The contemporary era in Western civilization represents a radical desacralizing of the social order, unprecedented in human history. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer described it as a “world come of age,” an era in which we have learned how to manage life without any reference to God. American sociologist Philip Rieff referred to it as the third era in human history, an era in which sacred order has been severed from the social and cultural order, leaving Westerners without a matrix of meaning or an obligatory code of permissions and prohibitions.
But it is perhaps the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor who, more than any other, has explored the implications of Western society’s transition to a modern secular age. Although his analysis and evaluation can be found in a number of significant works, including Sources of the Self, The Malaise of Modernity, and Modern Social Imaginaries, it crystallizes and peaks in A Secular Age. (See TGC’s recent book, Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor, which interacts with Taylor’s pivotal work.)
Here Taylor describes our secular age as one that considers belief in God implausible or unimaginable. As modern Westerners, we live entirely within an “immanent” frame of reference. In the immanent frame, theistic belief not only been displaced from the default position, but is positively contested by myriad other options. It is merely one option among many—and an implausible and unimaginable one at that.
This new context brings with it a new “feel” in which theists and non-theists alike are haunted by doubt. Within the immanent frame, we search for meaning, and find an explosion of different options. As a result we are “fragilized”; surrounded by competing options in close proximity to ourselves, we lack confidence in our own beliefs. We are “cross-pressured”; caught between the modern disenchantment of the world and the haunting of transcendence, we find ourselves in perpetual unease.