Living faithfully in a secular age

Image: Babaroga/Shutterstock
Image: Babaroga/Shutterstock
Published May 29, 2017

What does it mean to say that Canadian society and its religious institutions have entered a secular age? What is the evidence for the importance of the spiritual in our 21st-century lives?

Charles Taylor, philosophy professor emeritus at McGill University, a Canadian and a practicing Roman Catholic, has invested much of his career describing our situation and attempting to answer these questions. In 2007, he was awarded the Templeton Prize for enhancing the dialogue between religion and science. His most important book is The Secular Age—a majestic work. Here are a few of his insights.

Secularization describes who we are as a people disconnected from religion, which plays a declining role in the public square but does not disappear either. God remains part of modernity.

Taylor believes the longstanding antagonism between secularization and faith has been detrimental to both, and seeks to engage and integrate them through dialogue. People of faith need not fear secularization, but can engage it creatively, he asserts.

There are three stages in a faithful spiritual response to secularization: recognize the conflict and divisiveness secularization presents; discover the limits and the positive value of the diverse meanings resulting from secularization; and build a new social solidarity from this diversity.

The conflict between traditional faith and modern secularization is profound. The scientific method and materialism test the ways people of faith have believed and lived. Quite a few react with fear and defensiveness when confronted by these new challenges.

Many have grown convinced by modernism that religion, at base, is superstitious and violent. Examples of this are easy to find. Religion, traditionally understood, becomes part of the problem and not the solution.  At the same time, secular thinking has been no less capable of fomenting resentment and destructiveness. As a philosophy of life, scientific materialism is unable to give a full account of the human soul.

A better way to overcome this dead-ended conflict may be to find commonly held words, images and experiences to explain our situation. New and diverse perspectives open hopeful ways of defining shared answers to seemingly intractable problems.

Meaning and value can be discovered within our new social diversity. God is very much a part of modernity. We can find God in such places as our continuing moral inquiries and aesthetic sensibilities.

Solidarity can emerge from a mutual rather than an adversarial quest. There are many ways of being Christian today. We can’t bring God back to secularity, but we can discover God in new ways within secularity. Transcendent meaning still exists. We need to find ways to describe it.

There are countless hints of transcendent meaning in our lives. Great art, drama, music, nature and pilgrimage tourism applied to faith are a few. Our worship can be heightened with significance. Interfaith dialogue can bring us to new levels of awareness. Spirituality can again find language to address public policy, humanities and social sciences.

Our faith has some growing up to do. We need to begin addressing “the big questions” in this much larger arena with an attitude of mutual respect for new and diverse perspectives.


  • Wayne Holst

    Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for twenty-five years; he taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and, for 15 years, he has coordinated adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

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