Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age”
posted by Robert N. Bellah (“Habits of the Heart”)
“I have long admired Charles Taylor and have read most of what he has written and always found him helpful. Yet for me, A Secular Age is his breakthrough book—one of the most important books to be written in my lifetime. Taylor succeeds in no less than recasting the entire debate about secularism.
From the very first pages it is clear that Taylor is doing something different from what others writing about secularization have achieved, because he distinguishes three senses of secularity. Almost all the literature on secularization with which I am familiar falls under Taylor’s first two categories of secularity:
- Secularity 1: the expulsion of religion from sphere after sphere of public life.
- Secularity 2: the decline of religious belief and practice.
Many excellent books have been written on these two aspects of secularization.
But Taylor’s focus in this book is on what he calls
- Secularity 3: “the conditions of experience of and search for the spiritual” that make it possible to speak of ours as a “secular age.”
I doubt that many people have even perceived this third dimension, and Taylor’s book should be as much a revelation to them as it has been to me.
To bring Secularity 3 into view, one must call in question some of the presuppositions of the usual discussions of Secularity 1 and 2: namely, that “science” (or “rationality” or “modernity”) has undermined the possibility of religious belief. Taylor devotes much of his book to a history of the conditions that gave rise to Secularity 3, and they simply can’t be summarized with the usual formulae.
Taylor argues that the Reformation—with its radical rejection of the monastic life and the demand of a kind of monastic discipline for everyone—is just the preliminary culmination of a thousand years of pressure of Christianity toward Reform. He then shows how, even when Protestantism itself comes in question, long-term pressure toward Reform continues, first in 18th-century Deism and its attendant strong emphasis on Benevolence, and then in the 19th-century emergence of unqualified (secular) humanism with its emphasis on progress.
According to Taylor, it is not “science” or “Darwinism” that accounts for these developments, but the continuation of a moral narrative that was already long present in Christianity. Even the emergence in the late 19th century of anti-humanism (Nietzsche) cannot be understood except in terms of the particular features of what was being rejected: namely, both Christian and secular social ameliorism. By seeing the emergence of the secular age in narrative form primarily, rather than as a theoretical discovery, I think he makes the whole thing far more intelligible and explains our present quandaries far better than any competing accounts.
Perhaps the most obvious person to compare Taylor with would be Peter Berger, whose many books cover some of the same ground but never with the same thoroughness or historical depth of Taylor. José Casanova, particularly in his important book Public Religions in the Modern World, deals with some of Taylor’s issues, but again his canvas is much smaller. David Martin has written interestingly on secularization, but has stayed mainly within the framework of Taylor’s Secularity 1 and 2. I really can’t think of anyone who has explored what Taylor is calling Secularity 3 with anything like his breadth and penetration.
Perhaps the closest predecessor for Taylor’s arguments is Max Weber, though Taylor’s differences with Weber are still major. Like Weber, Taylor argues that the Reformation attempted to obliterate the difference between the religious (in the sense of monastic) life and daily life by giving the latter a profound religious meaning in the doctrine of the calling—an effort that, to the extent that it succeeded, ended up undermining the very tension that the Reformation itself generated. But he diverges from Weber in maintaining that the success of the drive toward Reformation, mirrored to more than a small degree by the Counter-Reformation initiative, gave rise to new problems.
On the one hand, the very success of these efforts seemed to imply that their religious underpinnings were no longer necessary—that secular “progress” could take over from religious impulses. Yet, as the book’s Part III shows, the new secularity produced its own problems, sometimes but not necessarily leading to a retrieval of religious belief. What we have now is a situation in which neither belief nor unbelief can be taken for granted and where ever more numerous examples of both continue to appear on the scene.
Part IV and particularly Part V outline the possibilities and conundrums in the midst of which we live.
In closing, it is worth pointing out this is not a work of apologetics. Indeed, it would be hard to find a book in this area with so little polemic, so generous an understanding of all the possible positions—including those farthest from his own—and with so little need to show that any side in this multi-sided process of change is more virtuous than any other. Taylor is clear from the beginning that he writes as a believing Catholic: he believes that the Christian effort to reinvent itself as part of the new secular world is a positive event. Yet he is merciless as to its many failings.
I have always admired Taylor’s generosity of spirit, his lack of the usual scholar’s need to put other people and other positions down. That he has been able to maintain his irenic spirit in considering issues of the greatest importance not only to the modern world but to himself as an individual is a tribute to him and an example to be followed.
I think the book could well be the primary text for graduate seminars, and parts of it could be assigned in undergraduate courses, though it is a little too long and perhaps too demanding to be used as an undergraduate text except in a few universities and liberal arts colleges. I would also consider the book a “must read” for anyone concerned with religion and modernity—and that includes a great many people in today’s world.
Interview of Charles Taylor by Robert Imbelli:
Bloggers’s Take on Secularity in the light of the above:
Secularity: A Christian Truth
What is Secularity? – The Freedom and Autonomy of the Humanity of Christ
As response to the above, let me insert from the get-go the absolute grounding of secularity in the humanity of Christ. John Paul II’s Christifideles laici #15 states: “To understand properly the lay faithful’s position in the Church in a complete, adequate and specific manner it is necessary to come to a deeper theological understanding of their secular character in light of God’s plan of salvation and in the context of the mystery of the Church.
“Pope Paul VI said the Church `has an authentic secular dimension inherent to her inner nature and mission, which is deeply rooted in the mystery of the Word Incarnate, and which is realized in different forms through her members.’
“The Church, in fact, lives in the world, even if she is not of the world (cf. Jn. 17, 16). She is sent to continue the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, which `by its very nature concerns the salvation of humanity, and also involves the renewal of the whole temporal order.’
“Certainly all the members of the Church are sharers in this secular dimension but in different ways. In particular the sharing of the lay faithful has its own manner of realization and function, which, according to the Council, is `properly and particularly’ theirs. Such a manner is designated with the expression `secular character.’”
* * * * * * * * * * * * 
Secularity is a term that is hardly ever used in the contemporary Church. And when it is, it is improperly confused with secularism, which connotes, pejoratively, a separation of the world from God. The starting point for evaluating the meaning of secularity as found in the documents of Vatican II is the address of Paul VI on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Apostolic Constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia. Addressing members of secular institutes, he said—and John Paul II builds the core of Paul VI’s remarks into Christifideles Laici—that
“secularity is not simply your condition as people living in the world, an external condition. It is rather an attitude, the attitude of people who are aware that they have a responsibility, being in the world, to serve the world, to make it as God would have it, more just, more human, to sanctify it from within.
Paul VI goes on to say that
This attitude is primarily one of respect for the world’s rightful autonomy, its values, its laws (cf. Gaudium et Spes 36) though of course this does not imply that the world is independent of God, Creator and final end of all. One of the important dimensions of this characteristic quality of your secularity is that you take the natural order seriously, working to bring it to perfection and to holiness so that things which are necessarily a part of life in the world may be integrated into the spirituality, the training, the ascetics, the structure, the external forms, the activities, of your Institute. Thus is will be possible to fulfill what Primo Feliciter expresses in these words: “(that) your own special character, the secular, may be reflected in everything” (emphasis mine).
The key word in these passages is “attitude.” Attitude denotes something personal (as subjective) and interior. Paul VI is thus affirming that secularity is not something “out there” that, so to say, rubs off on one or to which one conforms in order to become “secular.” As an attitude that is interior to the person, secularity, with all that it implies (work, occupations, outlook, lifestyle, ways of acting and behaving), is not added on to the Christian vocation from outside but flows from its very core as a sharing in Christ’s priesthood. [This is from the Father’s Letter of November 1995, #17-20]
As we have seen above, Jesus Christ is priest par excellence as mediator between men and the Father through his unique gift of self. The baptized person shares in this priesthood by making the same gift in the context of work in the world. The laity fulfill their calling to be persons through the creation of secularity by living out their unique way of sharing in Christ’s priesthood. It is the world, and work in it, as the proprium of the layman, not ministries, that delivers to the layman the radical call to priestly existence. And it is in this vein that we are called to love the world passionately.
The laity have what might be called an existential priesthood, rooted in baptism. The locus of this priesthood is the act of self-gift. This self-gift, we have seen, is to be performed in the world, which thus becomes intrinsic to the priesthood of the laity. But it may seem strange in this context that the Magisterium refers to secularity in terms of autonomy. How, indeed, can self-gift and autonomy stand together?
Autonomy, of course, has the connotation of self-determination. I want to propose that this self-determination is the locus of the self-gift that is the core of the existential priesthood of the laity. Conversely, the existential priesthood of the laity is personal self-determination seen in its fullest, most paradigmatic form. But if this is the case, it must be true that self-gift and, indeed, obedience, is not extrinsic to what we mean by self-determination. Obviously, it exceeds the scope of the present reflection to explain in detail why and how this is so. One could certainly make a compelling philosophical case for this claim. But there is also a Christological dimension to this claim that inwardly completes the philosophical one. Christ, the Second Vatican Council teaches us, reveals man to himself. In Christ, we see the unity of freedom as self-determination and obedience; Christ is perfectly free precisely to the extent that, in love, he obeys the Father, a prior relation to whom shapes his freedom from the outset. The prototype of self-determination, then, is the free human obedience in love of Jesus Christ.
That self-gift in loving obedience and autonomy are two sides of the same coin brings us back to the assertion the laity have an existential priesthood, expressed in self-gift in the world. We now see why this connection between existential priesthood and the world is so fundamental to the proprium of the laity: the existential priesthood of the laity, exercised as self-gift in free obedience, is the fullest meaning of autonomous worldly activity. Note, however, that we can say this precisely because the paradigm of freedom is Christological. The laity’s existential priesthood, with its self-gift in loving obedience, is a participation in Christ’ s own priestly self-offering in a free obedience, a free obedience that we see in the priestly gesture of submitting to the Father, rendering the cumulative sinfulness of all men concentrated in that will. In other words, the existential priesthood of the laity is the full paradigm of man’s autonomous worldly activity precisely because it is a specific mode of sharing in Christ’s priesthood. If, in fact, Christ reveals the primordial figure of freedom and of autonomy, he is also the paradigm of secularity.
Secularity, then, is a fundamental dimension of the human person enlightened by the revelation of Jesus Christ. It is “respect for the world’s rightful autonomy.” But what is thus respected is not some “thing” out there that has “autonomy.” The only autonomy that we are privy to experientially, and therefore know in the biblical sense, is in fact our own as persons when we experience the freedom, the joy, and the agony of self-determination. The import of Gaudium et Spes 24 underscores that the human person, “man,” is `the only earthly creature God has willed for itself.'” This means that only the self—the “I”—has autonomy. The truly autonomous self, however, is not the Cartesian cogito as consciousness. It is rather the ontological self of the human person who “fully discovers his true self only in a sincere giving of himself,” i.e., in existential action. However, precisely because what is in play is not the Cartesian cogito, this action of self-gift can only occur in an encounter with another who awakens, sustains, and brings to light the full meaning of self-determination as a response to love in free obedience. This other is, ultimately, Christ, the “I” who is the Revealer of the Godhead and of humanity. By the same token, the true “I” of man is the believing self as gift from and back to this Christological “I.” The paradigmatic act of autonomy is the act of divinized human freedom as seen archetypically in Christ’s self-gift in obedience-to-death to the Father and, from our side, in Mary’s unconditional fiat. Secularity, in this perspective, is an attitude of respect for the autonomy of the person, and his world—as autonomy is illumined in its fundamental meaning by Jesus Christ.
The true autonomy of created being is discovered only in the historical encounter with Jesus Christ wherein the “I” says Yes, in free obedience, to his giving me to myself as gift. This historical encounter, in fact, is “the privileged locus of the encounter with the act of existence, and with metaphysical inquiry.” It is only when the whole of reality lights up in this encounter that it becomes a world—a secularity with an “autonomy” of its own. And so secularity is essentially Christian. Secularity is a priestly way of being and living because it flows from Christ’s own freedom of self-determination as self-sacrifice before the Father. It is lived out in an attitude of respect for the freedom of others—which finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ’s Paschal mystery. Secularity, then, must be interpreted primarily in terms of Christian faith and morality, and not by a given state of affairs that is taken as an a priori that is exterior, and perhaps contrary, to the meaning of the person as revealed in Jesus Christ. In other words, secularity should be judged and valued—or rather, discovered— from the starting-point of a lived Christian faith, and of what Christian faith reveals to us about man, about the world, and about our destiny. What we mean by self-determination and the autonomy of worldly activity must take its basic shape within Christ’s revelation of man to himself.
Thus, secularity—not ministerial functions within the Church as institution—is the proper context, “the theological proprium,” in which the laity “seek the Kingdom of God.” As such, secularity is “not only an anthropological and sociological reality, but in a specific way, a theological and ecclesiological reality as well.” It is not merely a “dimension” of the layman; it is considered his “characteristic.” Secularity characterizes the laity because the world is intrinsic to their exercising the priesthood of mediation. It is what uniquely and specifically characterizes them as being other Christs and constituting the Body of Christ, the Church. They become Christ, and therefore Church, in the profound sense of a mystical identity, precisely by living an ordinary life in the world: they study, they work, they form relationships as friends, professionals, members of society, cultures, and so forth. The world is a specific vocation for laypeople as the place of their self-gift. It is the place in which they “are charged with carrying out an apostolic mission.” John Paul observes:
Their specific competence in various human activities is, in the first place, a God-given instrument to ‘enable the proclamation of Christ to reach people, mold communities, and have a deep and incisive influence in bringing Gospel values to bear in society and culture.’ They are thereby spurred on to place their own skills effectively at the service of the ‘new frontiers,’ which are seen as challenges to the Church’s saving presence in the world. The priests for their part have a primary and irreplaceable role: to help souls, one by one, through the sacraments, preaching and spiritual direction, to open themselves to the gift of grace. A spirituality of communion will best strengthen the role of each ecclesial element.
LG 31; GS 32, 36, 41, 48; Apostolicam Actuositatem 5.
Christifideles Laici 15.
Paul VI, “A Presence and an Action which will Transform the World From Within,” February 2, 1972; AAS 64 (1972), 208.
 “Passionately Loving the World,” the title of a homily preached on the campus of the University of Navarre, October 8, 1967 by Blessed Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer; it forms the last section of Conversations (Scepter, 1974), 113-123 in which the author professes: “I am a secular priest, a priest of Jesus Christ, who is passionately in love with the world.”
“In reality it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear. For Adam, the first man, was a type of him who was to come, Christ the Lord, Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling” (Gaudium et Spes 22).
“For our sakes he made him to be sin who knew nothing of sin, so that in him we might become the justice of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
 “The Crucified Christ reveals the authentic meaning of freedom; he lives it fully in the total gift of himself and calls his disciples to share in his freedom” (Veritatis Splendor 85).
 “Man’s genuine moral autonomy in no way means the rejection but rather the acceptance of the moral law, of God’s command… Others speak, and rightly so, of theonomy, or participated theonomy, since man’s free obedience to God’ s law effectively implies that human reason and human will participate in God’s wisdom and providence” (Veritatis Splendor 41).
 Christifideles Laici says as much quoting Paul VI: “the Church ‘has an authentic secular dimension, inherent to her inner nature and mission, which is deeply rooted in the mystery of the Word Incarnate, and which is realized in different forms through her members.’”
 Fides et Ratio 83.
 Secularity as characteristic is intrinsic to Christian anthropology, not the result of an extrinsic state. “Secularity… is not added on to our vocation from outside. On the contrary, it receives it fullest meaning from our vocation. Our vocation means that our secular state in life, our ordinary work and our situation in the world, are our only way to sanctification and apostolate. Secularity is something Christian, a Christian way of being and living. In other words, our divine vocation, our spirit – or in broader terms, Christian faith and morality – cannot be judged from the starting-point of a secularity defined a priori. Rather, secularity should be judged and valued – or rather, discovered – from the starting-point of our vocation, and what the Christian faith reveals to us about man, about the world and about our destiny.” (Javier Echevarria, Prelate of Opus Dei, Letter 11/28/95, #20).
 “The Diversity of Charisms,” 310.
 Lumen Gentium 31.
 Christifideles Laici 15.
 The distinction between secularity as “dimension” and secularity as “characteristic” bears on the distinction of layman and priest. Secularity of “dimension” is a note of the entire Church inasmuch as Christ himself can be considered the paradigm of secularity. As Christ is Head, the Church is Body, both being one and same thing. Secularity as “characteristic,” however, refers to the laity’s engagement in the world of work as “the place, the environment, the means, or if you prefer, the tools and language of our response to the caring love of God” (L’Osservatore Romano (no. 17, April 26, 1995), 3). The point is: “what makes us holy is not work, but the action of grace within us.” That grace moves us to make work a self-gift. In that sense, work and the secular world are intrinsic to holiness, and therefore the “characteristic” of, the layman.
 John Paul II, Address during an audience for participants at a seminar on Novo Millennio Ineunte organized by the Opus Dei Prelature, March 17, 2001, #2.