On A Secular Age

Feast of the Apostle Zachaias

IF YOU ARE interested in learning more about ASA, before tackling its 874 pages, you should read James K. A. Smith's How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. It's a masterfully condensed summary of the entire book. Or you can wait for the edited version of my dissertation chapter(s), which I will share as soon as I finish editing it sometime in the next week or two (after Synaxis is at the printer and EDI taxes are filed).

In the meantime, as promised, here is a short teaser that has been cut from my dissertation on why you should read Charles Taylor's A Secular Age (ASA):

On A Secular Age
Endowed and launched by Adam Lord Gifford in 1885 and 1888, the Gifford Lectures are one of the most prestigious lecture series in the world. Offered annually for over one hundred years (with the exception of 1942–45, during World War II), lecturers deal with religion, science, and philosophy. The French-born American historian Jacques Barzun has described them as “virtuoso performances” and “the highest honor in a philosopher’s career.” Charles Taylor received this highest honor in 1998–1999, when he delivered his Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. The series was titled “Living in a Secular Age” and his performance was indeed virtuosic. The lectures were later published in three volumes: Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited (2002), Modern Social Imaginaries (2004), and A Secular Age (2007).

Weighing in at two pounds and 874-pages long, A Secular Age is by far the most developed form of Taylor’s original lectures. Graham Ward has described this publication as “a mountain of a book, with panoramic views, unexpected outcrops, serendipitous glades for poetic repose and a narrative path that zigzags over the variegated terrain that constitutes the secular age before arriving at first a nova and then a supernova dispersion of religious possibilities.” John Milbank calls it “a magnificent, epoch-making work, the scope of whose significance has been badly grasped by most reviewers. . . . What we have here is nothing less than a new diagnosis of both Western triumphs and a Western malaise. We are provided indeed with almost a full-scale political, cultural, intellectual, and religious history of modern times, replete with extraordinarily balanced and yet acute judgements.” José Casanova describes it as “the best analytical, phenomenological, and genealogical account we have of our modern, secular condition.” By “best” he means “that it is simultaneously the most comprehensive, nuanced, and complex account.” Colorado and Klassen assert that the publication of ASA “reconfirmed Charles Taylor’s uniquely comprehensive acumen about the character, promise, and pitfalls of the modern age. . . . Taylor cast a new and surprising light on the stage upon which we undertake our most fundamental debates.” Mathewes and Yates argue that ASA “weaves together ideas Taylor developed over the course of his career into a vast, many-stranded narrative tapestry.” They go on to suggest that this work is unique to his earlier writings because “it is at once deeply learned and profoundly personal.” For, it is in ASA, they conclude, that

Taylor appears as one of the most sensitive and discerning religious thinkers of our time, plumbing the depths of the modern spiritual condition in ways that most honest-minded readers, believers or not, will recognize in some measure as their own. But this religious inquiry is enabled—empowered, oriented, and profoundly informed—by an equally deep acquaintance and engagement with social theory. Indeed, it is Taylor’s profound engagement with social theory that we suspect many theologians and philosophers miss in his work, much to their detriment in understanding, appreciating, and building upon his proposal. For it is at the intersection of his social theory and his religious reflections, we think, that religious communities have the most to learn from Taylor’s work.

In ASA, Taylor thus offers an honest, historical account of our Western world (defined by Taylor as the North Atlantic world), one that both believers and non-believers should be able to recognize, if they are honest. But the significance of his account of the “promise and pitfalls of the modern age,” of the “modern spiritual condition,” is not fully grasped by reviewers or readers, partly because it is such a “mountain of a book,” because it is so “nuanced and complex.” But its significance as an “epoch-making work” has also been overlooked because of Taylor’s familiarity and engagement with social theory.

We agree with Mathewes and Yates: religious communities do indeed have a great deal to learn from Taylor. James K. A. Smith feels the same way. After leading a graduate seminar through ASA, Smith felt so strongly about this that he wrote a book to help people understand ASA, a sort of how-to manual. According to Smith, ASA

is ultimately an adventure in self-understanding, a way to get our bearings in a “secular age”—whoever “we” might be: believers or skeptics, devout or doubting. Whether we’re proclaiming the faith to the secularized or we’re puzzled that there continue to be people of faith in this day and age, Charles Taylor has a story meant to help us locate where we are, and what’s at stake. That existential aspect of Taylor’s project is admittedly buried in a lot of history and footnotes and long digressions. So I’m trying to distill and highlight this aspect of his argument precisely because I think it matters—and matters especially for those believers who are trying to not only remain faithful in a secular age but also bear witness to the divine for a secular age.

ASA thus offers an existential map of our age. Taylor can help anyone living, Christian or non-Christian, understand the age in which we live. This is why Smith calls himself “an unabashed and unapologetic advocate for the importance and originality of Taylor’s project.” He thinks ASA

is an insightful and incisive account of our globalized, cosmopolitan, pluralist present. Anyone who apprehends the sweep and force of Taylor’s argument will get a sense that he’s been reading our postmodern mail. His account of our “cross-pressured” situation—suspended between the malaise of immanence and the memory of transcendence—names and explains vague rumblings in the background of our experience for which we lack words.

Taylor is indeed able to put his finger on how our world has changed. This is precisely what he does so well and thus makes ASA so important.


Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.


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