Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Secular Age - Introduction

"This is typical of the modern condition, and an analogous story could be told by many an unbeliever. We live in a condition where we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on. We cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time, looking sideways, living our faith also in a condition of doubt and uncertainty." C. Taylor, A Secular Age, p11.

Taylor opens up this monster of a book with his effort to describe a current trend of secularity. Taylor presents three understandings of a secular moment in history: the removal of references to ultimate reality in public spaces; a decline in participation in religious practices; and the loss of support for religious practices because such activities are no longer considered culturally normative and may even be spurned by large segments of society. This last definition is what Taylor feels describes today's Western society, faith is no longer assumed rather it is questioned when it is exhibited. I think Taylor is right and I'm looking forward to his tracing of this secular condition.

A couple of comments though, and I'll let everybody weigh in.

1) I think Taylor is careful to trace out the dimension of care for cultural diversity (especially in regards to religious experience/expression) that ultimately leads to this secular age. This is the big question for political philosophers - how do we deal with diversity in a liberal democracy. As is the case in other Taylor works, his Hegelian search for historical displacements, moments when society opted to resolve the tension between two or more views on issues such as human freedom, and to trace out what is lost in those transformations will come in handy to define how we got to this secular age.

2) In this introduction Taylor hints that he will trace the influence of academia on public thought. I am hoping. As a theologian I've seen a lot of disconnection between my discipline and the lived experience of religious communities. I suspect that a robust theological imagination would help these religious communities navigate this secular age. I am referring to something more intellectually honest than the current anti-postmodern apologetics that I too often see being read by religious practitioners. I'll be watching this aspect of Taylor's discussion keenly.

3) Taylor has a bigger goal than merely tracing the loss of a religious core to society. He sees this secular age as a moment of "purely self-sufficient humanism" which Taylor sees as a transitional form spelling the end of naive religiousity and beckoning a new era (axial perhaps) of religion that relates to society in intellectualy and spiritually engaged ways. This is similar to the idea of postmodernity as a provisional name for a shift that we are in the midst of, and a moment that might hint at where we are going but really is throwing open possibilities the modernist mind is not willing to entertain. Unfortunately this moment also is a time of retrenching and trying to recapture the lost naivity; the rise of religious fundamentalism throughout the world is evidence of this trend.


Kenneth Sheppard said...

I'm going to zone in on what I took to be the third aspect of secularity Taylor examines and his reasons for doing so in order to sharpen the point a little bit.

On my reading Taylor places the bulk of the weight in the "Introduction" on the shift in "conditions of belief" in North Atlantic societies, what he calls the "background".

Why focus on the background? There are several reasons Taylor gives, but one worth noting initially is its insistence on shared experience, or, the shared desire for fullness, for meaning of all humans. This moral aspiration is shared by all from pre-modern to modern to post-modern, and from believers to non-believers. It shifts the focus from the ideas separating believers and non-believers to context in which believers and non-believers both aspire for meaning. The crux of the issue lies not with "ideas" floating around doing combat, but with embodied persons who no doubt have ideas but which gain their meaning against a social, cultural and political "background" - to perhaps put it a little too simply (alas, it's a blog comment).

One of Freedom said...

That would follow a key insight of Taylor's - that there is something about the lived experience (grounded perhaps is a good word here) of individuals living out the tensions of multicultural society, and doing rather well at it, that holds the key to understanding the problem of multiculturalism/pluralism. It isn't the ideas of the philosophers we need to grapple with so much as the actual situation in which we find ourselves. This is what I found seperated Taylor from Rawls and Habermas (although IIRC Habermas was moving in this direction).

Benjamin van den Berg said...

I have a question about the term "ultimate reality".

One understanding of secularity then is in terms of public spaces. These have been allegedly emptied of God, or of any reference to ultimate reality. page 2

I quickly reviewed some literature about this term. What does Charles Taylor mean in this context? Simply that public spaces are devoid of any references to "unity with the divine"? I assume there are more connotations here than I am understanding.

One of Freedom said...

Hey Ben. I took it in the sense that it is used in Religious Studies, specifically Spirituality. In those contexts when you talk about the content of religion, religions deal with questions of ultimate reality (sometimes called ultimate questions). These include the meaning of life, the meaning of death, the meaning and nature of god of gods, etc. It is an abstract way of catching these things and works regardless of the specific religion referenced by the author.

Kenneth Sheppard said...


In the context of secularity I think you've got the meaning of "ultimate reality" correct. Another way of putting it, which is also described in the book, might be to say that any reference to another "frame" outside the natural, this-worldly one is removed. Taylor is saying these narratives of "subtraction" are to him unsatisfactory as explanations of the rise of what he calls "exclusive humanism".