I finished Charles Taylor’s monumental A Secular Age last summer, and it was one of those books that you finish reading and the world feels like an entirely different place. In this book, Taylor examines not only the emergence of Western secularism, but the experience of living in it. His project is phenomenological as much as it is genealogical; tracing the winding paths and new terrain that deposited us in this creedally pluralistic society, while also examining the pathos, the uncertainty, the limitations and fruits of navigating our way through the midst of many plausible alternatives of how to believe and how to live. For this reason, I found the book not only intellectually enlightening, but spiritually awakening.
In this series of blog posts, I hope to sketch some of his insights and observations on the history of our secular condition and the “cross-pressures” we experience within it. I will interweave some musings on some of the implications for or intersections with [my experience of] Mormonism. In other words, consider this a very selective  Cliffnotes version with some commentary. In these first few posts, I’ll start with the introduction and try to tackle sequential chapters in following posts–though Taylor admits his work is not linear, but rather a series of interlocking essays (so don’t expect too much linearity in how I proceed, though I’ll do my best). Here it goes!
First, terms. What does Taylor mean by a “secular” age? Taylor outlines two conventional definitions, and then formulates a third: secularism as (1) emptying public spaces and activities of references to/invocations of God; (2) decline in personal belief in God; and finally, (3) a condition where (2) is an option. In other words, how did we go from a society in which belief in God is “axiomatic,” “unchallenged and…unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace”? 
Thus, Taylor is focusing on the conditions and lived experience of belief, rather than their content (secularism 2)–though of course they are related. So this book examines belief not as a theory or creed, but as an experience situated in a “background” of the “taken-for-granted” that shapes and limits the possibilities of belief. Taylor’s questions are not what people believe, but what is it like to live as a believer or an unbeliever. In other words, what are the “alternative ways of living our moral/spiritual life”? And how do we arrive at these options?
Though he eschews any universalizing theories of religion, Taylor claims that this is a question that concerns all of us living in today’s world: “We all see our lives, and/or the space wherein we live our lives, as having a certain moral/spiritual shape” . We are not just thinking creatures; we are desiring creatures . And we all desire the good life, or fullness— a deliberately expansive and neutral term that Taylor reiterates as the state where “life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worth while, more admirable, more what it should be” . The source of and path to that fullness constitutes the moral/spiritual shape and direction of our lives, whether the source be “the presence of God, or the voice of nature, or the force which flows through everything, or the alignment in us of desire and the drive to form,” among others.
One of the fundamental distinctions between believers and unbelievers  is where they locate this place of fullness. For the Christian  believer, the source of fullness is located without or beyond human life, in a transcendent force that does not simply “empower” us in our present condition, but brings us “out of self.” Fullness is not only transformative, it is gifted (by God) and therefore relational; a loving exchange between a giver and a receiver. It is thus necessarily non-self-enclosed. For the unbeliever, fullness is located in what Taylor will later call the “immanent frame”– located within the self or its immanent environment (i.e. reason; self-expression; will; moral autonomy; nature, etc.) and thus accessible to an individual without reference to or need of a transcendent figure or transformative process. (And then there is a third category who reject even the possibility of fullness [e.g. postmodern deconstructionists], to which Taylor will devote more time towards the end of his book.)
What makes our age secular in Taylor’s third sense is the multiplicity of options of fullness within these various matrices– and the consequent experience that “we [believers and unbelievers] cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on”; in other words, there are many viable sources of fullness; thus, “we cannot helping looking over our shoulder from time to time…living our faith also in a condition of doubt and uncertainty” .
This is an important point for a couple reasons. Taylor believes that we cannot avoid the condition of doubt, with the exception of fundamentalists (theists and atheists alike) who manage a hermetic seal against the secular (v3) environment. But I think Mormonism has actually managed this seal for a long time. To even concede alternatives to belief (construed broadly [God, Christ, etc.] and narrowly [the LDS Church et al.]) has long been painted as a sign of moral failure, spiritual blindness or delusion, or sin. Mormon leaders are only now coming to terms with this fundamental fact of modern Western existence: that believers confront alternatives. This is not, I think, conceding that much. To be reflective human beings in our age, it cannot be otherwise.
Even so, most Mormon leaders and laymen have not gone so far as to acknowledge that there are legitimate alternatives. It is now more commonly conceded that for faith to be a meaningful choice, there must be alternatives from which to choose: i.e., doubts. Doubt is often treated like a temptation at worst, a structural feature at best, to make our choice to believe a meaningful moral act; but belief is always the morally superior choice. This is distinct from Taylor’s autobiographical description of the modern believer: “I am never, or only rarely, really sure, free of all doubt, untroubled by some objection–by some experience which won’t fit, some lives which exhibit fullness on another basis, some alternative mode of fullness which sometimes draws me” .
Is it possible to ask more of Mormonism–or any religion with absolute truth claims? Is it simply relativism to concede morally legitimate alternative modes of belief?
Taylor is certainly no relativist; he is, after all, a practicing Roman Catholic. However, Taylor makes a case (implicitly —he is not setting out to be an apologist) for belief on more phenomenological grounds, and I find this hugely effective. That is, Taylor puts our experiences of modernity on the table, and then assesses how different modes of belief and unbelief answer those experiences, and how well they do so on their own terms. So Taylor is not a relativist; modes of belief and unbelief can succeed or fail at internal consistency and at how much they account for our experiences. Yet throughout A Secular Age, Taylor presents the various modes of living out belief and unbelief in their best form. There are no a priori claims nor blanket dismissals; every position is explored to its maximum. Not only does this bolster my confidence in his abilities as a fair, even generous interlocutor, but this approach treats belief a genuine question, rather than a confirmation test. The question is not “what is the right way to believe,” but “Who can make more sense of the life all of us are living?” .
Taylor’s approach takes seriously the conditions or “background” of belief, rather than treating belief as a propositional choice. As Taylor writes, we “have to understand the differences between these options not just in terms of creeds, but also in terms of difference of experience and sensibility” . In other words, the various construals of fullness (i.e. belief/unbelief) depend on whole frameworks, normative packages, social imaginaries, cosmological visions– sedimented by those that have come before, and then filtered through our own experiences and sensibilities. To ignore this “background” to our beliefs oversimplifies how beliefs work and where the moral content in them lies. In doing this, we would fail to “escape the “naïvetés on all sides: either that unbelief is just the falling away of any sense of fullness, or the betrayal of it…or that belief is just a set of theories attempting to make sense of experiences which we all have, and whose real nature can be understood purely immanently” .
Even so, Taylor’s project is “not to fight the issue to a conclusion, but rather to show how difficult this is” . While ultimately, Taylor does believe that [a qualified form of] Christianity best succeeds at accounting for and responding to the dilemmas of the human condition, I do not believe Taylor necessarily considers this a moral victory; i.e., that arriving at belief is a confirmation of the Truth we should all be recognizing all along, if we are but morally/spiritually attuned. Taylor, in fact, does not think it is possible to achieve the “point of view of the universal”—a point of view that Mormons so glibly express in monthly testimony meetings. His view of truth seems more contextual, subjective—but not relativistic: “Our attachment to our own faith cannot come from a universal survey of all others from which we conclude that this is the right one. It can only come from our sense of its inner spiritual power, chastened by the challenges which we will have had to meet from other faiths” .
Perhaps, then, the moral content lies more in the rigor and honesty with which we can undergo the search, the internal consistency and integrity with which we seek to align our experiences and our beliefs—but here I am extrapolating. But I am more convinced, after reading Taylor, of the extraordinary difficulty of “reaching a conclusion.” And I don’t think this difficulty is a reflection of spiritual or moral weakness or even faith “crisis.” As Taylor concludes, this pluralism of compelling alternatives simply constitutes the “new context in which all search and questioning about the moral and spiritual must proceed” .
 Taylor’s book continues to overwhelm me as I reread it. My posts will be a hopelessly small sliver of what Taylor discusses, and I don’t even know if I grasp the slivers. To understand Taylor, you really have to follow him all the way through; it is difficult to hold so many limbs and layers of information, but I think it is easy to misunderstand him otherwise. I’ll do my best, but will surely fall short; I hope the comment section will be populated by fellow Taylor readers who will help carry out the conversation!
For those who are intimidated by the 800+page investment, you can read a very useful abbreviated version produced by James K. Smith, How to (Not) Be Secular (2015).
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 3.
 See James Smith’s insightful treatment of this notion in his book, Desiring the Kingdom.
 Taylor, 5.
 Of course, we all “believe” something; clearly, belief is a shorthand here for belief-in-transcendent-fullness / theists. Unbelief is a neutral term indicating unbelief-in-transcendent-fullness [but belief-in-immanent-fullness, or the third category of nonbelief in fullness].
 While Christianity is a chief representative of belief in Taylor’s Western narrative, he also intersperses examples of Buddhism and other “transcendent” faiths; in this case, Buddhism’s “Fullness” is also about transcendence and transformation, though not necessarily through an outside being. Taylor limits his study to the Western religious experience, thus bypassing messy questions like “what is religion.” The transcendent vs. immanent correlation to [religious] belief vs. [non religious] unbelief speaks to Western experience of religion in ways that do not necessarily need to apply to others. It gets slippery at times, but Taylor believes it’s a sufficiently meaningful and reasonable distinction to move the narrative forward, and I think it largely works.
 Taylor, 11.
 He doesn’t hide his own position as a believer, and this shows through explicitly at times. But more implicitly, he concludes the book with the chapter “Conversions,” where he explores what the move from an immanent to a transcendent frame looks like in this age.
 Taylor, 638.
 Taylor, 14.
 Taylor, 712.
 Taylor, 680.
 Taylor, 20.