I’ve just (finally) finished Charles Taylor’s remarkable and very long book, A Secular Age. It really does match up to the hype: if you want to think more deeply than you ever have before about the nature of religion and secularity in the present age, read it and enjoy!
But this isn’t a book review: it’s my own reflection on the revelatory experience of the final chapter of the book, and especially Taylor’s concept of ‘excarnation’.
Excarnation as Taylor uses the word is “the transfer of our religious life out of bodily forms of ritual, worship, practice, so that it comes more and more to reside ‘in the head'” (p613). Both Catholic and Protestant Reform, Taylor argues, colluded with the very secularisation they attempted to defeat, by participating in the process by which the equilibrium that sustained them was destroyed. That equilibrium held the tension between the high demand of faith for a transformed life, and eventually a transformed world – and the desire for a religion which provided some shape to a dangerous, sacred ‘enchanted world’ – and which let people get on with living ordinary lives within it. Not only Christianity but the other religions which emerged from ‘paganism’ – Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Judaism, and much later Islam, all partake in different ways of this desire to find a transformation “in which we would find our deepest and fullest end in this higher good” (p611).
The irony is that the very impulse which led much of Western society away from faith was also the one which led the classical faiths to emerge from the magical religions of early human history. In particular, the modern “exaltation of disengaged reason as the royal road to knowledge” (p746) is the most complete step yet away from the immersion of religion in subjective experience; and also in its own account of itself leads away from religion into ‘the sunlight of reason’.
So what do we do, as Christians? We rediscover the incarnation: the paradoxical place where the divine and the human occupy the same space without either being diminished by the other: “Christianity, as the faith of the Incarnate God, is denying something essential to itself as long as it remains wedded to forms which excarnate” (p771). And that was what really clicked for me – it made sense of an important part of my own spiritual pilgrimage into the Catholic tradition within the Church of England. What I’ve been looking for – and still am – is that ‘still centre of the turning world’ (as TS Eliot put it), where these opposites meet and find a unity which is beyond anything we can conceptualise in words.