Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Secular Age: Charles W Taylor


As I traversed this massive nearly 900 page work, I sometimes wondered; "Why does one undertake such a thing?". I had previously read "How to Not Be Secular", a "cliff notes summary", so I had the general ideas:


  • 500 years ago we lived in an enchanted, embedded, hierarchical world, while today we live in a disenchanted, disembedded, flat world.
  • The "standard story" of the secularists is a "subtraction story" -- "science" made it "impossible to believe" in more than matter. Taylor finds the "subtraction story" utterly lacking -- we still believe in love, beauty, justice, consciousness (spirit), and "good" ... none of which can be measured, so therefore do not exist to science. There are lots of other reasons that "subtraction" falls short.
  • We live as a "Buffered Self" that is cut off from God, family, other people, the past, having "a place" ... again, a LONG list. However we are "buffeted" or "haunted" by our mortality and a sense of "something more" ... "fullness" that tugs at our hearts / souls ????
  • Many are radically unhappy in this world to the point of suicide. They have FAR more "stuff" than even the kings, lords and popes of 500 years ago, yet their lives are arid -- often to the point of not being worth living. "Stuff" does not seem to be enough. 

I'll call those "the biggies" for now. My sense is that the reading of such a book vs "reviews" ... by me or others,  is a bit like the difference between being told of mountains, the ocean, falling in love, having children, grandchildren, etc and of EXPERIENCING those things. Certainly, good wordsmiths, poets, musicians, movie makers, etc can all convey significant parts of those experiences, however I doubt that any person that has experienced one of those or thousands of other things would say "I wish that I never did the real thing, I liked the descriptions of it much better"! 

Late in the millenium prior to Christ, there were a number of "higher religions" that began to replace paganism -- this is sometimes referred to as "The Axial Age" (Karl Jaspers) meaning "pivital age" because the idea of transcendence was so important to changing human thought. "More than mere matter". 

It is tempting for me to head off to read 5-10 referenced works that put even more flesh on the bones of how we have returned to essentially a pre-axial pagan view -- to make the obvious Lennon modification ... "nothing to live or die for, and no religion too ..." 

In the words of Evelyn Waugh quoted in the book ....

I think one has to look deeper before one will find the reason why in England today the Roman Church is recruiting so many men and women who are not notably gullible, dim-witted or eccentric.

It seems to me that in the present phase of European history the essential issue is no longer between Catholicism, on one side, and Protestantism, on the other, but between Christianity and Chaos… 
Today we can see [the loss of Christian faith]…as the active negation of all that western culture has stood for. Civilization – and by this I do not mean talking cinemas and tinned food, nor even surgery and hygienic houses, but the whole moral and artistic organization of Europe – has not in itself the power of survival. It came into being through Christianity, and without it has no significance or power to command allegiance. The loss of faith in Christianity and the consequential lack of confidence in moral and social standards have become embodied in the ideal of a materialistic, mechanized state… It is no longer possible, as it was in the time of Gibbon, to accept the benefits of civilization and at the same time deny the supernatural basis upon which it rests… 
That is the first discovery, that Christianity is essential to civilization and that it is in greater need of combative strength than it has been for centuries.
Christianity held out in the US for longer than it did in Europe, but we have descended into chaos as well -- pick what date you want, but few deny it today. Yes, the dominant culture still believes that the chaos of Obama was better than the chaos of Trump, however in a world driven only by raw power with no controlling theological, philosophical, constitutional or legal authority. It is just a constant scrum for power by any means possible.

My purpose in reading works like this is to "experience the ocean" of a great mind creating a great work. The experience is one of being made both smaller and larger -- like seeing the ocean or the mountains. It isn''t really about snapping a few pictures and putting down a few words. There is some minor similarity of why it is critical for a Christian to daily read their Bible -- cover to cover, then maybe just start again, or give the New Testament a second pass before going back to Genesis -- it becomes the constant EXPERIENCE of the Bible. Not "a text", but a connection to the vastness of God much larger than mere text.

Certainly, "Secular Age" pales in comparison, it is but a "shadow" as compared to the Bible -- like comparing going to Lake Mille Lacs with going to see the Pacific Ocean.

The link to "How to Not Be Secular" above, or another highly rated review of "Secular Age" will give you the "talking points", but in my view, not the "gestalt". Secular Age is clearly a labor of love for Taylor to create -- and at least a labor of "deep like" to read. It was worth it for me, and I hesitate to advise anyone else, other than to say that I would expect that anyone will be changed by the experience.

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