A Secular Age by Charles Taylor (Review)

Who Should Read this Book – Anyone who wants to understand how the secular modern world came into existence in the centuries following 1500.

What’s the Big Takeaway – The story of secularism and modernity that people learn science and reject religion, is deficient and not grounded in reality. Taylor offers a much more nuanced story that portrays the secular world as one in which there are many live options from belief to unbelief and no option is uncontested.

And a quote – How do I pick a quote from an 800 page book like this?

How about – “But the expressivist outlook takes this a stage farther. The religious life or practice that I become part of must not only be my choice, but it must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this. . . But if the focus is going now to be on my spiritual path, thus on what insights come to me in the subtler languages that I find meaningful, then maintaining this or any other framework becomes increasingly difficult” (486).

I read this book exactly ten years ago. I was blown away by the breadth and depth of the work. It is probably not too much to say Taylor’s work here completely changed how I understood what it meant to be secular and living in the modern world. I’ve overheard SO MANY discussions on podcasts and at coffee shops and churches where I want to just chime in, “you should read Charles Taylor.”

Of course, most normal people do not have the time or energy to read a mammoth book like this. I’m not sure what it says about me that I’ve now read it twice.

But in the last ten years, I have often wondered how much I missed in this book. Since then, I have read plenty of other books on the same subject. Further, I have seen plenty of authors interact with Taylor. I think CS Lewis said something about how great books are ones that demand rereads. Usually I only reread fiction. Yet, I felt 2021 was the year to dive back in to Taylor. I read his other magnificent work, Sources of Self, over the summer. This one took quite a bit longer because its longer, and I work on a university campus so I’ve been busier.

That said, I got so much more out of this reread. Actually, come to think of it, I wish I had underlined in a different color so I could come back in another ten years!

Taylor’s question is how come in 1500 belief in God was taken for granted and today it is highly contested. He presses back against the common “subtraction story” that we just learned science and discarded religion. Its nowhere near this simple. His definition of a secular age is where all beliefs are contested. Even we who believe the ancient doctrines of Christianity will inevitably experience them differently for we know we have choices and other “live options”. We are, as Taylor says, cross-pressured. But so too are those who reject belief in God; they are haunted by a lack of transcendence.

We’re all secular.

The story Taylor tell of how we got there focuses on Reform. I’ve seen some reviewers accuse Taylor of blaming secularism on the Reformation. This demonstrates a simple failure to get his point (which is okay, its a long book and I’m sure I didn’t always get his point) because he explicitly says the Reform movement as he is speaking of predates the Protestant Reformation. He speaks of the decision at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 that all Catholics must take communion once a year. Prior to this, the Church had settled in to two tracks towards spiritual growth – a fast track for monks and other mystic types and a slower track for the rest of us. Space was given for people to let loose (Carnival) and not everyone was expected to live like Jesus all the time (be “radical” as we might put it today). But the church began to desire to elevate all of culture.

Eventually though, this elevation could not be sustained. Plus, this-worldly ends came to be seen as the primary ends. There has always been a tension in Christianity between human flourishing and self-denial – Jesus healed and fed people but also called people to give it all up. The call for all people to move up ended up sort of leveling out and kind of bringing people down.

There is a lot more to the story! Taylor speaks of disenchantment which is another HUGE point. The premodern world was enchanted, filled with spirits and angels and all sorts of things. It was a cosmos full of life. Now we look out and just see a natural world. Closing off the supernatural, we live “buffered” selves in an “immanent” frame.

The great thing about Taylor is that this is not esoteric mumbo-jumbo. You can see the practical, real world truth. I think of communion as we non-Catholics take it. We see it as remembering which implies all that is happening is happening inside our heads. Rather than seeing power out there in the elements, bringing God into us, its just in our minds, disembodied from participating in creation the way the ancients did.

At one point, Taylor was talking of how people were questioning religion and moving away from the faith of their parents. But this is a cycle, where the next generation may move back to the faith. I had just been in a conversation with friends about “deconstruction” and “exvangelicals” and “ex-Christians” and realized all this has been going on for centuries. There were numerous other moments where Taylor pinpointed things that were happening and even pointed to changes that have come about in the 15 years since the book was published.

Overall, its a brilliant book. Its certainly work. If anyone wants encouragement, know that Taylor does write it almost as a story (at least the first half or so). That said, he does meander and go off on tangents and could have made the same basic argument in 3/4 the pages. But its a feast and worth the time.

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