Without Centre: Charles Taylor and the Fragmented Secular Experience

April 20, 2017 Uncategorized Comments (0) 443

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The reason for prefacing this essay with the first stanza of Yeats’ famous poem “The Second Coming” is because at its core the secular experience of the world is a decentered one. The Western World was oriented and unified under Christ’s banner for millennia before fragmenting into the anarchical smorgasbord of ideology that it is today. We are the falcon and our Lord and falconer is indeed very far away. Speaking on this lack of conviction shared by “the best” (which I’d like to identify here with the traditional-minded and hence redeemable individual) the Canadian philosopher and political theorist Charles Taylor has this to say:

“…the modern world lack[s] depth, and the modern self, wholeness. We tend to live on the surface, and are therefore cut off from the greater currents of meaning which could transform our lives.” (Taylor 380)

Etymologically speaking the very word “secular” derives from the latin saeculāris which at it’s root means “generation; century” and in the Christian context has undertones of connoting the “worldly, temporal, profane” (OED). I bring this up because the perception of time as linear rather than cyclical (read: whole) is a significant attribute of a secular state of being. Renewal and rebirth are now experiences wholly alien to the secular man. Whereas once Christ was seen as the anchor, initiator and finisher of time, now “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” and a perpetual forward-looking directionlessness runs rampant. The very driving force of modernity and its culmination in post-modernism is a state of continuous decomposition. The decomposition of the self, nation and sex, along with every other unity we find given to us by God.

Taylor goes on to note that without center “faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others” (Taylor 3). Society has split so that the transcendent is “out there” rather than an immersive part of everyday life. The scientific has been neatly demarcated to be only commented on by the scientists while the religious is wholly the domain of the priest (God forbid he says anything about the scientific!). At its core, the experience of the secular man is one where “things fall apart”, including his very self. Everywhere he goes he must fit and mold himself to be someone else at the expense of his private personhood. This is the biggest difference between the modern and the traditional state of being. For when the West was unified in wholeness “religion was “everywhere”” (Taylor 2). And in Canada more than any other place is religion experienced as one option among many.

If we take the position that “secularity is a matter of the whole context of understanding in which our moral, spiritual, or religious experience and search takes place” (Taylor 3) then can we even begin to understand what we have lost? In a Secular Age, Taylor ties the dawn of secularity to the regression of Christianity in the public space and a decomposition within the faith itself. While the Enlightenment was a blossoming of secularizing energies, the ontological split from a world in which the presence of the divine was really felt predates even the Reformation.

Earlier, rationalizing developments within the Catholic faith, like a shift towards a predominantly Thomist theology, can be observed as a shearing in what Regent College’s professor of theology Hans Boersma calls the “sacramental tapestry”. To begin to understand the pre-secular perception of the world, one has to tangle with the purpose of worship and sacrament and “the widening gap between sacrament and reality, between nature and the supernatural” (Boersma 58). Boersma’s book “Heavenly Participation” is a thorough investigation into what exactly happened within Western theology which might have issued such a divide and a lighter introduction into Taylor’s eventual hypothesis.

Once God was conceived to be separate or “supra-natural” then his totalizing presence also fled from reality. For Boersma a true understanding of sacramentality is one in which the very world is taken for a sacrament. Having this conception in mind, it is easy to see why “religion was everywhere” as Taylor points out. If God is in everything then our very relationship to nature, ourselves and the material is a very different one than if he is nowhere to be seen. With a sacramental perception of being, one’s relation to his world becomes one of worship.

The Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann makes an interesting point in his work “For the Life of the World” when he says: “Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship” (Schmemann 118). And more specifically, a negation of worship from the public space. As faith became a private matter, something to be kept out of communion with all, then it is easy to see why an eventual decomposition of social wholes would take place. By switching our sources of meaning to this world (remember… now a reality in it’s own dimension, separate from the defining boundaries of a divine order) then a frantic proliferation of artificial and rational unities is the result. Since in its own right, this world is rather fickle in sources of true totalizing meaning.

Despite all of this, what is the answer to our current predicament? Can we even hope to return to a state of being where the presence of the divine is a felt and real one? Or, are those gates of perception forever closed to us? There now seems to be very clear signs of what some have called a “religious turn” in the Western intellectual tradition. And we are well into seeing the very misguided nature of the secularization hypothesis, which now seems to be just a product of leftist wishful thinking. Even the left, or “the worst…full of passionate intensity” are enraptured by the inevitable human drive to worship, but theirs is a seeking that is ultimately misplaced in a center of void and perpetual shift.

As Canadians we can be proud to produce such thinkers as Taylor, and Boersma, and should also look towards proliferating and making this tradition our own. There are many ways we can hope to reconnect ourselves, but the first must be a clear understanding of the historical and intellectual tradition which serves as a link to a state of being lost to us. Perhaps the answer is in hermeneuticist Paul Ricoeur’s call for a “second naiveté”, or a state in which we make ourselves open to the reality of Christ. Because the numerous divides which now sequester our life can only be breached by opening ourselves up and opening the public and social realms, so they may be places of worship again, both inward and outward.


Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2007. Print.

Boersma, Hans. Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2011. Print.

Shmeman, Aleksandr. For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 2004. Print.

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