A Secular Age

[This is an extended version of a review of James K A Smith’s book “How (Not) to be Secular”, which is published over at UCCF’s BeThinking website

I want so badly to believe, that there is truth, that love is real.  And I want life in every word, to the extent that it’s absurd.”Clark Gable, The Postal Service

These are words penned by a secular band from the most godless swath of America. They are also words haunted with longing; a cry of desire for an existential weight that ought to be there. If we take soundings in the art and music of our culture, these themes of lack and longing surface again and again. Though on one hand our societal default is the rational secularism of the Enlightenment; on the other, the timeless human yearning for transcendence appears to be alive and well. There is an uneasy tension here, running like a seam through our entire culture, but how do we give name to the feelings it produces? How did we arrive at this malaise, and how should we live authentically within the age so characterised by it? These questions are the focus of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s monumental work “A Secular Age,” an ‘existential map’ of our times that has been lauded as one of the most important philosophical works of its time. However, the dense prose and sheer length of Taylor’s opus have largely confined his insights to the corridors of the academy.

Enter another Canadian philosopher, James K A Smith, who has recently produced a condensed exposition of Taylor’s work. It is risky to write a ‘book about a book’, but Smith’s gamble has paid off, condensing Taylor’s dense prose to a lucid and eminently readable text of only a sixth of the original length. Moreover, though his respect for Taylor is deeply evident, Smith’s Reformed perspective provides a useful foil to Taylor’s Roman Catholic stance; allowing him to warmly elucidate Taylor’s penetrating analyses while also engaging him in fruitful critique at key points. Smith’s own body of work shares Taylor’s deep concern to capture the feel of the age in which we live, a store he draws upon liberally to season the insights of A Secular Age with illuminating excerpts from contemporary music and art.

Taylor’s book is organised around a fundamental question: “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?” To confident secularists, the answer is beguilingly simple; “as cultures experience modernisation and technological advancement, the (divisive) forces of religious belief and participation wither in the face of modernity’s disenchantment of the world” (21). Yet Taylor’s own answer runs to almost 900 pages of dense historical, anthropological and philosophical analysis, suggesting that things are not so straightforward. Indeed, it is his stated aim to “really do justice to the messy complexity of our secular age” (17). The confident accounts secularists tell about the West’s path to the present are what Taylor calls subtraction stories, defined as “… straight-shot accounts that assume the truth and goodness of the terminus, and thus simply read developments as steps on the way to that end” (40). In other words, these are the classic, overconfident New Atheist narratives, according to which the disenchantment of culture represents nothing more than a positive, obvious and overdue return to our most fundamental and authentic (i.e. godless) nature. On this telling, we in the West have simply grown up, realized that God is dead, and now inhabit a “cool, monolithic, “rational” age where everyone who’s anyone (i.e. smart people who are not religious) lives in quiet confidence.”

Except that we don’t. As both narrative and analysis, these subtraction stories fail to do justice to reality. As epistemological analyses, they are, as Smith puts it, simplistic 2D cartoon maps of a complex 3D terrain. Furthermore, as accounts of our journey to the present age, they largely ignore the complicated zig-zags and contingencies of history. Existentially, they fail to account for the facts on the ground; that far from withering away, humanity’s religious impulses are in fact alive and well, albeit now expressed in radically altered forms. Christendom has indeed passed away, but the innate religious urge of humanity remains. Along with The Postal Service and many of the most sensitive and perceptive artists of our culture, we walk among the ruins of a fast fading religious orthodoxy and yet remain acutely pressured toward the quest for higher purposes and a yearning for significance.

In other words, rather than delivering confident atheism and rationality to the masses, the Enlightenment has birthed a troubled and complex pluralism full of new challenges. Most of us are profoundly un-rationalistic in our actual belief-formation and decision-making, even as many defer to the second-hand authority of fundamentalist secularists. It is symptomatic of this paradox that people who have not taken a science degree or even troubled a scientific book can make claims such asevolution disproves God”. Our secular age is a palpably uneasy space, its inhabitants pressured simultaneously by both belief and unbelief; suspicious of meta-narratives, yet often uncritically welcoming of ‘spiritual’ practices. Smith takes the novelist Julian Barnes as emblematic of this state: his curious admission that “I don’t believe in God, but I miss himis only absurd to those who have not honestly faced up to our collective existential condition. The cultural shifts that have so problematized religious belief have not, on Taylor’s view, provided any compelling substitute for what has been lost. As Nietzsche so forcefully foresaw, you cannot figuratively ‘kill God’, the great ontological pinwheel of Western Civilisation, and expect no existential repercussions at the level of the culture. This tension runs to the heart of the ‘malaise’ so characteristic of late modernity. On the one hand we are children of the Enlightenment, who by default now inhabit what Taylor terms the ‘immanent frame’; a shared construal of reality defined by its collective sealing off from recognition of – or of resources drawn from – transcendence and the divine. On the other, this very enclosure under a sealed heaven can occasion a terrible flatness; a perception of something lost, and the nagging sense that “our actions, goals, achievements, and the like, have a lack of weight, gravity, thickness, substance.” We are indeed loosed from old orthodoxies, but we are cast into a bewildering new world of autonomy and choice, “caught between myriad options for pursuing meaning, significance and fullness” (62). It sounds an intoxicating ‘liberation’, particularly if we believe the one-dimensional ‘subtraction story’ accounts of pre-Enlightenment history. But far from feeling empowered and confident in this brave new world, many feel overwhelmed and lost, ‘haunted’ by echoes of transcendence even as they inhabit a secular culture that offers scant resources for even naming this urge, let alone satisfying it. This is the ‘cross pressure’ of modernity, whereby individuals are ‘caught in the crossfire’ of irreconcilable options, pushed by the immanence of disenchantment on one side, but also pushed by a sense of significance on another side, even if it might be a lost transcendence” (63). Nobody is left untouched in some way by this pressure and malaise; as Smith puts it, “we’re all secular now.

But fundamental to Taylor’s analysis is a new definition of what it means to call ourselves ‘secular’. While agreeing that culture is radically more secular than in any previous age, Taylor rejects the usual definition. This ‘classic’ understanding of the term (which he denotes Secular2) is simply the ‘ridding of God from the public square’, or, in other words, the oversimplified, overconfident godlessness of the New Atheists and their subtraction stories. A more coherent definition for what it means to live in a ‘secular society’ is what Taylor terms Secular3. In this definition, the central charactersitic of secularism is that options for belief are more numerous, optional and contestable than at any previous time in history. Taylor’s framing of ‘secularity’ in this way is refreshing, for instead of the usual statistical or dogmatic focus (i.e. the decline in formal religious observance and/or the virtue of de-divinising the public square), he strikes the deeper currents of what is going on in late modern epistemology (namely our shifted plausibility conditions and attendant contestability of all claims). Belief in God has not passed away, but is [now] understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.” And the other options are now legion – to self-identify as whoever we want, and believe whatever we want. In Taylor’s view, the great achievement of our age – unique among all ages – is to have almost managed to find the resources to satisfy our urges for significance and meaning solely under the sealed-off heaven of the immanent frame.

Almost. For though the establishment of a secular age is a remarkable accomplishment, Taylor is at pains to emphasize that nobody escapes the problem of contestability. While the Christian perhaps feels most conspicuously the distance travelled since their beliefs were the status quo, the cross pressure of late modernity is an equal-opportunities destabilizer which impinges on both believer and unbeliever alike. In our age, “the doubter’s doubt is faith; his temptation is belief, and it is a temptation that has not been entirely quelled, even in a secular age.” (9-10). But neither Taylor nor Smith are interested in dusty academic analysis; both want to get the ‘feel’ of this cross pressure, to describe things we may have felt but not known how to name. It is here that Smith seasons Taylor’s account with examples drawn from popular music and culture, such as the wistful melancholy of the Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues:

“I was raised up believing I was somehow unique

Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see

And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be

A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.”  

It is ironic that just as our projects of individual self-determination have swelled within immanence, many long for a telos; an identity and purpose that is received and inhabited rather than autonomously willed into creation in our own minds. For all its sometimes onerous demands, life in Christendom did nonetheless necessitate a “turning of life towards something beyond ordinary human flourishing” – and this-worldly concerns of human flourishing and creaturely existence” (31). There was a positive vision of the good, however dimly it may sometimes have shone. It is precisely this urge towards a unified and higher purpose which has not receded in the human consciousness, even as many, trapped under a brass heaven, lack a way to adequately account for it. This is the reality given shape in the novels of David Foster Wallace, who paints a world of almost suffocating immanence, a flattened human universe where the escapes are boredom and distraction, not ecstasy and rapture” (14). It is in this sense that our secular age is ‘haunted’ by a lost transcendence, albeit that most of us seek a resolution to our perceived lack via the resources of immanence rather than by reaching out to God. In our age, the concert halls are the new temples, art galleries the new chapels, and tourism the new pilgrimage.  Together, these spectacles and practices are a form of ‘pressure valve’ for modernity, providing within immanence a kind of analog for transcendence; a way of working out the feeling that there is something inadequate in our way of life, that we live by an order which represses what is really important” (76). As Smith has noted elsewhere (particularly in Imagining the Kingdom), we are still powerfully driven by a need to memorialize, by a pull towards rites and liturgies that frame our lives and order our exertions and desires. And so the melody of old religious observances lives on, simply transposed into a secular key and played out in gyms, malls and nightclubs rather than chapels, temples and pilgrim trails. We religiously diet and exercise; we follow fashions, with all their attendant codes and seasons; we immerse ourselves in the ecstatic rapture and ritual of festivals and nightclubs. And yet there is a dark side of this modern incarnation. For within immanence, these new modes of self-expression and self-actualisation driven by cross-pressure are uniquely vulnerable to co-option by powerful corporations, who stand to profit handsomely from our entrapment in never-ending cycles of desire and fulfillment. Colin Gunton has perceptively identified this as one of the many ironies that characterize modernity: that despite our supposed ‘liberation’ from the heteronomous demands of the divine will, “… the displacement of God does not and has not given dignity and freedom to the many, but has subjected us to new and often unrecognised forms of slavery.” Paradoxically, we are in many senses caught up in immanentised versions of the liturgies and practices familiar to Christendom. Yet without the holistic framework of belief and practise which sought to order them towards a unified conception of the good, the modern incarnations of these rituals often trap and oppress us rather than liberating us.

But neither Taylor nor Smith are interested in crafting a ‘just so’ story of their own, on which confident theists sneer at aimless secularists, trapped as it were within the ennui of an immanent order they all too readily ushered in. Rather, we are warned against any ‘spin’, secular or religious, which “fails to honour and recognise the cross-pressure that inhabitants of our secular age sense.” (96). Spin, in Taylor’s definition, is any dialogue about our condition that refuses to recognize contestability. Fundamentalists of both atheistic and theistic persuasions alike are apt to view themselves as engaged in a simple battle of black and white ideals in which their own worldview is seen as self-evident, whist opponents are uncharitably caricatured, mocked, and often simply accused of bad faith. Yet the vast majority of people are not entrenched in these apparently ‘obvious’ positions of confident faith in either God or his absence. Smith notes the strange irony that for this reason, ‘the face off between ‘religion’ and ‘science’ has a strangely intra-mural quality” (72), with fundamentalist atheists and theists sharing more than they realise. The majority of us in the West are not sitting in the opposing trenches of a ‘culture war’, but are actually wandering in no-man’s land, discontent with the spin peddled by both religious and secular fundamentalists alike, and rightly suspicious of sweeping oversimplifications which fail to account for the existential complexity of the age in which we live.

This is ground zero of our current predicament, and the bulk of Smith’s book traces Taylor’s analysis of how we arrived here. For if the simple ‘spins’ of secularist discourse fail to do justice to the contestability and contingency most of us feel, then what will? On Taylor’s telling, the phenomena behind historical waxing and waning of formal religious belief are neither simple nor obvious. Secularism is not a simple subtraction story, but rather “a sum, created by addition, a product of intellectual multiplication.” Whereas confident secularists paint the Enlightenment as a process of unburdening, rousing us from a civilizational religious stupor into the simple lucidity of secular humanism, Taylor stresses that “… we had to learn to be exclusively humanist; it is a second nature, not a first” (48). The path to the great innovation of our age – a scenario where exclusive secular humanism becomes a viable option – was not inevitable, but was rather a nuanced and complex narrative, strewn with contingencies. In other words, there is nothing ‘obvious’ or ‘inevitable’ here; as Taylor the Hegelian stresses, at every stage things could have turned out otherwise.

In this account, Taylor does not fundamentally disagree with the facts on the ground. We do indeed inhabit an age marked by a decline in formal religious observances. But he does take radical departure from the stories we usually tell about how we got here. Taking as foundational his earlier definition (Secular3) that “the difference between our modern, “secular” age and past ages is not… the catalogue of available beliefs but rather the default assumptions about what is believable,” the narrative segment of Taylor’s project traces the radical cultural shifts which have led by the present day to an “entire reconfiguration of meaning” (47).

To travel from the medieval period to the point where exclusive humanism becomes a “live option”, there had to be key changes in our collective construal of reality. Crucial to understanding these shifts is to comprehend the tributaries that feed our individual and collective ‘sense’ of what is believable, and how that sense comes to change. For Taylor, the ‘disenchantment’ characteristic of modernity is not mostly theological (i.e. the ‘death of God’), but epistemological, being “primarily a shift in the location of meaning, moving it from “the world” into “the mind” (28). On this side of Descartes, Kant and their successors, we no longer collectively identify as beings in a spiritually-charged cosmic hierarchy, but now see ourselves primarily as independent agents who impose meaning on our world. Taylor finds one motivating factor for this shift in the inherent existential threat of the old medieval cosmos, within whose hierarchy of natural and supernatural forces and beings, humans were inherently porous and vulnerable, “open to blessing or curse, possession or grace” (29). To relieve this existential threat we could (and used to) cast ourselves on God’s grace. But there was another option, the creation of a ‘buffered space’ in the realm of the mind, a bounded ‘safe space’ where we felt able to impose our own internal order and shut out the ‘threats’ of malign cosmic influence. Though we may have limited influence over threats in the outside world, but we can at least lock the door and shut ourselves in. But a key side-effect of this ‘buffering’ of the self is that “significance no longer inheres in things; rather, meaning and significance are [now] a property of minds who perceive meaning internally… or in stronger versions (say, Kant)…[meaning is] imposed upon things by minds” (29). The change is profound, and the bulk of Western philosophy in recent centuries has been deeply engaged in the implications of this shift.

But this is only one among a number of changes that Taylor credits with gradually altering our collective subconscious construal of both the universe and ourselves. In our present day, “[this] disembedded, buffered, individualistic view of the self seeps into our social imaginary – into the very way we imagine the world, well before we ever think reflectively about it.  We absorb it in our mother’s milk, so to speak, to the extent that its very difficult for us to imagine the world otherwise…” (45-46). Taylor’s key point is that shifts in our stance towards the world, born out of a new conception of individual agency, begin to alter what is believable, and to do so at deep levels on which we are increasingly cease to be consciously aware. In this sense, ideas have consequences. As radical new conceptions of the individual and human reason percolated from intellectual elites to the culture at large, sinking to the level of unquestioned assumptions, a ‘triple disembedding’ took place: persons were disembedded from the fabric of society, society was disembedded from the cosmos, and the cosmos was disembedded from any purpose (telos) provided by the divine will. These steps removed crucial obstacles to a leap away from the old understanding of our relation to the transcendence and to the universe. The risk (and societal stigma) of ‘going it alone’ without God became less apparent, and a way was cleared for exclusive humanism to become a live option.

But clearing the way was not enough – exclusive humanism was now technically thinkable, ‘but not yet thought’. We needed a push, and the fulcrum that actively (if not knowingly) levered the West toward our secular age is located by Taylor in various projects of reform. Reform is a catch-all term for active attempts to resolve apparent compromises of practice and belief, particularly in regards to religious observance (in which he includes the Protestant Reformation as a paradigm case). In medieval Christendom, there had been a division of labour between ‘ordinary’ people engaged in ‘mundane’ pursuits, and a priestly caste (including the monastic orders) who were set apart to pursue transcendence on behalf of the many. In this sense the tension between the call of transcendence and the mundanity of worldly flourishing had never been actively resolved but rather ‘inhabited’, with all the apparent compromise and inequality this entailed. A caste of ‘ordinary people’, from whom little was expected spiritually, was presided over by those ‘set apart’ for priestly duty. Taylor points out that attempts to resolve the tension of this ‘two-tier’ system could take one of two distinct forms. The route of the Reformation was to ‘raise the bar’, calling everyone from the nobleman to the serf to live life Coram deo (‘before the face of God’). But one could equally resolve the tension by simply ‘lower the bar’, removing any call to flourishing that transcends this world. The political and sexual revolutions of the 1960 are paradigmatic of this latter option; the focus shifts entirely away from transcendence, and towards the earthly and fleshly considerations of the here-and-now. Reform is an active driver of such social changes because it refuses the pragmatic compromises and ‘contradictions’ of the old order, which did at least provide a certain stability. To reformers of all stripes, “any gap between the ideal and the real is going to be less and less tolerated, either because more is going to be expected of society in terms of general sanctification [i.e. the Puritans], or because less is going to be expected and self-transcendence will be simply eclipsed [i.e. Renaissance humanism].  If people aren’t meeting the bar, you can either focus on helping people reach higher, or you can lower the bar” (37). The question asked at this point is whether the Reformation unwittingly destabilized medieval society, calling it towards a noble but unattainable end, and in the process leading society en-masse towards a very different form of resolution.

In Taylor’s (Roman Catholic) view, the Protestant Reformation has a lot to answer for. For as well as forcing a resolution to the issue of ‘two-tier’ Christianity (which in Taylor’s view was unattainably idealistic), it has been the locus of numerous zig-zags and unintended consequences that litter the history of modernity. One example is the Reformation emphasis on the incarnation, which brought with it a recovery of the importance of original goodness of creation (a change reflected in the burgeoning realism of European art during the period). But with this new and forceful affirmation of physical creation, and with it the fundamental good of ‘ordinary life’, the stage was also unwittingly set for a radical new focus on the body and its desires aside from any devotional context. It is this trajectory which, alloyed with other ethical and philosophical developments, would eventually end up in the sexual revolution of the 1960s. For Taylor, there is deep irony that “the fruit of devotion and faith, prepares the ground for an escape from faith, into a purely immanent world” (TQ 44-45). It is a similar story with the birth of modern science. It was Christian insistence on the rationality of the lawgiver that underwrote the validity of scientific endeavour, and Christians (or theists) who contributed many of the extraordinary scientific advances of the ‘age of reason’; and yet the ‘conflict hypothesis’ of our present age now paints Christianity and science as inexorable enemies. Numerous other examples could be furnished to flesh out Christianity’s complex relationship with Modernity; in substantive ways Christian epistemology and devotion inspired and catalysed many of the seismic intellectual and philosophical shifts of the Enlightenment, and yet in our secular age it is Christianity that is uniquely criticized for standing against reason, against this-worldly flourishing and against the affirmation of ‘natural’ desires.

Taylor is concerned to explore how Christians have sought to respond to these complex ebbs and flows. For just as the plausibility conditions of our culture have been profoundly altered, the shape of both Christian devotion and witness has shifted in response. One pressure-point is located in the Enlightenment modification of our epistemic and existential relation to the world. In the medieval conception of reality as a cosmic hierarchy, humans were by implication ‘in the thick of things’, caught up in myriad relations with seen and unseen beings and forces, dimly aware of inscrutable mysteries beyond understanding, and accepting that only God possessed an overall view of the entire order. But with the Enlightenment’s shifting of the ground of meaning into the human mind, a new confidence in the scope of human understanding became possible. For the first time, we could genuinely believe in the possibility of taking a disengaged stance in relation to the world; of standing back and dispassionately observing it “as a system before our gaze, whereby we can grasp the whole in a kind of tableau” (Taylor, 232). This move is encapsulated in the modern idea of a ‘world-view’; that like a neutral scientist observing an experiment, we can gain distance to stand back and see how and why the world works. The corollary to this view is a new epistemic expectation of what ought to be intelligible; “thinking we’re positioned to see everything, we now expect an answer to whatever puzzles us, including the problem of evil.  Nothing should be inscrutable” (52). This new epistemic confidence about what could and should be understandable was at least in part catalyzed by the Enlightenment’s compelling evidence of man’s success in mathematics and the hard sciences. Long before widespread disbelief in God took hold, these changes in our collective epistemic assumptions began to reveal themselves in the shape and tensions of religious devotion. In medieval times, great disasters had held a certain theological mystery, being caught in inscrutable tension between the fallen nature of the created order and the sovereign providences of a good God. The death of a child, or a great fire or plague, were causes not for unbelief but for lament, prompts to humbly reach towards God in prayers of petition and penitence. But to the degree that people now believed in the possibility of a dispassionate and disengaged world-view, expecting all things ultimately to be conducive to their understanding, any form of ‘mystery’ would be far less tolerable. Perhaps rather than inscrutable, God’s ways were illogical, or even amoral? It was in this context that the ‘problem of evil’ could become a widespread ‘defeater’ for belief for the first time.

These observations form the context for Taylor’s criticism of much contemporary apologetics. The real core of his quarrel is in how Christians have shaped their defence of the faith in response to secularism, in terms of both content and method. Faced with new conceptions of the self, a new location of meaning, new plausibility conditions, and the difficulty of countering them, Taylor asks if many apologists haven’t simply conceded most or all this ground in order to salvage something that vaguely resembles theism. Rather than aiming high at defending full-bodied, incarnational, Trinitarian and sacramental Christianity, many forms of apologetic argument seem content to secure a simpler, less elaborate, less incarnational faith which in fact looks a lot like deism. The particularities of specifically Christian belief [i.e. salvation, transformation, prayer, devotion, worship] are diminished to try to secure a more generic deity – as if saving some sort of transcendence will suffice” (51).

This criticism segues into Taylor’s constructive proposal for Christian witness, for it is precisely the full-bodied and strikingly ‘other’ character of unashamed, historic Christianity that contrasts so starkly with the insipid and listless feel of our present cultural moment. Taylor’s analysis helps to explain an apparent paradox; that it is precisely those churches that have most self-consciously tried to align with expectations of the culture that have in recent years suffered the steepest decline. Perhaps amid the numerous options for pursuing transcendence within our secular age, these forms of Christianity are seen for what they are, simply therapeutic options for worldly flourishing that have a vague religious tint. Smith and Taylor both ask whether the answer for Christians is in fact to offer a bracing, full-blooded and fully-orbed vision of a faith that is not ‘pre-shrunk’ to the epistemic norms or expectations of post-Enlightenment culture, nor primarily about ‘knowing the right facts’. Rather, we can offer a faith charged with the historic distinctives that so differentiated the early church from its contemporary culture: transcendence, prayer, the sacraments of communion and baptism, incarnation, community, and a transformational perspective which does not smudge ‘salvation’ into just another form of worldly flourishing. Smith makes the prediction that rather than seeker-sensitive Protestantism, it may in fact be high-church Catholicism that proves to be most compelling to millenials, its liturgical and ritual ‘thickness’ and historic richness providing a compelling counterpoint to the flatness, commercialism and homogeneity of much of what passes for ‘culture’ in the 21st Century.

As a whole, one of the most helpful contributions of Taylor’s thesis is to remind us of the complexity and contingency of history, and the foolishness of imposing simplistic and linear narratives after the fact. He takes an even-handed view of what has been gained and lost by shifts in our plausibility conditions and the transcendental perspective. On the one hand Christians are encouraged to remember that much in Christendom was indeed oppressive and worthy of passing away; on the other, confident secularists are encouraged to admit that the evidence does not obviously tip us into a ‘closed take’ on reality, as if a total rejection of transcendence and the divine were the only reasonable conclusions on the basis of the evidence. Furthermore, Taylor stands alongside those who force us to face up to the vast shaping role of Christianity on our culture; “…Taylor the Hegelian argues that, even though it rejects Christianity, exclusive humanism was only possible having come through Christianity.  The order of mutual benefit is a kind of secularisation of Christian universalism – the call to love the neighbour, even the enemy” (56). Our culture is not simply post-theistic, it is distinctively post-Christian, and as Nietzsche found so pitiful, we have tried to keep much of the social and ethical fruit of Christianity whilst rejecting its source. This perhaps explains why of all theistic religions, it is specifically Christianity that evokes the spleen of doctrinaire secularists. It is as though Western culture is in a state of of teenage rebellion, resenting its existential parents because, rather than in spite of, the fact it still lives under their roof.

The title of Smith’s book, ‘How (Not) to be Secular’, sums up Taylor’s final analysis. In Taylor’s view, we are secular2 now whether we like it or not, “…the question isn’t whether we inhabit the immanent frame, but how” (93). Yet that ‘how’ is rich with possibility, for the defining feature of Taylor’s ‘secular’ age is not the impossibility of belief, but rather the constant pressure of multiple options for pursuing meaning and fulfillment. The implication is that we can be secular in either a good way or a bad way. The ‘bad’ ways engage in the kind of spin that oversimplify the complex realities of our present age, airbrushing out the difficulties of either belief or unbelief. The key to not being secular in this way is perhaps in the final analysis partly to be found in the kind of emotional and intellectual honesty and generosity that Taylor and Smith themselves model: not shrill, but even-handed and compassionate, feeling with great sensitivity the pain and malaise of our existential moment. But far more than that, it is to be found not in our autonomous reason or our individual projects of fulfilment, but in “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people,” a full-orbed, Christocentric, Trinitarian, incarnational Christianity; our union with a Christ who is truly able to rescue, not only from existential ennui and millennial boredom, but from sin and death.

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