Living in a Secular Age

It really would have been helpful if I had actually read philosopher Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age before trying to summarize a two-and-a-half hour discussion of it, so this post will not be comprehensive. By way of introduction, here is what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Secular Age:

“In his characteristically erudite yet engaging fashion, Taylor, winner of the 2007 Templeton Prize, takes up where he left off in his magnificent Sources of the Self (1989) as he brilliantly traces the emergence of secularity and the processes of secularization in the modern age. Challenging the idea that the secular takes hold in a world where religion is experienced as a loss or where religions are subtracted from the culture, Taylor discovers the secular emerging in the midst of the religious. The Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis on breaking down the invidious political structures of the Catholic Church, provides the starting point down the road to the secular age. Taylor sweeps grandly and magisterially through the 18th and 19th centuries as he recreates the history of secularism and its parallel challenges to religion. He concludes that a focus on the religious has never been lost in Western culture, but that it is one among many stories striving for acceptance. Taylor’s examination of the rise of unbelief in the 19th century is alone worth the price of the book and offers an essential reminder that the Victorian age, more than the Enlightenment, dominates our present view of the meanings of secularity. Taylor’s inspired combination of philosophy and history sparkles in this must-read virtuoso performance.”

The belle of this ball was not Taylor, however, but Robert Neely Bellah, Elliot Professor of Sociology Emeritus as U.C. Berkley. In the AAR newspaper, Bellah was described as a “sociologist, moralist, communitarian, and Episcopal deacon.” Bellah and Taylor were the two celebrated award winners at AAR. Taylor received the Templeton Prize and Bellah was the recipient of the Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion. One award winner critiquing another. How much fun is that? Before I get to Bellah’s critique of Taylor, here are a few tidbits from the other three papers.

The first paper was given by F.B.A. Asiedu of Middlebury College. His was a response to critics, one by the name of Skinner, who view Taylor’s “turn toward transcendence” in this work as nothing more than an apologetic for Christianity, an endeavor I am guessing Skinner thinks inappropriate to philosophy. Asiedu thought it odd that Skinner called himself an admirer of Taylor, while rejecting the essence of who Taylor is. His was an eloquent denunciation of Modernism, something my notes are not.

I didn’t catch (or later find) the name of the second presenter. He was the co-chair of the Philosophy of Religion group at the conference. His was the talk most critical of A Secular Age. He found the absence of “conversation with theology” in the book puzzling. It seemed to this speaker that questions of theology are central to Taylor’s topic. He said Taylor focused on the “conditions of belief” rather than engaging the ideas of Barth, Niebuhr and Tillich, for example, whose works deal with the content of belief. The speaker quoted Shakespeare here, saying the play is not the thing—meaning conditions are not the thing, content is. Taylor later expressed mild regret at not having included a chapter on theology.

This philosopher said Taylor “talks as if reference to God isn’t problematic.” Taylor’s world is black or white, either there is God or there is Humanism. He said there are many theological options between these two choices, but provided no examples. (This speaker was non-Western, so perhaps he was drawing from his Eastern heritage here.) He merely concluded that a dualistic conception “lurks behind Taylor’s picture.”

The third paper, by Jennifer Herdt of Notre Dame, was read by the moderator. Hers began with a description of A Secular Age as a “masterful work.”

Herdt said it is not the case that religious practice and belief have declined in any significant way, but instead, faith and religious life continually remake themselves. The Christianity of the 20th century saw the emergence of “narrative forms” and “virtue ethics.” Believers sought to reshape the world rather than conform to existing reality. She said God can seem superfluous in such an environment, which favors immanence over transcendence.

Herdt argued that Christian Ethics reinforces secularization. She quoted Taylor here: “Ethics names what was left of Christianity after Modernism did its work.” She believes that any attempt to return to the premodern will ultimately fail, and believes secular civilization should be welcomed because it returns us to the martyred life. This is because Christian faith cannot be taken for granted as a structural reality in a secular society. She advocated getting back to basics rather than escaping to the past. She contrasted excarnation, a set of beliefs/doctrines that justify, with incarnation, a life of devotion, prayer, and community.

Herdt’s paper concluded with something about being careful not to cast people off. There’s a difference, she said, between bad faith and genuine searching. The difference is real. Genuine searching beckons the pilgrim onward.

Finally, a frail old gentleman took the podium. Throughout the presentations, he was hunkered at the table, sometimes resting his head in his hand. I couldn’t imagine that he would be engaging, and remember this was a warm, uncomfortably packed room. I was wrong. Robert Bellah was a passionate orator, even as he struggled physically to get through his presentation. He would cough out a few sentences or paragraphs, choke and sip water and then throw himself back into it. This cycle repeated for a good 20-30 minutes. At one point he took his jacket off and loosened his tie. It didn’t seem to help. He was thoroughly engaging, and apparently sick from too much travel.

Bellah introduced Taylor’s book as among a handful of the most important ones he’s ever read, but then offered a good bit of critique, most of which centered on Taylor’s reference to the work of French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Bellah edited a collection of Durkheim’s work, which included an essay called “Individualism and the Intellectuals,” which I am guessing Taylor must have quoted. I won’t even attempt to translate what Bellah’s criticism was all about—something related to Taylor’s use of the terms “paleo,” “neo,” and “post-Durkheimianism.”

Bellah said that in Durkheim’s framework, radical individualism is dominant over and above commitment to nation and God, especially amongst the educated class. But in Durkheim’s view, individualism is not the same thing as egoism. For Durkheim, individualism is the glorification, not of self, but of all that is human. Durkheim never imagined individualism apart from a social context. In fact, Durkheim himself prophesied post-Durkheimianism. Got that? Taylor later conceded this point and suggested that “double-Durkheimianism” might have been a better turn of phrase. (Really, distinguished sir, as an editor, I must object!)

Bellah seemed to hold out hope for our nation, saying he believes that the values held by both religious and non-religious youth are admirable ones. He named among them: justice, tolerance, nature, humanitarianism.

Finally Taylor stood to speak. He surprised me. With so much praise heaped upon him, I expected charisma. There was none. He responded to the critiques with grace and humility, however, saying the 800+ page book could have expanded indefinitely. The primary thing he was trying to accomplish was to explain what had occured from the 16th century to the 21st. He didn’t attempt to tackle his subject through a history of ideas or theology, but wanted to see how the conditions of how we function have changed.

Taylor said he thinks Skinner is “terribly wrong-headed” to focus on Christian atrocities that emerge from certain readings of Scripture, as if only religion produces such evils. The faster we “get over” the idea that the other guy is the problem (Atheist/Christian/Muslim), the better off we’ll be. He cited a book called The Late Christiandom by Frenchman Emanuelle Munier as having influenced him significantly and said we are in a post Constantinian/post-Christian age.

Taylor offered the idea of “Cosmopolitanism” as a solution to the problems of our time. Here he mentioned German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, but I can’t recall if he said the idea originated with Habermas. Taylor traced the origin of the word to the Greek Stoics and defined it as “citizen of the world.” He said the word was never translated into Latin because the Romans thought they were the world, just as Americans now think we are the world. In talking about multiple modernities that need to be deconstructed, Taylor mentioned ethnocultural variations.

I take it then that we are to be citizens of the world, rather than just citizens of our own backyards.

These are my notes on this session. It was much better than they suggest. I’m ill equipped, however, to work from memory when the discussion is philosophy. I do love to listen and learn.

Update: I did eventually read a good chunk of Taylor’s 800 page tome.

5 Comments on “Living in a Secular Age

  1. Thanks for this report, Christine. It’s valuable to me as I meet tomorrow with a professor at Northwestern who drew on Taylor’s ideas in that book, and his name will likely come up.

  2. Agnieszka,

    I believe I got the general themes right, but I didn’t have my recorder on. Kind of like flying without the net. Glad my notes might be of use to you. I was doubtful they’d be helpful to anyone.

    I’m getting ready to challenge you to another game of Scrabulous. I’ve been practicing : )

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