A Secular Age

November 29th, 2007

That weird strange thing

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secular_age.jpgThat Charles Taylor’s massive book on the malaises and predicaments of secularity could be taken by so many distinguished intellectuals as a defining tome for our age comes as a surprise. At the very moment when it would have appeared that theories of secularization and disenchantment had finally exhausted their own mythological power to frame modernity, Taylor devotes his immense philosophical gifts to delineating and diagnosing the secular colossus. [...]

November 23rd, 2007

After Durkheim

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secular_age.jpgI continue, as I reread it, to have the highest opinion of A Secular Age and to believe that it is among the handful of the most important books I have ever read, to the point where The Chronicle of Higher Education speaks of my “effusive” praise. So it was with some surprise that I found there was a point where, if I didn’t entirely differ from Taylor, I had at least some serious questions to raise. [...]

November 21st, 2007

Deus absconditus and disenchantment

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secular_age.jpgCharles Taylor’s A Secular Age is an inspired yet rigorously argued Wagnerian effort to analyze the distinctive anxieties of modern intellectual and social life, by one of the most important and interesting philosophers of the last five decades. I will pick up one strand that illustrates Taylor’s central themes of religion and secularity and the conceptual and historical continuities and discontinuities between them: the process of so-called ‘disenchantment’ that is supposed to mark our modernity [...]

November 19th, 2007

The scope and uses of secularity

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secular_age.jpgEarly in Charles Taylor’s study, he remarks that the secular condition, in which belief is an option and religion a distinct domain, is not the case everywhere: in Muslim societies generally, and for people in religious moments in the West: pilgrims at Czestochowa or Guadalupe, for example. We could add: and for people growing up in believing Baptist communities in Nebraska or Mennonite ones in Manitoba or Hindu ones in Gujarat or Bali. [...]

November 17th, 2007

Secularism, hegemony, and fullness

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secular_age.jpgWhat are the stakes in wanting a fixed definition of religion, whether in terms of “a sense of fullness,” as Taylor suggests, or of “transcendence,” or of “something beyond what has yet been achieved, or will ever be achieved”? What is at stake here? Why are we so concerned to establish a category that encompasses a number of very different kinds of experience, experiences that for some religious people don’t belong together at all? [...]

November 16th, 2007

Human rights in a secular age?

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secular_age.jpgThe theme of loss is…a deep undercurrent in Taylor’s account. One question that those of us working in the area of religion and human rights might pose of Taylor’s study to ascertain its implications for our field is: What is the fate of human rights—particularly religious rationales for human rights, respect for “religious human rights,” and the engagement of religious believers and religious bodies in struggles for human rights around the globe?

November 6th, 2007

Secularization ain’t dead yet

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secular_age.jpgNormally, when one sits down to read a book hailed by a figure such as Robert Bellah as “one of the most important books to be written in [his] lifetime,” one expects a methodical survey of an intellectual terrain. One of the most striking things about Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is thus its colloquial, almost chatty character. Instead of being forced to sit through a dry lecture, it’s as if one had the good fortune to share drinks at a bar with an exceptionally erudite friend who took the opportunity to tell you what he’s been thinking about lately. We should be so lucky as to have such drinking buddies. [...]

November 2nd, 2007

Problems around the secular

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secular_age.jpgOne great problem is that the term “secular” is a western term, and corresponds to a very old distinction within Christendom. Then it goes through a series of changes in order to surface in such neologisms as “secularization,” and “secularism.” But even so, some of the original meanings carry over. These terms are then applied unreflectingly to what are seen as analogous processes and ideas elsewhere, and the result can be great confusion. [...]

October 29th, 2007

The slipstream of disenchantment & the place of fullness

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secular_age.jpgOne of the most important books of our time, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age explains how many Europeans and their cultural heirs have come to experience moral fullness and identify their highest moral capacities and inspirations purely within the range of human power and without reference to God. It presents an alternative to “subtraction stories” of modernity in which superstition and belief are understood to have withered away, leaving room for modern science and humanism to flourish uninhibited by metaphysical constraints. [...]

October 27th, 2007

A story to tell

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secular_age.jpg Stories, at least good stories, are full of details that demand time and space in a narrative. They are worth it, though, because they make narratives more like real life: good stories are thick and messy rather than thin and sterile. They take surprising twists and turns, double back on themselves, try things out from another angle. [...]

October 23rd, 2007

The buffered self and the battle of ideas

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secular_age.jpgAs I read Wendy Brown’s recent post on A Secular Age, I see that I made a bad job of communicating my intent. I organized the book in sections, and the main thrust of my account comes in the first half. Crucial to my view is a Foucault-influenced notion of Reform as both feeding on and further potentiating certain disciplines, which become woven into our family, work, schooling and professional lives and hence continue to define us. What I call the “buffered self” is one facet of what results. [...]

October 22nd, 2007

Idealism, materialism, secularism?

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secular_age.jpgWhen I teach early modern political theory to undergraduates, I begin by trying to conjure a worldview and subjective experience not organized by capitalism, science, reason, secularism, and the primacy of the individual. I struggle to convey the extent to which this chasm between our time and that one pertains not merely to particular beliefs, knowledges, or forms of social order, but to an entire way of knowing and experiencing self and world. I aim, in other words, to get students to grasp the Otherness of early modern Europe in terms of the experience of being human and being in the world. This entails somehow grasping our epistemological, ontological, cosmological and theological frameworks from without, a nearly impossible physical and metaphysical feat. [...]

October 19th, 2007

Secularism of a new kind

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secular_age.jpgI have long admired Charles Taylor and have read most of what he has written and always found him helpful. Yet for me, A Secular Age is his breakthrough book—one of the most important books to be written in my lifetime. Taylor succeeds in no less than recasting the entire debate about secularism. From the very first pages it is clear that Taylor is doing something different from what others writing about secularization have achieved [...]

October 18th, 2007

Introducing The Immanent Frame

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On the shelves for only a handful of weeks, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is already receiving at least some of the attention it well deserves. The book has been reviewed in the pages of The Economist and The Wall Street Journal, and two short excerpts were recently published in Commonweal. Taylor’s massive tome—it’s just shy of 880 pages long—was even held aloft and glossed earlier this month by a young denizen of youtube. [...]