a secular age does not mean the end of religion. Taylor offers a guide to the perplexed that provides an understanding that reform is inevitable, that sacred powers must be reverenced, and that conversion stands at the heart of Christianity and is tied to new life and a new way of life.”
2- How are Christians to respond to the secular world in which they live?
Taylor believes that leaving Christendom has some negative associations but many positives as well. Even more, the new era the West has entered is not one to be avoided as it is already upon us. Politics, science, technology, globalism and the like are part of the world in which we live. Rather than attempt to reinstate Christendom, with a coercion of civilization into the way of Jesus by the systems and structures of the state as overtly “Christian,” Christianity has an opportunity to reveal the message of Jesus through the way Christians live among the secular culture. By living as faithful witnesses to the truth of the gospel, the church can move into the community, the sciences, politics, in ways that many do not.
Taylor remarks in an interview about his text that Christians have the ability self-define by focusing on compassion over curses, effectively going out to “see that there is some need, somebody is being left out, some whole kind of whole sensibility or some kind of deep problem is just being glossed over and you reach out and try to do something about it. That kind of action belongs center to the gospels…by the way we reach out, not by the way we react to various insults.”
In addition, the third type of secularity gives Christians a healthy opportunity to challenge their faith by the faithless around them. Taylor speaks of those who come to faith from the outside, those who are converted by their own need for something more, and the journey of belief, alongside doubt in discovering the truth of the message of Christianity, without the excess burdens and expectations of Christendom.
What if in the next thirty years there was a seismic shift toward Christianity in the West, as there has been of late in the East? What if Christians decided to let go of being part of a “Christian nation” to own their faith, wrestle with doubt, and love those who are often left out? What if separation based on race, religion, class, sexuality or gender became embrace as part of God’s creation? Maybe it takes seeing oneself as part of a secular age, giving up on what was, and restarting the journey with a new way of being to get there.
Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, Massachussetts: Belknap Press of Hardvard University Press, 2007, ix.
 Sedgwick, Timothy F., Anglican Theological Review; Evanston Vol. 93, Iss. 3, (Summer 2011): 510,512-514,516.
 Smith, James K. A. How (not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015,142.