Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age considers in detail the character of the various intellectual and social transformations in the West over the last five hundred years which have led to our current secular age. In doing so Taylor presents a new understanding of secularity, not so much in terms of the falling away of belief in God or the receding of religion from the public square – although he does not deny the importance of these – but in terms of the transition from a society in which it was virtually impossible to challenge belief in God to one in which belief in God is one of multiple, contested options. In particular he opposes what he calls subtraction accounts, which explain the rise of secularism in terms of the realisation and assertion of innate aspects of the human character which became possible with the Enlightenment removal of religious constraints, arguing the need to pay careful attention to changing conditions of belief and the construction of new images of the self and society. The work is divided into five sections, four of which are historical and the fifth constructive.
The first section on the work of Reform examines the medieval and Reformation roots of secularism through to the beginning of the Enlightenment. It traces the transition from an enchanted world, in which God and spiritual forces pervaded society and directly influenced its structuring and self-definition, to the disenchanted world of individual minds and bounded or buffered selves. Taylor describes the enchanted world of medieval Catholicism as embodying an equilibrium based on a hierarchical complementarity which encoded a marked division between spiritual and temporal sections of society. Likewise life was lived within the ebb and flow of higher and ordinary times, punctuated by the riot of carnival, with religious commitment preserved through continual focussing and dissipation. Disrupting this equilibrium and disturbing the enchanted view of self and society was the movement of Reform, which had its roots in the early centuries of the Church but accelerated markedly in the late medieval period. Reformers, both Catholic and Protestant, sought to remake the whole of society after the pattern of the higher, spiritual vocations. Characteristic of Reform was an inward turn of devotion and a profound critique of popular piety, and thus of the enchanted world, as idolatrous and immoral. In the Reformation itself this Reform fervour became iconoclastic, uprooting the old sacramental and hierarchical dispensation and replacing it with the great levelling doctrines of individual salvation and justification by faith alone.
Taylor argues that closely connected to the progress of Reform was the rise of the disciplinary society and the emergence of the modern moral order. Grounding both developments was a radically altered view of nature, the origins of which he traces especially to Nominalist philosophy. This replaced the old view of nature as endowed with intrinsic purpose and essence with a new view of it as indeterminate and possessing only extrinsic purpose. In this sense nature was no longer simply viewed as a given but became, at least in principle, infinitely malleable. When turned inward this stance of instrumental reason had far-reaching effects. For rather than passively accepting his own nature, man began the process of actively remaking himself. Crucial to this was a voluntarist understanding of the will as the engine of moral change – another important legacy of Nominalism.
Taylor traces this voluntarist understanding through diverse movements including the Renaissance culture of civility, late-medieval Reform and the Calvinist Reformation, arguing that all of these manifest in different ways a shared desire to transform the ‘raw nature’ of humanity. However, he sees its culmination in the movement of Neo-Stoicism, embodied by Lipsius and Descartes. For it was the Stoic norm of detachment which led both to a new ethic of rational control and discipline and a transformed view of ‘buffered identity’. Applied to the political sphere this led to an unprecedented attempt to transform, or discipline, society through the application of instrumental reason. As Taylor suggests, it was this disengaged, disciplined stance which became ‘an essential part of the defining repertory’ of modernity. In the long term its effect lay in what he terms the ‘great disembedding’. Where before man was unable to imagine himself outside of a particular social context, now for the first time the stance of detachment made this possible. Disembedded, society fragmented from a unified whole into a collection of buffered individuals. Indeed, society itself now became defined in terms of transactions and exchanges between individuals promoting a new worldview of the economy. Associated with this were further transformations, seen especially in the development of the public square and the direct-access society, in which the old pattern of mediated exchange was replaced with a new immediacy and simultaneity of relation.
In part 2 Taylor turns back to his main purpose, explaining the rise of exclusive humanism. His argument is that this came about through the intermediate stage of providential deism. The first key feature of this is what Taylor calls the ‘anthropocentric shift’ traceable to thinkers like Tindal and Locke. He identifies two key features of this: first, the idea that God’s plan for human life encompassed only human flourishing, and second, the increasing understanding that we can achieve this with our unaided forces. This denial of transformation and eclipse of grace led to a marked receding of transcendence and a prioritising of the immanent sphere. With this the ‘hitherto unthought’ – exclusive humanism – began to seem thinkable. Coupled with the rise of polite society among the elites, which began to see essential elements of religion as ‘superstition’ or ‘fanaticism’, for the first time moral and spiritual resources began to be experienced as purely immanent. In particular, the renewed confidence in human nature – a radical departure from the Augustinian/Calvinist position which had previously held sway – became encapsulated in the ideal of universal benevolence which characterised Enlightenment ethics. This receding of God from the moral order was paralleled by a similar receding from the natural order. Increasingly, God began to be conceived of in impersonal terms, as the supreme architect of the universe who related to his creation only through the natural laws he had instituted. There was thus a widespread rejection of the notion of an active, interventionist God, seen clearly in the contemporary critique of miracles. Thus while God had not yet disappeared from the picture, he had been decisively banished from all but the most distant involvement with his creation.
In part 3 Taylor turns to consideration of what he calls the ‘nova effect’, the explosion of ethical, religious and atheistic options which took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As he suggests, in the face of the opposition between orthodoxy and unbelief many were cross-pressured, looking for a third way. This dynamic produced a kind of nova as more and more different ‘third ways’ are generated and proliferate in a chain reaction. In particular, as the eighteenth century proceeded, many began to feel a deep malaise at the disenchanted world of Deism, seeking to break out of their buffered identities. However, many also felt that they simply could not return to religion and so began to search for different ways to compensate for the feeling of lost transcendence. Taylor suggests that this took three quite different forms. The first, which he calls ‘axes of resonance’, refers to those who saw the Deist understanding of universal charity and benevolence as far too tame, holding that the modern moral order eclipses all human potential for moral ascent. Instead they demanded higher standards, arguing for the power of humans to transcend themselves. The second is the romantic axis and refers to those who pursued a kind of fusion of ordinary human desire and a higher goal. It came to identify beauty as this goal and rebelled against the rationalism of the buffered identity. Both these axes were capable of both Christian and humanist development. The final, tragic axis, however, was opposed to both Christianity and the modern moral order as too facile and optimistic. It argued the need to heroically face up to the tragedy of human life. In celebrating death and godlessness it opened up a new, disturbing but yet for many compelling, facet of unbelief.
From this general description Taylor turns to a more detailed account of how this space between belief and unbelief opened up, focussing on two connected transitions. The first is what he calls a shift in cosmic imaginary. Where before the world was perceived as a finite, ordered cosmos it now, particularly with the advances of science, began to be seen as infinite in space and time. At one and the same time this both reinforced man’s sense of smallness – and his concomitant sense of awe – and opened him up to a new sense of affinity with nature, through the dawning awareness that he himself has evolved from nature. Thus man came in contact with the sublime and with a new appreciation of his own unplumbed depths with all the terror and exhilaration that inspired. Yet, significantly, the sublime could be experienced either as purely immanent or as a new register of transcendence, making it a kind of neutral space between the camps of belief and unbelief. This is closely related to the second shift which Taylor detects, and which he argues was again associated with Romanticism. This shift was an artistic shift from art as mimesis – the imitation of reality – to art as expressing its own language and meaning. Taylor argues that this turn to the ‘subtler languages’ was associated with the breakdown of the old, hierarchical view of reality and particularly the notion of correspondence between different orders of being. In place of this, art began to forge its own reality and in doing so became a powerful expression of the immanent potentiality of man, once again revealing new, undreamt of depths to the human psyche. In this way art like nature began to present an important middle ground between belief and unbelief.
In the concluding chapter of part 3 Taylor traces the ‘expanding universe of unbelief’ through into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, taking England and France as case studies. His claim is that in both cases the nova effect related to the tension between ideals and counter-ideals of the moral order of society. In the English case Taylor argues that a new vector emerged in the cross-pressure between the sense of flatness and belief in an impersonal order. This movement, embodied by Carlyle and Arnold, strove to maintain the values of Christianity while shedding much of its doctrinal content. In this way they sought to embody what they regarded as the essential spirit of Christianity for a new age. Coupled with this development was a new binding of Christianity both to an ethos of discipline – an effect of the evangelical movement – and to national identity. The result was a stripped-down Victorian Christianity of duty and altruism, embodied in the institutions of Empire such as the public schools. Yet as this new Christian order was established it too began to feel flat and so we find an important counter-ideal of society developing, stemming from Wordsworth and the Romantics. This reached its height with the Bloomsbury movement which revolted against the repressive values of Victorian Christianity in the name of feeling and self-expression.
In nineteenth-century France Taylor argues we can find an analogous pattern of ideal and counter-ideal embodied in the tensions between the supporters of the monarchy and the Republic. Somewhat like the proponents of the new Victorian Christianity the French monarchists quickly realised that the values of the ancien régime could no longer rest on the same metaphysical basis. They therefore grounded them in terms of respect for order and authority, detaching them for their original mooring in the Christian faith. In time, however, both the monarchical and Republican order came to seem flat. This led to revolt against the established orders in the name of a new sense of transcendence, as can be seen in the burgeoning youth movements of the time. Taylor concludes by suggesting that in France and England, as well as across Europe, matters came to a head in the First World War. This shattered both the synthesis of Christianity and civilisational order and the belligerent confidence of the youth movements, opening the way for a new conception of the moral order of society to emerge.
In part 4 Taylor takes up the story of secularisation, again arguing that the delinking of religion from society, which began in the nineteenth century and accelerated in the twentieth, has opened up an important new niche for religion. In suggesting this Taylor reacts against the tendency of secularisation theory to uphold the inevitability of religious decline, arguing instead that the whole debate must be reconfigured in terms of the cross-pressures of belief and unbelief and the way in which new spiritual options are created and multiply. In order to demonstrate this he contrasts the ideal type of the ancien régime – in which there is an order of hierarchical complementarity and a mediated structure of access to society – to that of what he calls the age of mobilisation – in which people are persuaded, pushed or corralled into new forms of Church and society. What is different here, Taylor argues, is that now, for the first time, the social, political and ecclesiastical structures that people rely on had to be mobilised into existence; they cannot simply be assumed. In religious terms an important facet of this is the movement away from national Church structures to free churches and denominations or to affinity groups within a larger Church. Thus at the same time as many people left the churches, many others founded new ecclesial forms with their own distinctive ethos and discipline. These were not only decoupled from wider society but also had to be opted into. In these new forms of spirituality the notion of the festive – seen in Catholic pilgrimages or evangelical revival meetings – had an important place, providing new sites for collective access to transcendence. In political terms it can be seen in the construction of reinvigorated national identities and the emergence of lobby groups and trade unions. What is characteristic of the age of mobilisation is not only the breakdown of old connections between religion and society but the formation of a new, more individualistic, religious mentality, intimately connected to notions of spirituality, discipline, political identity and civilisational order. In this way what were previously features of elite religion now attained a much wider valency.
As Taylor suggests, the tightly organised churches which emerged out of the age of mobilisation were set up for a precipitate fall. This fall, which had its epicentre in the Sixties, has led to the formation of profoundly altered conditions of belief in our society. This new age of authenticity is characterised by a culture of expressive individualism, which owes a considerable debt to Romanticism. The revolts of the Sixties were against the buffered self and culture of the Fifties which seemed to many conformist and crushing. Their aim was to break down all the barriers that society had erected to self-realisation and flourishing, particularly those between reason and sensuality. As Taylor suggests, their legacy has led to a marked change in social and moral imaginary. Thus not only did it break down the old connections between Christianity and society, particularly in the sexual revolution, but it also opened up new spheres of social interaction, like fashion, and new experiences of transcendence, such as the football match or rave. Taylor argues that the effect of these changes on religion have been highly complex. On the one hand, people are increasingly looking for a life of greater immediacy, spontaneity and spiritual depth than can be provided for them in the immanent order of unbelief, while on the other hand many do not find the authenticity and wholeness that they desire in the established (mobilised) forms of religion. This has created an important tension between the new forms of spiritual quest and the old patterns of authority which seek to foreclose them. Alongside this is the phenomenon of diffusive Christianity, in which people distance themselves from established forms of religion yet at the same time are unwilling to entirely break with them. Taylor concludes his account of religion today by suggesting that its future is likely to be determined by the tension between spiritual quest and foreclosing authority and the important cross-pressure that this produces.
In part 5 Taylor turns to give a theoretical account of the current options available to us in the secular age – whether of belief or unbelief – and the tensions between them. Here he first rehearses his argument that through the progressive buffering of self and the decoupling of grace and nature – developments associated with the revolutions of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries – a new view of immanent self-sufficient order developed. It is important to note, however, this immanent frame was able to develop in three directions. It could remain open to transcendence, it could become utterly closed to transcendence or it could exist in the cross-pressure of transcendence and immanence. With this established, Taylor turns to consider the different ways in which the immanent frame closed in on itself. For against the prevailing tendency in secularisation theory he insists on the need to explain this closure, rather than simply assume it as natural, obvious or inevitable. Taylor argues that all of these ways are variants of the ‘coming of age’ scenario. They all assume that religion is childish and lacks the courage to face up to reality and in the name of maturity proposes a stance of unbelief. It is this underlying assumption which reinforces their strident claims that they are denying religion in the name of reason and science, blinding them to the fact that there are many rational, scientific people who see things entirely differently. This coming of age scenario is even more pronounced in what Taylor calls the counter-Enlightenment. For here it is not just that freed from illusion humans come to establish the true facts about the world, but that they come to dictate the very values they live by. In this way closure comes from the stance of self-authorisation. The acceptance that we live in a meaningless universe leads to the exhilarating sense that we can create our own meanings. Under such a powerful perspective the closed take on immanence becomes entirely axiomatic.
From an outline of the immanent frame and its closure Taylor moves on to the cross-pressures that most of us experience. For as Taylor suggests the salient feature of today’s Western society is not so much the retreat of religious belief but the mutual fragilisation of competing religious and nonreligious, believing and nonbelieving options. In particular he argues that the debate between belief and unbelief centres not on issues of metaphysics, theology or even science, but rather on the ethical presuppositions that underlie these different stances. Crucial, therefore, is the question of what fulness or flourishing consists in. From this perspective Taylor turns to the two major dilemmas which he sees as confronting both faith and unbelief. The first is the question of how to define moral and spiritual aspirations for human beings while showing a path to transformation which does not crush, mutilate or deny what is essential to our humanity. For while the religious desire to transcend humanity might threaten the affirmation of human values, the unbelieving assertion of human values risks equally cutting off all pathways to transcendence. The second dilemma concerns the problem of violence. While this is often seen as a religious problem Taylor instead points to the deep metaphysical roots of violence in human nature. As he puts it, the dilemma facing both religious and nonreligious positions is that the struggle against evil can itself generate evil, so that the goodness of the final goal is itself undone in the process of trying to reach it. He argues that the only escape from this spiral of violence is the path of renunciation, seen supremely in Christ but also with its definite nonreligious analogues. For it is only in doing this that forgiveness and reconciliation can actually be achieved by transcending the natural impulse for violent retaliation. Realising this, he suggests, is the challenge that faces all of humanity, whether believing or unbelieving.
In light of these dilemmas the question that confronts us, Taylor argues, is that of the ‘meaning of meaning’ – that is, the question of what are the sources of the deepest meanings in our lives. It is because this question still confronts us that the frontiers of modernity remain unquiet. In this sense the buffered self, the homogeneous time and the horizontal structure of the immanent frame are inherently fragile. For constantly aspects of the communal, the vertical and the higher are breaking into them – particularly in the mode which Taylor calls the ‘festive’. However, what most troubles the modern identity, he argues, is death itself. For death threatens to separate us from everything that the immanent frame wants to proclaim as important, including supremely love. Of course this is a predicament shared by religion, yet in transcending death and providing an eternal ground for love religion provides a meaningful solution to the problem of death. Likewise Taylor suggests that the immanent Enlightenment provides another important resolution in their celebration of death. What is clear, however, is that it is the universal condition of death which keeps alive this question of the meaning of meaning, constantly prodding people from their immanent perspectives and preventing them from settling down to comfortable unbelief.
Taylor’s final chapter offers a discussion of those who have broken out of the immanent frame. All of these, he suggests, are examples of a new experience of fulness and the higher which have a transformative impact on their lives. They are thus important for us to study in order to gain an understanding of what lies outside the immanent frame of secularity. Focussing on Christian examples, he argues that these conversions often possess a twofold aspect, combining a sense that the immanent order of psychological or moral self-understanding is deeply flawed with an awareness of a larger, transcendent order which can alone make sense of their lives. However, while they involve an important reconnection with the Christian tradition, Taylor is clear that they cannot be seen simply as repristinations of this tradition. Instead they are responses to the immanent order they come out of, which remain in important ways shaped by this immanent order. His first example is that of Péguy, whose concept of faithfulness to the Christian tradition excluded a simple return to it. Against the mobilising tendencies of the Catholic Church he argued for the need for each person to connect with his or her own ‘mystique’. Yet in connecting this mystique to the higher aspirations of the Church he remained faithful to the essence of Christianity. His other example is that of Hopkins, whose search for a new poetic language, inspired by Romanticism, drew him to a reinvigorated Christianity. Yet, as Taylor suggests, in articulating a new kind of connection to the higher Hopkins never lost sight of the fundamental individuality of things – their inscape. Instead, his genius was to reconnect the immanent world in all of its marvellous diversity to its transcendent source in God.
In light of these itineraries of conversion Taylor concludes by mapping out two possible paths for the future. The first, which he rejects, is that of an inexorable decline of religion as foreseen by secularisation theorists. The second, his own prediction, is that life will continue to be lived out within the tension of the transcendent and immanent. For paradoxically, history has shown, it is when immanence becomes most entrenched that transcendence is most likely to break out again, albeit in new and often bewilderingly diverse forms. In this sense the story of how we got here remains inextricably bound with our account of where we are today.