Why was it once virtually impossible not to believe in God, while today many of us find this not only easy, but inescapable?” The question is Charles Taylor’s, and his nine-hundred-page answer has arguably been the academic event of the decade. Seven years after its publication, A Secular Age has done more than reignite the debate over secularization and its religious roots. It offers to change the very terms in which Christians profess belief.
One of the world’s leading philosophers, Taylor is known for the expansive breadth of his interests in a discipline whose research programs have shriveled in scope. He has written commandingly on German romanticism, ethics, hermeneutics, and the philosophies of mind and action, and has done so in a relaxed style that draws smoothly on literature and history.
Taylor has done little to disguise his religiosity, something that also sets him apart from the philosophical establishment. He describes himself as a “believer” and “person of faith” and without affecting embarrassment. A professed Catholic, he has made occasional sorties into the Church’s intellectual life, quietly signaling his sympathies for liberal movements in theology. Following the publication of Sources of the Self in 1989, a book that credited Augustine with inventing inner selfhood, Taylor’s writings took a soft theological turn. A Secular Age is the kind of work readers probably should have seen coming.
Monumental in scope, heroic in ambition, and serenely neglectful of scholarly conventions, the book is in no way a spiritual autobiography. It is something more revealing—an invitation to experience, by way of historical epic, the emergence of a modern Christian spirituality and its fraught relationship with unbelief. Taylor has been both celebrated and faulted for authoring an apology for Christianity. I regret to say he has done nothing of the sort. Although the advocacy is indirect and the theology implied, Taylor instead encourages readers to embrace a modern mode of faith that accommodates itself to contemporary culture.