A Secular Age

Taylor, Charles
Belknap Press (2007)
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For very different, but connected reasons, we are witnessing an inexorable decline in the number of pubs, post offices and churches; the world as we knew it, is passing away; but whereas we can attribute the first two declines to a number of economic, technological and social causes, we tend to think that the third results from a serious moral malaise. And that, ultimately, is Charles Taylor's point.

In a book of almost intimidating complexity and density, Taylor traces the history of the decline of Christendom from 1500 to the hegemonic secularism of the present day. How, he asks, did we get to where we are now?

His answer, as a sympathetic Christian, is that we only have ourselves to blame. Taylor traces the 'descent' of Christianity - paraphrased in Peguy's plangent observation that everything that starts as "mystique" ends up as "politique" - from our 15th Century understanding of religion as mystery to its contemporary obsession with moralism. His central argument is that when religion turned to civilising and moralising its adherents it made possible a form of civilisation and a code of morality which did not require god; and that, once this was grasped, the Christian churches then identified with civic order as a way of regaining a foothold. In parallel, instead of adhering to the concept of mystery, churches increasingly veered towards The Bible or Doctrine as the central focus of Christian life. Behind these transformations, however, was the underlying temptation to exercise power through structure, bureaucracy and codes. In the words of Ivan Illich, the mystery of evil is Christianity's adoption of ethical code of the civilisation in which it finds itself.

The news is not all bad. Taylor destroys, better than any of the recent polemicists against Dawkins, the idea that humanism is robust whereas Christianity is facile. He points out that the dichotomy is pretty childish in itself as we face similar existential dilemmas. The way out of decline for Christians is to go back to our central business of Agape.

This is not a book for the faint hearted, for the dabbler or the intermittent reader. It is sometimes repetitive but the quantity of cross referencing required in the text and in the reader's brain is considerable and this requires a sustained reading regime. This is not to say that the book is self indulgently daunting: the arguments are difficult and Taylor is a habitual hedger; the style is conversational rather than didactic; and the chapters are loose-limbed, wide ranging essays which is why there is a need for so much repetition and cross referencing.

The lay reader must wish for a cut-down version with a disclaimer which allows for fewer subordinate clauses - and even subordinate paragraphs - but, in the meantime, if you want to understand where we are now and why, this book could hardly be more suggestive. If it makes us stop blaming everybody else and look to ourselves, it will justify the considerable time and effort required to read and understand it.

Kevin Carey
28th July 2009