The New Christians

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, is magisterial in its scope, and timely in its topic.  It’s a massive


book at over 800 pages, but I’m tackling it because several persons have said it will be invaluable to my dissertation.  The basic premise, as I can tell thus far, is the secularism is not a decline of religion, but instead a natural and inevitable advance of the ideas promulgated by the Protestant Reformation.

I’ll begin today with the introduction and blog my way through the book.  A couple of commenters have said they’re going to be purchasing the book and reading along, which I appreciate because it will keep me accountable! (A link to purchase the book is at the end of this post and in the Amazon widget on the right sidebar.)  I’m also going to leave occasional audio updates on Homebrewed Christianity, and I’m hoping to join a reading group on the book led by Prof. Christian Scharen at Luther Seminary — Chris has already read and blogged about the book.

Taylor is a Canadian philosopher (emeritus at McGill), and a winner of the Templeton Prize and the Kyoto Prize.  He is in the tradition of Hegel, Wittgenstien, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Polanyi, and Bakhtin, all of whom have led the charge to overcome epistemologies (if you know me, you can see why I’m going to like this book).  According to Wendy Brown, in A Secular Age, Taylor gives us “The firsterudite phenomenology of secularism through a story of the historicalconstruction of secular subjectivity.”

Review of the Introduction after the jump.

Taylor begins A Secular Age by acknowledging that secularity is difficult to define, hard to pin down.  It seem, he writes, that there are two leading candidates for describing secularism:

Secularity 1:
Our relation to a transcendent God has been displaced at the center of social life and replaced by secularized public spaces and institutions.

Secularity 2: Faith in God has declined, as have the beliefs and practicies inherent thereto, in large part as a result of theories that originated with the Enlightenment.

Both of these, as I wrote above, Taylor sees as mistaken, for they tend to track a “decline” of religion.  But religion is not in decline.  Instead, Taylor argues, it is morphing.  What has ended is the age of “naive” faith in a transcendent God.  For the first time in human history, exclusive humanism is now a viable option, at least in the West.  And humanism sprang from Providential Deism, which itself grew out of orthodox Christianity.

It is the advent of exclusive humanism, however, that was the real watershed.  All belief systems are concerned with human flourishing, and most depend on a transcendent God to determine what it is to “flourish” (Buddhism being a notable exception).  “A secular age,” Taylor writes, “is one in which the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing becomes conceivable; or better, it falls within the range of an imaginable life for masses of people. This is the critical link between secularity and a self-sufficing humanism.” (19-20)

Thus, Secularity 3: New conditions of belief, consisting of a new shape to the experience which prompts and is defined by belief, in a new context in which all search and questioning about the moral and spiritual must now proceed. “The main feature of this new context is that it puts and end to the naive acknowledgement of the transcendent, or of goals or claims which go beyond human flourishing…Naivete is now unavailable to anyone, believer or unbeliever alike.” (21)

Taylor concludes the introduction by telling us that he will argue that these new conditions of belief are unique to modernity and not perennial features of human life. 

I expect this the be quite a journey.

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