A Secular Age: An Invaluable Book Christians Should Read

by John Ellis

Sitting on the table next to my chair are ever rotating stacks of books that I’m reading. Two books, though, as their companions have moved back to their homes on my bookshelves to be replaced by new companions, remain constant: The Bible and A Secular Age. Over the last couple of years, I have never not been reading Charles Taylor’s behemoth yet brilliant and thought provoking A Secular Age. Anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis can attest to the influence Taylor has over my thoughts and writing. And while I would love to write a review of the book, that is a task that is daunting, and one that I am ill equipped to tackle and, frankly, a task that may always feel out of my reach. While on my third time reading A Secular Age, I still marvel at the depths I failed to plumb previously. No doubt, as experience informs, I have yet to reach the bottom of Taylor’s insights and arguments. To paraphrase Ron Rosenbaum’s words regarding Shakespeare, traversing the boundaries of physics and metaphysics as I experience the seemingly deepening bottomlessness of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is a daunting yet wonderful experience.[1]

So, instead of a review, I write a short plea to you to begin reading A Secular Age. It’s a book that many want to read but find its size and scope harrowing. In Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor, Colin Hansen laments, “I regret that the length of [A Secular Age] (nearly 900 pages) and the density of his prose preclude most pastors and other Christian leaders from even picking up the book.”[2] While I’ve heard similar excuses from friends for not finishing the book, and while I appreciate Hansen’s added encouragement to read it, I disagree with his assessment that the “density of his prose” is an obstacle to pastors, much less lay Christians. Kant is dense. Hegel is dense. Heidegger is dense. Charles Taylor is not, and that’s no slight but a testament to his gifts as a communicator and writer that are displayed as he distills, organizes, and brings together rich, dense histories, philosophies, and theologies into a coherent, cogent, and winsome whole in the making of his argument. In a word, A Secular Age is not a difficult read. Don’t let academics and the gatekeepers to the evangelical thought world tell you otherwise (they have to sell their books about the book, after all). All of this, of course, does not answer the question of why you should read it.

Many of us (if not all of us) agree that ours is a secular age. But why? How did that reality come about? And what does that mean for us as Christians desiring to live faithfully and fruitfully for God’s glory and in the service of our communities as we obey and live out the Great Commission?

Understanding where we are and how we got here is one of Taylor’s primary goals, and a goal that I believe he achieves. I can’t put it any better than James K. Smith who writes, “[Taylor’s] account of our ‘cross-pressured’ situation – suspended between the malaise of immanence and the memory of transcendence – names and explains vague rumblings in the background of our experience for which we lack words.”[3] Within that program, Taylor also challenges our belief that we (Christians) have escaped, by and large, the secularization of society and somehow stand above secularity offering a competing program. For sure, we tell ourselves, churches and Christians we know or read about are influenced by secularism. But not me. Not my church. However, reading A Secular Age will reveal how much all of us are products of the social imaginary in which we live. We are all, to varying degrees, secularists. Leaning on James K. Smith again, “Taylor’s account should also serve as a wake-up call for the church, functioning as a mirror to help us see how we have come to inhabit our secular age [emphasis added].”[4]

In conclusion, I offer some advice and humbly suggest a game plan: Firstly, just read it. Pick up A Secular Age and begin reading. Don’t allow yourself to be daunted by its size. Averaging ten pages a day, it should only take you around three months to read. Even at only five pages a day, that’s only six months. However long it takes you to complete it, the time will be well-spent.

Owing largely to my theatre and script analysis training, I’m a firm believer in reading books in their entirety before beginning the work of focusing on its sections and parts. I realize that I’m not unique in this, at least in claiming this, but I have ceased to be amazed at how our social imaginary of autonomous epistemologies shape our reading habits into largely compartmentalized, individualistic approaches. For example, I encourage Christians to read the Bible cover-to-cover before engaging in studies of individual books. Doing so allows the author’s objective (Author, in this example’s case) to wash over you and help inform your poking and prodding of the smaller parts. Yet, and again I have ceased to be surprised, the amount of pushback I receive for what to me seems completely intuitive advice frustrates and saddens me. I once had a group of Christians reject my advice because, in their words, “That’s not how actors approach plays. When they’re cast in a role, they highlight their lines and begin working on the part immediately.” Seriously. I was told that with zero sense of irony or self-awareness from the non-theatre speakers. They’re intention, of course, was to justify their lack of reading God’s Word cover to cover. In short, my point is that you should read A Secular Age cover to cover before concerning yourself with parsing out all of Taylor’s arguments and chasing down his many historical, philosophical, and theological avenues. Doing so will not lessen the experience nor cheapen the worth of reading the book. Just read it. You will learn much and you will have many questions raised. And so, owing, in large part to the questions that will be raised, when you finish it, start over, but with a different tact.

On my second time reading A Secular Age, I took the time to highlight. I did highlight a little my first time through, but mostly refrained because I assumed that without reading all of it there was a high risk that my initial highlighting would prove frustrating and wrong-headed upon subsequent readings and after I had better grasped Taylor’s arguments. Besides highlighting my second time through, I also wrote notes and questions in the margins. Obviously, this slowed me down. There were some days when I only managed to read a page or two, rereading and mulling over Taylor’s thoughts and assertions and writing out my thoughts as I worked to connect the dots to what I had previously read in the book and my understandings of the history, philosophy, or theology Taylor was interacting with. Which brings me to my final piece of advice for reading A Secular Age.

Whether your second time through or during subsequent times reading it, I encourage you to take the time to read (or reread) many of the primary sources Taylor cites and references. And, yes, this will take an immense amount of time (and you’re probably going to want to pick and choose which primary sources you read and not attempt to read them all – which would be admirable but practically impossible for many of us). But it will be worth it. I began my third pass almost a year ago, and I’m only on page 119. However, taking the time to read some of Taylor’s primary sources as I think through, argue out, and read and reread sections of A Secular Age has proven beyond valuable. It’s helped deepen my understanding of not only the book but of the larger scope of philosophical and theological history. In turn, it’s challenged my own faith and responsibilities towards my family and society at large. It’s also, and to be clear, helped me understand better the points and places where I find myself in disagreement with Taylor. Hovering above it all, it’s been a humbling endeavor as I am confronted time and again with how little I’ve read and how much I have to learn, which is part of the joy and worth of it.

In our secular age, we have a plethora of options of how we will spend our time. Netflix and other streaming services, social media, sports leagues, museums, concerts (except during a pandemic, of course), myriad of restaurants to try, blogs to read, YouTube, theme parks, batting cages, miniature golf – you get the picture – owing to the luxurious time we live, including the luxury of free time, our lives do not lack for things to wile away the time. While I’m a big fan of re-creating, I’m an even bigger fan of redeeming the time God has given us in the positive pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. Because of the many distractions – good distractions that have their place, to be clear – it takes deliberate effort to carve out space to love God with our mind. Reading A Secular Age is highly beneficial intellectually, existentially, and spiritually. Yes, it comes with a cost, but the cost/benefit analysis is clearly banked in the benefit column. You will not regret reading A Secular Age.

Soli Deo Gloria

Andendum: Lest I be accused of being an uncritical apologist for A Secular Age, I highly recommend Dr. Michael Horton’s essay in Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor. I agree with many of Dr. Horton’s critiques, although I do believe that a historical thread is missing in both Taylor and Horton – the epicurean influence on evangelicalism, especially post-American Revolution.

[1] In The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascos, Palace Coups (published 2006), Rosenbaum makes the compelling argument that Shakespeare chased bottomlessness – specifically the bottomlessness of our Creator – in a single play made up of the individual plays that we know and love. If true, and I tend to agree with Rosenbaum, then reading/seeing Shakespeare is an exercise in plumbing the depths of bottomlessness, helping explain the marvels and mysteries that all lovers of Shakespeare experience with each renewed interaction with the Bard.

[2] Colin Hansen, “Hope in Our Secular Age” In Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor ed. Colin Hansen (Deerfield, IL: The Gospel Coalition, 2017), 3.

[3] James K. A. Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), x.

[4] Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular, xi.

One thought on “A Secular Age: An Invaluable Book Christians Should Read

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s