secular_age.jpgWhere to begin? This question might be harder for me than it should. Certainly, I can begin by simply stipulating all of the praise in the previous reviews, generous, well-deserved praise. But in fact, it would be more honest to begin with the phenomenon of frustration. If A Secular Age wants to offer a phenomenology of secularism and the “immanent frame,” the experience of reading this book was first puzzling—rarely has a book provoked in me such a mix of exasperation and appreciation—and later telling.

From the opening pages, my historical antennae quickly began to quiver. Taylor’s book works in a space far removed from what I understand (speaking perhaps parochially) as proper historical argument. I say this with due caution: Taylor has always believed in the importance of a historical setting for his arguments. And from the outset of A Secular Age, he specifically addresses the issue of history. “Who needs all this detail, this history?” he asks, to insist that indeed “our past is sedimented in our present.” The movement between the analytical and the historical is thus essential to the entire argument, Taylor makes clear. The origins of the secular age lie, after all, in what he calls “Reform,” an urge to purify and renovate a past unacceptable to the modern moment. In a sense, then, the secular age as he understands it is defined historically: it is a “move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged…to one in which it is understood to be one option among others.” It is as an exercise in historical contrast, too, that Taylor sets into relief the characteristics of our immanent frame. Before, “people lived naively within a theistic construal.” Now they are reflective in their belief. Before, the self was “porous,” open to the influences of demonic and angelic forces alike. Now it is buffered. Before, religion was incarnated in bodily practices. Now it has been excarnated, has been removed from the corporeal, the ritual, and the practical. And so on. Disenchantment needs a prior state. It is an essentially contrastive category.

But as Simon During notes in a previous post, this is conjectural history, a history built around a mobile, at times heuristic distinction between yesterday and today. Conjectural history in the Enlightenment deployed a set of labile chronologies, which slipped along at different rates depending on the culture, people, nation, or what have you. In this way, empirical questions—was it really true that all or even most people in medieval Europe assigned meaning to extra-human subjects? What kind of data set would give us good information about this? What percentage translates into “most”?—were (and are) made irrelevant. Instead, the empirical counterexample is transformed into the “not yet” or the “not here.” So, for example, the fact that the quintessential reformer, John Calvin, worked stupendously hard not to excarnate Christianity—struggled long with the nature and mystery of Christ’s body—is not a counterexample to the Reform narrative. Rather it represents the “not yet” of a story. The Middle Ages in Europe look, on this account, much like primitive societies the world over, stadially defined along a stream from earlier to later. For this reason, it is very hard to chart Taylor’s chronologies: they metamorphose into vague befores and afters that slide from the dawn of the post-neolithic age to the Treaty of Westphalia, and beyond.

Now this is, I admit, a bit unfair to Taylor. He consistently marks the world’s plural developments, the heterogeneity of religious cultures, and the specificity of his claims about what he calls Latin Christendom. Moreover, his depiction of the various subject positions available inside this secular age is simply beautiful: to be secular, for Taylor, is never just one thing, but an immensely variegated experience, marbled with difference. And yet his “before,” that “old enchanted cosmos,” is as homogeneous as the modern is various, and the evidence for this is suspiciously thin, more anthropology than history. Pre-modern Europeans look quite a bit like Durkheim’s primitive Australians, who also look like so-called “pre-Axial Age” religious peoples. The fit between the theoretical claim—that to be modern is to be differentiated and plural—and the historical narrative is suspiciously close, so much so that the latter looks like an excuse for the former.

What does this matter? Maybe not much, I thought: Taylor is a philosopher, after all, and need be subject to none of my guild demands. But as I read on, it became clear that what I at first mentally called the anthropological a priori was in fact crucial to this project. The book in fact begins with such an a priori: that “we all see our lives… as having a certain moral/spiritual shape” that is governed by a sense of “fullness, a richness.” What supplies this shape distinguishes between believers and non-believers. Believers find this shape in a “beyond,” a transcendent something. Non-believers look downwards, to society, law, human relations, the here-and-now. Fullness defines the very possibilities of ethical, political, and social life. Its origin, not its facticity, creates the conditions of, and possibilities for, belief, and in turn creates the distinctions between the various subject positions enabled by a secular age.

Now there is a familiar critique to make here. What looks like an anthropological a priori, after all, looks suspiciously like a theological one. That is, the ideal of “fullness” that cannot be encompassed by what During calls the mundane is not neutral in respect to belief. Taylor imagines that for “unbelievers” the ideal of fullness works in “analogous” ways to that of believers, but I am not sure this is true at all. Indeed, one might easily argue that the unbeliever makes very little use of the idea of fullness at all. It simply does not govern his or her phenomenal life the way it supposedly does the believer—the mundane, to follow During, might be the far more important category for the life of the unbeliever. In contrast, “fullness” sounds much like a generalization of the Christian religious imagination—with its insistence on a call from beyond and transcendent value, its insistence that ethical and social life demands transcendence, and its focus on the primal loss of a synthesis of man and God—to an entire people, culture, world. And Taylor knows this. The argument that “God is still a reference point for unbelievers” because even atheists need to define their rationality against him confirms it. It says that “fullness” demands transcendence, at the very least as background. As Taylor concludes, “modes of fullness recognized by exclusive humanisms, and others that remain within the immanent frame, are… responding to transcendent reality, but misrecognizing it.” Real recognition comes only from the sphere of religion. And not just any religion, I suspect, but one most powerfully expressed in the Romantic and Catholic writers that Taylor finds so compelling.

But here is where my (admittedly secularist) exasperation became telling. At first I suspected that there was a kind of sleight-of-hand at work and that my job would be to show the gnome of theology at work behind sober description. But when I reached these concluding comments in the last chapters of the book, the tables turned. For in these, Taylor reveals that in fact this is a theological argument, that indeed the book is an explicit brief for a theological critique of secularism and the immanent frame. The violation of guild norms that made me so suspicious of the historical project was not accidental, but an integral part of the positive project of this book. The book ends with a moving confession of faith, something unremarked by most reviewers that I have read (see chapter 20). It is a faith in a future where depth and profundity reinvigorate and moderate a shallow, violent, and over-rationalized secular age, a future prophesied by Taylor’s admired authors, Bede Griffiths, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Charles Péguy, Paul Claudel, Ivan Illich, Catholics to a man.

There is a name in the Christian tradition for this combination of theological argument and historical narrative. The name is apologetics, and its history is, in fact, one of the stories that Taylor recounts in this book. It is a history whose modern center lies in the seventeenth century, a century when Christians synthesized theological practice and the demands of an autonomous reason, insisting with ever more sophistication that Christianity was the religion of reasonable people. In the age of religious wars, the prime real estate lay exactly in the middle. It lay in that space of reasonableness between the extremes of atheism and heterodoxy, on one side, and ossified religious tradition, on the other. In the tradition I know best—Protestant apologetics—thinkers from Hugo Grotius to Edward Stillingfleet to John Locke placed reason in equidistance from both Catholicism and the specters of Spinozist and Hobbsian materialism. They, in turn, wielded historical argument as a weapon for carving out the middle space, for showing how modern religion (that is, Christianity) might universalize its particular history into one applicable to the entire human race. Doing this demanded a daring balancing act. Against atheists and Catholics alike, it stipulated the historical reality of church corruption, and yet promised a future Christianity in harmony with reason and universal human freedom. It assigned the historical Church responsibility for many modern evils, and revealed its Christian core as the cure for a civilization plagued by greed, violence, and tyranny.

In his own way, Taylor performs a similar rhetorical work, positioning the common experience of reasonable modern people in between “extreme” poles of “orthodox religion” and “materialist atheism”. The “cross-pressure” between these poles “defines the whole culture,” as he puts it. The poles are heuristics against which we, the Latin West, define our senses of meaning and fullness. But they also have their real partisans, whether atheists like Richard Dawkins or fundamentalists like Pat Robertson. Between these extreme “partisans” (and the list could be expanded, and also, incidentally, made isomorphic with similar partisans in the seventeenth century), lies a territory that is most consonant with the nature of human striving, experience, and insight. This territory is, no surprise, also consonant with Christianity. Indeed, Christianity provides its original map, insofar as it holds onto both transcendence and immanence, mixing them in the originary figure of its tradition, Christ himself. Christianity does not just offer resources for this territory, furthermore. In fact, it governs its historical development. “Modern civilization,” Taylor wants to argue, “is in some way the historical creation of ‘corrupted’ Christianity.” And yet it is only Christianity (or “religion,” as Taylor at times calls it) that offers an escape from the culture that its dissolute forms created. As in the seventeenth century, the balancing act is delicate here. But the balancing act is essential to the apologetic enterprise, for it is through this careful arrangement of forces that Christianity comes to occupy all of the available sites of intellectual responsibility. It is both the history and the future of the West. It serves as the origin of the secular, and the source of its overcoming. It dwells in the sphere of reason and carries the promise of incarnated passion. It critiques our past and promises a future unlike the one in which we live. Small wonder that, for an atheist, materialist, secular historian, this book was both provocative and frustrating.

[For more from Jonathan Sheehan, read his remarks at an SSRC colloquium on the varieties of secularism. —ed.]