Feeling the Weight of Secular Emptiness: A Self-Generated ‘Fullness’ Apart from the Pleroma of God in Jesus Christ

I just started Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which I’ve wanted to read for quite some time. Just as I’m splashing in he, expectedly, offers insight, and provides some grammar I’ve held in unarticulated form—or at least unarticulated relative to the way that Taylor articulates it—in regard to the ‘secular’ or ‘unbelieving’ via. Increasingly (and I’m 44) I have felt the creep of secularization growing in exponential ways over these past two decades. What has disillusioned me most is not that this creep has been happening in the ‘world’—that’s bad enough!—but that the evangelical churches themselves have been participants and even engineers of this sort of so called ‘secular’ creep.

In the following, Taylor describes the way the ‘unbeliever’ or the ‘secular’ attempts to generate meaning. He refers to a ‘fullness,’ which would be in reference to an extra nos or transcendent basis upon which (primarily) the believer finds meaning for life. He also introduces other terms, but I’ll let him do that, and then respond after the fact.

For modern unbelievers, the predicament is quite different. The power to reach fullness is within. There are different variations of this. One is that which centres on our nature as rational beings. The Kantian variant is the most upfront form of this. We have the power as rational agency to make the laws by which we live. This is something so greatly superior to the force of mere nature in us, in the form of desire, that when we contemplate it without distortion, we cannot but feel reverence (Achtung) for this power. The place of fullness is where we manage finally to give this power full reign, and so to live by it. We have a feeling of receptivity, when with our full sense of our own fragility and pathos as desiring beings, we look up to the power of law-giving with admiration and awe. But this doesn’t in the end mean that there is any reception from outside; the power is within; and the more we realize this power, the more we become aware that it is within, that morality must be autonomous and not heteronomous. (Later a Feuerbachian theory of alienation can be added to this: we project God because of our early sense of this awesome power which we mistakenly place outside us; we need to re-appropriate it for human beings. But Kant didn’t take this step.)

Of course, there are also lots of more naturalistic variants of the power of reason, which depart from the dualistic, religious dimensions of Kant’s though, his belief in radical freedom of the moral agent, immortality, God—the three postulates of practical reason. There may be a more rigorous naturalism, which accords little room for manoeuvre for human reason, driven on one side by instinct, and on the other hemmed in by the exigencies of survival. There may be no explanation offered of why we have this power. It may consist largely in instrumental uses of reason, there again unlike Kant. But within this kind of naturalism, we often find an admiration for the power of cool, disengaged reason, capable of contemplating the world and human life without illusion, and of acting lucidly for the best in the interest of human flourishing. A certain awe still surrounds reason as a critical power, capable of liberating us from illusion and blind forces of instinct, as well as the phantasies bred of our fear and narrowness and pusillanimity. The nearest thing to fullness lies in this power of reason, and it is entirely ours, developed if it is through our own, often heroic action. (And here the giants of modern “scientific” reason are often named: Copernicus, Darwin, Freud.)

Indeed, this sense of ourselves as beings both frail and courageous, capable of facing a meaningless, hostile universe without faintness of heart, and of rising to the challenge of devising our own rules of life, can be an inspiring one, as we see in the writings of a Camus for instance. Rising fully to this challenge, empowered by this sense of our own greatness in doing so, this condition we aspire to but only rarely, if ever, achieve, can function as its own place of fullness, in the sense of my discussion here.[1]

I live in such a world; I don’t know about you! I hold my ‘faith’ dear to my heart, and attempt to bear witness to the reality therein; but the world, the big world seems to bustle along, typically unbeknownst to its own intellectual antecedents and informants, in such a way that the scandal of the particular in the cross of Jesus Christ doesn’t even seem foolish anymore—it seemingly seems as if it is just one of many a religious symbols on tap for the taking (or not!)

I think what stands out most to me, in regard to Taylor’s thinking, is the idea of a self-generated fullness; I take this to be the greatest hallmark of secularity. As James Sire noted, as he described existentialism as a philosophy of life, it is the idea of ‘existence preceding essence.’ I think it is important to dwell here; to feel the nihilist weight of it all; to allow the abyss-nature of the secular mind to press in and pierce our ‘holy Christian’ hearts. Often, at least in my experience, it isn’t until I feel the weight and fallout of deep existential angst, that I find myself in a posture of crying out ‘my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me,’ in echo of the Savior’s cry. Often it isn’t until the dereliction and emptiness of darkness seems to overcome us, that the desire for God’s Bright Light in Christ to come issues in maximal force.

What Taylor describes describes almost every single person I encounter ‘out there’ in the big world. There is a sense of loss, and yet a determination to construct personal meaning, that dominates the human landscape. I mean, as Christians we know this simply as a heart in bondage to its sinful appetites and affections; a heart dead-set on being like God knowing good and evil. Even though we know this, narrativally-canonically as Christians, the emptiness, and its deleterious outcome is all around us. We should feel its weight; if only so we might have compassion, and then also gratitude for the great gulf that has been recreated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 8-9.

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2 thoughts on “Feeling the Weight of Secular Emptiness: A Self-Generated ‘Fullness’ Apart from the Pleroma of God in Jesus Christ

  1. Hi Bobby! Cheers w/r/t tackling Taylor, I look forward to reading your engagement with A Secular Age. Beyond that, though, I wanted to thank you at last for just sticking with the program all these years— keep on doing what you do!

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