Why was it once virtually impossible not to believe in God, while today many of us find this not only easy, but inescapable?” The question is Charles Taylor’s, and his nine-hundred-page answer has arguably been the academic event of the decade. Seven years after its publication, A Secular Age has done more than reignite the debate over secularization and its religious roots. It offers to change the very terms in which Christians profess belief.
One of the world’s leading philosophers, Taylor is known for the expansive breadth of his interests in a discipline whose research programs have shriveled in scope. He has written commandingly on German romanticism, ethics, hermeneutics, and the philosophies of mind and action, and has done so in a relaxed style that draws smoothly on literature and history.
Taylor has done little to disguise his religiosity, something that also sets him apart from the philosophical establishment. He describes himself as a “believer” and “person of faith” and without affecting embarrassment. A professed Catholic, he has made occasional sorties into the Church’s intellectual life, quietly signaling his sympathies for liberal movements in theology. Following the publication of Sources of the Self in 1989, a book that credited Augustine with inventing inner selfhood, Taylor’s writings took a soft theological turn. A Secular Age is the kind of work readers probably should have seen coming.
Monumental in scope, heroic in ambition, and serenely neglectful of scholarly conventions, the book is in no way a spiritual autobiography. It is something more revealing—an invitation to experience, by way of historical epic, the emergence of a modern Christian spirituality and its fraught relationship with unbelief. Taylor has been both celebrated and faulted for authoring an apology for Christianity. I regret to say he has done nothing of the sort. Although the advocacy is indirect and the theology implied, Taylor instead encourages readers to embrace a modern mode of faith that accommodates itself to contemporary culture.
A Secular Age has been read as a sweeping account of the Christian past, when it is in fact a very parochial book about the Catholic future. I think it fair to say that it aspires to be for a coming generation of liberals what Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue was for a previous generation of conservatives. Neither are simply histories of the origins of modern moral identities; they are scripts for how those identities ought to be enacted today. They are opposing charters, if you will, for Catholic communities in a post-Christian age.
MacIntyre famously petitioned for another St. Benedict to found communities of virtue capable of withstanding secular erosion. Taylor intends to demonstrate the impossibility of the Benedict Option by showing the impossibility of being other than secular.
Taylor made his name with Hegel, a major book reintroducing its subject to English-language scholars in 1975. His debts to Hegel are apparent in his notion that the history of Western thought is sedimented into our experience of the present. The past remains active because our historical consciousness is shaped by the concepts and thought-forms inherited from earlier modes of human experience.
This conviction about how the past informs contemporary life guides the method and content of A Secular Age. It involves Taylor in a careful description of the contents of our experience. He wants to bring into focus the “background conditions” that frame our knowledge but usually escape notice. Most of us think we are aware of what most matters to us and that we formulate those concerns into explicit beliefs. Taylor maintains that this overlooks the hidden judgments, motives, and feelings that size up our world before we conceptualize it. These, he believes, have shifted.
The mark of a secular society is that believers can no longer enjoy a “simple” or “naïve” faith. The “conditions of belief” have changed such that Western Christians are now unable to believe without reservations, without uneasily looking over their shoulders. The honest believer must concede, “I am never, or only rarely, really sure, free of all doubt, untroubled by some objection—by some experience which won’t fit.” In sum: Secularism means that our Christian experience is now shaped by a lurking uncertainty.
To be secular is therefore neither to deny the existence of God nor to affirm the triumph of science over religion. This view wrongly supposes that secularization is marked by the substitution of one set of beliefs for another—in this case, new rational or scientific ones for the old religious beliefs that dominated in the past. The most influential version of this theory was articulated by Max Weber, who held that religious prejudices wither as intellectual maturity develops, a process he named “disenchantment.”
The problem with this view is that it is an inaccurate description of our experience. Our culture has experienced a fundamental shift, and in that sense Taylor agrees that we live in a quite different thought-world from those of previous centuries. But the important change is not what we believe—there are indeed many religious believers in secular societies—but how. To be secular is to be a participant in a society that makes uncritical belief in God nearly impossible.
Taylor’s claim is not simply that Christians must acknowledge pluralism. He means that religious convictions themselves have been inwardly “destabilized.” Even if we regard our faith as firm, we know that it is considered implausible, even irrational, by rival perspectives that we know to be credible. Perhaps we have read Freud and his view of monotheism as the cultural residue of an Oedipal drama. We don’t have to agree with Freud for his pyschosocial categories to become a part of our religious self-consciousness. The same is true of other religions, if we learn about them. None of this necessarily weakens faith, but it does layer our religious identities with competing perspectives.
Hence the “titanic change” of secularism: “We have changed . . . from a condition where most people lived ‘naïvely’ in a [Christian outlook], . . . to one in which almost no one is capable of this.”
How did this transformation come to pass? What is it about our inherited modes of thought and experience that opened up our religious convictions to competing perspectives and thereby shifted the how of belief? Taylor’s answer: We are living in a culture shaped by a history of unresolvable theological disagreement.
Others have argued that secular modernity is rooted in theological dispute, and indeed a popular thesis maintains that bitter and deadly conflicts after the Reformation led European intellectuals to seek a nonreligious basis for social consensus. Taylor’s account is unusual, however, for the principal role played by Christian moral teachings. He contends, provocatively, that secularism is a direct product of developments within Christian ethics.
Taylor begins with the reforms of Hildebrand and the Fourth Lateran Council, continues through the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, and covers the rise of Evangelicalism and Deism. As he sees it, what drove these movements was a shared moral passion: the conviction that an ethically disciplined life is the vocation of all the faithful rather than only a spiritual or clerical elite.
The success of these reforms, however, depended on a lowering of expectations. Where Christians had once preserved a tension between the pursuit of supernatural perfection and the promotion of worldly flourishing—distinguished as “perfect” and “imperfect” vocations—reformers wished to make spiritual ideals more accessible. This led them to deemphasize the goal of divinization in favor of habits of self-control, industry, and thrift.
Two things followed. First, Christianity became increasingly identified with a bourgeois moral code. Taylor chronicles the ways in which Christianity was transformed from a message of salvation into a bulwark of “civilization” and a guarantor of social order. Second, the idea that God has intentions for human life infinitely beyond worldly flourishing went into eclipse. For many, the answer to “What are God’s purposes for us?” was simply “To preserve life, bring prosperity, and reduce suffering.”
The collapse of Christianity into a conventional ethics midwifed something new: the ability to interpret the world nontheistically. As the goals for life became immanent, Christians began asking if appeals to God were necessary to ground morality and pursue human flourishing. Aren’t reason and natural human desires sufficient to motivate us to preserve life, bring prosperity, and reduce suffering? In pressing these sorts of questions, Taylor argues, Christians slowly cultivated the ability to conceive of themselves and the natural world apart from divine purposes. Life without God became imaginable, and some even wondered if Christian faith might be an obstacle to human well-being. The idea of a Supreme Being who issues commandments and promises salvation needlessly complicated utilitarian calculations. The self-undoing of Western Christianity had effectively begun. Soon, all striving for something beyond human welfare—the pursuit of holiness—came to be regarded by many as fanatical or absurd.
Where are we now? Taylor grants that modernity’s turn toward immanent goals encouraged the development of new capacities, such as the ability to find deep meaning in art and nature. But a world closed to transcendence cannot support our need for “fullness.” As a result, nonbelievers also experience “cross pressures” of the sort that alter the experience of religious believers. They are aware that their views are vulnerable to intelligent critique, and not just from religious apologists but from figures like Nietzsche. Hence our common secular lot: “There are no more naïve theists, just as there are no naïve atheists.”
Here we reach the Evangelical moment, ignored by many, for which the book’s lengthy history is prelude. Although there is no escaping secularism, it does remain open to “purified” forms of Christian thought and life. Taylor invites those trapped within the “immanent frame” to consider the Christian “take” on death, beauty, and moral obligation, experiences particularly open to theological illumination. But his ambitions go beyond addressing nonbelievers, and considerably so.
A Secular Age encourages nothing less than the reform of Catholicism, whose message of radical agape, Taylor believes, has been long suppressed by dogmatic metaphysics. Advancing this line of argument requires Taylor to challenge the classical theological tradition, most notably its understanding of the relationship between speculative and practical reason. Christian life has been impaired by a theoretical concern with certitude and rational justification; its renewal, he maintains, can be found only through a spirituality of transformative love.
Taylor supports this shift from dogma to love by stressing the modesty of properly Christian claims to understanding. Secularity and Christianity are, in one sense, mutually reinforcing. From the former we realize that our commitments are fragile, biased, and defeasible. From the latter we find religious confirmation of this condition, but also a way of avoiding nihilism: “I believe, O Lord, help my unbelief.” Taylor says that Christians can be at home in a secular culture because they take a “leap of faith” that, they admit, is not (nor could be) grounded in reason.
The strategy is not obviously objectionable. It bears a faint resemblance to Augustine’s argument that all knowledge involves belief and trust, a reading strongly encouraged by James K. A. Smith’s admiring primer, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. But that is not Taylor’s move. Instead, he focuses on the “contingency” of both Christian and non-Christian perspectives.
To appreciate the difference between Taylor and Augustine, consider the very different ways in which they express an awareness of human finitude.
Taylor might say: “I am uncertain and sometimes even uneasy about my own religious ‘construal.’ My doubts are only compounded when I realize how easily I could see the world differently. I do have a sense of God’s reality—it seems a compelling explanation of my personal experiences—but I’m not absolutely sure I’m right, especially when I consider the ‘construals’ of non-Christians, some of which are reasonable and which I could adopt without dramatically altering my life.”
Augustine might say: “I experience a world shot through with the mystery of existence. In all that I know about the things of this world—how they come into and pass out of being—I do not see any reason why they should be at all. So why are things so? If the world seems undeniably good, it also seems undeniably unnecessary. There are things that once were but are not now; there are things that are not now but will be; and there are things that are not, but presumably could be. In face of this mystery, I conclude that the existence of worldly things must be given to them from outside—from an absolutely transcendent God.”
The two views appear to share a concern with the perplexing nature of contingency, the fact that some things are, strictly speaking, metaphysically unnecessary. They are, however, fundamentally opposed. The first locates it in our deepest beliefs and the second in the world as such. The difference could scarcely be more significant, since Catholicism’s signature philosophical achievement was to affirm the latter.
Which brings me to a remarkable fact about A Secular Age. It features generous and often dazzling readings of virtually every Western philosophical tradition—except the one it seeks to depose. That tradition is Christianity.
For thinkers working in this tradition, Augustine and Aquinas preeminent among them, the fundamental philosophical problem was that of contingency—how and why anything exists at all, when it plainly need not. In the course of wrestling with this question, Christian philosophy arrived at its great insight: that contingent beings depend on a God whose very nature simply is to be. Its central theses, clarified over a millennium of philosophic labor, comprised what Étienne Gilson called the “existential” character of Christian theism. They included the demonstration that God does not “have” existence but is himself the pure act of existence; that contingent things are not identical with their existence and are sustained in being by God; and that to know the nature of any finite thing is to know its likeness to its divine cause. These claims, and the conception of rationality embedded within them, provided the metaphysical infrastructure of Catholic Christianity, whose intellectual history is unintelligible apart from it.
Taylor discards this tradition, arguing that it misconceives God as an object of speculative knowledge. He makes superficial criticisms of scholasticism and neo-Thomism, as well as of its papal supporters. This is of no moment, however, since his conclusions about the tradition of philosophical reflection in the Christian West are foreordained. He claims that Christianity, as a historical reality, wrought a transformation not in our speculative life but in our practical life. His goal, accordingly, is to reorient Christian faith around what he calls, in possibly the most important phrase of the book, “the practical primacy of life.”
Taylor’s theology sees human life in terms of “practices,” a concept that aims to capture something richer than mere behavior. The basic idea is that our relationship to the world is not theoretical, not something that arises from our capacities for rational insight and argument. Instead, it is one of involvement and concern. The primacy he gives to the practical is not without warrant. The New Testament is not a primer in philosophy, and he is surely right that our concerns—our loves—often exercise greater power than our ideas. As Augustine observed, love is our weight. However, Taylor’s rejection of the speculative dimension of Christian thought is consequential in ways he does not acknowledge.
Historically, Catholicism has made use of philosophical traditions like Platonism and Aristotelianism that emphasize our unique capacity for theoretical knowledge. This was no accident of history, as some allege, but rather an attempt to understand how we are ordered to a God who is truth itself. Taylor effectively denies that human perfection is found in knowledge of God. He instead claims that we are drawn to communion with God through transformative experiences of value and beauty. And this anthropology requires him to reinterpret the nature of religious belief.
For those who know the modern theological tradition, Taylor is covering recognizable ground. In ways that echo Albrecht Ritschl, a nineteenth-century German liberal theologian who systematically turned Christian truth claims into statements about value judgments, Taylor argues that Christian faith is a unique kind of activity: a way of being-in-the-world that embodies an experience of divine love. “God’s intervention in history, and in particular the Incarnation, was intended to transform us, through making us partakers of the communion which God already is and lives.”
This Christology hovers vaguely on the margins of the book, but it frames Taylor’s arguments at every point. He seems to mean that Jesus brought into human history something so mysteriously transcendent that it cannot be expressed in a philosophical system, formulated into a doctrine, or transmitted by an ecclesial authority.
Taylor is right to emphasize God’s transcendence and the human intellect’s natural incapacity to know God in himself. The peace of God in Christ passes all understanding. But whereas the classical Christian tradition sees the mystery of God as transcending our capacity for theoretical knowledge, Taylor sees this mystery as other than and in an important sense opposed to understanding. Jesus inspired his followers to read all of reality through the “mood” of agape. To be a Christian is to exist in this fundamentally altered awareness, a revolution in human consciousness that leads believers to regard Jesus as God’s presence in history. A traditional focus on theological truth claims wrongly confuses the how of faith with the what of belief.
This sharp distinction between how and what Christians believe plays a central role in Taylor’s thought. In an obvious way, it allows him to harmonize secularism with Christianity: Both are modes of belief, not conflicting systems of belief. It also guides Taylor in his reform of Catholic practice.
Those who adopt a “modern Christian consciousness” will reject doctrines that “deny what is essential to our humanity.” Taylor’s doctrinal proposals are undeveloped, but for those familiar with the modern theological project their outlines are predictable. He mentions the penal theory of atonement, the existence of hell, divine wrath, and traditional teachings on human sexuality as ideas offensive to modern believers. Where does Taylor get theological criteria so casually anthropocentric? It would seem from Enlightenment critiques of dogmatic religion, which claim to help us see through outmoded images of divine authority. As he remarks, “God is slowly educating mankind, slowly turning it, transforming it from within.”
A reader cannot help but wonder why Taylor hesitates to engage theology openly. A Secular Age contains almost no discussion of theologians like Bonhoeffer, Bultmann, and Tillich, who thought deeply about secularization. Indeed, the latter two make arguments about the positive ways in which modernity purifies faith that are quite similar to Taylor’s. Curiously, the book contains little explicit theology at all, which is breathtaking given the ambition of its claims.
Although there are nods to Henri de Lubac in the epilogue, it is unclear to what degree Taylor realizes he is traveling a well-worn theological path. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many theologians set faith against dogma and love against doctrine. Taylor often identifies himself as an heir of the Romantic tradition, and there is considerable truth in that, but he also fits comfortably among Catholic modernists, who argued that the special conditions of modern life render premodern theology obsolete.
It is instructive to notice how many of Taylor’s positions are addressed in Pius X’s 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, written to alert Catholics to “the most pernicious of all the adversaries of the Church.” The adversary was not a person, but a philosophical mindset. It held that philosophy must be “agnostic” since God cannot be an object of rational knowledge; that religion is a “form of life” expressive of human capacities; and that human beings can be drawn to faith “only through personal experience.” For those disoriented by Taylor, Pius provides a clear and concise guide.
Where then can Catholics look for guidance if not from the Church and its intellectual traditions? Taylor prefers a magisterium in accord with the how of faith. He commends exemplary Catholics who embody a religious “sensibility” or “feel” that illuminates contemporary spiritual longings. The book concludes with Taylor writing in a personal voice about his attraction to the piety of Paul Claudel, Thérèse de Lisieux, Ivan Illich, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Charles Péguy. What they share, Taylor claims, is an ecstatic spirituality open to radical transcendence and hostile to reducing faith to conventional morality.
Thus does Taylor’s vision of the Catholic future come into focus. In a secular culture, genuinely traditional forms of thought and life are impossibilities. One may of course choose to adopt such habits and attitudes, but one does so as a quintessentially modern act of self-expression. We cannot be traditional; we can only be traditionalists. Yet the unsettled secular soul is open to new and richer spiritual fulfillments. The cunning of history is at work in a secular age, and what seems like a threat to faith can liberate it for higher possibilities. Believers can now come to faith as a free and authentically personal response to a need for “fullness” construed as God’s love.
And with that conclusion we realize that Taylor has written a book to explain why he is Catholic. “I am a Catholic,” our author is saying in so many (many) words, “because my experience of God is best explained by the spirituality found in radically holy Catholic lives. Such lives help me better understand the imperfect glimpses of a transcendent perfection that I perceive as God’s love. Christianity is true in that it is true to—faithful to—what is most evident in my life: its need for fulfillment and transformation by God’s love.”
John Milbank insists that Taylor “does not in any way contest creedal orthodoxy.” Perhaps, but Hegelians never contest. They comprehend and transcend, and in this respect Taylor is a true Hegelian. He denigrates the Christian past by seeing it merely as a dogmatic stage in our advance to the progressive present.
The failure here is not that Taylor sets aside the authority of dogma and discourages us from entering more deeply into the wisdom of the Christian past. That’s something we’re all familiar with, not just in our secular culture that can do without the Church’s teaching, thank you, but in our own thinking as well. Taylor rightly describes our experience of modern faith as riven with contingency. Those committed to the Church have lots of interior ways to set aside the authority of dogma, even as we affirm it.
No, the failure is much greater and potentially more debilitating. By assimilating a secular way of believing with the essential content of Christian faith, A Secular Age sanctifies and makes absolute precisely what we should regard as contingent—the age in which we live. This is not to say that much of what Taylor writes about the ways secularity has altered our culture and our sense of self is wrong and should not shape academic debates. His descriptions of the secular age are compelling and deserve the wide discussion they have inspired.
But if it is true that we have reached the end of an era and now live in a secular age, it will be even more important for Christians to know what has been lost and why. This Taylor will not and perhaps cannot teach us. Instead, he makes secularism invincible to the radical criticism it most needs. Like all Hegelians, Taylor is an apologist for the present, a theologian of the secular status quo.
Alasdair MacIntyre also diagnosed our culture as fatigued by the mutual antagonisms of rival traditions. MacIntyre, however, maintained a chastened confidence in the power of human reason to guide us toward the perfected understanding that is the end of all inquiry. Our confusions and disagreements, he wrote in his Gifford Lectures, “can be a prologue not only to rational debate, but to that kind of debate from which one party can emerge as undoubtedly rationally superior.”
MacIntyre combated the prejudice, uncritically affirmed by Taylor, that secular modernity is a historical dispensation from which there is no intellectual escape. He called his work a “radical renovation” of classical traditions of thought. Its most important consequence has been a growing confidence that the work of human reason can be undertaken in a context broader than that of modernity.
We would do well to listen to Taylor, but apprentice ourselves to MacIntyre. For Christians in a post-Christian culture will need to think in terms of the most expansive of all temporal horizons—a time, bounded by the beginning and the end of God’s holy purposes, that Augustine, writing at the end of another epoch, called the saeculum.
Matthew Rose is director and senior fellow at the Berkeley Insitute.