Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age skewers the notion that secularism is the result of a straight-shot progression from religious superstition to objective rational belief in science. His historical survey delves into the complexities of the historical record, and along the way, he shows how easy it is to interpret history as a way of justifying our own biases.
The Progressive’s Abandonment of the Past
The non-religious person today who is fully convinced that ours is the era most privileged and progressive and advanced in human history will find it unnecessary to reach into the past and retrieve insights that may be useful for contemporary society. The past is something we are escaping from, not something we would ever turn toward.
“Those who identify totally with our times can easily accept a straight theory of progress,” Taylor says. “We have nothing to learn form past epochs; insofar as they were different from ours, we can set them aside as irrelevant” (745).
This explains why, on a controversial issue such as the definition of marriage, appealing to thousands of years of history or worldwide consensus can so easily be brushed aside with the swoop of the hand.
You’re appealing to tradition and history? There are other things in history we’ve evolved from, including the subjugation of women or the use of slavery. Who cares if history is on your side? The future is on ours.
Whatever we find in the past that does not fit with the contemporary zeitgeist can be swept away without even the slightest engagement.
The Conservative’s Search for the “Golden Age”
The religious person, on the other hand, is more likely to commit the opposite error. Feeling the pressure of increasing alienation from the modern age, and holding tightly to the significance that comes from believing in transcendence, the Christian is likely to pine for the “good old days” when belief in God was assumed, not challenged, when the burden of proof was on the shoulders of the irreligious, not the devout.
The thoroughgoing progressive believes things have been getting better, not worse, and the thoroughgoing conservative believes things have been getting worse, and not better.
As such, the Christian is likely to push for a return to a previous era. Taylor explains:
“They (the Middle Ages, or the seventeenth century, or the pre-60’s America) got it right, and we have to repudiate whatever in modern times deviates from that standard” (745).
Because evangelicals see ourselves tasked with engaging and resisting the culture simultaneously, we always face the temptation of pining for a golden era of Christianity.
The Early Church
Some believe in the pristine days of the early church and want to return to the simplicity of those times. But a cursory reading of the New Testament reveals that the earliest days were not flawless. Doctrinal crises, moral quandaries, disciplinary actions, and divisive factions often carried the day. There is much good we can retrieve from the early church, but we cannot and must not try to return.
The Great Tradition
In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in the church fathers. I have benefited from the writings of Chrysostom, Augustine, Hilary, and Basil. The recent translations and commentaries on these ancient works offer us spiritual nourishment.
And yet, it is a mistake to think of the centuries of ecumenical councils as a “Golden Age.” These were also the years that gave us an amped up neo-Platonic vision of the body, downplayed the ordinary Christian life, led toward ascetic extremes, and married church and state to the point crusades could be led in the name of the Prince of Peace.
The Reforming Puritans
The gospel-centered crowd today is most likely to look back to the Reformation and the subsequent centuries. We look back with gratitude for the recovery of justification by faith and the Puritan era of personal piety, doctrinal precision, which stirred revivals that shook the landscape of early America.
But even here, we are wrong to spot a “Golden Age.” All the Reformational heroes are marred in one way or another: Luther’s anti-Semitism, Calvin’s egregious treatment of doctrinal disputants, Edwards’ acceptance of slavery, etc. Geneva is a Ghost Town with buried treasure still being unearthed; it is not a home we can ever inhabit again.
“Immediate to God”
In short, there is no Golden Age of Christianity. Taylor quotes Ranke’s famous phrase unmittelbar zu Gott applied to the ages of history. Loosely translated, it means all ages are “directly or immediate to God.”
In other words, these ages “differ because each mode of Christian life has had to climb out of, achieve a certain distance from its own embedding in its time… But far from allowing these modes to be neatly ranked, this is the difference which enables them to give something to each other” (745).
Church History as Treasure Box, Not a Map
What is the takeaway for evangelicals today? In contrast to the progressive’s rosy view of the present and untested view of the future, we may often be standing in the middle of the road with our hands outstretched, saying, “Stop and consider!” as the rushing crowd surges forward to a future unable to fulfill their utopian dreams.
But we must also resist the temptation to see a past era as necessarily “better” or “worse” than our own. Church history is a treasure box, not a map. We don’t honor our forefathers and mothers by seeking to return to their times; we honor them by receiving their wisdom and learning from their victories and failures. We retrieve from the past the elements and tools needed for faithfulness today.
There is no “golden age” of Christianity in the past, only an unbroken line of broken sinners saved by the grace of God and empowered to transmit the gospel to the next generation. One day, we’ll be history and our insights will be in the treasure box too. Let’s make sure we’ve given our best.