Faith in a Secular Age

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Research Project

Faith in a Secular Age




Research Team II:  "Secularity, Church, and the Public Sphere"

Coordinator: William Barbieri

Team members: Anthony Godzieba, Vincent Miller, Philip Rossi, David Tracy, Paul Weithman

Project Description

Charles Taylor’s study of secularity affords new vistas on the work confronting the Catholic tradition at this point in the new millennium.  One important point he highlights is the connection between the epistemic grounds of religious and secular thought, on the one hand, and shifts in what he calls modern social imaginaries.  As he has pointed out, these shifts produce new dynamics in the experience of individual religious “seekers.”  At the same time, these shifts manifest an enduring insight of Taylor’s, namely that the conditions of belief are deeply related with social structures.  This relation provides a compelling context for the Church to reflect anew on its public setting in the U.S. and beyond.  The working group on the Church and public life will take on the task of exploring how the social and political dialectics of secularity diagnosed by Taylor provide at once a challenge and an opportunity to the Church’s mission and the intellectual community that supports it. 

A Secular Age draws together many of the disparate themes that have marked Taylor’s work:  a sophisticated epistemology of moral agency; an appreciation of cultural diversity and the politics of identity; a penetrating analysis of the distinctive features of modernity; a discerning re-appropriation of classics of religious studies such as Weber, James, and Durkheim; and a sympathetic engagement with the current state of Catholicism.  His blending of these ingredients provides a rich nexus for thinking through the relation of religion and culture in twenty-first-century America.  The moment in which we find ourselves is one in which certain despisers loudly criticize the role of religion in public life, questioning its compatibility with a scientific outlook and with the humanist principles of the Enlightenment, and condemning its role in the promotion of social violence. Certainly, large-scale forces of pluralization and individualization are in play that in many respects challenge the cohesion and authority of traditional religious communities such as the Catholic Church.  Yet, as Taylor discerns, in some respects this is an auspicious time for an engagement of the Church with the secular.  One can observe a renewed appreciation for religion and a questioning of the totalizing claims of secularism across a broad intellectual front including, in quite different ways, philosophical thinkers such as Derrida, Zizek, Kristeva, and Habermas; sociological critics of the “secularization thesis”; and theological proponents of “Radical Orthodoxy” and what might be termed neo-Augustinian politics.  At the same time, the high tide of separationism attained not so long ago in the political sphere in the U.S. has given way in recent years to a climate in which “faith-based initiatives” receive public funding and presidential candidates air their spiritual biographies in such venues as the Saddleback Forum.  The time is ripe for a reassessment of how the Church might best conceive of its role and responsibilities in the public sphere in a post-secular society. 

The perspective Taylor offers helps focus several areas of research for an inquiry into this topic.  For example: Philosophically, how should the Church conceive of the relation between its own epistemic grounds and those of the secular?  How should religious claims be related to a scientific outlook?  Politically, how does the ongoing reevaluation of secularity bear on the relation between Catholic social thought and the legitimation of a liberal democratic order?  What is an appropriate role for the Church as a community of interpretation in the evolving political landscape?  To what degree should the Church translate its perspective on social issues into religiously neutral language in public debate and legislative discourse?  Theologically, how should the Church’s ecclesiology adapt to the conditions of a secular political order?  To what extent is Catholicism reconcilable with the sort of “civil religion” reflected in American society’s prevalent religious symbolism?  How should the Church conceive of and come to terms with the religious pluralism making up the American social landscape?  How should the Church’s social action be understood in eschatological terms?  How might a post-secular order, and a world with a plurality of experiences of modernity, be understood as reflecting the workings of the Spirit? 

At the same time, there are pronounced limits to Taylor’s contribution that point us toward additional areas of inquiry.  For one thing, Taylor gives relatively little attention to the shifts in consciousness accompanying the current sweeping changes in information technology, yet these may be expected to have a significant impact on the horizons of tomorrow’s “seekers.”  Likewise, the forces of globalization remain at the edges of Taylor’s frame, given his concern with Western modernity.  Deliberations regarding the secular need to pay close attention to globalization as an economic and cultural force.  Moreover, it would be illuminating to attempt to expand the discussion to the varying experiences of secularity encountered elsewhere around the world:  in European society, to begin with, but also in Asia and Africa, or in connection with Judaism, Islam, and other religious outlooks.  Adding a comparative dimension could certainly enrich a discussion of the Church’s challenge in American society. 

Research Group

 Against the backdrop of these questions I propose a working group dedicated to exploring various implications of an overarching, guiding question:  What are the spiritual dimensions of the Catholic engagement with the public realm in a secular age?  Or, put differently, how can belief enliven a post-secular world? 

A working conception for the group involves combining a few programmatic essays (addressing, inter alia, the themes of secular/secularism/secularization/post-secularity, and the notion of “public” and various other associated boundaries) with a series of reflections organized around “keywords”—general concepts offering the opportunity to think critically about broad issues concerning the public face of the church and to relate them, then, to more specific questions of the day.  The objective will be to produce a collection of interrelated studies that give full play to the speculative powers and creativity of the authors united in the task of mapping  the present cultural configurations of “religion” and contributing to the emerging human condition as participation in, and expression of, the divine. 

A preliminary list of keywords includes, in no special order, the following (comments are welcome): 

Humanism: Taylor links secularity to the rise of “exclusive humanism” and refers as well to the excesses of “religious anti-humanism.”  What he does not address is the question of the prospects for a non-exclusive or even religious humanism (if that is not an oxymoron) today. 

Agency: How does the secular condition the perception and character of human freedom and autonomy?  And what forms of social agency, and especially self-determination, emerge from the secularization of the public sphere? 

Authority: How do shifting relations between sacred and secular impinge on structures of civil and religious authority, or on related senses of authority as expertise or authorship? 

Charity: What place is there for the Law of Love in a post-secular society? 

Transformation: Taylor challenges the view that secularization leads ineluctably to a decline in the transformation perspective, by which he means the pull to a religiously founded life that goes beyond conventional conceptions of human flourishing.  What are the prospects for intellectual and moral conversion in the current phase of modernity, for individuals or for societies? 

Community: Modern conceptions of church and state—and distinctions such as public and private orGemeinschaft and Gesellschaft—have emerged in large part through the dialectic of secularization.  How are they evolving; how should they be reformed? 

Normativity: The diversification of conditions for belief and unbelief chronicled by Taylor reopens discussion about the relationship between religion and morality and revivifies the debate over the religious dimensions of the foundations of justice, human rights, and the law. 

Temporality: How does the current “age” reshape our perceptions—and narratives--regarding time, history, and tradition?  How are the ongoing shifts in secularity, and the changing space-time relations bound up with the emergence of the Information Society, related to eschatology and sacred time? 

Responsibility: What cast does a reassessment of the proper place of religious reason place on the economy of powers and responsibilities that characterize the realms of intersubjectivity and politics? 

Imagination: Taylor’s work on social imaginaries usefully contextualizes the way in which the emergence of Western modernity is rooted in historically particular ways of envisioning society, human relations, and the cosmos.  What new vistas—even utopias—are opened up as possibilities for a post-secular ethos? 

Peace: Certain forms of secularism emerge from an effort to suppress social conflict, and religions have historically articulated powerful ideals of harmony and order.  Yet it is difficult to ignore the massive capacities for violence and warfare that have been unleashed by both secular and religious forces in the past century alone.  What sort of critique of sacred and secular is necessary to provide firmer prospects for social, interpersonal, and internal peace?

Plurality: The dynamics of pluralization have produced a world of competing religious and non-religious visions and forms of life.  How might religious traditions cope with the political, theological, and intellectual challenges posed by this diversity?






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