Going Beyond “A Secular Age”

In this, the twenty-seventh year of my life, I find myself turning at last to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. As a preparation for (and procrastination from) the task at hand, I’ve spent considerable time reading many of the Reformed responses and engagements with A Secular Age.

In the course of my informal survey, I noticed an apparent disconnect between Taylor and many of his readers. While several hundred pages remain before I’ll be able to claim to have actually completed Taylor’s work, I’d like to briefly highlight the disconnect here.

In the introduction to A Secular Age, Taylor explicits frames his project as, very broadly speaking, phenomenological. He writes, “in order to place the discussion between belief and unbelief in our day and age, we have to put it in the context of this lived experience, and the construals that shape this experience.”

And yet, with a few key exceptions, most of the Reformed readings of Taylor’s project didn’t seem to approach the work on those terms. Rather, their engagement with, and use of, Taylor’s work is closer to what I might describe as “diagnostic.”

Within in that camp, I would include Collin Hansen, Brett McCracken, and several of the other contributors to the Hansen-edited, Gospel Coalition-sponsored essay collection Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor. Though they approach Taylor from a variety of angles, most seem to share the belief that A Secular Age is a valuable resource in diagnosing the ills of the world today, and each draws on Taylor’s analysis and language with the aim of proposing what the church should do in response to our present “secular age.”

In his contribution to Our Secular Age, Brett McCracken discusses “church shopping” in light of Taylor’s concept of a “neo-Durkheimian dispensation,” which McCracken describes as a time “where one can ‘enter the denomination of my choice,’ not by societal obligation, but simply because it ‘seems right.’” This “neo-Durkheimian” dispensation gave way to a “post-Durkheimian” dispensation, where even “seems right” is contested. McCracken continues: “It’s crucial for church and ministry leaders in a secular age to challenge themselves, and their congregations, to break out of this post-Durkheimian, expressive individualist approach to faith. It’s a path to spiritual exhaustion and eventual death. Spiritual vitality, on the other hand, comes from embracing the necessity of being embedded within a larger structure—a church that provides support and accountability and draws us away from the dead-end prison of accountable-to-only-me spirituality.

The key phrase is “break out”—McCracken suggests that the individualism of a “secular age” is something that we’re able to escape and move beyond. All we need to do is get uncomfortable and embed ourselves in a local church.

Working backward, McCracken’s solution is built on two premises: that Taylor’s diagnosis of our age as being marked by radical individualism is largely correct, and that it is possible to provide an alternative reading of what that diagnosis means. For McCracken, “Christianity requires the submission of one’s individual will to the lordship of Christ. It’s impossible to simultaneously assert the sovereignty of one’s subjective spiritual path and the supremacy of Jesus Christ.”

The belief is shared by many of the contributors to Our Secular Age. In Collin Hansen’s introduction, “Hope In Our Secular Age,” he lays out what could be seen as thesis for the whole project: “The key theological question for our secular age, then, is this: Does God get to be God?” He later makes the point again: “You really only have two options in a secular age. Either God is for you, on your own terms, or God sets the terms.” Again, we see Taylor’s analysis used to diagnose, but despite the historical bent of A Secular Age, the underlying issue is theological and ahistorical.

There are a handful of Reformed readers who have embraced Taylor on his own terms. Most prominently, James K.A. Smith, in his How (Not) to Be Secular, explicitly states that he sees A Secular Age as “an existential map of our secular age” and sees Taylor as “a guide [who] ‘makes sense’ of our situation not by didactically explaining it, and certainly not by explaining it away, but by giving us the words to name what we’ve felt.” In Taylor’s analysis of history, philosophy, and sociology, Smith sees a work both as therapeutic and apologetic, a tool which helps us to understand why belief in our age feels the way it does, while carefully opening up space for the possibility of there being something beyond the secular.

Both Reformed “takes” on Taylor share a few of the same conclusions—like McCracken, Smith suggests that ultimately, some will “begin to wonder if ‘renunciation’ isn’t the way to wholeness, and that freedom might be found in the gift of constraint, and that the strange rituals of Christian worship are the answers to their most human aspirations.” However, as the two descriptions of the destination suggest, both “takes” involve very different paths to arrive at the church steps. Most importantly to Smith, reaching those church steps doesn’t necessarily mean escaping Taylor’s understanding of “secularity” as cross-pressured space, or as Smith likes to describe it, the haunting of belief by doubt and doubt by belief.

If McCracken rejects the idea of a subjective spiritual “path,” seeing it as a rejection of Christ’s lordship, one gets the sense that Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, a novel whose story begins “This morning, for the first time in years, there occurred to me the possibility of a search,” would fit neatly within the scope of Smith’s reading, since the novel treats “the quest-like shape of our searches” as perhaps lamentable, but “inescapable.”

The core disagreement seems to be whether or not Taylor’s idea of the secular, as Smith paraphrases it, “not only makes unbelief possible; it also changes belief—it impinges upon Christianity (and all religious communities).” Smith agrees with Taylor, and McCracken (et al.) appear not to. The answer seems to lie with the philosophical premises of both readers.

While the diagnostic reading is willing to consider Taylor’s analysis of subjective experience under secularism, it denies that subjective experience any fundamental influence, and denies that our present historical moment differs essentially from a previous moment. McCracken’s insistence on the lordship of Christ against a subjective spiritual path suggests a line-in-the-sand-reading that makes Taylor’s concept of individualism in the secular age an idolatrous choice we make, rather than a real condition we inhabit. In other words, the choice to submit to Christ may be subjectively harder, or the obstacles to submission unique, but those are accidental, and recognizing them is only helpful in getting beyond them to the essential matters, which are ahistorical and unchanged.

On the other hand, Smith (as a short glance at his bibliography suggests) has spent his career building bridges across the divide often perceived between the Christian faith and continental and postmodern philosophy. Like Taylor, Smith sees the subjectivity of lived, situated, embodied experiences as worthy of consideration. While he would certainly affirm the lordship of Christ, he also acknowledges the contestability of that belief in the cross-pressured secularism of the present age as a unique challenge, something we can’t just ignore or overcome by doing with greater effort what we have done in the past.

For my own part, I tend to share Smith’s postmodern perspectives, but more than that, I find the phenomenological approach speaks to, and makes sense of, my lived experience in a way I can’t ignore or brush off. Yet, I deeply appreciate the collective willingness of the contributors of Our Secular Age to seriously wrestle with a thinker outside their own tradition, whether they agreed fully, in part, or not at all with Taylor’s phenomenological approach. Still, I would humbly suggest that the diagnostic reading may leave fruit on the vine, so to speak, particularly in terms of how we think about responding to secularity.

To give just one example in closing: Taylor briefly describes the shift partly resulting from the scientific revolution from a medieval view of reality as “cosmos” (a humanly meaningful order of things) to a “universe,” which remains ordered, but not related to human meaning in any immediate evident ways.

From the diagnostic perspective, this shouldn’t be particularly important. Whether Christ is above a universe or a cosmos is irrelevant; what matters is that he’s above it. And yet, existentially, they feel different.

It’s a difference poignantly demonstrated in writer/director James Gray’s latest work, Ad Astra. The film blends the longing for an absent father with the desire to make contact with other intelligent life into an Apocalypse Now-narrative set in space, which I won’t spoil here. It’s sufficient to say that Ad Astra closely echoes Taylor’s concept of the closing of the immanent frame to transcendence. As critic Alissa Wilkerson writes in her review for Vox: “it leaves us pondering the fact that an encounter with a universe that’s much bigger than ourselves—either in the solar system or in the heavens—can force us into an encounter with, well, ourselves.” In a universe unrelated to human meaning, other people are the only locus of human meaning present to our experience.

If Taylor is right, that sense haunts not only those outside of the church, but those inside it as well, closing us off in imperceptible ways to the sense of transcendence, while also suggesting new alternatives that don’t reach beyond the immanent frame. Existentially, it’s not something we can just shrug off. But we can make our way through it. As Charles Taylor suggests, we are all presented, this morning, for the first time in years, with the possibility of a search.

Matt Shervheim resides in Des Moines, IA, alongside an ever-growing stack of books and Criterion Collection Blu-rays. He was raised evangelical, but has shifted towards a more embodied understanding of the faith through engagement with Radical Orthodoxy and Anglicanism. Current denominational status: it’s complicated.

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