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How Much Can We Stand?

A Secular Age
By Charles Taylor
(Harvard University Press, 874 pp., $39.95)


'Bored" and "uninformed" was how Philip Larkin felt on entering a church, wondering: "when churches fall completely out of use / What we shall turn them into." Unlike Britain, where the pews are generally empty, America is not likely to see its churches fall into disuse anytime soon. The apparent vitality of religion on this side of the Atlantic has long been invoked as a conspicuous contrast with the increasing de-Christianization of Europe. Yet the indifference that Larkin professed in his great early poem "Church Going" is widespread all the same. Most Americans say they believe in God and may label themselves Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish, but far fewer care enough to go further than that. Religion is largely absent from the art and culture of our time. America's reputation for religiosity stems from its evangelical movements, and they generally view themselves as struggling against the mainstream. For many Americans, religious belief is a childhood illusion that they have outgrown. They may retain a vague notion of there being some God "out there," but little more.

Here too, then, the same question arises that Larkin went on to pose: "What remains when disbelief has gone?" Once the old dogmas and rituals are a distant memory, no longer worth fighting against, how should we live? Should we simply get on with the cultivation of our own powers, pursuing the goals that lie within our reach, and forget about the grander spiritual fulfillment that religion once promised--the redemption of sin and suffering, the conviction that our fleeting existence matters from the standpoint of eternity? Despite his boredom with religious tradition, despite his general distrust of enthusiasm, Larkin disagreed that we should lower our sights: a life content to remain within the human sphere did not seem enough. "Someone will forever be surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious," just like the poet inside the church. It is natural to seek some deeper meaning in which our limitations are transfigured, in which "all our compulsions meet, / Are recognized, and robed as destinies," even if we balk at actually believing in a God that would make such a meaning a reality.

This conflict in the modern mind is also the theme of Charles Taylor's new book. Taylor never mentions Larkin's poem, and as a practicing Catholic he has none of the same diffidence toward Christian doctrine. But A Secular Age likewise focuses on the contemporary sense of emptiness that comes with being unable to see the human world as part of a larger and purposeful whole. Religion may have assumed a marginal place in the public and intellectual culture of our time, and to many it may seem a dead issue or a sentimental relic, an afterthought, even a dangerous holdover needing to be expunged--but an existence devoid of any spiritual dimension fails, Taylor insists, to satisfy our deepest aspirations. Each of us has moments of "fullness" when we feel at one with the world, as though some higher force were flowing through all things and carrying a hidden meaning about how we should live.

Thus we find ourselves divided, and the "cross pressures" responsible for this "modern malaise" are the phenomena that Taylor sets out to explain. His overall aim is to show that our age is not really inimical to the possibility of faith, since the very values that shape the human self-affirmation we prize point to a larger horizon beyond the purely human. For an earlier version of this book, his Gifford Lectures of 1999, as well as for the rest of his life's work, Taylor received the prestigious Templeton Prize for "progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities." But A Secular Age is a deeply disappointing--and in some ways maddening--book.

For a start, its size is preposterous. No work of philosophy needs to be anywhere this long. Taylor pursues his subject from a historical angle, running through one area after another of European culture over the past one thousand years. "I have told a long story," he admits. He is right to think that one cannot understand modern secularism unless "one comes at it historically," but the method does not excuse the bulk. For the story that Taylor tells is not very novel, and the inordinate length of the historical narrative pushes to the sidelines the systematic arguments necessary to justify the philosophical message that he wishes to deliver.

Moreover, Taylor's scholarship leaves something to be desired. There are a number of slip-ups, the worst of which occurs when, in the course of describing the modern link between civilized government and polite manners, he throws in the following note: "This term 'polite' is, of course, another borrowing from the Greek term which 'civil' translates." Of course it is not--as any good dictionary would show. "Polite" has no connection to the Greek words "polis" and "politikos," but comes from the Latin verb "polire," meaning "polish." Also, the book has been poorly proofread, though pity the proofreader faced with this tome. The most memorable error appears in Taylor's discussion of Arius, a fourth-century Christian who denied the full divinity of Christ, in which we are introduced to "the Aryan refusal of identification of Christ and God." Yikes! (The proper adjective is "Arian.")

Most importantly, A Secular Age displays a shocking partiality in its approach. Taylor declares that he is focusing on "Latin Christendom," so Judaism and Islam naturally receive short shrift. But he also has not a single word to say about the great figures of twentieth-century Protestant theology--Barth, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer--whose concern lay centrally with modern secularization, though he goes on at length about Catholic theologians such as Jacques Maritain and Ivan Illich. This is not just a book written by a Christian for Christians. It is a book written by a Catholic for Catholics.

Taylor centers his story around what appears to be a striking shift in the very nature of religious belief. In the past, nearly everyone believed in God as a matter of course. Atheism was well-nigh unimaginable. Today, by contrast, many reject the existence of God out of hand, quite routinely, and even the staunchest defenders of faith know that they might have chosen otherwise. How did so momentous a change come about? What happened between 1500 and 2000 to turn belief from a norm into an option?

Each of us, according to Taylor, relies on some answer to this question, however tacit or superficial. We cannot live in a secular age without some view about what it means to have left behind an age of faith. The trouble is that these views generally take the form of "subtraction stories." They portray the modern world as having come into being by sloughing off the illusions of religion and letting the human condition finally appear for what it has been all along. Accounts of this sort, Taylor maintains, embody a fundamental mistake about modernity. They miss the fact that to see nature as operating by laws of its own, not by God's purposes, and to see society as bound together by human interests, not by sacred ritual, depends on a substantive set of values, cognitive and moral, that are by no means the universal property of mankind, but have come to be espoused in the West for historically contingent reasons. Our secular age did not arise by a process of subtraction, but through the creation of a whole new conception of man and world.

Secularization can mean three different things, all of them distinctive features of modern Western society. First, there is the separation between church and state, emerging in the seventeenth century after one hundred years of religious war in Europe and transferring the basis of political authority from divine will to notions of consent and individual rights. No longer sustained by public affirmation and enforcement, religion has turned into a private affair, and as a result it has lost its influence over more and more people. And so secularization also involves--this is its second sense, for Taylor--the all-too-familiar decline of religious belief in the West.

Yet these two developments could not have occurred, he claims, without a fundamental alteration in worldview. There had to emerge a conception of nature and society which Taylor dubs "the immanent frame." This is his third, and decisive, notion of secularism. The natural and the supernatural, the human and the divine, came to be so sharply marked off from one another that making sense of the world around us appeared possible in this-worldly terms alone. Only within such a framework could political community dispense with the aura of religious unity, and people find ways of giving meaning to their lives without looking beyond the human realm. Only on this basis could belief in God cease to be the immediate and uncontroversial certainty that it once was, the inescapable backdrop to every thought and endeavor, and become instead a possibility that on reflection people might either endorse or reject--"one option among others and frequently not the easiest to embrace."

How, according to Taylor, did this intellectual revolution take place? Obviously, the rise of modern science played a great role. But in order for scientific inquiry to take off in the form that we recognize today, nature had to be emptied of the spirits, portents, and cosmic purposes that once seemed a fact of everyday experience. It had to be conceived as fundamentally an impersonal order of matter and force, governed by causal laws. This conception of nature was itself the expression of a new attitude toward the world that Taylor calls "disengagement," the distancing outlook of "the buffered self." People learned to stand back from the forces of nature around them (as well as within them), and to regulate their actions so as no longer to feel at the mercy of hidden powers, and thus to turn the vast expanse of matter in motion before them into a domain for prediction and control. Nature ceased to be mind- like, full of the signs and wonders invoked in Shakespeare's plays, and became instead a neutral object of sober inquiry for the only minds there are, namely our own.

What inspired this shift was not, Taylor insists, a decision to dispel the mists of religion and look reality at last squarely in the face. It was instead a new ethic of self-possession and instrumental manipulation, which exalted "the independent, disengaged subject, reflexively controlling his own thought- processes, 'self-responsibly,' in Husserl's famous phrase." Contrary to one well-known but naive sort of subtraction story, modern science did not arise through the substitution of observation for fantasy. It involved the systematic combination of experiment and mathematics, designed (as Bacon and Kant said) to "put nature on the rack" and "constrain it to give answers to questions of reason's own devising." Epistemology, Taylor claims, is ultimately rooted in ethics. We form our beliefs in accordance with conceptions of method and evidence that tell us in effect how we should respect our dignity as thinking beings in dealing with a world where truth is elusive. And these ideals of intellectual virtue vary from one historical epoch to the next.

A corresponding sea-change occurred in the understanding of society and indeed in the very structure of social life, a transformation that Taylor calls the "Great Disembedding." Beginning in the sixteenth century, the institutions and the rituals of a hierarchical community, its different orders united by their respective positions in God's creation, gave way to the conviction that each person is responsible for his own conduct and tied to others by relations of mutual benefit. No longer defined by their rank and station, people now viewed their various roles as so many obstacles or opportunities to be tackled on the way to becoming themselves. Thus there arose the modern idea of the individual, self-directed and encountering society from without, the sort of protagonist we begin to meet in such early novels as Moll Flanders and Tom Jones. Here again, even more clearly, the change cannot be understood as the recovery of what we have always been like, buried beneath the deceptions of religion. Modern individualism is an innovation, a disciplining of mind and body aimed at our becoming able to think for ourselves.

Such, according to Taylor, are
the values that have created the new picture of nature and society characteristic of the modern mind. The processes of disengagement and disembedding have bleached away the sacred from the fabric of the world. They have left in its wake a framework of immanence, in which belief in God now appears optional, no longer essential to the understanding of life and reality. But this is only part of Taylor's tale. A further dimension brings us to the moral of his story.

So little did our secular age take shape by casting off the illusions of religion, he continues, that its sources lie in the very effort to live up to the ideals that the age of faith espoused. Long before the Protestant Reformation, beginning already in the eleventh century, Western Christianity grew increasingly dissatisfied with the institutions and the practices that it had acquired over the years. In a number of ways, the church found itself caught up in the same basic conflict: it preached a religion of individual salvation, addressed to all and invoking a transcendent God, but it had compromised these essential tenets by allowing the masses of the faithful to go on living in habits of mind typical of the pagan world that the Christian faith was supposed to have overthrown.

As a result, medieval Christendom became imbued with the spirit of reform. Aiming to bring the lives of all into line with true Christian doctrine, it attacked magical views of nature as idolatrous and rejected conformity to custom in favor of personal devotion. Not only the radical Lollards and Hussites, but a host of movements operating within the bosom of the Church--the Franciscans, for instance, or the Brethren of the Common Life, inspired by Thomas à Kempis's manual The Imitation of Christ--all sought in their different ways to narrow the gap between elite and laity, between the asceticism of the monastic orders and the superstitions of ordinary priests and believers. In place of the veneration of saints and relics, worship was refocused on developing a proper awe before God's majesty. Miracle-mongering was reined in, and pagan rites such as dancing around the maypole were discouraged. More and more the principle gained ground that the routines of everyday life are a domain in which everyone, whatever his place in society, is able to practice the virtues of the Gospel.

Modern secularism, in Taylor's account, has its roots in this centuries-long effort to make the Christian faith a reality for all, not in the dawning realization that God is an illusion. The new attitude toward the world characteristic of modern science, reducing all of nature to matter in motion, would not have taken hold without the religious significance that it seemed then to embody. In banning from creation every trace of magical power and natural purpose, it glorified God's supremacy, and promised man the means to master the environment so as to be better able to do God's work. So too, the individualist ethic of self-discipline and personal responsibility began as the pursuit of godliness, commanding each person to stand back from the ways of the world, take his own life in hand, and make himself into the servant of the divine will.

"The irony," Taylor notes, is that the "rage for order" and the investment of everyday life with a new significance and solidity, "so much the fruit of devotion and faith, prepare[d] the ground for an escape from faith, into a purely immanent world." But this irony is not a cause for dejection. It is the peg on which Taylor hangs his deeply apologetic project. Bringing out the Christian sources of our secular age is meant to show that secularism does not really close off the possibility of faith. Science, Taylor declares, cannot refute belief, because science rests on attitudes toward the world whose original rationale was religious in character. The same is true of modern individualism. It is possible to regard our autonomous conceptions of nature and society as sufficient unto themselves--to give them, as he likes to say, a "closed spin"; but we need not do so. We can also go for an "open spin" and regard them as part of a more encompassing spiritual reality. In Taylor's view, "exclusive humanism" is an option, no more--just as belief itself has become one.

Moreover, he holds, there are good reasons to think that a life lived in strictly human terms, closed off to a deeper dimension, cannot prove satisfying in the end. Western culture has for several centuries now been racked by a distinctively modern malaise. "One can hear," Taylor observes,

all sorts of complaints about "the present age" throughout history: that it is fickle, full of vice and disorder, lacking in greatness or high deeds, full of blasphemy and viciousness. But what you won't hear at other times and places is one of the commonplaces of our day ... that our age suffers from a threatened loss of meaning. This malaise is specific to a buffered identity, whose very invulnerability opens it to the danger that not just evil spirits, cosmic forces or gods won't "get to" it, but that nothing significant will stand out for it.

We moderns tend to live at crosspurposes with ourselves. Committed to the values of rational control and individual fulfillment, we find it difficult to acknowledge, though we long for it all the same, some commanding vision of man's place in the world that would show us the point of these ideals and serve as our ultimate object of allegiance. This inner division shows forth clearly in the poetry of the Romantic era, and ever since. Beauty is no longer thought to be part of nature in itself, awaiting imitation by the poet. It has to be revealed through the work of the imagination. But the imagination being creative as well as responsive, the deeper harmony with nature the poem evokes is no sooner glimpsed than it is lost or ironized, rendered "ontologically indeterminate," Taylor says, as the objectifying stance of the modern mind reasserts its right to define what is real.

Wordsworth is Taylor's prime example, and rightly so. In a famous passage of The Prelude he asserts that it was the imagination that revealed to him "the invisible world" beyond the brute reality of the Alps he was crossing:

Our destiny, our nature, and our home,
Is with infinitude--and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about
to be....

We cannot tell, and nor could he, whether this invisible world really exists independent of him or only within his mind. Its infinitude is precisely the inability to nail it down.

This posture of ambiguity is hard to maintain. It easily tips over into an aestheticism that substitutes art for the world, and practices art for art's sake, as in Pater or Mallarmé. But it can also yield a different sort of resolution. Art can turn the suggestion of hidden depths into an epiphany of the divine, pushing beyond the bounds of immanence to an affirmation of God's presence in creation, as in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur
   of God.
It will flame out, like shining from
   shook foil.

Taylor's sympathies lie clearly in this direction--not with aestheticism, but not with ambiguity either. Hopkins is the poetic hero of his book, the center of the last chapter, aptly titled "Conversions."

Commitment, not hesitation, is the language that Taylor prefers. The crucial question for him is whether to take the immanent frame as closed or open. Either way, he contends, we rely on a "leap of faith ... [an] over-all sense of things that anticipates or leaps ahead of the reasons we can muster for it." Taylor shows little patience with vacillation. That would be failing to heed those intimations of a deeper transcendent reality that we feel when we are moved in every fiber of our being by the power of the good or by the beauty in the world. "Can you really give ontological space for these features short of admitting what you still want to deny, for instance, some reference to the transcendent, or to a larger cosmic force, or whatever?"

Taylor's answer is no. And there is no "whatever" about it. It is, he says ecumenically, "the God of Abraham" we are then encountering. Even those who cleave unhesitatingly to the immanent frame, provided that they too experience moments of "fullness," are responding to the reality that is God. They are simply "misrecognizing" it. At times, demurely, he calls this a "theistic hunch. " But for Taylor it is not really a hunch at all. It is a guiding conviction.


Plainly, A Secular Age is an extremely ambitious book. But how convincing is its story about the origins of our world? How persuasive is its claim that religious faith provides the best answer to the many cross pressures of modernity? To readers familiar with the classics of modern social theory, Taylor's historical account will sound familiar, almost banal. Though covering an immense array of figures, texts, and cultural movements, it follows closely in the footsteps of the theory of secularization pioneered by Max Weber at the beginning of the last century. For Weber too, our secular world was the unintended consequence of religious forces aiming to practice a purer Christianity. Moreover, the "disengagement" and "disembedding" in which this dialectic, according to Taylor, played itself out, are none other than the processes that Weber famously described as "the disenchantment of the world" and the triumph of "the Protestant ethic."

True, there are some differences. Instead of tracing, like Taylor, a continuity between the Reformation and the reform movements of medieval Christianity, Weber located a decisive turning point in the "innerworldly asceticism" of the early Protestant sects. And indeed, did not the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witness a dramatic rupture with the age of faith that had come before? Weber did not deny that the Reformation sprang from the tensions inhabiting the medieval compromise between a monotheistic Gospel and a semi-pagan devotion to miracles and saints. In fact, the term by which Taylor refers to this mix, "the unstable post-Axial equilibrium" which provided a constant impetus for reform, derives from Karl Jaspers, who was Weber's disciple. Jaspers's theory of the "Axial Age," or the last millennium B.C.E., when universalist and rationalizing religions arose to challenge the cult of magic and the worship of local gods, drew upon the grand themes of Weber's sociology of religion expounded in his monumental Economy and Society. So to a certain extent, this first difference is one of emphasis--Weber stressing the Reformation's break with the past, Taylor the medieval background that made it possible. No doubt the difference has something to do with the fact that Weber was a lapsed Protestant and Taylor is an ardent Catholic.

But there is obviously a more substantial difference. Weber shared none of Taylor's belief that faith can be rendered intellectually credible, even if he agreed that the roots of our secular age lie in the religious fervor of the past. He expressed only scorn for those who "cannot bear the fate of the times like a man." Not that Weber felt at home in the disenchanted, rationalized world that we have inherited. Far from it, as everyone knows. We live today, he bleakly observed, in a "polar night of icy darkness," an "iron cage" in which we have become "specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart." Yet he remained determined to face this world without flinching. Taylor would have struck him as one of the softies who, rushing into the arms of the church, happily commit a "sacrifice of the intellect." Weber's motto, as he confessed to his wife, was this: "I want to see how much I can stand."

That is hardly Taylor's principle. Consider what he has to say about Weber himself. He acknowledges the similarities in their historical accounts, while pointing out his own different emphasis on the long-term tendency toward reform in the Christian tradition. About their disagreement concerning the proper reaction to our secular world, however, Taylor is content to remark that the two of them simply give a different "spin" to the immanent frame. He opts for an "open" reading, Weber for a "closed" one: "My understanding of the immanent frame is that, properly understood, it allows of both readings, without compelling us to either. If you grasp our predicament without ideological distortion, and without blinders, then you see that going one way or another requires what is often called a 'leap of faith.'" But this is a poor line of argument. The choice is not simply between open and closed. Weber's outlook certainly has its defects: he might have wondered more about what reasons he could have in a disenchanted world to value intellectual integrity with an almost religious zeal. But leaping in the opposite direction is not the only alternative to his closed-mindedness.

We know a great deal about the workings of nature and human society. What may lie beyond them, if anything, is a matter of conjecture, at least so far as generally accepted modes of inquiry can determine. Taylor appears to forget the difference between the two. We may hope that there is something more to things than is contained in the disenchanted picture of modern science. There may even be moments in our experience when we feel moved by what may be some deeper spiritual reality. (Weber himself might have acknowledged such a feeling if he had reflected on his own passionate devotion to truth.) But intimations are not an adequate basis for jumping to metaphysical or religious conclusions. They should be seen for what they are: inklings, no more. In such situations, leaping is precisely what we ought not to do.

The response warranted by our modern predicament, it seems to me, is not to commit ourselves one way or the other about whether the immanent frame is all there is. We ought to remain unsure, hesitating, groping, searching for some insight, but always remaining wary, and concerned with the integrity of our beliefs. We ought to leave open the possibility that the immanent frame is open. But that is a very different thing from asserting, through a leap of faith, that it is indeed open--that our secular conception of the world really is incomplete.

None of this impugns the faith of those who do believe in God. If they have the conviction of God's presence in the world and in their lives, I have not the evidence to show that they are wrong. But these are not the people whom Taylor is addressing. His target is those who do not believe, but find themselves to varying degrees caught up in "the modern malaise," dissatisfied with a purely secular existence yet reluctant to embrace something more. When he insinuates that they must take a stand and opt for either an open or a closed view of immanence, Taylor is rushing them to judgment where none is justified. For them, Wordsworth, and not Hopkins, must remain the model.

Taylor's other main line of apologetic argument is little better. It leans on his thesis that epistemology is ultimately rooted in ethics. People who claim that there is no warrant for religious belief, given what science now tells us about the world, fail to see that modern science has been driven by certain intellectual values--in particular, by the values of rational control and individual conscience--which arose historically, and within a Christian context. From the standpoint of faith, therefore, these values can still take on the spiritual hue that they once possessed. And being historically contingent, they have more the character of a "new construction" than a "simple discovery." Consequently, they are open to revision. Constructed, Taylor cautions, is not supposed to mean merely invented. "To say that these [values] are 'constructions' is not to say that the issues here are unarbitrable by reason." And yet "their arbitration is much more complicated, like that between Kuhnian paradigms, and also involves issues of hermeneutical adequacy."

Readers familiar with the lay of the land in contemporary philosophy will know that bringing in the fuzzy business of "paradigm shifts" and "hermeneutics" is a sure way to guarantee that the issues will not be settled. Some straightforward reflection shows that, at least in the case of the disenchantment of nature, the underlying values are more than simply "constructed." Imagine that, having drained the natural world of all magical powers and secret sympathies and reconceived it as an impersonal order of causal laws, physics had remained what it had largely been like in antiquity and the middle ages--a mere succession of different theories, each one a fresh speculation. That, of course, is precisely what did not happen. Modern science became a cumulative and publicly verifiable enterprise. New theories deepened the understanding of nature already achieved by their predecessors, which is as much as to say that science at last got on the track of the truth.

Now consider Taylor's thesis that this process has been driven by an ethic of rational manipulation and self-discipline, which was a modern innovation. This thesis is true, and he is right to insist on its importance. But the proper conclusion to draw is this: if this ethic is a "construction," it is a "discovery" as well. Developing it has been tantamount to learning what is the most fruitful attitude toward nature, at least if our aim is to know how it works. There is no room in this case for playing off "construction" against "discovery," as Taylor tendentiously tries to do. Discoveries are no less real for being historically contingent.

So both Taylor's lines of argument fail to lend any real credibility to the possibility of faith in our secular age. Indeed, they receive only schematic attention over the course of this very long book. Instead they are overrun by an avalanche of historical detail. But this is not the most distressing aspect of A Secular Age. There is the more worrisome matter of Taylor's general attitude toward life.

Taylor appears to think that living at cross-purposes with ourselves is intolerable, a human failure. In his view, we need to give our dilemmas a "spin, " and "leap" to conclusions about how they are to be handled. But why? Is not being drawn in contrary directions an abiding feature of the human condition? Would we not do better to get used to the fact that our lives are always fraught with essential contradictions and ambiguities? Why should we prefer Taylor's quick fixes to the great enterprise of learning to live with ourselves and our circumstances? Our secular age is certainly of two minds, divided as it is between an ethic of rational control and human well-being and a longing for some deeper structure of meaning beyond. Yet on Taylor's own account, the age of faith was unstable, too--a post-Axial compromise between Christ's teachings and pre-Christian survivals that spawned throughout the medieval period one reform effort after another. We have never been, and we will never be, at one with ourselves.

Fundamental conflicts may go unacknowledged, of course. And once we perceive them, we can no doubt find philosophers--spin doctors, really--who will teach us how to make them vanish by a misleading use of words (such as glib oppositions between "open" and "closed," "construction" and "discovery"). But problems, when they are genuine, cannot be talked away. They disappear only when they are actually solved, by our finding better ways, backed up by reasons, of making sense of the world. And even then, the result is bound to bring some new source of inner conflict in its wake. This is not secular. It is human.

Charles Larmore is W. Duncan MacMillan Family Professor in the Humanities at Brown University.

By Charles Larmore