The rise and possible fall of unbelief

Review Religion

September 09, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,[ Special to The Sun]

A Secular Age

By Charles Taylor

Harvard University Press / 896 pages / $39.95

Although about 90 percent of Americans identify themselves as religious, we live in a secular age. We say "happy holiday" instead of "merry Christmas," fuss about the phrase "under God" and prohibit prayer, spoken or silent, in the public schools. If God exists, Woody Allen contends, "He's an underachiever."

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor, a professor emeritus of philosophy at McGill University, undertakes the monumental task of examining the rise of a "modern social imaginary," between 1500 and 2000, where religion has become separate from the state and faith merely one possibility, among others, including atheism.

Sophisticated, erudite, abstract and repetitious, with excursions into history, philosophy and literature, A Secular Age is a weighty and challenging tome. It is also a brilliant account of the "sensed context" in which secularization developed. And a moving meditation, by a believer, on the "ineradicable bent" of human beings to respond to something beyond life, to keep open "the transcendent window."

Taylor insists that the claims of Christianity did not recede, inevitably, as science and rationality advanced. Religion did not bow to brute facts: instead one moral outlook gave way to another. Accompanied at first by a "zealous dedication to God," the transformation was marked before the Reformation by the erosion of belief in an "enchanted" world subject to white and black magic - and after it by the expansion of doctrine and the narrowing of devotional practices, salvation by faith, reliance on the self and the autonomy of nature and a focus on life in this world.

With the Enlightenment, Taylor points out, contemporary unbelief emerged, limited at first to the chattering classes. Confidence in human capacity grew. Religion and science shared an antipathy to "mystery" and a conviction that God no longer exerted "extra-systemic causal power." With God as "watchmaker" and religion reduced to morals, Deists placed "fullness" inside a "buffered self," fully capable of acting rationally and benevolently. In the new order, cultivated people distanced themselves from religious fervor - and drew more inspiration from contemplating nature than from communicating with their Creator. Individualism, equality and community, duty, discipline and character in a "direct access society" replaced hierarchical complementarity. And political as well as economic institutions were radically secular. Events existed in only one dimension, "placed wholly and firmly in homogeneous profane time."

Romanticism and the anti-humanistic "Counter-Enlightenment" associated with Nietzsche intensified the shift in "cosmic imaginaries." The "moderns," Tayor observes, dismissed rationalism, harmony, order, and universalism as thin, dry, repressed, and naive. They envied a willingness to face death and use violence in pursuit of noble causes. Since they saw churches as "flaccid and superficial," they did not seek solace or inspiration in Christian faith. Some saw artistic creation as the alpha and omega of human activity. Others "subjectivized ethics" and radicalized the claims of desire against the allegedly "higher" call of disciplined obedience. For orthodox Christians, Taylor concludes, "the world read this way" was "a victory for darkness." But it was "a remarkable achievement nonetheless."

Insisting that the force of modern unbelief lies more in ethical than epistemological considerations, Taylor believes - he has faith - that the dominant narrative of secularization is becoming less and less plausible. Each critic of religion - the humanist and the Nietzschean - subverts the other, leaving room for a perspective that marries wholeness to holiness. Nor can secular humanists explain the drive to sex and violence more adequately than devout Christians. If Christians set aside universalism to sanctify violence, the universalism of secular humanists often morphs us well into indignation and hatred.

Although he cannot resolve the tension between the pleasure principle and dedication to God, Taylor returns to the divine purpose for human beings beyond individual fulfillment. While moderns see suffering as devoid of meaning, Christians view it as a path to participation in the divine life. They define sin as resistance to God's invitation to make suffering reparative. The searching sorrow of the bereaved reminds Taylor that most of us "have not settled into a comfortable unbelief."

Taylor acknowledges that history attests to the dangers of religious faith. He recognizes, along with the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, that God's "elected silence" leaves human beings without certain knowledge. And he knows, as did the writer Flannery O'Connor, that an attraction for the holy conflicts with the disbelief "that we breathe in the air of our times."

Though he laments "excarnation," the steady disembodying of religious life, Taylor does not want to return to earlier forms of Christian practice. He wants a world in which "invisible" things, including the wrath of God, are more than faintly felt. Which has, at its core, a communion in which all can participate. He dares to hope that "God's pedagogy" just might take us higher. Such a vision, of course, might also become routinized, "flame out, like shining from shook foil," turn tribal, and fail to turn the page on the age of secularization.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.

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