Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Dennis O'BrienOctober 22, 2007
The final stop on the Compostela Pilgrimage, the Way of St. James (iStock)

When I was asked to review Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, I was warned that it was a doorstop of a book. Indeed! My advance copy contained 776 pages of text, 75 pages of footnotes and, when finally printed, a 45-page index. The length is essential to the message.

Taylor, for many years a distinguished philosopher at McGill University in Montreal, received the 2007 Templeton Prize, awarded for discoveries about spiritual realities. Readers of his extensive and influential published work might be somewhat surprised that he should receive an award for theology. A Catholic, Taylor had until his Gifford Lectures of 1999 scarcely addressed religious issues directly. George Marsden, in a friendly critique, accused him of tiptoeing around Christian commitments in his professional work. In A Secular Age, Taylor is certainly more forthright about his commitment to Christianity and to its Catholic expression. That said, he insists that faith cannot be approached directly. Our [present-day] faith is not the acme of Christianity nor is it a degenerate version; it should be open to a conversation that ranges over the whole of the last 20 centuries (and in some ways before). Twenty centuries of conversation and then some demands a doorstop.

A Secular Ageby Charles Taylor

Harvard Univ. Press. 896p $39.95

A prevailing temptation in covering centuries is to create narratives of fortunate progress or disastrous decline: the triumph of rationality and science, the loss of faith from some Golden Age (a medieval synthesis of high theology and grand cathedrals). Taylor presents no such directional narrative; he describes radical change while totting up gains and loss. Our present condition, he concludes, is indeed a secular age, from which there is no return. He offers possible definitions of the secular: the disconnect between religion and public life, a broad loss of belief and the existence of multiple and powerful alternate nonreligious scenarios for life. These three senses of secular are distinct: religion could disappear from the public square yet remain powerful for private life; religious belief could diminish in the population to marginal, eccentric reality; religious belief could remain compelling but in a cultural milieu in which its legitimacy was challenged by significant alternative scenarios it could not avoid or reject outright. It is this last sense of secular that Taylor explores as it exists in most of Europe and America.

Avoiding progress-and-decline narratives, Taylor develops a thick description of the radical changes that have occurred in our culture over the last 500 years. Before 1500 our current secular world picture would have been virtually incomprehensible. Earlier people, going as far back as human societies existed, lived in an enchanted world. (Vast numbers of people outside the North Atlantic sphere of culture continue to live in such a world.) Individuals in an enchanted world live as porous selves. At its most imaginative, the self is beset by outside powers (spirits, demons, gods) that direct it for good or ill. In a more mundane register, individuals are defined by the given world into which they are born: son of Jan, daughter of Lauren, vassal of lord and king. From 1500 to roughly 1800, a new world and a new self come into being. The self is the buffered self, an independent being who views the world from a far distance. Descartes offers the clearest example of a buffered self that withdraws into inner rationality, from which point it constructs a world. Technical philosophic obsession since Descartes with the mind/body problem or the nature of the external world is a byproduct of the buffered self.

What caused the emergence of the buffered self? Taylor is at great pains to reject the subtraction theory, which holds that after 1500 science and rationality banished ghosts and gods, thus liberating the self. The story is much more complex. The buffered self emerges from a broad reconstruction of what Taylor calls the social imaginary, a view of self and world for which a developing cosmic imaginary often is alleged to be the ground. The social imaginary of the buffered self offers humans the freedom to create a social world. While one might link the free self to everything from science to the Reformation, Taylor locates the root of this self as far back as the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 and its decree for yearly auricular confession.

The buffered self of the enchanted world found salvation from something other: a shrine, a holy relic, the prayers of holy monks. These places, things and persons existed in a higher world, a special place, an eternal time from which one gained salvation. Decreeing that all Christians should confess yearly suggested that by their own actions they might enter something like the holiness of the saints. Everyone was to be fully Christian. Repeated reform movements in the Middle Ages sought to convert the mass of ordinary folk: the preaching of the Dominicans, the translation of the Bible into the vernacular. The Reformation caps this movement, affirming the priesthood of all believers and the acceptability of the ordinary state of life: no celibate monks, no vows of poverty. The distinction between higher states and the ordinary is dissolved.

The emphasis on self-effort instead of participation in the special virtues of saints and shrines created a dilemma for Christianity. If ordinary persons are urged to become fully Christian, is the Christian sense of fulfillment just too high? Will the meaning of fulfillment, then, be lowered to accommodate domestic goods like financial security and—more problematic still—sexuality?

Dealing with the self-help dilemma is a key to understanding various ideologies of the buffered self and the negative reaction to those views. Rather than employing the subtraction theory (science disproves religion), Taylor argues that rejection of the moral assumptions of the enchanted world precipitated change. Monks were not higher; they were fanatics who denigrated the needs of ordinary human fulfillment. Instead of flagellation and self-denial, the self was to be affirmed—a free rational being could seek a fulfilled life here and now. The buffered self, freed from the particularist ties of the enchanted world (family, lord, sect) was able to act universally, dispassionately and reasonably.

The reasonable bargaining of contract theory binds states. If everyone acts in his or her rational self-interest, the invisible hand of the market will produce economic benefit for all. If contract and economics seem too cold to explain morality, various thinkers of the period suggested a natural benevolence in the human breast. The concatenation of moral, political, economic and, yes, cosmic views underpin the buffered self and constitute what we—and 18th-century philosophes—call the Enlightenment.

By the end of the 18th century, sensitive souls began to think there was something missing in the quite reasonable social imaginary of the buffered self. The clearest sign of problems can be found in various romantic movements. For Wordsworth, the world is too much with us...getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. Something more than ordinary, practical, quite rational fulfillment was desired. Great God! Id rather be/ A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn.... The buffered self fit easily into an immanent world of worldly goods. Was there no sense of transcendence, something higher? Romanticism and its 21st-century progeny were and remain explosive for the immanent, ordered world of getting and spending.

Taylor adopts the metaphor of the nova, an exploding star, for the anti-Enlightenment cultural manifestations of the 19th century. In the 20th century, we have a supernova of malign (Nazism), benign (art) and banal (crystals) attempts to relocate a sense of transcendence. Our secular age, therefore, presents a four-cornered contestation of worldviews, each with considerable moral energy: secular humanism of the buffered self, transcendence of the ordinary in the heroic anti-rational self (a Nietzschean view), an immanent transcending self (the religion of art or nature) and a transcendent self toward God (traditional religion). These four positions align themselves in all manner of present-day combinations and conflicts.

A Secular Age is an extraordinarily important work because of its deep historical sensibility and acute philosophic perceptions. Taylors understandings are absolutely crucial in considering the place of Catholic Christianity in a secular age. Pope Benedict XVI has made secularism the overall sin of the Western culture. Taylor would surely disagree, since he believes that many of the strands after and beyond the enchanted world of medieval high Catholicism are genuine moral advances for humanity.

If there have been gains through secularism, there have also been distinct losses, and the church may well position herself against spiritual and moral decline. What will not work, however, is preaching a simple addition theory—just put God back in the picture. Countering one simplistic subtraction with simplistic addition is no advance. To be heard, the church will have to abandon a longstanding obsession...to nail down [issues] with ultimate, unattainable and finally self-destructive precision. Nothing short of the great historical conversation that Taylor calls for and in large part realizes will establish a place for Christian belief in a secular age.

More: Books

The latest from america

In ‘Good Night, Irene,’ Luis Alberto Urrea weaves a vivid and heartfelt tapestry in telling the story of the ‘Doughnut Dollies’ in World War II.
Amanda Bergeman February 15, 2024
In 'Such Kindness,' Andre Dubus III tells a powerful story full of sorrow and hope.
Joseph PeschelFebruary 15, 2024
Michael Mewshaw’s 'My Man in Antibes' is an entertaining, moving memoir, spiced with intriguing literary anecdotes about his sometimes fraught friendship with Graham Greene.
Franklin FreemanFebruary 15, 2024
Megan Nix’s 'Remedies for Sorrow' is ostensibly a memoir, but confining Remedies for Sorrow to one genre seems too restrictive for what this expansive and enlightening book accomplishes.
Jenny ShankFebruary 15, 2024