Weekend Reads: Understanding the secular age

by Caleb Nelson

Posted on Saturday, August 30, 2014, at 10:15 am

How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014) is James Smith’s clear explanation of a philosopher whose work can be difficult. Taylor, a self-professed Roman Catholic and author of A Secular Age (2007), begins with the standard narrative, which argues that since 1500 God has been “subtracted” from the world, religious belief has declined, and the scientist has replaced the priest. Taylor calls this narrative “secularism,” but argues instead that “we” moderns actually live in a “secular” age, which pretends to frame human life in strictly immanent terms but is nonetheless haunted by transcendence. In other words, both belief and unbelief must, in this secular age, deal with the reality of doubt.

In Jesus or Nothing (Crossway, 2014), Dan DeWitt questions the standard “secularization” thesis too, but does so through a character named “Zach.” Zach grew up in a Christian home, but in college he realized that beyond the world was not a God but, well, Nothing. Zach is well-versed in the arguments for faith but doesn’t find them convincing. “Most days” he feels good about “a universe devoid of deity,” and “he dismisses the other days as wishful thinking.” In other words, he is just another denizen of Taylor’s secular age. 

Taylor’s concern is with narrative: How did we get here? DeWitt’s concern is with evangelism: How do we get out?

We got into a secular age through a confluence of factors that were mainly theological. For example, the Reformation is often blamed for banishing a “sacramental” concept of reality, in which the holy can be found in the mundane. But as Taylor argues, there is no straight line from the Reformation to the secular age. Rather, a cluster of Late Medieval Reform movements intersected, and the sum of their trajectories was toward a distinctly secular vision, in which ultimate flourishing of human life can be found and defined, strictly in terms of what this world has to offer. For example, medieval nominalist theologians denied the existence of metaphysical substances and thus of final causes (i.e., goal-oriented structures) in nature, because these would limit the absolute power of God. Meanwhile, other medieval Christians lovingly focused on the lush depths of the material world, seeking to find God in the details of creation. Finally, the Reformation understood sacramental communion with God as spiritual rather than directly physical. The sum of the three movements was the genesis of modern science’s exclusive focus on efficient causation, and thus its attempt to control the now-demystified processes of the physical world.

Taylor’s presentation of the transition from Christendom to a secular age is compelling. Smith’s summary of his thought is valuable, too, not only for its clarity and accessibility (it distills 900 pages of Taylor’s book into 140), but also because Smith writes from the Calvinist tradition, and thus offers helpful correctives to some of Taylor’s more distinctly Catholic claims.

Taylor is apparently willing to jettison certain historic Christian doctrines. Not so DeWitt, who insists that secularism is nihilism: Our options are Jesus or Nothing.

DeWitt is now dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s undergraduate arm, Boyce College. But before that he used to give presentations like “What I’ve Learned from Atheism” on secular campuses. Jesus or Nothing gives a similar presentation, aiming it at secular-age dwellers. Using the book of Colossians, DeWitt presents Christ as the one in whom the transcendent purpose of life is found. Christ explains the “haunting” of transcendence that lingers for people like Zach. Christ forgives sin—something the Nothing doesn’t even pretend to do. The gospel of Christ makes sense of reality in a way that a secularization narrative never can. Even if you doubt it, bet on it: You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

Caleb Nelson

Caleb is the pastor of Harvest Reformed Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Gillette, Wyo.

Read more from this writer