Thursday, December 25, 2008

Charles Taylor's A Secular Age

I am now feasting on Charles Taylor's phenomenal book A Secular Age. Of which Alasdair MacIntyre says, "There is no book remotely like it. It will be essential reading." Of which Robert Bellah says, "This is one of the most important books written in my lifetime."

Those are big recommendations, and Taylor deserves them. I am engrossed in his words, which so clearly articulate things coherent with my experience and understanding. Here's one sentence which says it all: "Naivete is now unavailable to anyone, believer or unbeliever alike." This strikes me, mostly, as true. I say "mostly" since, as I read his book, I occasionally think of counterexamples to his thesis. Having been a pastor for 36 years, I wonder if I have not met many people who have not been so secularized in the sense of living daily life from a theistic "background." They seem, to me, "naive." I expect Taylor would disagree with this. (For Taylor "naive" does not mean "unintelligent.")

What does this sentence mean? Taylor begins Chapter 1: "One way to put the question that I want to answer here is this: 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?" (25) For Taylor all this is about the "conditions for belief and unbelief." We have to place this discussion "in the context of... lived experience, and the construals that shape this experience." (13) "This is what philosophers, influenced by Wittgenstein, Heidegger or Polanyi, have called the "background."" (13) Initially, to me, this sounds like worldview or paradigm discussions. As I read further I'll be interested to see if Taylor distinguishes "background" from these. They all are, nearly always, "tacit" (Polanyi). They allow for belief or unbelief.

Taylor thinks it's not easy to answer his question above. But he admits that some people find it easy to answer. They argue that "modern civilization cannot but bring about a "death of God". I find this theory very unconvincing." His book proceeds to explain the loss of religious naivete in another way.

On Taylor's writing: it's clear, deep, containing nuggets of insight throughout, and poetic and witty. 776 pages long. Hopefully I'll finish it by July 4.