secular_age.jpgOne of the most important books of our time, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age explains how many Europeans and their cultural heirs have come to experience moral fullness and identify their highest moral capacities and inspirations purely within the range of human power and without reference to God. It presents an alternative to “subtraction stories” of modernity in which superstition and belief are understood to have withered away, leaving room for modern science and humanism to flourish uninhibited by metaphysical constraints. In place of this well-worn narrative, Taylor offers a rich genealogy of the creation of new moral sources comprising what he calls “secularity 3”: a cross-pressured condition and context of understanding in which belief and unbelief coexist uneasily and where our experience of and search for fullness occurs.

Taylor convincingly argues that historical processes associated with secularization were deeply intertwined with Reform within Christianity, concluding that the movements drawing the largest masses of people into the “slipstream of disenchantment” were religious ones. As a result, the new humanism bears the mark of its origins, not only in being committed to an active, instrumental ordering of self and world, but also in the central role of universalism and benevolence within it.

It is because Taylor draws on such an impressive historical and literary repertoire and writes with such philosophical dexterity and generosity that his dismissal of the immanent counter-Enlightenment strikes me as problematic. He approaches the transcendent/immanent distinction such that the “place of fullness” is either: 1) outside or beyond human life (the position of “religious” transcenders); or 2) within human life with no reference to transcendent reality (the position of “faithless” immanentists). The “religious,” then, approach fullness as transcendence in a particular way. Religious faith in Taylor’s strong sense entails belief in transcendent reality and the aspiration to a transformation beyond ordinary human flourishing. So “religion,” at least in the historical European experience, is, essentially, Christianity.

Fair enough, until you get to the implications for those who fall outside the bounds of both “religion” and exclusive humanism. These radical theorists of immanence trouble Taylor throughout the book. They cannot be accommodated in the “face-off” between traditional faith and secular humanism because—neither endorsing “religion” nor eschewing metaphysics altogether—they are simply not playing the same game. Though Taylor wrestles with the need to adjust his categories and amend the rules such that a three-way face-off between these rivals becomes a genuine possibility, he struggles with the implications of doing so, and never commits to that path. Instead, he consigns unbelievers to living in a universe cloaked in absolute darkness. “A race of humans has arisen which has managed to experience its world entirely as immanent,” he writes. “We may judge this achievement as a victory for darkness, but it is a remarkable achievement nonetheless.”

Though I sympathize with Taylor’s antipathy toward the unreflectively anti-Christian strains of modern unbelief, I do not believe it needs to extend to all modes of believing or unbelieving (the categories themselves becomes problematic here) that fall beyond the reach of both “religion” and exclusive humanism. Though he acknowledges the proliferation of such alternatives with his figure of the “supernova,” he dismisses modes of belief/unbelief that come from within Western experience yet operate outside of and often in tension with the Christian categories that animate his extraordinarily rich analysis. We are led to conclude that he is pulled so strongly toward his version of the transcendent that what becomes most threatening are not exclusive humanists who “close the transcendent window” but their “nonreligious” rivals who represent an alternative to both a philosophy of transcendence and a philosophy of radical atheism.

Though it makes no appearance in this book, Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism comes to mind. For non-Christian metaphysicians like Deleuze, the transcendental field is transcendental in that it resides above or below appearance, but not in that it is unquestionable or authorizes a morality of command.

Can the field of immanence be “experience-far”? Can it also hold mystery, and, if so, would this open interesting possibilities?

I would have appreciated a more nuanced engagement with these questions. Instead, Taylor portrays exclusive humanism as the rightful heir of (Reformed) Christianity, while the immanent revolt is shunned as the illegitimate offspring of Reform, “a resistance against the primacy of life, but which has abandoned these traditional sources” (372). Taylor shuns it not only because it rejects his mode of transcendence (though this matters too), but because in equating a diverse tradition with a particular reading of Nietzsche, the revolt becomes nearly synonymous with proclivities toward fascism and a fascination with death and violence (637-38). With this position condemned both politically and metaphysically, Taylor bypasses an opportunity for what might have been a fascinating engagement between rival metaphysical traditions.

Perhaps this three-way face-off still lies ahead. And A Secular Age is magnificent nonetheless.