I’m pleased today to share a guest post from friend of the blog, Samuel Morris Brown. A related symposium on “Faith in a Secular Age” will be held March 1 & 2 at Brigham Young University. Sam Brown, myself, and T&S emeriti Nate Oman and Jim Faulconer, together with other fine scholars, will speak. The symposium is free and open to the public.
We live in an odd time. Most of us feel that something big is happening, something that matters. What we identify as the oddity may be as variable as our interpretations of a Rorschach inkblot. Culturally we think something that started a half-century again has sped up in the last quarter century. After the Great Recession and the fitful return to social prominence of certain nativist strands—coupled with increasing radicalization on the Left—many of us sense that we are in a desperate muddle politically as well. More to the point, many of us find that the language we might use to describe both the situation and possible paths out of current logjams seems to have shifted out from under us as well. There appears now to be mist where once there was solid ground.
For religious people—those who bear the weight of an adjective whose meaning is also in the midst of great change—these times may seem especially rough. Assumptions of many generations in the US about the nature of religion and religious community seem to be shifting.
When I listen to the rhetoric on both prominent sides, it seems to me that they are missing something crucial. What, exactly, was missing wasn’t clear to me until I got around to reading the writings of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. After slogging through his massive A Secular Age and the related works (most accessible, I believe, in his published lecture A Catholic Modernity? or in Jamie Smith’s SparkNotes-style How (Not) to Be Secular), I saw the problems anew. It’s rare that one’s mind is changed, not just about some specific topic, but about a broader framework for understanding the world. Mine was.
Taylor introduced a genealogy of sorts for the sensibilities that command the greatest allegiance for those of us prone to want to belong within the Western intelligentsia. He distinguished the theological disputes from the empirical questions that sociologists and political scientists debate—how many people go to church, and how should “church” and “state” interact? Instead of sticking with the sociological perspectives, he brought the theological debates into rare clarity. Both religious and anti-religious are secular; secularism is, fundamentally, a diffused, Protestant sectarian movement; and modern scientism is neither scientifically nor historically necessary. Also, centrally, secularity as we experience it now has a great deal to do with identity, community, and new ideas about what it is to be our selves.
Taylor’s work generated more questions than answers, as a good thinker usually does. He provided an infrastructure for asking productive questions with some hope of resulting clarity. I’ve spent the last five years thinking through my own experiences and faith tradition from within his conceptual system.
I started to realize that the large majority of contemporary bones of contention made much more sense when mapped onto Taylor’s concepts of secularity and selfhood. Taylor’s thought gave me language for making sense of the conflicts and cross-pressures that so many of us experience these days. I decided it might be useful to get that conversation going in a more sustained and serious way. Current debates about religion feel in some respects quite blind on both sides, and I’ve come to worry that these failures of clear-seeing are having a negative effect on our faith communities and ourselves.
I spoke with Miranda Wilcox and Jim Faulconer, two heroes of mine in the LDS intellectual community, and we agreed to stage a conference that brought together thinkers from within faith traditions. We wanted to consider the various elements relevant to understanding ourselves in this late-modern world. We worked together with the Wheatley Institution with assistance from the Maxwell Institute to find the right venue for this work. The conference, “Faith in a Secular Age,” will be held March 1-2 on BYU campus. The speakers are among the bright lights of their respective intellectual and faith traditions. They include medievalists, lawyers, philosophers, religious historians, and theologians. I’m the token quantitative scientist, although I’m presenting from the perspective of religious history and theology. We represent a politically diverse group of academics from across the spectrum usually weighed down by the “left” and “right” labels on the tails.
In this conference we wanted to have both Catholic and LDS thinkers engage weighty questions that matter. We hope that the talks will be thought-provoking, even, occasionally, scandalous in the happy and healthful sense of the word. We did not ask the speakers to focus on immediate practical applications for our faith community. We thought we should clarify what the key questions are at a more foundational level. We are planning to do this in public view and are mindful of a broad audience as we prepare our talks. We’re hopeful that the ideas presented at Faith in a Secular Age will over time find their way into practical strategies to expand goodness and light, but we thought understanding should come before action.
There’s much that’s good and much that’s bad in late-modern secularity. What’s most concerning is the unquestioned status of key aspects of that secularity, among religious, non-religious, and anti-religious folk. We’re hopeful that this conference (most but not all of the talks will be video-recorded and later released onto the internet, and versions of the talks, revised for print with a more academic audience in mind, will be ultimately published in a conference proceedings) will help shift the conversations toward greater clarity. We’re hopeful that we can thus contribute our intellectual widow’s mite to the treasures of heaven.