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Review Article

Grappling with Charles Taylors A Secular Age*

William Schweiker et al. /

University of Chicago Divinity School

Charles Taylor has presented us with a fascinating, rich, and unusually

thoughtful study.1 It is a very long book, and its style invites a comparison with a walking tour through a medieval town. One walks uphill or
downhill most of the time, and the small roads are curved so that one
cannot see much ahead. Occasionally, one ends up in hidden backyards
where people hang their laundry and play opera music. In other words,
it is a book full of surprising insights, a book that gives one pause for
reflection, a book that explores options rather than making exaggerated statements. It tries to persuade rather than convince.
A Secular Age is also work of tremendous erudition and scope; it invites and in fact demands response from scholars engaged in all aspects
of religious studies. Its potential influence throughout the field would
be difficult to overstate and is surely already being felt. In brief, Taylors
work explores the meaning of the changing place of religion in Western
society. He asks how a society in which it was virtually impossible not
to believe in God became, over the course of centuries, one in which
faith, even for the staunchest believer, is only one human possibility
among others.
What follows are attempts to begin a conversation with Professor Taylor from the varied perspectives of theology, theological ethics, history
of Christianity and Judaism, religion and literature, and sociology of
religion. These ideas and arguments were presented to Professor Taylor
by faculty of the University of Chicago Divinity School at a conference
* Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2007).

Authors of this review article include William Schweiker, Kevin Hector, Hans Dieter Betz,
Willemien Otten, W. Clark Gilpin, Paul Mendes-Flohr, Richard Rosengarten, and Martin
Charles Taylor is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Philosophy at McGill University. His twenty books include Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), one of the most widely read and highly regarded philosophical works of the past quarter century. Its achievements were crowned by other works,
including The Malaise of Modernity (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1991) and A Secular Age.
2010 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.


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held on February 1213, 2008.2 They are presented here in slightly
edited form to provide an overview of Taylors important work and to
suggest productive avenues of future engagement.
William Schweiker begins the discussion with an insightful summary
of Taylors argument; he then argues for seeking a third way between
Taylors account of human fullness, grounded in a sense of transcendence, and exclusively humanistic positions. In the next response,
Kevin Hector argues that secularity, far from being a merely unintended and unwanted consequence of early modern Reform, in fact
enables one of Reforms essential goalsthat ones Christianity be authentically ones own.
We then turn to the insights of several historical perspectives on Taylors argument: Hans Dieter Betz looks at the de facto secular age
left in the wake of Augustuss transformation of Roman religion into a
ruler cult; Willemien Otten offers some reconsiderations of Taylors
account of the medieval period and suggests that an awareness of medieval humanism enriches our sense of the Christian tradition, even if
it deepens our sense of the problems involved in doing theology in a
secular age; and W. Clark Gilpin reviews Taylors account of the age
of mobilization (18001950), concluding that the disembedding of
faith from communal religious culture has enabled personal religiosity
to be directly negotiated with consumer culture and national identity,
without necessary connection to explicitly religious institutions. Finally,
a secularization narrative for modern Central and West European Jewry
is offered by Paul Mendes-Flohr.
The intersection of religion and literature comes to the fore in the
response of Richard Rosengarten: he analyzes George Eliots Middlemarch to complicate Taylors view of the Victorian era as marking a
decisive shift in aesthetics from mimesis to creation, which produced
in turn a poetics devoted to private sensibility rather than the reflection
of public meaning. According to Rosengarten, Eliots novel presents a
variety of disenchantment with Christianity that, in fact, rejects the
buffered self that Taylor views as the consequence of such disenchantment. To conclude, then, Martin Riesebrodt analyzes Taylors conceptualization of secularization and of religion itself, as well as the comparisons that Taylor draws between Europe and the United States.
A small colloquium led by Jean Bethke Elshtain was held on February 12, followed by a
public event chaired by Kristine A. Culp on February 13, 2008. The texts from both events
were assembled and edited for publication by Vince Evener.


Grappling with Taylors A Secular Age

william schweiker: theological ethics
I want to think with Professor Taylor about our religious and moral
condition, that is, the connection between religious experience and the
moral space of life. My response entails, first, getting clarity about Taylors conception of our secular condition and thinking with him
about the idea of human fullness and, second, hinting at a way of
conceiving and inhabiting the present condition that endorses a robust
religious conception of human fullness, in my case Christian, but that
is also humanistic, in some sense. I ask how we can reclaim within Western religious thought a way to see the struggle for justice against dehumanizing forces as part of a conception of fullness that does not
devolve into the kind of rage for order or exclusive humanism that
Taylor criticizes. The challenge is to think beyond the seemingly irresolvable conflict between religious and humanistic outlooks as itself a
way of being religious and thus to find a way to inhabit freely our
traditions.3 There is some irony in this, I admit. As a theologian I am
trying to preserve a humanistic moment within a religious outlook and
life, while Taylor, the philosopher, is insisting on a religious transcendence. So, first, we need some clarity about Taylors own argument.
A Secular Age is a massive study of Western cultures and the place of
religion within them. Its main puzzlement is to grasp a transition in
history. We have moved, Taylor writes, from a world in which the
place of fullness was understood unproblematically outside or beyond
human life, to a conflicted age in which this construal is challenged by
others which place it . . . within human life (15). The history he
tells is then about human fullness and a narrowing of that fullness
under the pressure to reform life and make people better within the
immanent frame of history. As he puts it late in the book, The urge
to reform has often been one to bring all of life under the sway of a
single principle or demand: the worship of the one God, or the recognition that salvation is only by faith, or that salvation is only within
the church (771).
The basic idea is that human identities are always tied to convictions
about the meaning of reality, what Taylor calls elsewhere strong evaluations. If we wish to understand ourselves, we cannot abstract from
See David E. Klemm and William Schweiker, Religion and the Human Future: An Essay on
Theological Humanism (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).


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those beliefs in order to reach some supposedly neutral perspective. In
A Secular Age, Taylor notes that every person, and every society, lives
with or by some conception(s) of what human flourishing is: What constitutes a fulfilled life? What makes life really worth living? What would
we most admire people for? (16). This is, we can note, a kind of ontological reflection, sometimes called a weak ontology or philosophical anthropology, that is, an inquiry into the meaning of being for us
drawing on the moral sources of a culture or civilization.4 The space
of human existenceour ontological conditionis shaped by these
sources. Taylors conclusion is that present conditions of experience
tend toward an exclusive humanism, which works with a truncated
idea of fullness within the immanent frame of historical life. In terms
of Christianity, the drive for reform, especially among Protestants, has
forced us into a homogenous conception of fullness, an excarnation
that is the steady disembodying of spiritual life, so that it is less and
less carried in deep meaningful bodily forms, and lies more and more
in the head (771). The burden of Taylors argument is to show that
a different account clears up confusions and reduces errors, even while
it resonates with actual life and our experiences of transcendence and
fullness. How does he make this argument?
According to Taylor the moral/spiritual landscape of human life is
three-dimensional: there is, first, the sense of fullness that reaches beyond our ordinary experience to a depth or power in existence; second,
there are moments of exile or brokenness from that fullness; and, third,
there is a kind of middle condition between fullness and exile. The
vital question is how one conceives and inhabits the middle condition,
the fact of our longing, and also finitude and exile. Religious people
have some faith and hope in a fullness as well as experiences of the inbreaking of a fullness graciously received under its own power. Yet, it
is possible to dwell within the middle condition with the conviction
that human flourishing is to be found here and nowhere else and that
the power of that fullness is wholly a human power. Recall Martin Heideggers insistence on resoluteness in being toward death, Hans Blu4
A number of thinkers, including Taylor, have addressed weak ontology or reflection on
the connection between beliefs about the meaning of reality and their place in the formation
of human identities. See, e.g., Stephen K. White, Sustaining Affirmations: The Strengths of Weak
Ontology in Political Theory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); William Connolly,
Neuropolitcs: Thinking, Culture, Speed (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002); and,
of course, Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self. Also see the special issue on the topic in the
Hedgehog Review 7, no. 2 (2005). It is interesting that these theorists are now discovering the
insights of earlier Christian theologians, like Paul Tillich and H. Richard Niebuhr, and still
earlier, Luther and Augustine, on the constitutive relation between self and community and
some ultimate concern about the meaning of being (Tillich) or a center of value (Niebuhr)
or trust of the heart (Luther) or a decisive love (Augustine).


Grappling with Taylors A Secular Age

menburg on self-assertion and the legitimacy of the modern age, or
current advocates of neohumanism and inner-worldly transcendence
like Tzvetan Todorov.5 For Taylor those outlooks easily lead to the buffered self, a self closed off from more radical kinds of transcendence
and thus an exclusive humanistic way to live in the middle condition.
Taylors argument for a more robust sense of fullness requires articulating eruptions of forces that overturn the rationalized social order,
like festival or in-breakings of a sense of higher time. Religion includes a higher good beyond mere human perfection, a higher power
that transforms human life, and life as going beyond the bounds of its
natural scope (20). Religious resources offer views of human fullness
that transcend the immanent frame and thereby provide perspective
on the rage for order. Of course, Taylor grants that many religious
people believe that true fullness requires a profound inner break with
the goals of flourishing in their own case; they are called on, that is, to
detach themselves from their own flourishing, to the point of the extinction of self in one case, or to the renunciation of human fulfillment
to serve God in the other (17). Yet, that is merely to say that the
religions have a complex understanding of human fullness and also
that they can be mutilating of real, finite human life, which is, of
course, always the worry of humanists, exclusive or not.
There is little doubt that high-modern societies often truncate human
experience and seek purely procedural answers to social problems.
Similarly, human beings continue to have experiences of fullness that
disrupt an utterly immanent secular life. And there are virulently antihumanistic ways of being both religious and secular. The dispute,
then, is over how fullness is conceived and how to interpret and inhabit our middle condition. Without engaging antihumanistic arguments, I want to ask whether exclusive humanism and something like
Taylors account of fullness, formal as it is, are in fact the main or even
best ways to conceive and to inhabit the middle condition. Let me hint
at a third way in order to widen the conversation about human fullness.
First, a word is needed about fullness. As I read the Christian traditionand, in fact, the outlook of other religions toothe idea of
human fullness, the highest good, interrelates actual human flourish5
See Martin Hiedegger, Being and Time, trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson (New York:
Harper & Row, 1962); Hans Blumenburg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. R. M. Wallace
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983); and Tzvetan Todorov, Imperfect Garden: The Legacy of
Humanism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).


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ing with ideas about what is righteous, just, holy, or virtuous. A Christian vision interweaves a robust Jewish commitment to justice with
strands of thought, Hellenistic and others, that focus on human flourishing. Yet, that is not quite right, either. Those traditionsJewish,
other religions, and nonreligiousalso have ways of thinking about
these connections between flourishing and justice. The highest good
is not just one standard but a complex, synthetic idea. And this perspective on the highest good entails, at least in a Christian vision, an
account of our condition. The travail of history is marked by a longing
for the resolution of the collision between flourishing and righteousness,
the fact that in this world those who flourish are not always righteous
and the righteous too often suffer. But since the space of human existence in the middle condition is the complex reflexive interaction of
institutions, communities, beliefs and values, as well as human fault and
viciousness and also natural processes, the longing for resolution is at
best ambiguously satisfied. And this fact, even aporia, is an engine of
creativity, the stage for human despair and fidelity, and also the source
of endless human folly and humor. Accordingly, any idea of fullness that
is not constitutively about the relation of flourishing and righteousness
is too trimmed downeither too other worldly or too inner worldly.
Trimmed-down visions lack urgency and depth, or a realistic assessment
of our condition, or they stunt human aspiration. And any account of
our condition that denies this tension, this collision, is naive about human possibilities, despairing of ameliorating any woe or injustice, or
driven by a rage for order to change the world. Christians hope for the
resolution of this conflict pictured in the eschatological reign of God.
It is not a product of human striving alone. But, as Protestants hold,
it does free one to labor responsibly and joyfully for justice and flourishing, since together this is what is meant by fullness.
If this is the caseor at least a lot of Christians and others seem to
adopt an outlook like thisthen the quest for fullness cannot be divorced from convictions about what is right and holy any more than
the love of God can be separated from the love of neighbor. This perspective thereby indicates another take on the moral and spiritual
shape of the middle condition between fullness and exile, namely,
the irresolvable tension in history between flourishing and righteousness, happiness and holiness. The challenge of a secular age, maybe
any age, is how to live within the middle condition without despair,
defiance, resignation, or naive idealism but with a resolute and joyous
commitment to the integrity of life with and for others.6 This outlook
On the integrity of life and this stance in existence, see William Schweiker, Theological
Ethics and Global Dynamics: In the Time of Many Worlds (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).


Grappling with Taylors A Secular Age

is a way of living in a secular age that does not rage for order or
truncate human transcendence, even as it clarifies the domain of responsibility and how religious convictions might help fashion a humane futurein a time when the rush to flourish too often trammels
human hope and what is just and also endangers the integrity of all
realms of life.
I am hinting at an outlook about how to conceive of and inhabit the
middle condition that I believe has parallels to Taylors account but
that entails a somewhat different perspective, at once religious and
humanistic. It involves ontological reflection since a conception of the
highest good is deployed to articulate conditions of experience and
the variety of responses to it. This perspective has found different expressions throughout the Christian tradition. And it is one, I think,
that we need to cultivate in an age in which humanistic ideals too often
trammel religious longings and the religions can demean or mutilate
the goodness and dignity of finite human life.
kevin hector: theology and philosophy of religion
A Secular Age argues that todays secularity should be understood in
terms of the fact that unbelief has become thinkable for a good many
of us and, indeed, that belief in something transcendent has become
nearly unthinkable for many. This strikes me as an interesting and
largely persuasive way of characterizing where we are. I was likewise
persuaded by a good deal of Professor Taylors story of how we arrived
at this point, particularly his helpful account of the role Reform
played in moving us toward what he calls the immanent frame. It is
at precisely this point, however, that Professor Taylors account seems
to be missing a crucial ingredient. One of the conditions necessary for
Reform to take hold as it did, it seems to me, is an assumption that
the so-called Magisterial Reformation shared with Medieval Catholicism,
namely, the idea that members of an entire society could be counted as
Christian solely on the basis of that membership. Absent this assumption, it seems that Reform might have proceeded very differently.
Professor Taylor characterizes Reform as a drive to make over the
whole society to higher standards, a drive that is rooted in a profound dissatisfaction with the hierarchical equilibrium between lay life
and the renunciative vocations (6163). Advocates of Reform were
concerned, then, with the fact that the higher life called for by the


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Gospel had come to be seen as a special vocation to be practiced by
the elite, rather than as a vocation to be lived by all Christians. Reform
aimed to combat this sort of two-tiered Christianity by insisting that
the so-called higher life is demanded of every Christian and by putting
into effect all sorts of disciplinary measures by means of which to ensure that Christians would live up to this lifes demands (51). On Taylors account, then, Reform played a key role in producing the sort of
disciplinary society that contributed to the eventual development of
exclusive humanism. It is important to note, though, that Reform
may have moved in a different direction if not for the assumption that
members of an entire society could be counted as Christian. If one
assumes that the church is coterminous with society, it might make
sense to try to hold an entire society to higher standards. This assumption is by no means self-evident, however. The so-called Radical
Reformers, for instance, saw this assumption as, in fact, one of the key
obstacles to Reform and therefore insisted that one counts as a Christian only if one is committed to living the higher life, to submitting
oneself to church discipline, and so forth. The point is simply that this
assumption seems to play a nontrivial role in the move from Reform to
the institution of a disciplinary society, for without it, Reform might just
as well have led to a narrower view of who counts as a member of the
This may seem a fairly minor point, especially in view of Professor
Taylors apparent friendliness to it (see 73941), but I would argue
that, in the context of Taylors secularity narrative, it is a difference
that makes a difference. I would argue, in fact, that if we consider how
this assumption is related to the outworking of Reform, we might see
the secularism that emerges in a different light. In the space allotted
to me I can only trace the contours of this claim, but to see what I
have in mind, consider, first, that the assumption I have been discussingthat members of an entire society can be counted Christian solely
on the basis of that membershipseems to conflict with one of Reforms own aims. The Reform movement insists that the higher life
is demanded of every Christian and accordingly rejects the idea that
certain Christians, such as monks, can relieve others of these demands
by living this life on their behalf or carrying them, to use Professor
Taylors term (6162). Implicit in Reforms rejection of two-tiered
Christianity, then, is an insistence that the Christian life must be ones
own, yet this insistence seems to be at odds, at least potentially, with
the assumption that a person can be counted a Christian simply by
virtue of his or her birth into a particular society. This becomes evident
once certain conditions change and more and more persons born into


Grappling with Taylors A Secular Age

Christian societies start to wonder whether their putative Christianness counts as their own or whether it is instead a kind of historical
accidentsomething that happened to them, as it were, rather than
was due to them. I can neither elaborate nor defend this claim sufficiently in the space of a few pages, but it seems evident that some
version of this tension played an important role in the emergence of
Taylors secularism three and that once this is brought into view, it
casts secularism in a somewhat different light.
To see this, consider a rough, overly simple sketch of some historical
changes in the epistemic landscape. To begin with, at the time of the
Reformation itself, the tension just mentioned remains invisible, so to
speak, because the vast majority of persons in the relevant societies
take themselves to be Christian. The situation starts to change, however, as a result of shifting conditions of belief, several of which have
been canvassed by Professor Taylor. Two shifts should suffice to indicate the development I have in view. First, Reformation and CounterReformation polemics seem to have played a role in altering conditions
of belief, not just because they led to a revival in skepticism but also
because their mere existence ended up putting certain kinds of claims
on a different footing: in a context in which the authority of tradition
is itself at issue, it would beg the question to appeal to tradition as a
means by which to justify ones claims about tradition. The authority
of tradition was further undermined by the emergence of modern
scientific inquiry, the divergence of its results at certain points from
traditional teachings, the churchs dogmatic opposition to these results, and so on. For these and other reasons, there was a shift in the
prevailing conditions of belief, away from the authority of tradition and
toward thinking for oneself, the aim of which was to avoid believing
anything simply because it is what one has been taught or what one
has always believed. This aim contributed, in turn, to a series of further
shifts in the conditions of belief, since it motivated several generations
to consider what it would mean to think for oneself and under what
conditions this is possible. To most, it seemed evident that one counted
as thinking for oneself about some (doxastic or practical) commitment
only if one could offer reasons for it, but this raised an obvious problem: if one counts as thinking for oneself about some commitment only
if one gives reasons for it, it follows that one is thinking for oneself
about these reasons only if one gives reasons for them, and so on. The
commitment to thinking for oneself thus threatens to set off an infinite
regress, which is precisely what emerged in the so-called Grundsatzkritik
of the 1790s.
For my purposes, it suffices to mention just one of the novel re-


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sponses to this problem (a version of which is defended by Hegel as
well as Schleiermacher). The proposal is to understand the reasons in
question as a kind of would-be norm and understand these norms, in
turn, as authorized, administered, and shaped by an ongoing process
of intersubjective recognition: to offer reasons for some commitment,
on this account, is implicitly to recognize the authority of certain precedent reason-givings as well as of certain persons judgments about
what counts as a valid reason; when one offers reasons, one aims to
carry on the normative trajectory implicit in these precedents and thus
seeks this same precedential status for ones own reason-giving; if ones
reason-giving is recognized as such, it contributes to the trajectory by
means of which still other reasons may be judged and therefore
changes that trajectory, if only slightly; and so on. In this way, one can
see ones reasons as due to oneself, since the authority, administration,
and meaning of the norms in terms of which they are judged depend
upon a process that includes ones use and recognition of these norms.
On this account, there is nothing more to being a norm than circulating as such, which obviously qualifies this account as a species of
what Professor Taylor calls exclusive humanism. It should likewise be
obvious that this account contributes to the conditions under which
unbelief has become thinkable. It is not at all obvious, however, what
attitude one should take toward this development. Professor Taylors
narrative may tempt us to think of secularism as the ironic undoing of
Reform, that is, to think of Reform as kicking off a series of developments that ultimately brought about Reforms own demise. With the
foregoing sketch in mind, however, it seems equally plausible to think
of secularism not as an unfortunate and unforeseen consequence of
Reform but as in some respects its culmination or, more precisely, as
the historical achievement of certain conditions that allow for an otherwise unavailable realization of Reform. There are at least two respects
in which this is the case. First, precisely because unbelief has been
rendered thinkable, one can now stand in a different relationship to
belief; there is now a standpoint from which one can stand back from
belief in order to mediate it to oneself, to reclaim it as ones own, and
so render it recognizable as due to oneself. A new kind of freedom
with respect to ones beliefs is thus made possible, a freedom whose
condition of possibility seems to include the thinkability of unbelief.
It seems highly unlikely, that is, that one could achieve this kind of
freedom in an age when ones holding of certain beliefs appeared selfevident or even natural due to the virtual unthinkability of unbelief
(or of belief radically different than ones own). Secularism thus contributes a crucial condition of the achievement of one of Reforms


Grappling with Taylors A Secular Age

goals, namely, that ones Christianity be ones own. Moreover, the variety of exclusive humanism sketched here makes it possible not only
to stand back from ones faith commitments in order to reclaim them
as ones own but also to see the norms to which these commitments
answer as themselves due to one, since these norms are authorized,
administered, and shaped by ones own performances and recognitions. One can see our norms as ones own, in other words, and ones
own norms as ours, in consequence of which one can see commitments constrained by these norms as due to oneself in a more robust
sense than would otherwise be the case. In both of these respects, then,
a variety of exclusive humanism supplies conditions that contribute to
the achievement of one of Reforms own goals, namely, that ones
Christianity be recognizably and authentically ones own. Secularism
introduces new possibilities, in other words, that are retrospectively
recognizable as a fulfillment of Reforms own project.
I have come to the end of my allotted space, yet doing justice to any
one of these points would require considerably more elaboration and
defense. I hope, in any event, that the contours of my argument are
clear enough. While Professor Taylors use of the category Reform
provides a helpful means by which to explain the shift from nonsecularity to secularity, I would suggest that something important is missing
from his account, namely, consideration of the assumption that members of an entire society could be counted as Christian simply by virtue
of that membership. This assumption is important because (a) it supplies one of the conditions necessary for the development of a disciplinary society, (b) it engenders a kind of tension within Reform itself,
and (c) the rejection of this assumption ends up altering the conditions of belief in such a way that an otherwise unattainable achievement of Reform becomes possible. It seems to me, then, that by considering the role this assumption plays in Reforms emergence and
development, one can see secularism in a somewhat more positive light
vis-a`-vis religions own development.
hans dieter betz: new testament and graeco-roman religions
In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor comments on neo-Stoic philosophers
of the seventeenth century who were looking back on the Roman empire, concentrating on the historian Tacitus (ca. 55116 CE). People
have even spoken of the seventeenth century as a Roman century.
But for all their admiration for Roman statecraft, military discipline,
and Stoic philosophy, they were increasingly aware that the pro-


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grammes which were intended to reform the mores and change the
outlook of the whole population were entering new territory (120).
If investigated to a greater detail, this general statement reveals that
Tacitus, to mention only him, describes a momentous change from the
older religion of the Republic to the new Saeculum Augustum and its
consequences. After he had defeated his last competitor, Marcus Antonius, in the battle of Actium (31 BCE) and the conquest of Egypt
(30 BCE), Octavianus profoundly reorganized the Roman state and
religion. This involved three major events: the Senates awarding him
the new title Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus (27 BCE), the founding of the Ludi Saeculares (17 BCE), and the occupying of the office of
Pontifex Maximus (12 BCE). As Tacitus describes it, Augustus reinvented
Roman religion by systematically transforming its institutions into
those of a ruler cult with himself as its center. The process began with
the deification of Augustuss adoptive father, C. Iulius Caesar, the dedication of a temple and priesthood to Caesar, and the restoration and
construction of a large number of temples. Augustus moved the official
residence from the Regia in the Forum to a new building complex on
the Palatine, including his own domus, a closely attached magnificent
Temple of Apollo, and a new Bibliotheca Palatina.7
The legacy of Augustuss long reign was permanently secured by his
autobiography of the Res Gestae, copies of which were on display on
bronze plates in front of his monumental mausoleum and on stone
slabs elsewhere in the empire (such as the Monumentum Ancyranum).8
The Mausoleum of Augustus on the north side of the Campus Martius
was located vis-a`-vis the impressive Ara Pacis Augustae on the east side,
with the large-size sundial (Horologium) in the middle (both 9 BCE).9
The climax of the Saeculum Augustum was the funeral of the princeps
with his consecratio as Divus Augustus, carefully planned by himself and
presided over by his chosen successor Tiberius (14 CE).10
What was the result of these changes? Following Tacitus: It was thus
an altered world, and of the old, unspoilt Roman character not a trace
lingered. Equality was an outworn creed, and all eyes looked to the
mandate of the sovereignwith no immediate misgivings, so long as

See also Suetonius, Augustus 29.

For the text and commentary see Klaus Bringmann and Dirk Wiegandt, Augustus: Schriften
und Ausspruche, Texte zur Forschung 91 (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft,
2008), 22981.
See Orietta Rossini, Ara Pacis (Milan: Mondadori Electa, 2006).
Tacitus, Annales 1.8 and 1.10, cited according to the edition and translation by John
Jackson, Tacitus III, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University
Press, 1931); see also Suetonius, Augustus 99101.


Grappling with Taylors A Secular Age

Augustus in the full vigor of his prime upheld himself, his house, and
The problems arose with Augustuss old age and the question of
succession. Opinions varied about the character and impact of his
reign. Tacitus represents the two sides, the positive, corresponding to
the achievements listed in the Res Gestae,12 and the negative, focusing
on the crimes, sacrifices, and losses.13 Tacitus sums it up: He left nothing for the honors of the gods, when he wanted to be adored in temples and as an image of divine entities through flamens and priests.14
In other words, the Saeculum Augustum saw Roman religion in its entirety subjected to the cult of Augustus, with his apotheosis occurring
in his consecratio at the conclusion of his funeral.15
Nothing left was also true in regard to Tiberius, who could barely
be persuaded to succeed Augustus. He had witnessed for some time
the discrepancy between the grandiose dimension of the empire and
his doubts about his abilities to govern it. Only the mind of the deified
Augustus was equal to such a burden: he himself had found, when
called by the sovereign to share his anxieties, how arduous, how dependent upon fortune, was the task of ruling a world.16
Tiberius was aware that his adoption and choice to succeed the princeps was motivated by his fathers selfish power concerns; neither personal affection nor regard for the state, he had read the pride and
cruelty of his heart, and had sought to heighten his own glory by the
vilest of contrasts.17 Having suspected this years earlier, Tiberius had
tried to escape by his self-chosen exile in Rhodos and a military excursion to Illyricum, but Augustus, when he was dying, called him back
to the city of Nola, where he devoted the last day of his life to pressing
Tiberius into serving as his successor.18

Tacitus, Annales 1.4, 249.

Ibid., 1.89.
Ibid., 1.10.
Ibid., 1.10 (my translation): Nihil deorum honoribus relictum, cum se templis et effigie
numinum per flamines et sacerdotes coli vellet. I am indebted here to the important article
by Hubert Cancik, Nichts blieb ubrig fur die Verehrung der Gotter: Historische Reflexion
uber Herrscherverehrung bei Tacitus, in Romische Religion im Kontext: Gesammelte Aufsatze I
(Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 22745.
Tacitus, Annales 1.10: Ceterum sepultura more perfecta, templum et caelestes religiones
Ibid., 1.11, 265: Et ille varie disserebat de magnitudine imperii, sua modestia. Solam divi
Augusti mentem tantae molis capacem: se in partem curarum ab illo vocatum experiendo
didicisse quam arduum, quam subiectum fortunae regendi cuncta onus.
Ibid., 1.10: Ne Tiberium quidem caritate aut rei publicae cura successorem adcitum,
sed, quoniam adrogantiam saevitiamque eius introspexerit, comparatione deterrima sibi gloriam quaesivisse. Compare Suetonius, Tiberius 23.
Tacitus, Annales 1.5; 1.8; Suetonius, Tiberius 1011.


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While Tiberiuss reign lasted a long time, the burdens and temptations of the office in effect destroyed the man. As he had never fully
accepted the office, he tried to delegate the functions and tasks as
much as possible to members of the Senate and officialdom, but when
he saw himself getting overwhelmed by government, failures, intrigues,
betrayals, and abuse,19 he gradually withdrew from Rome and took residence on the island of Capri.20 As far as one can infer from historical
sources, Tiberius practiced little, if any, religion beyond formal state
rituals.21 Except for the deification of Augustus, he tolerated but did
not promote the ruler cult. Officially, he prohibited his own deification
and even that of Livia, his mother.22
The net result of the Saeculum Augustum was, therefore, that he destroyed what was left of the Roman religion up until Iulius Caesar. It
absorbed its institutions into the ruler cult and left for Augustuss successors a religious and moral vacuum, de facto amounting to a secular
age. For all we can say, Tiberius was as much a secular ruler as one
could be under the circumstances. In spite of some later attempts at
restoring Roman religion, the vacuum became gradually filled by foreign religions coming to Rome. Thus, complete secularism was prevented by the social transformation of the Roman people through the
massive importation of slaves, members of the military, and other immigrants, among them Christians.
History in the imperial age became increasingly dominated by deified rulers exercizing their power through the military. The armies
selected their men of eminence and let them rule as long as they
were able and willing to satisfy their demands. There is no doubt that
in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, interest in Roman history
contributed to the emergence of absolutist rulers. A royal figure like
Louis XIV (16381715) exemplified the Grand Sie`cle of France. Napoleon I. Bonaparte (17691821) put Pope Pius VII (180023) into his
place by arresting and deporting him to France (180814), where he
was forced to sign humiliating concordats with Napoleon. Notably, the
Napoleonic Epoch (17991815) initiated the great Secularization
(1803), which in its repercussions dominated the entire nineteenth
century.23 The climax, however, was reached by the totalitarian regimes
of Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, and Fascism in the twentieth

See Suetonius, Tiberius 2426.

Ibid., 3941.
Ibid., 26, 27, 36, 47, 6970.
Ibid., 27, 51, 67.
For a recent survey, see Hartmut Lehmann, Friedrich Wilhelm Graf, and James A. Mathisen, Sakularisation/Sakularisierung, II: Geschichtlich, Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart
(RGG)7 (2004): 77583.


Grappling with Taylors A Secular Age

century. These regimes aimed at total secularism and replacement of
religion by ideological personality cults of the leader figures Marx,
Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hitler, and others.24 Though not successful in their
goal to eradicate Christianity and Judaism altogether, they contributed
substantially to the modern ideology of secularism.
willemien otten: theology and history of christianity
I want to take my point of departure for this response in the culture
of medieval Christianity, which Taylor sketches in many ways as one in
stark contrast and contradiction with the developments leading up to
our current secular age. One of my guiding questions is whether the
diagnosis by modern scholars of medieval society as premodern (which
Taylor follows) marks that societys collective embrace of Christianity
as somehow less complicated, for not yet prone to modernitys slide
into secularism. A closely related question is whether it is possible or
even desirable to see the religious nature of medieval society as a good
or a bad thing.
Guided by my interest in dealing with Christianity in the medieval
West in an integrated cultural rather than a confessional way, I have
come to develop a particular insight in what I call medieval humanism,
borrowing an earlier insight from Richard Southern.25 As a result of
this, my diachronic analysis of our secular age and the theological
problems flowing from it tends to have a different focus than Taylors
analysis, which concentrates on the dangers of (postreformed) fideism.
The aim of my response to A Secular Age is at least in part to test my
hypothesis against his, in an attempt to make the most sense of medieval religion and theology.
A Secular Age starts with the question of why it is that Western culture
as a whole seemed to be made up of believers around 1500 CE, whereas
at present those numbers have dwindled to such an extent that believers comprise only a small portion of that culture, making for an eerie
and somehow out-of-place kind of religious presence. The radical nature of the Reformation, while in many respects making faith a more
serious matter, for which one bore personal responsibility, had something to do with the change, to the extent that it unleashed a rage for
See Michael Bergunder, Friedrich Wilhelm Graf, and Michael Wermke, Personenkult,
RGG 6 (2003): 113538.
See Willemien Otten, From Paradise to Paradigm: A Study of Twelfth-Century Humanism (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 144; with reference to R. W. Southern, Medieval Humanism and Other Studies
(Oxford: Blackwell, 1970), 2960.


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order, which while intensifying faith also led to its undermining or at
least to a loosening of the hold the Christian faith had had until then
on Western society. By the way, Taylors view in this is confirmed by
Diarmaid MacCulloughs recent book, Reformation: Europes House Divided, 14901700,26 which argues that the medieval sacramental and
penitential system adequately met the spiritual needs of the late medieval people and that there was no real reason for reform, let alone
Reformation, other than Luthers Augustinian impulse to enforce
Christianitys consummate dependence on grace as accessible only
through personal faith.
Reasoning backward from Taylors take on the Reformation, it seems
as if his view of medieval Christianity to some extent represents everything that one could no longer be in reformed Christianity. Thus, medieval civilization, while very much a stratified society, is not characterized by a rage for order. How medieval society functioned, more
organically and more flexibly religious than our modern society, is
brought out in A Secular Age in two ways: in terms of the celebration of
time and the feasts that went with it, liturgical but always also semisecular, and in terms of the practice of theology. I would like to comment
on both of these issues.
As for the celebration of time, Taylor rightly (I think) emphasizes Gods
existential-foundational role in medieval society (43). Societys quality
of being anchored in the divine, if I can put it that way, made for a kind
of equilibrium in the Middle Ages between a drive for Christian selftranscendence, on the one hand, and a fostering of human flourishing,
on the other (44), reflected both institutionally and communally in
the hierarchy and complementarity of the celibate clergy and the married laity. What held medieval society together in ways that no longer
worked after the Reformation was the possibility of the release of social
and hierarchical tensions in feasts like Carnival, which either functioned as a safety valve to support the values of the ruling classeson
this point, Taylor quotes Natalie Davis (46)or underscored the ultimate service of community by permitting the mocking of its social
order, as is argued by Victor Turner (47). While I generally agree
with Taylors view of the Middle Ages as a more cohesive culture visa` -vis the more individualistic Reformation, whose built-in religious
Diarmaid MacCullough, Reformation: Europes House Divided, 14901700 (New York: Penguin, 2004).


Grappling with Taylors A Secular Age

tensions stress the vertical impact of the divine rather than its horizontal integration, I wonder if the implied contrast does not lead him
to have too benign a view of the tensions underlying the medieval
cooperative enterprise. Witchcraft and demonization, as well as
anti-Semitism (686ff.), are terms that only feature toward the end
of A Secular Age as part of an abstract discussion of religion and violence, but the drift of the argument there seems to be that this violence may be worse in a no-holds-barred secular society. Following
the view of Norman Cohns Europes Inner Demons,27 however, can we
not also see the comprehensive and organic medieval conceptions of
order as being potentially suffocating in and of themselves? For did
they not push for a release of tension that may well have been aimed
at a continued celebration of society but did so only at the expense of
the victimization of many of its members, be they women, mystics,
witches, heretics, or Jews? More attention to the tensions and ambiguities involved in scapegoating and demonization as endemic ingredients of premodern societies, even if we acknowledge that such mechanisms survived also afterward, might have allowed Taylor to take an
equally holistic but altogether more realistic view of the Middle Ages
by seeing the Crusades as the flipside of Carnival. Rather than indulging in a seminostalgic view of premodern medieval religiosity, would it
not be fair to say that medieval culture had more than its share of
problems, for which the omnipresence of the Christian God did not,
in the end, make much of a difference?
This perhaps rather secular observation makes for an adequate transition to my second point about medieval theology and what I call the
tradition of medieval humanism. Let me say in all fairness that
throughout A Secular Age Taylor does not pretend to make theological
claims, and it is not my intent to criticize him for something he does
not do. But shedding light on issues of medieval doctrine helps me to
clarify a larger point about medieval theology as a broader, humanist
practice, one that cannot simply be opposed to secularism because it
is suffused with it.
In his chapter The Bulwarks of Belief (2589), Taylor discusses the
Norman Cohn, Europes Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom
(1973; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). The discussion has since been
broadened by R. I. Moore, Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western
Europe, 9501250 (1987; repr., Oxford: Blackwell, 2007); and to some extent demythologized
by David Nirenberg, Communities of Violence (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998).


The Journal of Religion

juridical-penal system of belief, seeing this as an Augustinian-Anselmian tradition that was aggravated by Calvin and as such became part
of the Reformations exacerbated view of human depravity, leading to
that periods peculiar rage (78). Leaving both Augustine and Calvin
aside for a moment, let me briefly discuss Anselm, to whom this juridical-penal view in my opinion does not apply precisely because of his
more humanist outlook. Whatever the limitations of the feudal honor
code within which Anselm operated, it was that very context that allowed him to avoid the kind of theology of crime and punishment with
which Taylor unfortunately associates him in A Secular Age. When Anselm is faced with the reality of human sin in his Cur Deus Homo? the
options that in his view are at Gods disposal are either punishment or
satisfaction. Since God chooses satisfaction in Anselms scenario, the
consequence is that punishment is no longer an option. As a result,
the devil plays no role whatsoever in Anselms theology of redemption.
Taylor is absolutely rightand here Calvin comes inthat the reformed
tradition read satisfaction in terms of punishment (Christ dies by undergoing punishment for the sins of humanity, which reading may be
labeled satis-passion in contradistinction to Anselms satis-faction), but
that is precisely not Anselms view. Instead, and here I get to my point
about the tradition of medieval humanism: Anselm provides us with a
greatly illuminating example of incarnate reasoning, not just in terms
of standard Christian doctrine about the incarnation but, more specifically, as the exact opposite of what A Secular Age elsewhere (29293) calls
excarnate reasoning.
If medieval theology but also medieval culture more broadly conceived can offer us anything, this offering has in my view to do with
its subtle and intricate use of incarnate reason, in that we can truly
see it as the opposite of Taylors view of the excarnate reasoning of
the Enlightenment, based on the primacy of Nature or Reason alone.
Rather than configuring this difference in terms of an abstract opposition between anthropocentrism, which marks the culture of Enlightenment, and theocentrism or divine anchoring, as marking premodern
medieval culture, society, and theology, I wonder if the success of medieval theology was not that it was able to combineand at times even
collapseanthropocentrism and theocentrism in figures like Anselm
and others (e.g. Augustine, Eriugena, Abelard). If so, does their legacy
not offer us a way into a richer theological tradition that is both more
humanist, in that it embraces the role of nature and reason, and able
to withstand the excarnate pull of enlightened secular culture by engaging in constant self-scrutiny through the ancient technique of ex-


Grappling with Taylors A Secular Age

ercitatio mentis? It is quite probably as a result of his relentless focusing
on sola ratione that Anselm can be misconstrued in a strictly technical,
excarnate way, whereas, in my view, it is only when positioned within
the larger humanist sphere of incarnate reasoning that we can understand his insistence on that kind of surgical precision.28
However defensible for a general book like A Secular Age, my worry
is that Taylors rather uncritical focus on the highlights of medieval
Roman CatholicismThomas Aquinas intellectually and Saint Francis of Assisi affectivelythrows us back to a presecular, confessional
view of Christianity and Christian theology, even if he makes allowances for the Victorines. The nature of my objection is that such
confessional perceptions represent their own brand of excarnate
reasoning, to the extent that the criticism of secularism they evoke,
however viable and welcome, tends to reinforce older stereotypes.
In my opinion, what this secular age more constructively invites us
to do insteadand attention to the humanist embeddedness of medieval theology illustrates my pointis to take stock of the history
of Western culture, within which that of its theology (of whichever
confession) is fully nested, as containing also and always the seeds
for such forms of incarnate reasoning.
But the fact remains that doing theology in a secular context will
inevitably be fraught with problems. One of the questions I see arising more generally from the reactive attitude against secularism,
which is not intended by Taylors book but in which the book may
very well come into play, is that an overemphasis on the role of
faithwhich since Schleiermacher seems to have become the focal
point of theology, phasing out the earlier self-scrutinizing Anselmian humanist approach that was more inclusive of nature and reasonmay result in a totalizing but no less false substitution theory,
one in which the alternate world of faith has everything to offer
that secular, scientific society does not. The current embrace of
both spirituality and alternative medicine by many former believers
seems strongly driven by this kind of impulse, which may be no less
fideistic than the confessional stance from which secularism once
liberated them but should not, as far as theological practice is concerned, push us back into confessional corners.
I have made this point more extensively in Willemien Otten, Religion as exercitatio mentis:
A Case for Theology as a Humanist Discipline, in Christian Humanism: Essays in Honour of
Arjo Vanderjagt, ed. A. A. MacDonald, Z. R. W. M. von Martels, and J. R. Veenstra (Leiden:
Brill, 2009), 5973, esp. 6769.


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w. clark gilpin: history of christianity and theology
How does the scholar identify and assess the leading characteristics of
the present? The problem, writes Charles Taylor, is defining exactly
what it is that has happened (426). In chapters 1214 of A Secular Age,
Taylor proposes a narrative that resolves this problem and identifies
what has happened. For the societies of the North Atlantic cultural
sphere, the transformative path to our present-day secular age has
passed through an age of mobilization and an age of authenticity
on the way to religion today. I agree with Taylor that the age of
mobilizationvery roughly, the years from 1800 to 1950was a time
during which the very locus of the religious, or the spiritual, in social
life has shifted and is therefore extremely important to understanding
the cultural transformation his book addresses (424, 471). In what follows, I reflect with Taylor on the consequences of the age of mobilization for the prospects of religion in a secular age. More specifically,
I appraise the significance of the age of mobilization for engaging Taylors worry about the contemporary possibility of experiences of transcendence. In a way this whole book, Taylor writes, is an attempt to
study the fate in the modern West of religious faith in a strong sense.
This strong sense I define, to repeat, by a double criterion: the belief
in transcendent reality, on one hand, and the connected aspiration to
a transformation which goes beyond ordinary human flourishing on
the other (510).
In Taylors series of historical ideal types, the age of mobilization was
preceded by a long epoch in which the social imaginary presumed a
cosmic society whose hierarchical complementarity was grounded in
the divine will. Order flowed downward from God through the hierarchy, ordering each part of nature and society for the good of the
whole. By contrast, the age of mobilization reflected the growing sense
in modernity that institutions were human fabrications, expressive of
human aspirations, interests, and power. The age of mobilization, says
Taylor, presupposed that any political, social, or ecclesial structures to
which humans aspired had to be mobilized into existence. That is,
members of nations, professions, churches, and increasingly even of
families did not conceive of themselves as embedded in institutions
that were ordained by God and integrated in a comprehensive order
of the cosmos but instead as independent individuals, who associate
together in a society structured for mutual benefit (42372).
Whatever their formal teachings about the nature of the church,
Christian communities in the United States have, in fact, participated
in this mobilized framework of activism and choice. Personal adher-


Grappling with Taylors A Secular Age

ence to a church became a choice during the American age of mobilization, and adherents experienced their religious communities as institutionally flexible, voluntary, and self-directed, emphasizing personal
choice and the need for adaptive innovation. This mobilization was, in
many respects, spectacularly successful in fabricating new religious
forms that expanded religious adherence and practice in the transatlantic world and especially in the United States. And in relation to
the wider public, Americas voluntarily constituted churches and parachurch organizations justified their continuing importance to civic
life in terms of their mission to instill the values and ideals that trained
up responsible citizens. As Taylor has summarized the process, God
was perceived at the level of the whole society, as the author of a
Design which this society is undertaking to carry out, and the free
churches acted as instruments of mutual help in which individuals
strengthened one another in ordering their lives along Godly lines.
A societal mission advanced through voluntary religious affiliation
would, in the United States, comprise one nation, under God, where
the Republic secures the freedom of the churches; and the churches
sustain the Godly ethos which the Republic requires (453).
But, whatever the consequences for political, economic, and educational institutions, the age of mobilization had far-reaching, unintended consequences for the voluntary church because it raised a distinctly theological problem. Having generated an elaborate set of
adaptive institutional forms, which stimulated and organized a long era
of numerical growth of the American churches, the social process of
founding, joining, and voluntarily sustaining these institutions raised a
question about their specifically religious status as bearers of transcendenceas the Church, with a capital C. If religious community was
based on the personal decision to affiliate and personal commitments
to spiritual ideals, what social experience supported the common assumption that religion represented an alignment of life with transcending powers or a claim upon the self that originated from beyond the
self ? How would persons experience transcendence when the most immediate experience of religious participation arose from personal
choice and agency? How did the divine make its appearance or seem
to exert its power within this mobilized sociology of religion?
One representation of the divine presence proved, in the long run,
both fragile and fractious: the idea that the progress of Western democratic societies manifested a Design authored of God. During what
Taylor describes as a brief but powerful watershed moment in the
1960s, the institutional innovations of the age of mobilization rapidly
began losing their hold (42425), especially among those churches


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commonly identified as mainstream. When the myth of progress and
national destiny became suspect for many members of these mainstream denominations, it left the churches of voluntary affiliation denuded of a major representation of transcendence that had provided
the supporting rationale for their institutional life. In many respects,
it seems to me, the popularity of secularization theory during the 1960s
represented a theoretic attempt to understand the loss of persuasive
power in the religious forms created during the age of mobilization
A second representation of divine presence during the age of mobilization took a quite different, noninstitutional form. Taylor notes
that, beginning in the eighteenth century, one reaction to the cool,
measured religion of the buffered identity was to stress feeling, emotion, a living faith which moves us. . . . One can only connect with
God through the passions and through personal devotional commitment (488). During the Romantic period, deeply felt personal insight
now becomes our most precious spiritual resource, and versions of
personal, affective religious insight become a hallmark of spirituality
not only for Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists but
also for a host of nineteenth-century revivalists (489). In Taylors
reading, the nineteenth-century Catholic Church also joined the age
of mobilization, more or less in spite of itself, because of tensions
inherent in the whole long project of reform: the whole drive of the
Reform movement, from the high Middle Ages, right through Reformation and counter-Reformation, right up through evangelical renewal and the post-Restoration church, was to make Christians with
a strong personal and devotional commitment to God and the faith.
But strong personal faith and all-powerful community consensus
cant ultimately consist together (46566). The ultramontane
church had trouble recognizing how contradictory the goal ultimately is, of a Church tightly held together by a strong hierarchical
authority, which will nevertheless be filled with practitioners of heartfelt devotion (466).
We ask, as we did for churchly institutions in the age of mobilization:
how does one experience transcendence when the most immediate experience is of religious choice and agency? The answer, in this case, is
through emotion. Despite what Taylor calls the modern notion of the
buffered self, which does not experience the influence of powers that
transcend the body, the emotions are frequently experienced as beyond the power of conscious control and decision. One does not describe choosing to feel sad, or angry, or ashamed. The emotions,
then, allow for the possibility of modes of transcendence that operate


Grappling with Taylors A Secular Age

within the general framework of Taylors buffered self. And experiences that dramatically alter ones personal disposition toward the
world and social relations become a notable feature of spirituality in
the modern West, often a feature that works independently from institutional affiliations. What Taylor calls the expressive revolution
during the age of mobilization thus gradually undermined the link
between the affective interiority of modern faith and the mobilized
institutions of modern society (cf. 49192).
Let me conclude by drawing a connection from Taylor to Talal Asad
on this issue of the relation between religious faith and ecclesial institutions in modernity. In Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), Asad emphasizes the role of state power in the formation of a secular order.
Simplified, he argues that the interests of the nation-state swept away
any intermediating communities and authorities that stood between
the individual and the state, making citizen the definitive social identity,
replacing identities based on religion, gender, family, and so on. I
think there is something to this. Indeed, the religious consequences
of the general process Asad describes are, I believe, wider than he
recognizes. As a concrete example, consider Leigh Eric Schmidts Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1995). In Schmidts analysis of the role of
American department stores in Christmas celebration, it is not that
Christmas is secularized. Instead, its meaning is directly negotiated
between the commercial domain of mass consumption and the religious family. If personal religiosity is directly negotiated with the commercial institutions (or with the nation), then the disembedding of
faith from communal religious culture that worries Taylor has actually
been given a social structure, but it is a social structure that does not
require (although it certainly permits and even applauds) explicitly
religious institutions. The citizen consumer can be spiritual, but not
paul mendes-flohr: modern jewish thought
As the late Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple once observed,
God is interested in many things apart from religion. I believe Charles
Taylor would agree that God is not to be confined to the precincts of
prayer and ritual. Indeed, it is the overarching theme of his magisterial
study that God is still a presence in the space opened up by the process
we are wont to call secularization. Taylor of course means this both
theologically and culturally. But in this new space religionas a spiri-


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tual and moral resourcecoexists with other alternative, secular systems of meaning that have emerged and crystallized with modernity.
Hence, if faith in Godor some abiding sense of transcendencestill
informs our public and private lives, it perforce must do so in conversation with other nontheistic cognitive orientations. But this conversation, I should like to emphasize, does not only take place between
representatives of these various faith postures but also internally within
each of us as an interminable inner dialogue between a hope grounded
in the transcendent and a hope grounded in the promise of quotidian,
secular wisdom and well being.29
In his account of the secularization narrative, Charles Taylor acknowledges non-Western narratives, in the light of which he critically
notes the enthocentricity of the Weberean master narrative of modernization that has decisively set the contours of the academic discourse
on secularization. Nonetheless, his principal focus is the Western narrative of secularization. I should like to consider in broad strokes a
subspecies of the Western narrative, namely that of European Jewry,
more specifically, the Central and West European Jewish encounter
with modernity. The story is markedly different with Italian and East
European Jewries. And oriental Jewry encountered modernity largely
under the auspices of European colonialism and later Zionism, which
yielded yet another set of narratives. Even the Western Christian narrative must be inflected through the contrasting experience of Catholic
and Protestant societies with secularization.30
Through the good offices of the European Enlightenment and its
ideals of tolerance, the walls of the ghetto, which had restricted the
Jews not only to residential enclosures but also to cultural and spiritual
seclusion, were torn down. As the denizens of the ghetto rushed out
to embrace the opportunities afforded them by their liberation from
the degradation of enforced isolation, they also adopted European secular culture. Despite the extraordinary exuberance that they often displayed for their new culture, it should be noted that the Jews did not
enter modern European society [as did their Christian sponsors] in a
long process of endogenous gestation and growth, but they plunged
into it as the ghetto walls were being breached, with a bang, though not
without prolonged whimpers.31 The oy wehs intermingled with the hal29
See Jurgen Habermass remarks in his exchange with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now
ber Vernunft und Religion
Pope Benedict), in Jurgen Habermas, Dialektik der Sakulariserung: U
(Freiburg: Herder, 2005).
Compare Gabriel G. Motzkin, Time and Transcendence: Secular History, the Catholic Reaction
and the Rediscovery of the Future (Dordrecht/Boston: Kluwer, 1992).
R. J. Zwi Werblowsky, Beyond Tradition and Modernity: Changing Religions in a Changing World
(London: Athlone, 1976), 42.


Grappling with Taylors A Secular Age

lelujahs. The Jewish narrative of secularization is thus a profoundfly ambivalent one.
This ambivalence may be analyzed from the perspective of three parallel tracts: the integration of the Jews into modern, that is, secular
European society took place on cognitive, axio-normative, and social
levels.32 Though they may overlap, each of these dimensions of the
process is distinct. The story, of course, actually began before the Jews
formal emancipation, which, alas, turned out to be a far more protracted affair than simply dismantling the ghetto. The emancipation
proceeded incrementally, with many false starts, and was frequently
contested. Accordingly, the political and social integration of the Jews
lagged considerably behind their cognitive integration. Under the tutelage of Aufklarer such as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Jews adopted the
cognitive culture of the Enlightenment while they were still confined
to the ghetto. Led by the likes of Lessings protege and later most
intimate friend, Moses Mendelssohn, Jews hastened to participate in
the then-unfolding culture of the Enlightenment and the Republic of
Reason, in which citizenship was putatively determined by intellect
alone. There was a hitch, of course; admission to this Republic was to
be acquired at a far-reaching price. For the cognitive universe sponsored by the Enlightenment posited the elimination of divine revelation as a source of knowledge. The epistemic dignity of Scripture and
of the traditions grounded in the revealed Word of God was transferred
to reason and empirical experience alone. Cognitive integration thus
required the jettisoning of Torah and rabbinic wisdom as the ultimate
arbiters of truth and meaning.
Axio-normative integration did not always follow suit, at least not in
an utterly unambiguous fashion. Even before they crossed the threshold of the ghettos gate, Jews were apprised that political and social
acceptance would be conditioned on their Verbersserung, or self-reformation. Not only were they expected to shear their beards and side
locks enjoined by the Torah, but they were to adjust their values and
social codes to conform with modern European aesthetic and normative sensibilities. Even their best friends, those passionate advocates of
extending to them human rights, assaulted them with negative images
of themselves and their Asiatic religion. Kant, who proudly cultivated
Jewish disciples, scathingly criticized Judaism as Afterdienst, a pseudoreligion, embedded in a spiritually jejune array of heteronomous or
This analytical perspective is developed in P. Mendes-Flohr, Divided Passions: Jewish Intellectuals and the Experience of Modernity (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991), 2353.


The Journal of Religion

legally prescribed rituals.33 In his much acclaimed Dictionary of the
German Language of 1808, the lexographer Joachim Heinrich Campe
sought to purge German of the many foreign terms that had vitiated
the purity of the language; accordingly, he recommended that the
word Synagoge, borrowed from the Greek, be replaced by Judenschule,
which in German slang denotes a school of unruly pupils, for the Jews
house of worship is cacophonous and restless, in which everyone
blares something out.34 In response to such criticism, Jews set out to
make aesthetic reforms; they engaged Christian composers to compose
newaesthetically refinedmelodies for liturgical worship.35 The
first Reform congregation in Berlin in the early eighteenth century
hired at great expense Friedrich Schleiermacher to instruct them in
proper liturgical decorum and to tutor their rabbis how to construct
and deliver spiritually edifying sermons.36 Jewish worship was to take
on the veneer of Sittlichkeit or Protestant respectability. But the axionormative adjustments went far deeper and lacerated the self-image of
Jews with deep fears of acting and looking too Jewish. As Sander Gilman
has recently shown, cosmetic surgery was invented at the turn of the
previous century by Jewish surgeons for a nigh-exclusively Jewish clientele.37 In this context one is to appreciate the comedian Jerry Lewiss
disarming response to the televised image of heroic Israeli soldiers in
the wake of the Six Days War: Now we can get our noses back.38
Ironic humor, indeed, became one of the characteristic reflexes of
the Jewish encounter with modernity. The schlemiehl, the antihero, the
archmisfit, as Hannah Arendt and others have noted, was projected as
mirror image of the axio-normative foibles of modern, secular society.
Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (1793), in Religion and Rational
Theology, trans. and ed. Allen Wood and George di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 17577.
Campes definition of Synagoge is entered under Judenschule. Compare Weil es in den
Judenschulen bei dem Gottesdienste laut und unruhig hergehet, indem jeder vor sich etwas
hinplarrt, so sagt man in gemeinem Leben von einem Orte, einer Gesellschaft, wo es larmend
und verwirrt hergehet, es sei da wie in einer Judenschule, oder sei da eine Judenschule.
Joachim Heinrich Campe, Worterbuch der deutschen Sprache (Braunschweig: In der Schulbuchhandlung, 1808), pt. 2, 852.
Tina Fruhauf, The Organ and Its Music in German Jewish Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Alexander Altmann, Zur Frugeschichte der judischen Predigt in Deutschland, Leo Baeck
Institute Year Book 6 (1961): 359, and The New Style of Preaching in Nineteenth-Century
German Jewry, in Studies in Nineteenth-Century Jewish Intellectual History, ed. A. Altmann (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964), 65116ff.
Sander L. Gillman, Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 11756.
Compare P. Mendes-Flohr, Anti-Semitism and the Jewish-American Political Experience,
in The Changing Face of America, ed. Manochehr Dorraj and Valerie Martinez-Ebers (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2008), 293313.


Grappling with Taylors A Secular Age

Through his comical ineptitude, the schlemiehl came to say that success
in our achievement-oriented society is not really possible, nor is it ultimately respectable.39
The schlemiehl thus also came to declare that there are values that
trump the Leistungsprinzip that, as Herbert Marcuse observed, insidiously determines the values of Western modernity.40 Indeed, the modern, secularized Jews often clung to some of the more salient values
and norms of their ancestral traditions or, rather, as Professor Taylor
notes with regard to the Christian story he traces, recomposed them.
The recomposition of certain features of the axio-normative culture of
Judaism functioned to allow Jews to soften the cognitive and social
dislocation that occurred consequent to their plunge into the whirlwind of Western, secular modernity. I would point telegraphically to
three axio-normative topoi that are retained, albeit secularized: the
intrinsic value of study (Talmud Torah), supererogatory ethical deeds
(Gimilut Hasidim), and a pansacramental ethic that implicitly denies an
ontological divide between the sacred and the profane. I will begin
with the latter: the Sabbath, as observed in traditional Judaism, concludes with a ceremony in which God is blessed as one who distinguishes [or separates] between the holy (qodesh) and the profane
(chol ), between light and darkness, . . . between the Seventh Day and
the Six Days of Labor. The tension between the holy and the profane
highlights the significance of the Sabbath as a sacred day of rest and
the days of labor that the Jews are charged to sanctify. The Sabbath
may serve as an ultimate and eschatological [foretaste] of a world redeemed, fulfilled, and devoid of dialectical tensions,41 but the journey
to Redemption leads through secular time, the Days of Labor, which
are to be sanctified through the ritual and moral precepts set forth by
the Torah.42 As adapted to modern sensibilities, this injunction means
that the secular cannot be given over totally to instrumental reason.
Hence, the secular valorization of supererogatory deeds, those acts of
loving-kindness (hesed), which define a righteous person, although they
are not formally prescribed but nonetheless are desired by God. Yid39
Hannah Arendt, The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition, in Arguments and Doctrines: A
Reader in Jewish Thinking after the Holocaust, ed. Arthur A. Cohen (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1970), 2935, 3840; and Ruth Wisse, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972).
Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (New York: Vintage
Books, 1955), 45.
Werblowsky, Beyond Tradition and Modernity, 53.
P. Mendes-Flohr, Sakularisierung im modernen Judentum oder zur Dialektitk von Judentum und Atheismus, in Ein Bruch der Wirklichkeit: Die Realitat der Moderne zwischen Sakularisierung und Entsakularisierung, ed. Jens Mattern (Berlin: Vorwerk 8, 2002), 12949.


The Journal of Religion

dish reflects the secularization of this understanding of the righteous
person when it speaks of a Mensch, a human being who gives of herself
beyond the call of duty to others, to gestures that render the world a
little bit more decent and compassionate. And the last of these recomposed or secularized religious virtues is Talmud Torah, the study of Torah for its own sake as a never-ending obligation of all Jews. Having
an intrinsic merit, learning is not to be shackled to any objectives other
than the quest for wisdom and understanding.
Undeniably Jews have adapted exceedingly well to Western modernity and Zweckrationalitat. Yet, I would venture to say, not without a
lingering unease. It is perhaps not by chance that Freud entitled one
of his last works, Civilization and Its Discontents. The original German
title is more telling: Das Unbehagen in der Kultur.43
There is one more feature of modernity that Jews have embraced
with a seeming gusto and yet I would say also with a self-conscious
equivocation, namely, history as a process that one is to engage and
seek to control by the ploys of politics. Sequestered in the ghetto, the
Jews bowed passively to the flow of history as the will of Providence,
but once they entered the world beyond they were thrust by force majeure into history and confronted with the challenge to direct their
fate by human effort. The encounter with those who opposed their full
emancipation obliged them to organize politically. As this opposition
swelled and took on the ferocity of an aggressive antimodernism, more
popularly known as anti-Semitism, an ever-increasing number of Jews
concluded that their sorry historical fate could be reversed only if they
would seek political sovereignty in their ancestral homeland. But, alas,
the political restoration of their biblical patrimony has not brought
them to the Promised Land. The seemingly intractable violent conflictand I now permit myself as an Israeli a confessional voicewith
our neighbors brutalizes us no less than the Palestinians. Notwithstanding its many blessings, secular modernity has thus left deep, festering
wounds on the body and soul of the Jews.
We Jews cannot return to the ghetto and its blissful detachment from
the secular world about us, nor do we wish to, but even though many
of us may no longer believe in a personal God, we sure do look forward
to the Coming of the Messiah. And whether his name be the Son of
David, or perhaps Barack Obama, as the ancient Jewish prayer has it,
may he come quickly in our days.
Sigmund Freud, Das Unbehagen in der Kultur (Vienna: Internationaler psychoanalytischer,


Grappling with Taylors A Secular Age

richard rosengarten: religion and literature
In what follows, I propose that we consider two aspects of Charles Taylors argument in A Secular Age, with special reference to chapters 10
and 11, The Expanding Universe of Unbelief and Nineteenth-Century Trajectories. In these chapters, Professor Taylor describes crucial
moves toward the realization of the age of secularism in the creation
of spaces that accommodate, indeed in which can flourish, unbelief.
He locates the creation of these spaces in the Victorian era and makes
his case with special reference to England and to artistic expression
music and painting, but especially poetry, and, to a slightly lesser but
in one instance quite important case, a novel (Robert Elsmere).
In the course of this analysis, Professor Taylor posits a move in aesthetics from mimesis to creation, by which he wants to suggest that the
language of art shifts from a shared set of common reference points
to the expression of an individual sensibility. This results in a triangulation of artistic expression that requires the reader/auditor/viewer
to decipher the artists worldview as constructed in the artifact (Taylor
contrasts this experience of art with, e.g., the Renaissance doctrine of
correspondences). Poetics thus reflects not public meaning but private
sensibility. Art in turn becomes a separate form of expression rather
than an integral function of religion, politics, and so forth.
I want to complicate this picture through a brief consideration of
what is arguably the preeminent novel of Victorian England, George
Eliots Middlemarch (published in 187172 and set in 183032). In
brief, what I hope to suggest is that Eliots fashioning of her novels
sense of the ending complicates Taylors picture of poetics and aesthetics and in turn the relationship A Secular Age posits between disenchantment and the buffered self.
Middlemarch is two stories in one plot, but Eliot concludes the book
by focusing the readers attention upon the ultimate implications of
the plot for the life, and the significance of the life, of its heroine,
Dorothea Brooke. Described at the opening of the novel as a Teresa
of Avila in spirit and ability, we meet Dorothea in search of a great
cause to which she might devote herself. The ensuing narrative is the
story of misjudgment and miscalculation. Smitten by rumors of a transformative scholarly endeavor, Dorothea marries the much older Causabon, whose Key to all Mythologies turns out to lend new meaning to the
word stultifying and whose numbing demands for devotion and solitude ever more steadily isolate Dorothea from the world that she so
earnestly wishes to change. In the midst of this dawning discovery, Dorothea meets a man who is her match in age as well as passionperhaps her John of the Crossnamed Will Ladislaw, an artist with great


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fellow feeling for Dorothea but whose work is in any event no more
connected than was Causabons scholarship to the improvement of the
world. Dorothea finally puts her faith, in the form of her inheritance,
in the practice of Dr. Tertius Lydgate, an ambitious physician who
wishes to make a name for himself by providing modern medical care
to the citizens of Middlemarch and beyond: while Lydgates ambition
most closely approximates Dorotheas envisioned great cause, Lydgate
is himself undone by a wife whose social ambition exceeds her young
husbands growing salary. A chastened Dorothea is, at the conclusion
of the novel, concentrating on the poor of the community of Middlemarch, doing what she can to provide housing and other public services for them.
The cumulative effect of this assault on Dorotheas ideals is rendered
by Eliot as a recipe for disenchantment: no discernible Providence
guides this narrative, so that Dorothea must rely upon her own resources both to make sense of what has happened to her and to find
her way forward in the world. And in the concluding words of this
immense narrative, Eliot wishes to underscore both the disenchantment of Dorotheas world and the fact that in finding her way forward,
she has in fact keyed into something broadly providential:
Her finely-touched spirit still had its fine issues, though they were not widely
visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent
itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her
being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of
the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill
with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who
lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.44

In one crucial sense this passages eloquence resides in its grace

notesif we might call them thatof disenchantment: those who aspire, as did Dorothea, to be historic are in fact not, and the narrators
characterizations of the implications for our human condition involve
qualifications (not so ill with you and me and half owing) that do
not suggest a happy default setting to the general quality of experience. The tombs of these good people are not empty, just unvisited;
to live faithfully a hidden life results not in beatific union but an untended gravestone.
This seeming melancholy is indisputably part of the lesson of Middlemarch. But it is only part. The other, at least equal, part is contained
in the preceding lines, in which we are told that Dorotheas staunch
spirit remained, that it was incalculably diffusive, andthe key point

George Eliot, Middlemarch (187172; repr., London: Penguin, 2004), 838.


Grappling with Taylors A Secular Age

for Eliotthat it issued in real and decisive change. We might put it
in this way: at least for Dorotheaand by implication, for most of us
the good of the world grows because of unhistoric acts. The fact that
we habitually forget the ritual placements that enshrine those acts does
nothing to diminish their reality. The closing sentence includes both
admonition and affirmation: we had best never forget that our lives are
better for those who preceded us. Never forget. And they are better.
It has been persuasively argued that this ending of Middlemarch reflects Eliots own disenchantment with, and discarding of, her Christian faith. The interesting question for students of our modern situation, however, is less that indisputable datum and much more whether
this means in turn that religion does not play a role in the novel. I
would argue that it does, for reasons that go precisely to the question
of the individual life and its unhistoric acts. I would put the matter
this way: Dorothea is buffeted by events, but she is not buffered. She
is in fact exemplary, by the conclusion of the novel, of Eliots religious
conviction: namely, that the world without God has a subtle and determined magic of its own, no less diminished for our failures to testify to
its presence. It is a world of interrelation, in which charity and love
prevail not because they will lead us directly to the heavenly host but
because the magic resides in the affirmation of the growing good of
the world.
All this has particular historical resonance when we remember that
the novel was written at the end of the great upheaval of voting rights
in England and indeed is set precisely at the time of the first Reform
Bill, which extended the franchise to 650,000 males. While Eliots decision to make her protagonist female affords in the novel explicit
critique of the exclusion of women from the bill, it is also the case that
she saw in it a move to democracy that clarified the role of charity and
lent it metaphysical, if not classic theological, credence. Private sensibility and public meaning are, then, yoked together: the will to do
good in the world, rendered in Dorotheas indomitable if challenged
spirit, has as its counterpart the affirmation that her work does indeed
matter. Middlemarch celebrates a democracy of the human spirit that propounds a vision of the individual not as buffered by an absence of enchantment but as more fully engaged with variegated humanity in all its
pitfalls and its glories.
So what I suggest is that in Eliots novel we have in fact an example
of explicit disenchantment that is not intended, so far as I can see, to
carry with it the consequence of the buffered individualindeed, Eliot
seems to have envisioned something very different. And we have a poetics of literary form that is incipiently linked with the political. We


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are invited, by the novels title as well as its execution, to think of the
many towns in England that are becoming enfranchised and to contemplate, in the vicissitudes of their decisively local behavior, the implications of the Reform Bill for wise governance. There is, Eliot would
suggest, ample reason for worry about instances of pettiness, greed,
and insularity, but there are also myriad instancesnot merely involving Dorothea, although concentrated in herof generosity of spirit.
The keynote to distinguishing the one from the other is in fact this
sense of interconnected individuals and of attention to the growing
good of the world.
It is at least arguable, then, that in this case the ontic space opened
by what J. Hillis Miller once termed the disappearance of God did
not counsel despair but a stoicism that frames a fundamental ethic of
charity.45 The quality of porousness becomes horizontal rather than
vertical. The immanent is rendered, in its projected effects, transcendent. Whether and how that ethic would be sustained is an important
question, and whether Eliotwhose work is deeply inflected by her
knowledge of historical criticism of the Bible and intensive engagement with Feuerbachrepresents an unusual sensibility, is another.
But it does seem to suggest a moment in the process when disenchantment prefigured an alternative religiosity that also comprises our secular age.
martin riesebrodt: sociology of religion
Overall I am widely in agreement with Professor Taylor. Therefore I
will comment only on three points without strongly disagreeing on any
of them.
I. Sociological Narratives of Secularization
Secularization is a complicated, complex, and often muddled concept.
Taylors distinction between three kinds of secularity makes sense. He
calls them secularity 1 (retreat of religion in public life), secularity 2
(decline of beliefs and practices), and secularity 3 (change in the conditions of belief, or the emergence of secular humanism). I prefer to
distinguish between three processes closely related to Taylors distinction, namely, institutional differentiation, disenchantment, and deinstitutionalization or privatization of religion.
J. Hillis Miller, The Disappearance of God: Five Nineteenth-Century Writers (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1963).


Grappling with Taylors A Secular Age

If one wants to preserve the concept of secularization, I would use
it only for institutional differentiation, since it creates secular spheres
freed from religious sanctions. But it might be advisable to go even
further and give up the concept altogether since it misleads us over
and over again to think of secularization in terms of an epochal transformation simultaneously taking place on different levels. Institutional
differentiation, disenchantment, and privatization are perceived as three
expressions of one underlying grand scheme. I am not so confident that
this is actually the case. At least we do not know enough about the
interrelatedness of these three processes to make such a claim.
For example, the key sociological variable of institutional differentiation does not necessarily lead to either privatization or disenchantment. The separation between church and state is most consistently
developed in the United States, but it is the least disenchanted industrial society. Moreover, all three processes have turned out to be highly
contradictory processes. Differentiation was pursued only halfheartedly
by most states. Actually, many nationalized religions rather than privatizing them. And the tendency to partially reverse privatization is
today visible on a global scale. Disenchantment was accompanied by
reenchantment; even science was often understood as a kind of new
magic. Finally, privatization of religion might be not much more than
the flip side of the nationalization of religion. Nowadays deprivatization
seems to be an acknowledged fact. I also agree with Taylors suggestion
that spirituality might lead people back to religious associations and
II. Concept of Religion
Taylor seems to at least partially accept Steve Bruces definition of religion as belief in supernatural powers but later opts for a more Western Christian understanding of religion, since this is the topic of the
book. However, in the chapter on religion today some vaguer notions
seem to creep in. There is spirituality, the search for transcendence,
or the festive reaching from pilgrimages to rock concerts. Without
denying similarities, I would prefer here a clearer demarcation of religion. Not all forms of social excitement, not all ecstasies are religious.
And their attraction might lead not only to religion but also away from
Moreover, Taylors perspective on religion seems to favor the more
intellectualist versions of the search for meaning, whereas the pragmatic dimensions of religion, in terms of the aversion of misfortune,
the coping with crises, and the search for blessings and salvation, are


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underemphasized. There is only a brief remark that disasters evoke religious responses even among populations that usually do not practice
religion. To me it seems that this dimension of religion, clearly expressed in the liturgies of all religions of all times, deserved more attention.
III. United States/Europe Comparison
On the pluralization of options and the comparison between the
United States and Europe, Taylor asks the puzzling questions: Why were
the Europeans not more inventive, creating new forms of religious organizations? Why didnt they copy the American model of pluralism? He
suggestsbut hesitates to claim to have an explanationthat the antiindividualistic and authoritarian religious heritage in Europe prevented
religion from taking on the new role as a marker of authenticity.
I would suggestwith equal hesitationthat Europeans tend to distrust religious voluntary associations. As much as many might dislike
the big churches, they often prefer religious bureaucrats over charismatic prophets. One could also complicate Taylors question and ask,
Why do Americans organize the political field like Europeans organize
the religious field and vice versa? Why do Americans favor a religious
system of pluralistic denominationalism but put up with two churchlike
plutocratic parties who take turns in running the country? Maybe these
two questions are related, and one cannot answer one without answering the other.


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