I have a pet theory about reading and books; my theory is that it is not always us who choose the book, rather it is the book itself that choses us at the right time and when we are in the right space to appreciate it and hear what it has to teach. More than once I have found myself “led” to a certain book which I never even knew was out there by other books and authors I had encountered. I have “stumbled” across books just at the right moment which have helped to answer and enlighten the latest churnings in my mind. This happens too often to be coincidence (thus my theory) and has just happened again.

The latest book to have chosen me is A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. I came across it in a bookstore, the reviews by Alasdair MacIntyre and Robert Bellah drew me straight into its covers and before you knew it I was purchasing it at the counter. Blissfully snagged – hook, line and sinker!

The book is a monumental undertaking certainly for Taylor to write and also for a person to read. Measuring 776 pages (before notes), it is a daunting thing to pick up. I can proudly say that I have gotten to page 29! Now just 747 more to go…

But already the book is teaching and helping to connect the latest churnings in my mind. Taylor wastes no time and jumps into the question of what is secularism, but rather than being content to just define secularism in terms of the regression of religion and religious practice from the public sphere or the reduction of number of people living their faith, Taylor digs in deep in order to point out the underlying “shift in background” that has occurred. The question is, have we (good Christian people that we are) even noticed this shift – its true depth and breadth? My assumption, probably not…

Taylor proposes that the whole understanding of what constitutes human flourishing has shifted to an exclusively humanistic understanding that leaves no room for the Transcendent. A wall has been thrown up where the Transcendent is not even considered as a real option – or, maybe at best, one option among many.

“… a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing.” (Taylor, 18.)

This is our background. It is not the young Church in the background of a pagan world, or the Church in the background of Medieval Christendom, or the Church in the background of an at least nominally Christian society. No, we are the Church in a secular age – the context is different and this raises a whole series of important questions on both what it means to be Church and how we act as Church. (As a college chaplain and director of youth ministry, a question raised for me by this observation is: Are we preparing our young people to live their Catholic faith in an awareness of the background of today as opposed to one the Church may have at one time found itself in or maybe even one which is nostalgically yearned for?) We need to recognize the background we find ourselves in now in order to be Church for today.

Come and worship; let us bow down,
kneel before the Lord, our Maker. (Ps. 95: 6)

In the light of the above background and its exclusively humanistic definition of flourishing, the very call to pray – to look beyond the self and equate true human flourishing with relation to God – takes on a truly subversive quality. Prayer itself is the choice to live by something more than the limits of the secular and today it truly does take a conscious determination of will to make this choice.

Prayer as a rebellious act … who would have thought it?

(Expect more dispatches from A Secular Age as I journey through its pages.)