Inhabiting the Secular

Does God matter at all in the secular age?

The dramatic opening sentence in Charles Taylor’s massive tome A Secular Age (2007) poses this question: “What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age?” (p. 1). Taylor has always been interested in phenomenology’s “lived experience” and ASA is no exception. Habermas is less preoccupied with this question. Still, Taylor’s profoundly provocative question focuses attention on where God actually matters in daily life.

Catholic philosopher and phenomenologist Louis Dupre (“Spiritual life and the survival of Christianity at the end of the millennium” [2008]) laments that: “Even believers have become secular, not in the hostile, anti-religious sense of an earlier age, but in the sense that God no longer matters absolutely in our closed world, if God matters at all” (p. 2). Like Gauchet, he believes that “religion in the twentieth century has ceased altogether to integrate public life” (ibid.). With evident sadness Dupre thinks that faith either integrates all of life’s elements or it cannot survive as one discrete part of our existence.

The West’s long road to modernity passed through the purifying fires of the scientific, industrial and Enlightenment revolutions from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, gradually undermining the unified Christian worldview and social order as it arrived in the horror-filled twentieth century. If God had been slowly eclipsed in earlier centuries, the ovens of the Holocaust and millions upon millions of citizen and soldier corpses darkened the heavens with the thickest of black.

French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville (The little book of atheist spirituality [2007]) captures the spiritual desolation of this horrific experience that erupted in the heart of old Christendom: “What sort of Father would go on hiding as his children suffered through Auschwitz, the Gulag or Rwanda, as they were deported, humiliated, starved, tortured and murdered. The idea of a God who prefers to conceal himself is incompatible with the idea of God as Father. Indeed, it makes the very notion of God an oxymoron—any God who would do that would not be God” (p. 99).

By the end of the twentieth century churches no longer held the authority over the different domains of life: political, economic, social, educational and personal. Modernity set aside the “authority of the holy” as people became increasingly conscious of having to learn to stand on their own two feet and create the norms, values and legal forms to hold society together. In the emergent pluralist world, religious expression was pressed into the interior of the individual; it was privatized; its function, some believed, was merely to help individuals manage contingency.

The two main principles of secularization—the separation of church and state and the neutrality of the state vis-à-vis religious expression—properly understood, are irrevocable accomplishments of the Enlightenment heritage. Neither Taylor nor Habermas dispute the classic core insights or advocate that they be rolled-back. For me, the key question has to do with the actual “influence” of the churches on everyday life and not the numbers of communicants tallied up by pollsters.

Charles Taylor wants to discover “What it means to say that we live in a secular age?” This seemingly innocent question opens up like the vast vista of a Western movie into a “massive, provocative and complex book, exceeding even the scale of Taylor’s monumental Sources of the Self (Warner, VanAntwerpen and Calhoun, Varieties of secularism in a secular age [2010], p. 1).

The conditions of secularity shape our beliefs

The text weaves confessional theology, philosophy and historical analysis together in a manner that some readers find rather baffling or confusing. It is more “conjectural history” (the author constructs the historical narrative in response to a pre-conceived bias or question) than conventional, inductive historical narrative or philosophical argument.

Taylor’s originality lies not with another refined version of the secularization thesis, but with explaining “how conditions of secularity have come to shape both contemporary belief and secularage‘unbelief’ alike” (ibid., p. 5). Thus, “It is this focus on the ‘background’ conditions of belief or the context of ‘understanding’ in which commitments are   formed—articulated clearly in the book’s opening pages—that sets ASA apart from the vast body of sociological literature on secularization that precedes it” (ibid.).

But in my view we dare not rush too quickly to “de-secularization” as the new intellectual fad, academic industry or latest way of rescuing theology from the dustbins.

Indeed, Taylor himself does not reject the trajectory of the secularization thesis, but urges us to see that the classic sociological thesis obscures the way “developments in the Latin Christian tradition…also helped inaugurate a secular age that opened new possibilities for reconnecting the spiritual and the material” (ibid., p. 7; cf. ASA, 2007, p. 614): embodied ritual, changed modes of marking time and different ways of pursuing healing.

Still, the soil is growing more arid over time and His “voice is too low, and the world’s din so loud…that it is difficult to determine whom he addresses, and what he says” (John Henry Newman, as cited, Dupre, 2008, p. 4). In Taylor’s imaginary portrayal, we as western humans are strung up between two poles: “closure of immanence” and “openings to transcendence” (see, ASA, 2007, p. 549).

The meaning of the “secular” has evolved over time. The term “secular” derives from the Latin noun saeculum. At first, it meant a long duration of time (in French, for instance, siècle means “century”). In the early Christian era it referred to the sinful and corrupt world we live in (which then contrasted with monastic sacred space). Sacred, or eternal, time referred to the world of the afterlife. During the tumult of the Protestant Reformation, the secular signified the transfer of church property into lay hands.

Historian of the Frankfurt School, Martin Jay (“Faith-based history,” History and theory, February, 48 [2009]), observes that: “Only in the nineteenth century did it attain a broader meaning, finally becoming in the mid-twentieth a sociological term of art for a whole slew of institutionalized and cultural processes” (pp. 77-78, footnote 7).

Three forms of secularity

To sort out evident complexity and shifting meanings, Taylor begins his somewhat haphazardly organized book by distinguishing three forms of secularity. Secularity 1 signals the gradual retreat of religion from various public spaces: the state and politics, science, art, education, the market. This form of secularity refers to the historically grounded process of the uncoupling of the “religious” from the “secular.”

Domains previously under God’s tutelage wrested themselves free from Pedagogy from Above and began to govern themselves by earth-bound cognitive procedures appropriate to investigating the natural, aesthetic and moral realms.

The classic social sciences drew on the pattern evident in early modern Europe and imagined that secularization was an inevitable and inexorable trajectory of progressive human development. Within the old frame both the “decline of religion” (in influence and participation in cultic rituals) and, where it continued to exist, its “privatization,” were closely allied.

Secularity 2 is more personal, focusing on the modern individual’s experience of religious belief and practice. But Taylor insists that mere subtraction (of religion from modernity) neglects the way religion may re-constitute itself under modern conditions of belief and unbelief. Essentially, that’s his Big Idea.

Secularity 3 has captured some popular interest with its assertion that western societies have travelled from a “society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others” (Taylor, 2007, p. 3).

Beyond human flourishing?

In Taylor’s “age of authenticity” religiosity is “more and more considered a question of personal belief rather than collective ritual or practice. It has become an ‘option,’ according to which people define themselves through one orientation or another” (Warner et al., 2010, p. 10).

The complacent idea that in pre-modern times everyone believed in God does not, however, stand up to historical scrutiny. Historians John Arnold (Belief and unbelief in medieval Europe [2010] and Susan Reynolds (“Social mentalities and the case for a medieval skepticism,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, sixth series, 1:21-41 [1990]) paint a more vivid and complex picture of doubt, conscious dissent, heretical belief and indifference in the medieval age. Belief was also an option in pre-1500 Europe. It was simply more difficult to escape the panoptical eye of the heretic hunters.

Religion is notoriously difficult to define. For Taylor (2007), religion entails some sort of “transcendence”–especially the “sense that there is some good higher than, beyond human flourishing” (p. 20). Taylor offers as illustration the idea of God’s love for us. We can partake of this agapic love and can move beyond “merely human perfection” (ibid.). But Taylor readily admits that this religious form of transcendence presupposes belief in in this higher power in the first place. In fact, the “Christian story of our potential transformation by agape requires that we see our life as going beyond the bounds of its ‘natural’ scope between birth and death; our lives extend beyond ‘this life’” (ibid.).

The Apostle Paul’s triumphant cry of “O death, where is thy sting” resounds behind Taylor’s confessional faith. This narrative enveloped pre-modern western Christendom; it was taken for granted. Now, it is one story among many available to modern persons. Taylor’s controversial notion of “fullness” is closely bound to his idea of transcendence. “Fullness is not in itself a belief; it is the sense of something larger or more deeply meaningful about which we may have beliefs. Nor is the sense of fullness derived only from a perception of reality and meaning beyond this world or only interpretable in religious terms” (Warner et al., 2010, pp. 11-12).

Catholic liberation theologian Gregory Baum (“The response of a theologian to Charles Taylor’s A secular age,” Modern Theology, 26 (3) [2010]), a former colleague of Taylor’s at McGill University, observes that he “refers many times to the experience of ‘fullness’ that has often been interpreted by people as an inkling of divine transcendence and prompted them to become religious.

Yet ‘the oceanic feeling’—to use Freud’s expression—has been experienced by secular people without awakening in them belief in God” (p. 366). Many of us have experienced moments, whether in the intimacy of sexual joy, the rapture of a Beethoven sonata or the stunning beauty of a sunset over the mountains and still evening sea, which carry us beyond ourselves. And we may or may not praise a Creator who sees every sparrow fall.

It is not easy to distinguish Taylor’s notion of the transcending of mere human flourishing from the normal range of human experience beyond the restrictions of self-perception. For Taylor, then, fullness fuses with the Christian imagination “with its insistence on a call from beyond, its insistence that ethical and social life demands transcendence, and its focus on the primal loss of a synthesis of man and God” (Sheehan, “When was disenchantment? History of the secular age.” In Warner at al [2010], p. 231).

Taylor (2007) asserts that “our sense of fullness is a reflection of transcendent reality (which for me is the God of Abraham)…” (p. 768). Indeed, he goes so far as to say “exclusive humanisms” misrecognize the transcendent reality. It is an anthropological given. Taylor has his cake and eats it too.

Taylor (2007) spends considerable time in ASA trying to understand “immanence”—the “immanent frame”—“the sensed context in which we develop our beliefs” (p. 549). Taylor is haunted by the emergence of a “natural order that can be understood without reference to anything outside itself” (Warner, et al., 2010, p. 13). This order is “constitutive of the frame within which one can set aside questions of divine creation, marking off a sharp boundary with the transcendent. The orderliness of the world is now impersonal, perhaps set in motion by a watch maker god but working by means of its own laws” (ibid.).

The road to exclusive humanism

In his long historical account of this process, Taylor argues that “providential Deism” gradually paved the way for exclusive humanism. With the supernatural discarded like a worn out hunting jacket and left behind in a disintegrating old hut somewhere, Jay (2009) observes that “it was possible to focus entirely on the natural; partial transcendence was replaced by absolute immanence. Here the explanation is essentially cognitive and intellectual, as scientific rationality replaces dogmatic belief. What Taylor calls its ‘unthought’—although it is in fact often explicitly acknowledged—is that religion declines because it is inherently false and based on irrational authority” (p. 78).

By the seventeenth century, a new humanism—exemplified in the natural law theory of Dutch thinkers Justus Lipsuis and Hugo Grotius—drew on human resources alone to articulate maxims of treatment of others. This immanent humanism was propelled, I believe, by the breaking-up of Western Christianity during the ruptures precipitated by the Protestant Reformation and the wars of religion in the seventeenth century.

In his pellucid text, The theological origins of modernity (2008), Michael Gillespie accomplishes several essential tasks. First, he discusses the medieval anti-scholastic theology of William of Ockham (c.1288-1347) as a graphic and compelling forerunner instance of human understanding of the ever increasing distance of God from our worldly troubles and travails. “The gap between man and God had been greatly increased. God could no longer be understood or influenced by human beings—he acted simply out of freedom and was indifferent to the consequences of his acts. He laid down rules for human conduct, but he might change them at any moment. Some were saved and some were damned, but there was only an accidental relation between salvation and saintliness, and damnation and sin. It is not even clear that this God loves man. The world this God created was thus a radical chaos of utterly diverse things in which humans could find no point of certainty or security” (pp. 24-25).

This God was utterly unsettling; dire conditions in the mid-fourteenth century and early fifteenth centuries reflected the momentous events of the Black Death (1346-53), the Great Schism (1378-1417), and the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) and sustained Ockhamist dark thought.

The foundations of late medieval civilization were shaking: the nominalist God who did whatever he wanted seemed believable. The sixteenth century reformer Martin Luther, tormented monk and follower of Ockham that he was, found relief from dread and anxiety in the earth-shaking doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Second, Gillespie spares no evidence (such as the ghastly massacre of Protestants by Roman Catholics at Magdeburg in May 1631: rape and butchery of women among the atrocious acts) in order to highlight this piercing truth: “The modern world, as we think of it today, was born in this time of religious conflict and destruction” (Gillespie, 2008, p. 129).

In such a smouldering landscape of destruction, it is not surprising that Taylor’s immanent humanism would arise, and Ockham’s wild and anarchic God would retreat even further from our sorrowful human world (or, more likely, be replaced by wild and anarchic humans).

The ironic persistence of personal religion

After the eighteenth century—and this is Taylor’s counter-argument—religion doesn’t just disappear, but interacts with new developments. By mobilization Taylor means the release of individual and collective energy as various actors (believers and unbelievers now inhabit the conflict-ridden society) promote their “divergent interpretations of human life and society” (Baum, 2010, p. 368). Baum alerts us to the way Taylor moves to and fro between faith and unbelief.

In other words, the broad processes of secularization did not empty the imagination and social institutions of religion. In fact, Taylor (2007) argues that the reform movements initiated by Western Christianity, in their fervent attempt to make the world anew, in the idiom of the United Church of Canada–to “christianize the social order”–actually back-fired. Once the state took over various services, the church was cast out into the cold.

Yet, ironically, the putting in place of human rights legislation, public spheres, social welfare services, hospitals, co-op work forms, schools, etc.—all church-based projects—created a form of christianized secular modernity. Taylor values these achievements; and, like Habermas and others, has contributed to developing a more complex genealogical account of the shared origin of faith and secularity.

As Gauchet (The disenchantment of the world: a political history of religion [1997]) might put it, if you believe in the transcendent God and the infinite value of the soul, it won’t be long before you discover that you had better use your capacities to get on by yourself. Christianity removed God from the enchanted world, and this growth in freedom led men and women to resist religious ideological subjugation.

Taylor, however, cannot travel all the way down this road: at its end, nihilism; this cannot be countenanced by one who perceives secular modernity as lacking in meaning. The One who said he was the “bread of life” sustains Taylor; everything else is but straw.

Baum (2010) thinks that Taylor’s focus on spirituality and subjectivity of the individual in his brief survey of the religious landscape today in chapter 14 “overlooks the multiple mobilisations in western society after WW II” (p. 368). But the movements Baum cites are all secular: the human rights movement following the Universal Declaration of 1948, the civil rights movement inspired by Martin Luther King, the peace movement to stop the killing in Viet Nam and prevent nuclear war, the farm workers’ movement inspired by Cesar Chavez, the women’s movement for justice and equality, the movement for the decriminalisation of homosexual relations, Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, the environmental movement and the alter-globalisation movement.

Although some of these movements have interacted creatively with religious dogma and values, they are no longer specifically and visibly “Christian.” The teachings have been translated into secular language and institutional forms. They have been disconnected from the transcendental cable to the heavens.

Taylor, however, resists mightily a terrible thought for him that faith “would be a ‘dependent variable’, flotsam on the sea of a post-religious age. But perhaps these mutations can only be explained by saying that something like what they relate to—God, Nirvana—really exists” (Taylor, cited in Gauchet, 1997, p. xv). This equivocating language may well alert us to the “irreducible element of openness to the invisible” (Gauchet, 1997, p. 101), but will not turn many of us to gaze heavenward.

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at Athabasca University. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.