varieties of secularism :: comments (3) Taylor as secularist

by Eric Daryl Meyer

Series Index

This is the second part of a post that grew too big for its fishbowl (anyone remember Otto?). 

No doubt that Taylor can be read, and should be read in this way. In fact, the greatest payoff of Taylor’s work in my own thinking (and the reason that I turned to his work in the first place) lies along these lines. But A Secular Age is not straightforwardly apologetic, and in many ways the text actually works as a secularizing force upon its readers. The book does not call religious identity into question directly but in the expansive understanding of others that it encourages.

When I visited Duke a little over a year ago, J. Kameron Carter began a lecture by pinpointing modernity’s starting date: October 23, 1492. In large part, his argument for this assertion resonates with Taylor’s basic premises in A Secular Age. Carter argued that contact with a people whose history included no interaction with the Christian gospel (who couldn’t thereby easily be assimilated into the larger narrative as infidels who had rejected it) and the accompanying concept of isolable “race” functioned as an “other” whose very existence necessitated a reevaluation of European identity. Thinking “Christian-ness” and “white-ness” as realities clearly confined to a single continent (an “old world”) constituted them as only one option among others and undermined the universality of the narrative self-understanding within which Europeans lived (and placed their “oriental” neighbors).

Taylor argues that secularization is the story of a developing simultaneous plausibility of an increasing number of identities. Secularization is found where I can imagine myself residing within my city (without too much difficulty) as an atheist, as a Muslim, as a pagan. My contact with people who actually do inhabit these identities (and their contact with me as a Christian) helps me in some small part to understand the very different motivations, goals, and narrative boundaries of others, and subverts any inclination to explain those differences away as stupidity or wickedness. When I understand another person’s perspective by trying on his or her shoes, I inevitably see the explanatory power (and thereby, the fundamental plausibility) of another perspective from the inside. That society is more secular which has a larger number of plausible shoes to try on at any given time. Western secularization, then, is the effect of an increasing ability to see things another way. 

Now, Taylor’s project is a force advancing secularization insofar as it seeks to do just that—to see the explanatory power of other perspectives from the inside. As he provides us a window into the motivations of others (and encourages us to develop the same ability), he leads us into the oftentimes perplexing situation where we can interpret an event or a situation in two or three ways simultaneously. Or, as Pascal said of Christian faith in the upswing of modernity, “There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.”

A few days ago, I made it around to reading Wilfred McClay’s review of Taylor’s book in First Things (May 2008). He makes substantially the same point about the ambivalence of Taylor’s book. He says, “[Taylor’s] heart seems to be most fully drawn to something he calls ‘the Jamesean open space,’ a condition of exhilarated ambivalence at… the place ‘where you can feel the winds pulling you now to belief, now to unbelief,’ and where you can feel fully the force of both sides of the problem.” A bit further, he says, “One wonders why this condition of Jamesean openness is not better described as a logical extension of many of the same forces that Taylor has spent his book warning against.”

In the end, then, Taylor’s book does the church a great service by exposing and undermining the monolithic character of claims for secularization, but the church must go further than Taylor has been willing to go. Being faithful to the testimony of Jesus Christ’s good news certainly doesn’t preclude being able to see things from the perspective of another rationality (which is simply charity), but it does mean entrusting one’s whole heart and soul (“losing one’s life”) to the church’s historical claims about Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and his unique relationship to the Father and Spirit. That commitment, in turn, means that the church must speak to those “others” whom it labors to understand in witness to the singularity of the Christian story, and do so by means of argument if necessary. 

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