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The Modern Comedy
Still Pondering Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age
Thomas Albert Howard

Augustine’s City of God holds the distinction of being one of the few, perhaps only, books that contain a theory of just war and, if one is persuaded by the theory, is weighty enough to serve as a deadly projectile during combat. Only the latter could be said of Taylor’s Secular Age, as perhaps the only thing it lacks is a theory of just war. So perhaps another quip is in order. If you ever find yourself stranded on a desert island, Taylor’s book is an easy choice for the one book to have along. For not only would you likely be rescued long before completing it, but if you felt adventuresome, the book itself is large enough (878 pages) to be hollowed out and used as an escape-vessel. It is a big book!

And an extremely significant one. By my lights, it easily ranks among the most penetrating books written in recent decades on what we might call the “emergence of the secular”—the multifaceted transition in Western society over the past half millennium from a religiously-saturated society circa 1500 to—well, here already is the rub—one that is in large parts secular, yet still religious, teemingly pluralistic, agnostic, nostalgic, progressive, atheist, confused, searching, spiritual, reactionary, and more. Taylor uses the metaphor of a “nova” or even “super nova” to capture the centrifugal forces of pluralism afoot in Western societies in the modern era. “[T]he positing of a viable humanist alternative [to Christianity],” he writes, “set in train a dynamic, something like a nova effect, spawning an ever-widening variety of moral/spiritual options, across the span of the thinkable and perhaps even beyond” (299).

The subject of the book is nothing less than the story of how “we” arrived at this situation—a sweeping, ruminative narrative of the conditions of plausibility, the “deep structures” of belief/unbelief in the “modern West,” the “North Atlantic” world. He calls it a large-scale Entstehungsgeschichte—a narrative of origins and development.

Since the book defies easy summary and already has received considerable analysis, let me offer in what follows two points of commentary (in a rather positive register) underscoring and summarizing the general value of Taylor’s outlook for the student of modern religious and intellectual history. But then, adopting a more quizzical stance, let me puzzle over the meaning of the royal “we” that recurs throughout the book and thereby see if I can open up a modest line of questioning about a book that richly deserves the overused adjective “magisterial.”

charles taylor

First, Taylor offers a very helpful understanding of what—lacking for other terms—I’ll call simply the “secularization” idea. His approach seeks to undermine what he calls “subtraction stories” of modern secularization: i.e., stories that assume from the outset that religion represents a deformation of human nature. But thanks to “Modern Science,” “the Enlightenment,” “Darwin,” etc., the Modern trampled down Tradition, Reason upended Faith, and human beings, at long last, were able to breathe the clean sea breezes of their true this-worldly potential. Feuerbach, Comte, and Marx, among many lesser lights, have offered immensely influential “subtraction stories,” and while Taylor recognizes their appeal, at least in light of their own first principles, he also believes that they have massively distorted the problems, the achievements, and the fragility of secular modernity, making erroneous assumptions about human nature and reducing religion to the epiphenomenal and exercisable in human affairs. He believes (rightly, I think) that the legacy of this mode of thinking about religion continues to hamper some “mainstream” secularization theorists in the discipline of sociology.

By contrast, Taylor’s story emphasizes complexity and continuity, even if the end point—the emergence of a post-theological “exclusive humanism” and a post-sacred understanding of time—bespeaks a significant rupture in modern Western intellectual life, but also—and here the plot thickens—a “remarkable achievement” in Taylor’s eyes. As it turns out, “the modern” is congenitally stamped with the residual energies of a (Judeo) Christian ethic transposed (and often amplified) into various secular idioms of immanent flourishing, solidarity, and altruism. “[M]odern culture,” as he expressed it in an earlier essay, “in breaking with the structures and beliefs of Christendom, also carried certain facets of Christian life further than they ever were taken or could have been taken within Christendom” (1999, 16). In this respect, Taylor is perhaps not too far from the French neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain, whose landmark humanisme intégral (1937) contended that the whole moral fabric of modern political life—with its language of freedom, equality, human dignity, and rights—found incubation and predication in longstanding biblical notions of the imago dei and the Gospel injunction to love thy neighbor. (I find it curious that Taylor makes scant mention of Maritain, a seminal figure in promoting the ethos that led to Vatican II—an oversight that might be accounted for more by the anxiety of influence than deliberate neglect?)

Second, if Taylor, a philosopher by training, sometimes offers too simplified a view of “trickle-down” intellectual history (i.e., as elites go, so goes society at large), he nonetheless offers both the academic historian and the historically-minded layperson numerous valuable analytic tools and choice articulations of complex phenomena pertaining to religion/modernity. Recognizing that he sometimes borrows and adapts from others, and often refers back to his own previous works, here nonetheless are a few examples:

For Taylor, a social imaginary is the background framework or environment to the thought of a large group of people—transmitted in images, stories, customs—that conditions how new facts and realities are interpreted and makes possible common social practices, habits of thought, and a shared sense of legitimacy; an unarticulated “map” of social space, a mental horizon. “It is in fact that largely unstructured and inarticulate understanding of our whole situation, within which particular features of our world show up for us in the sense they have” (173). He draws significantly from the philosopher Wittgenstein on this score, especially his notion of the “pictures of the world that hold us captive,” that facilitate some thoughts and keeps some “unthoughts” unthought (549).

The urban/educated and higher academic echelons adhere to the immanent frame, a presuppositional environment that presumes a closed immanent frame of reference and views deviations from this toward strong belief in the religious/transcendent as, following Max Weber, an Opfer des Intellekts, a “sacrifice of the intellect,” a naïve credulity in violation of the adamantine first principles of right-minded inquiry, of Wissenschaft. We might say that the “immanent frame” is the “social imaginary” of Western(ized) knowledge classes or at least dominant sectors thereof.

For Taylor, people in traditional religious settings possessed a porous self, a self freely recognizing divine or “enchanted” causality within themselves and within the world at large. Hence, c. 1500, the high levels of religious belief in general but also belief in witches, amulets, the demonic, the angelic, and so on. By contrast, the modern buffered self—the product of “the decline in magic,” “the decline in Hell,” “the civilizing process,” neo-Stoicism, Deism, modern natural law, the Enlightenment, etc.—exhibits an incredulity or imperviousness toward the divine, an assured “unflappability,” typified for Taylor by the historian Edward Gibbon, someone willing to consign much of human history to the “superstitious” and “fanatical,” while exhibiting imperturbable contentedness with the epistemic stances that he himself had adopted. But actually Gibbon is a rare type, because of another category that Taylor introduces:

Mutual fragilization is the term Taylor gives to the general state of belief/unbelief in a condition of “supernova” pluralism, opened up by exclusive humanism. No longer is one’s religious stance secure, untroubled, reinforced by a homogenous situation, where those around you hold similar views. Rather, on the morning commute, one must regularly encounter a dizzying variety of beliefs and moral systems. Belief does not enjoy stability, then, but finds itself “fragilized” by the presence of other voices, other outlooks, other practices. According to Taylor, this induces a condition of frequent migration within the religious domain, and across the secular/religious divide. It also fosters processes of “recomposition,” an ongoing assessment, a “re-composing,” an updating, tinkering, refurbishing, altering of one’s own outlook in light of the heterogeneity of one’s social matrix.

Within the general climate of mutual fragilization, two particularly strong currents exist for individuals, especially for academic types like Taylor. The cross-pressured self is pulled by one current to accept the regnant immanent frame; the other pulls in the direction of faith precisely because the immanent frame—the flat stretches of “homogenous, empty time”—fills one with a sense of dread, what Durkheim called anomie. Taylor illustrates this divided “self” well in his discussions of various Romantic and existentialist writers. The former veer into melancholy and nostalgia, captivated and disquieted by the specter of pure immanence, even as they seek a “subtler language” than traditional orthodoxy to express the spiritual or the sublime. The latter, existentialist writers, even in putatively “heroic” acts of self-weaning from the succor of transcendence, still exhibit a subtle tug of credulity in what Taylor decries as a numinous poetics of absence, often hitched to an embrace of human dignity that is fervidly insistent but no longer intrinsic to any underlying intellectual project. For Taylor, we in the West, believer and unbeliever alike, are inheritors of the Romantic-existentialist legacies. They contribute massively to the historical sedimentation of our present. Persons of faith are haunted by the possibility of an impersonal universe, Le Néant in Sartre’s expression, whereas the person of doubt is haunted by the possibility of credulity, a “rumor of angels” in Peter Berger’s expression. In one very suggestive passage, Taylor wonders if we have all now become Pascal, disquieted by the “eternal silence of these infinite spaces,” even if we are in possession of the intellectual resources and political and social freedoms to form vastly different responses to it (347).

Finally, let me—a Lilliputian in Taylor’s shadow—see if I can at least offer a slight pinprick of doubt about some of the positions that Taylor has staked out, especially in regard to his general stance toward “modernity” and the meaning of the royal “we”—“We in the North Atlantic,” “We moderns”—that recurs throughout the book. But what I have to offer requires putting a couple of sweeping heuristic labels on the table. So permit me to divide Christian thinkers between “Augustinians” and “Thomists,” the former more keen to decry instances of disordered desire and dereliction in things human; the latter more keen to espy the vestigial goodness of the created order in human history. If this distinction is indulged, Taylor is definitely a “Thomist” by broad instinct, even if he would not place himself in the camp of the more “official” Neo-Scholasticism that has shaped much of modern Catholic philosophy since Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879). But he is also a Thomist of decidedly “Hegelian” inclinations, who, if not willing to identify “the real [with] the rational and the rational [with] the real,” evinces a notable, if not rosy, optimism about modernity’s track-record and prospects of continuing, and even enhancing, some of the Gospel’s deepest impulses in the fabric of ordinary life and within the social and political conditions and discourses of modernity. These proclivities come to the fore in a number of (sometimes offhand) comments directed against anti-modern or nostalgic sentiments among some Christian thinkers, and the adjective Augustinian rarely appears in the book without the revealing prefix “hyper” before it. Calvinists, Jansenists, Barthians, clericals in the French Third Republic, populist Protestants of various stripes, and Catholics on the conservative side of the post-Vatican II conflicts, willy-nilly, tend to be diagnosed with various strains of “hyper-Augustinianism” (652ff.).

This is fair enough. Nostalgia toward the past and cultural pessimism about the present have not been in short supply among the groups that he identifies, and this often produces a historical synoptic inclined toward facile declensionist views and a politics of either smug detachment or “cultural warrior” engagement. The problem with the hyper-Augustinian bristle, let’s call it, is a hand-on-trigger readiness to identify the progressive with the transgressive, to lament the modern instead of seeking out the lurking positive within it—a process that for the ever-subtle Taylor certainly entails finding both wheat and chaff. So in many respects, Taylor’s critique is dead-on. I applaud.

But if the hyper-Augustinian posture holds possibilities of error in one direction, might Taylor’s own “Thomist-Hegelian” impulse, a tilt toward historical optimism, open itself to another? Put in the terms of literary drama, does his hermeneutic of comedy toward the modern, finally, lack the nimbleness to adequately decry the ironic and the tragic, even the ghoulish and demonic, in some modern forces—how some of humanity’s noblest, most progressive impulses can descend into problems and vexations that few could have foreseen, and which in some respects are unforeseeable? The historical thinker inclined to comedy, writes Hayden White in his masterful book Metahistory, attempts to strike a pose of “infinite geniality and confidence capable of rising superior to... contradiction and experiencing therein no taint of bitterness or misfortune” (White 96). It is surprising in a book of this length on religion and modernity, for example, to encounter only scant commentary on the “political theologies” of the twentieth century (both of the far Left and Right) and equally little commentary on some of the “Gnostic,” even chiliastic, impulses afoot in the modern (bio)technological enterprise. In his teaching on the so-called “vampire hanging on the side of history,” Maritain, for instance, regularly spoke of the “double antagonistic movement” in history; that is, all progress and any goodness in the here-and-now always will be intermingled with regressive and disordered elements, which often carry immense and often difficult-to-detect upending capacities (1942; 1957, 54ff).

Let me push this point further and attempt, as they say, to be provocative. To reference Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic The Irony of American History does Taylor’s stance toward the modern exhibit at some level a trace of overconfidence, a lack of prudential circumspection, toward the unfolding epic of “the modern” in a manner similar to how some have thought about the providential mission of the United States. While many see problems with the United States’ sense of God-ordained destiny, they also see these problems as deserving of understanding since they are fortuitously subject to the curative leaven of sacrosanct first principles. This nation’s mission that perhaps too easily tends to occlude from purview “the ironic tendency of virtues to turn to vices when too complacently relied upon” (2008, 133).

Taylor lacks the slightest whiff of old-fashioned nationalist sentiment, neither for his own Canada nor for the United States. But; at some level; is there a similar move going on here? A transference of a kind of vague Hegelian (Christianized) providentialism from the nation-state and its destiny to the general Geist, the intellectual configuration of, “North Atlantic civilization”—one of Taylor’s preferred terms—and to the highly educated “we” who presumably sit in its cockpit. There is, finally, in Taylor, I submit, a sort of moonstruck reverence (albeit chastely expressed) about the moral trajectory of this civilization. It carries for him a kind of providentialist grandeur, deserving of one’s criticisms, to be sure, but done in a spirit of magnanimity and tied to ambassador-like loyalty and defense.

If this fairly casts light on Taylor’s own historical “social imaginary” (to use his term), a smidgen of Augustinian corrective might be in order. The North Atlantic, after all, is a very powerful civilization, exerting extensive intellectual influence around the globe, despite, and even because of, earlier processes of political de-colonization. But “power,” John Adams once wrote Thomas Jefferson, “always thinks it has a great soul, and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service when it [might be] violating all His laws. Our passions [the powerful are assured]... possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience [of the weak] and convert both to their party” (Quoted in Niebuhr, 21).

In the final analysis, does Taylor’s reverential gaze on the “we” of the North Atlantic, particularly in an age of globalization (and proliferating global Christianities) when historians are speaking of the “provincializing of Europe,” carry a slight deficit of perspicacity and prudence? (See Chakrebarty 2000 and Jenkins 2007). The hovering Hegelian-providentialist trajectory suffusing his narrative of the modern age, moreover, holds the risk of mistaking the transgressive for the progressive, inflating comedy at the expense of irony or tragedy, and perhaps confusing some of the more recent installments of our age for more enduring first principles of normative thought and action.

Whether this pinprick will have any effect, I don’t know. In truth, I suspect the Owl of Minerva will likely smile on Taylor’s project. And any possible missteps on his part certainly can’t be chalked up to lack of erudition or petty-mindedness but are glimpsed only in the tailwinds of what I’ll call his flight from the Augustinian: a slight surfeit of sincerity toward the modern, a nobly crafted effort to put the best face on its commanding intellectual/religious achievements and even the complexity of its problems. Were the Owl of Minerva not to smile, Taylor, then, might consider borrowing these closing lines from Othello, which I here freely adapt:

Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done modernity some service, and it know’t.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall this secular age relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Of one that loved not wisely but too well.

Thomas Albert Howard is professor of modern history at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.



Dipesh Chakrebarty. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Maritain, Jacques. Saint Thomas and the Problem of Evil. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1942.

Maritain, Jacques. On the Philosophy of History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008 [1952].

Philip Jenkins. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, rev. and exp. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Taylor, Charles. A Catholic Modernity. James L. Heft, S.M., ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

White, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.


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