The Gospel in a Secular World, Part 2
by Fr. Frank DeSiano, CSP
Charles Taylor, the Montrealer philosopher, has been thinking about secularity for quite a while. His latest book, A Secular Age, has been making its way around rectory bookshelves and religious studies departments. In it, he reprises some themes from earlier works, notably his widely-read Sources of the Self.
In his earlier book, Taylor identified a very significant trend in modern life—the shrinking of the human vision to our everyday life. When you think about, this theme is everywhere, from ads that tell us “It’s all about the beer,” to our feelings of contentment if someone gets to live into their 90s—as if that was all someone could expect.
Here’s the way Taylor puts it in Sources of the Self:
The rejection of the supposedly ‘higher’ activities, contemplation or citizen participation, or of ‘higher’ levels of dedication in the form of monastic asceticism, in favor of the ordinary life of marriage, children, work in a calling conferred a higher dignity on what had previously been relegated to a lower status. This unleashed a powerful tendency in our civilization, one which has taken ever new forms. Some of these involved turning against the very religious tradition which had inaugurated this tendency and defending ‘natural’ desire and fulfillment against the demands of sanctification, now seen as specious and destructive.
This is a powerful way to point out the perennial Christian tug-of-war (totally unnecessary, by the way) between “this world” and the “next world.” It also points to the way faith can become totally focused on “this life”—if there is any faith left at all. One of the ways this shows itself today is in a hazy, wide-spread Stoicism which does not look for much out of life except diminished pain and maximized pleasure. (People feel morally fine so long as the pleasure is not seen as one or another kind of exploitation.)
Believers sense is, of course, and have a variety of ways to respond to this tendency in modernity. Whatever direction we take (emphasizing the sacred, for example, or trying to point to transcendence even in daily life), we cannot discount the importance of everyday experience, and of relating faith to what happens between the alarm clock’s first tone and a night’s final yawn.