Book Reviews

Book Review: Ministry Under The Microscope

Ministry Under The Microscope:
The What, Why, and How of Christian Ministry
Allan Chapple
Latimer Trust, 2018

Here is everything you need to know to set the foundations for a biblical and effective ministry. Which ministry and who ‘you’ are are discussed in the introduction. Ministry is defined broadly as what all believers do, but in fact this book is for people who are in some designated ministry role, or who think they may be called into such a role. Chapple seeks to clarify what is Christian ministry, and to do so in a broad big picture way.

The book is structured in four parts: The Basis; The Setting; The Source; The Focus of Christian Ministry. It begins with a Ministry Map which is an excellent outline of the rest of the book, and serves both as a useful summary as well as an index of particular topics. This is a very attractive arrangement. Each of the sub-sections is short and to the point and each is accompanied by a kind of side-bar called ‘Worth pondering...’  In each case this consists of a series of short quotes on the topic from a range of authors, from the Reformation to the present. Chapple suggests the book could be read through in the normal way, or it could be used as a kind of manual. It could also be used very usefully as a book for a group to study together.

Although the intended audience is those in designated ministry roles or those who might be called to such, those who have been prepared well theologically for pastoral ministry should know all this already. For them it may be a useful reference book. But more usefully I think, it could be used for teams of leaders in a church, whether lay or ordained, whether trained or not. It would be a terrific basis for in house training and encouragement. Bible study leaders, Church Councils, ministry teams could use this book together with enormous profit. The book concludes with a ‘What to do now’ chapter and a wonderful, partly notated, bibliography.

Dale Appleby, WA

Book Review: Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis

Evolution:
Still a Theory in Crisis
Michael Denton
Discovery Institute Press, 2016

It was 3 am. Unable to sleep, I arose to continue reading Michael Denton’s Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis (2016). To my surprise I turned a page and found it was the last. Some authors have a lot of footnotes!

Sadly, I have never studied biology, so am unable to assess much of the evidence and argumentation, except in a superficial common sense way. I wish someone better equipped than I would help us here. Having said that, the book reinforces my own growing conviction that the Darwinian model of evolution is too simple by far, and fails to bring us to a right understanding of what one of my childhood books on evolution called ‘the miracle of life’.

Denton does not declare himself as a believer or even a theist; Wikipedia calls him an agnostic. His faith position generally remains hidden. He approaches Darwinism (and Neo-Darwinism) as a molecular biologist and an evolutionist, assessing its evidential basis, finding it lacking, and reaching out for an alternative mechanism for the bewildering variety of life forms.

Variation and adaptation he fully accepts, along with the notion of natural selection. However, he observes that there are many big structures imbedded in nature—he calls them types or homologues—which are the foundations on which this variation operates, and which cannot themselves be accounted for as gradual modifications of an original simple life-form. Examples he explores in detail are the pentadactyl limb (one bone plus two bones plus five digits) ‘conserved in all tetrapods for 400 million years’; also the feather,  hair, the insect body plan, the flower, the amniotic membrane, the insect wing (‘every detail of the developmental program is an enigma in terms of adaptive gradualism’; p. 95), the enucleate red blood cell of all mammals (this is Denton’s speciality; he did his Ph. D. on the red blood cell), and the cell itself. The ground-plan of the cell, ‘the basic unit of all life on earth’ is unchanged in 4000 million years (p. 120). He has many more examples; Denton speaks of ‘a universe of non-adaptive forms’ (p. 76). At one point he mentions a million ‘taxon-defining homologues’ (p. 45).

These homologues have no apparent antecedent structure in the fossil record, nor any theoretical pathway by which they might have arisen by small adaptive steps. Writing on the cell, and the developments in biology in the thirty years since he wrote Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (1985) Denton says, ‘Despite a vast increase in knowledge of supra-molecular chemistry and of cell and molecular biology; the unexpected discovery of ribozymes; and an enormous effort, both experimental and hypothetical, devoted to providing a gradualistic functionalist account of the origins of life in terms of a long series of less complex functional replicating systems … leading from chemistry to the cell, no one has provided even the vaguest outlines of a feasible scenario, let alone a convincing one.’ (p. 121) This should be read along with his mind-blowing description of the cell in the 1985 book: pp. 328-330.

In 1989 I read Denton’s first book. It left me in wonder at the complexity of life and life forms—especially the cell—and a growing scepticism regarding the evolutionary model I had grown up with. Mistakenly, I thought Denton was challenging the whole macro-evolutionary paradigm. Reading his latest work makes it clear that he is not. His challenge is to the Darwinian and Neo-Darwinian paradigm. His quest is for an alternative. Recently I re-read, Evolution, A Theory in Crisis. I see now why it impacted on me so powerfully in 1989. As a student in the 60s I accepted Darwin’s notion that the whole of life evolved as a result of small changes, natural selection, and the survival of the fittest. I accommodated it easily to my new faith, reasoning that God’s providence could have guided the whole process to his intended conclusion. I could not see how a structure as complicated as the eye could have arisen without some guidance; age has added to that conviction. However, doubts over Darwin arose when I was still a student. In 1959 Everyman’s Library published a centenary edition of The Origin of Species. The introduction was by a leading Canadian biologist. He summarized the theory and then inquired whether the evidence of one hundred years supported it. He found it did not, and lamented the amount of biological research which was wasted on building imaginary evolutionary trees. From then until 1989 I was an evolution ‘agnostic’. A Theory in Crisis (1985) reviews the evidence for grand evolution and concludes that it not only does not support Darwin’s idea, but conflicts with it at many levels. Denton’s argument is so strong, especially in his own area of molecular biology, that, with my Christian spectacles, I read it as an outright refutation of grand evolution—which it is not.
This becomes clear in his later book, Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis (2016). Denton thinks the world is old, and that the various forms of life evolved. The question is how. He finds Darwin’s solution unworkable and seeks an alternative in what he calls ‘structuralism’. In this he is going back to some of the great biologists of the nineteenth century, in particular Richard Owen, founder of the Museum of Natural History in London. There are deeply imbedded biological structures, which appear to be part of the nature of things in the physical world. In the inorganic world crystals form under certain conditions, constrained by the forces of nature; so, structures ‘emerge’ in the biological world as a result of physical constraints. Denton illustrates this from an amount of recent research. It was an eye-opener to me that the 20th century notion that everything is determined by what is encoded in our DNA, is being abandoned in the 21st. The shape of the human body, for example, does not seem to be determined genetically, nor does the language ability of humans (which Denton identifies as another ‘homologue’). DNA is not all there is to it! Some other explanation is required, and he finds this in ‘epigenetic’ forces (analogous to crystallization) which emerge in extraordinarily complex protein systems. Admitting that this might be a factor in biological development, I baulk at it as an explanation of, for instance, the pentadactyl limb-structure. It clearly does not work as an explanation of the cell itself, where Denton has himself ruled out intermediate forms.

In his last chapter Denton explores the implications of his work for teleology (he avoids bringing God into the discussion) where he favours the view that the basic forms of life are ‘no less built into nature than the properties of water’ (p. 278). ‘There is the deep hint—arising from the cosmological discovery of the fitness of nature for life—that the life forms on earth may be after all, an integral part of the cosmic order.’ (p. 278f. Denton’s italics.) For those who know God, this has evident interest. This latest book should be read and discussed, though the first is foundational, and is an easier read. Evangelicals who for a long time now have accorded Darwinism almost the status of a doctrine should take note of this authoritative scientific refutation of Darwin’s grand scheme and review their thinking.

David Seccombe, WA

Book Review: Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love

Side by Side:
Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love
Edward T. Welch
Crossway 2015

We love to help people but we’re not so keen on being helped. We want to support people in church but we don’t know what to say. We feel like it’s the job for the experts so we leave it to them. What have we to offer anyway?

Side by Side by Ed Welch is a gentle yet persuasive book about walking alongside others in love and wisdom. It prompts us to face our fears and engage in the relational struggle of others, knowing that ours is the struggle too. It’s a vital commentary about creating authentic, active community, the best kind, by walking humbly alongside others.

I first picked up this book because I wanted to learn how to help people more effectively. What I love is that it spends the first half lovingly but firmly reminding me of my need. Just like everyone else, my loving Creator seeks to refine me from the messy person that I am. The biblical reality is that we are needy people who are slow to ask for help but, in every way, the gospel tells us that we need it. And so often He uses my (lack of) dependence on others to remind me of this. Only then am I able to offer humble, patient friendship to and alongside others. After all, God’s church is served by regular, imperfect people, one to another.

From this premise, then, the second half of the book shows us how to do this, by moving towards others, connecting with hearts and not just day-to-day lives, and walking alongside people with thoughtful conversation, active prayer and by learning how to bring Scripture to bear in the joys and difficulties of life and faith.
We are so often fearful about helping people biblically or quick to get frustrated when people continue to struggle. This book affirms God’s longing to see people moving in the direction of spiritual change, however slowly. It is not about destination; it’s always about direction, moving towards Him in faith.

Every believer engaged in church community should read this book. I’d like to think that I will read it once a year, a surprising goal for someone once averse to reading Christian books!

I’m a big fan of Ed Welch: he loves God and is deeply aware and candid about his failings, whilst perceptive about the struggle of others. His style is easy to read, he offers short chapters and practical examples and gives guidance questions for discussion with others. He is often funny and heartfelt, and always honest.

We are the same. We are ordinary, flawed people and God longs to use his people to love others well, with or without a degree in theology or counselling. So this book is for all of us.

Sarah Pomphrey, WA

Book Review: A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix

A Failure of Nerve:
Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix

Edwin H. Friedman
Seabury Books, 2007

The purpose of this review is to help Christian leaders engage with Edwin Friedman’s genuine insights into leadership in a society that has become increasingly anxious. I will offer up at points, in no great triumph of exegesis, some scriptural observations as to why we might not always wholeheartedly agree with him, yet in general affirm his conclusions on leadership. Edwin H. Friedman was an ordained rabbi who was for twenty years a leader in a synagogue. He was also a practicing family therapist and consultant to leadership in different spheres of life, from the family through to the American defence force. A Failure of Nerve was published sometime after his death and is at points an incomplete manuscript. This book is great, a summary of a secular sage’s life investment in leadership. 
               
Here is Friedman’s own confession of who the book is for and what it is about:

‘This book is for parents and presidents. It is also for CEOs and educators, prioresses and coaches, healers and generals, managers and clergy. It is about the leadership in the land of the quick fix, about leadership in a society so reactive that it cannot choose leaders who might calm its anxiety.’

Friedman makes his analysis based on American society, but this book is so compelling because of the universal nature of the behaviours of people in a chronically anxious system. Needless to say, if he is right, this book has a global appeal for leaders and goes at least part of the way in helping us understand why leadership today is in urgent need of people who are able to hold their nerve and stay the course in a highly anxious society.

Here is a quick taste of the contents: chronically anxious systems are stuck, unable to move forward. Anxious systems don’t have to be societies, of course. They can be families, business relationships, churches etc. We can all be trapped into thinking we cannot possibly do X or Y because we live with what Friedman calls ‘emotional equators’. Sometimes our fears and insecurities are the emotional equators and when we do not recognise these ‘equators’ for what they are, we become a regressive, rather than evolving, progressive society, workplace, family etc. Friedman explores what a chronically anxious environment looks like. Without spoiling the book, here are the essentials of a highly anxious community; highly reactive, herding, blame displacement, a quick fix mentality, and a failure of nerve in leadership.

The chapters following offer a critique of a data driven world, and a negative analysis of empathy—which is food for thought. Other chapters include a robust argument for the importance of ‘self’ and how the concept of self is being eradicated and renamed ‘selfish’; an analysis of relationships as emotional triangles and the importance of understanding these relational dynamics if we are to lead change through the path of least resistance; and a chapter on ‘crisis and sabotage’ with some of the soundest advice of the book.

These three things I liked about Friedman’s book: first, it attempts to free leaders to make decisions and follow through on them, to use their imagination, to risk, to refuse to be driven by data alone, and to realise that all good leadership will be subject to sabotage. Second, the book has an amazing set of metaphors or allegories and stories that excite and motivate leaders to be decisive, even in an anxious climate, affirming a clear, calm, connected approach that encourages leaders to be patient and hold their nerve. Third, its appreciation of the fact that when people make decisions, they are rarely driven by rational processes alone. Decisions are almost always driven in part if not in whole by emotional processes.

However, I did not like everything. The references to the evolutionary processes of how we came to be who we are felt a little forced. Though the allegory of evolutionary development is novel and fruitful in helping the reader understand concepts about chronically anxious systems, togetherness forces and forces of differentiation, one could equally arrive at the same conclusions via a biblical understanding of what it means to be a creature in the image of God.

Also, from a Christian perspective Friedman’s definition of good leaders reads a little like Nietzsche’s superman. His read on good leaders is, they will be called narcissistic, cold, and calculating just because they refuse to be reactionary, just because they remain well differentiated. Though we can affirm that sometimes this is the case, sometimes good leaders will lead poorly and will at times be cold and calculating narcissists who need to repent of their sin.

Further, Friedman doesn’t believe in empathy, only sympathy and compassion. He believes empathy has been hijacked and becomes a tool for sabotage. This may be true, but the bible has many examples of what we might consider empathetic gestures. The apostle Paul puts it like this; ‘and our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort’. (2 Cor 1:7). If empathy is about being able to put yourself in the position of another, this passage is a good example.

Finally, Friedman provides plenty of pragmatic initiatives to help leaders remain differentiated, unaffected by the emotional processes of others whilst remaining connected. However Christian leaders need a more realistic assessment of human frailty than Friedman is willing to offer. Ironically, it is our doctrine of weakness that makes us strong and able. It is our doctrine of childlike faith, a faith that expresses itself in total dependence upon God that will help us stay the course.

If you’re a leader in a church, read this book. If you’re a leader in a dying church, definitely read this book. If you’re a Christian leader about to encourage a new path for your church, a necessary but unpopular path, read this book. The privilege of this book is the many years of experience that drives the conclusions that liberate leaders to take risks and enjoy a treacherous journey.

Tim Ravenhall, Newcastle Presbyterian, Civic Park, NSW.

Book Review: Is God Green?

Is God Green?
Lionel Windsor
Matthias Media, 2018

Most Christian commentary on caring for the environment leaves me completely cold. I just can’t seem to muster up the motivation that other people have to ‘live sustainably’. There, I said it out loud.

The topic often makes me feel enormously guilty for my pathetic failures - I keep forgetting my Keep Cup and reusable bags, I haven’t done enough research into what products I buy that have microbeads ruining the oceans, and yes I know I shouldn’t duck to the shops in my petrol guzzling car to pick up dinner (that probably comes in too much plastic packaging) but I excuse myself by claiming that I just don’t have enough time to do better because I’m a busy mum who is just trying to get through the day. Too much mental load, people! Am I the only one who feels like this? I suspect not.

There are many different ways that people try to motivate others to care for the environment. Guilt crushing burdening, self-righteous virtue-signalling, judgmental finger-pointing, and fear-inducing end times hysteria are common methods. And what is frustrating is that many Christians seem to employ those exact same methods!

After one particularly annoying ‘Christian’ talk on caring for the environment with no mention of Jesus which left me and the audience feeling completely guilty and burdened, I was so worked up that I decided to write a book about the topic.

Then I discovered Is God Green? by Lionel Windsor. Lionel has heaps more street cred than me, having been an engineer in solar cell research, and now a lecturer in New Testament at Moore College, so I’m pleased, for everyone’s sake, that this is the book that got published.

Is God Green? is a very short book (60+ pages) which started off as a set of talks to University students. It is clear and simple, with a straight forward look at the topic of the environment through the lens of Biblical Theology. In 6 short chapters he looks at creation in the beginning, the fall, the cross, the future and what to do while we wait for the end of the world.

Finally, here’s a book that shows how the gospel changes people, which is what can then in turn make a difference to the world and its environmental problems. Finally here’s a book that handles the Bible well and shows how the whole of God’s salvation plan affects how we are to care for the environment. Finally here’s a book that is not guilt inducing nor encouraging self-righteous behaviour. What a breath of fresh air.

His thesis is that when we submit to Jesus he restores us to our rightful place as God’s image bearers, who rule the world under him (p.42). As Christians we put off the old self, and put on the new (Colossians 3:5-10) which means we will put off greed and selfishness, and put on love and service. This will therefore have an impact on all the decisions we make that impact the environment.

‘Will that make a difference to the world? Of course it will! You can’t save the world - that’s Jesus’ job. But you can make a difference, because you can live as an heir of this world, rescued from death, renewed in God’s image, ruling under God.’ (p.46)

Those familiar with the Two Ways to Live gospel outline will recognise much of the language Windsor uses (God being our ruler, and God giving us responsibility to rule the world under him). If I had to give one tiny criticism, this language tends to make the book a touch predictable. But maybe that’s just me.

It would be a great book to give to young Christians, or confused Christians or enquiring non-Christians with an interest in the environment. I’ve bought a stack of copies to give away. Or maybe it’s better to buy it in e-book format—saves paper. One thing’s for sure, it’s definitely a book with a message that our world needs.

Michelle Underwood, WA

Book Review: A Secular Age

A Secular Age 

Charles Taylor
Harvard University Press, 2007

It took me a couple of years to work slowly through Charles Taylor’s massive tome A Secular Age, before finally finishing it in 2011, but I thoroughly enjoyed the journey. It was like a good fruit cake; eaten in small slices (mostly) but each piece rich and delicious. This will be not so much a review as an impression: the book is 776 pages long, with another 75 pages of notes at the end. Taylor is Canadian, now Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at McGill University in Montreal after a long and distinguished career as a philosopher. He is also a believing Roman Catholic.

Taylor opens his book with the question, ‘What does it mean to say we live in a secular age?’ He is not going to give the kind of answer that some give – that is that to live in a secular age is to live in an age which has (rightly) outgrown religious belief and where more and more people have been freed (and will be freed) to live without the distortions that such illusions foist on us. He has the eyes to see that things are more complex than that.

Taylor begins by defining three senses of ‘secularity’: firstly the absence of religion and religious foundations from society’s political structures and spheres of shared activity; secondly the declension of religious belief and practice in the population, and thirdly, a set of conditions for belief which mean that believers experience religious faith not as an obvious and axiomatic part of life, but as one possibility amongst others; perhaps as a minority  view in a society more likely to think of religious faith as implausible and inconceivable. It is this third sense of secularity which Taylor proposes to examine. In particular he wants to tell the story of how Western culture got from a situation where it was ‘virtually impossible not to believe in God’, to a situation where not believing in God is ‘easy, even inescapable’ (p 25).

Another foundation Taylor lays in the introduction is his discussion of what is ‘religious’ and what is ‘unbelieving’. Taylor is interested in where one looks for ‘fullness’, that is the full, rich, meaningful, admirable, empowering, joyful mode of life. Believers live, suggests Taylor, thinking of this place of fullness as located ultimately beyond this world, and the flourishing that is possible for us within our ordinary lives. Ultimately, reaching fullness is a matter of undergoing a transformation that opens us to something transcendent (e.g. God). On the other hand, unbelievers live thinking of the place of fullness as immanent within the conditions of our human lives and what ordinary flourishing we can enjoy. Living for something beyond our present life will only be to the detriment of our actual experience of fullness.

Setting up the distinction in this way does capture something deep about families of world views and approaches to life and is a helpful way to approach the matter quite generally. Taylor does not leave things there, however. His book is an exploration of the exploding gamut of believing and unbelieving positions that have arisen over the last five centuries, and the way these react to and upon one another to produce an even more complex array of moral and spiritual outlooks. Ultimately, suggests Taylor, this nova of new spiritual options underlies secularity as we experience it today. Whatever we believe, we are aware of others who believe differently—our position is just one option amongst many, and everyone’s position is cross-pressured and made more fragile by the existence of the other options. This does not mean that everyone feels uncertain about their world view, but it does mean that at least some feel the pull and pressure of other positions, and can find them plausible and attractive, without adopting them (cross-pressure). It also means that we may not share the spiritual outlook of our parents or children or our siblings. (Mutual fragilisation—e.g my family: my dad professes atheism, I am a Christian, my mother and one brother have become Christians since I have. Another brother would be something else again, I suspect. In another age/place, family and culture would almost certainly determine religious outlook. Not in our secular age.)

Taylor describes his book not as a continuous story and argument, but rather as ‘a series of interlocking essays, which shed light on each other’ (p ix). These sets of essays do move broadly forward through an historical progression, providing a loose narrative with many dimensions, beginning at 1500 C.E (!) or so and ending in the present. I cannot now come even close to summarising the various lines of argument and topics of definition and discussion that Taylor unfolds. I can say that I found just about every page and every discussion absorbing, insightful and instructive. His tone is sympathetic, his writing style is easy and conversational, his thinking is broad and deep. His discussion of the nature of religion and unbelief, of the porous self and the enchanted world giving way to the buffered self and the disenchanted world, of the modern moral order and modern social imaginaries is all rich and fascinating, and this main line of the story has plenty of fascinating side discussions about the way we think of and experience time and eternity, the nature of modern art and music, even extended discussions in later chapters of points of Christian doctrine such as the atonement and issues which surround it, or of modern atheism. As one reviewer put it, the book is ‘an education in itself’ (David Martin, quoted on the dust jacket), and thus even to outline and discuss the main lines of argument would take some doing.

Instead I will mention a few more of the themes which impressed themselves on me. One important thesis is that modern secularity has been constructed via a series of historically contingent religious, intellectual and cultural moves, rather than the alternative kind of view (which Taylor calls a ‘subtraction story’), that modern secularity is rather the result of stripping away various wrong (religious) ideas about the human person and the cosmos in order to uncover the true (modern, secular) sense of the human self, society and the universe. It is important to Taylor to challenge the idea that our modern, secular condition is that we have seen through to the self-evident truths about who we are and how we are related as individuals and societies, in contrast to our unenlightened forbears who believed in the Great Chain of Being, or that goals beyond ordinary human flourishing might direct us towards true fullness of life. Taylor wants to tell the story of how the outlook that seems self-evident to us was constructed through a contingent historical process.

Part 1 is entitled The Work of Reform. Taylor uses the term Reform to refer to one of the great historical and cultural forces that has shaped the western outlook, the great, multifaceted and ongoing  project to make over the whole of society so that it conforms to the higher standards of an ideal whose realisation lies in the future, rather than seeing the present order as something not needing to be ‘made over’, but to be received and participated in as it is. The roots of Reform lie in the Middle Ages, and work themselves out in the Reformation(s) and Counter-Reformation within Christendom, but Reform spills out beyond Christianity to produce the ongoing reform movements of the present day, such as civil rights, feminism, or the normalisation of homosexuality.

He begins by seeking to help us into the sense of self and the cosmos that was shared by Europeans around the beginning of the sixteenth century. He draws the reader into imagining a quite foreign conception of the human self—a porous self, susceptible to penetration by external forces and agencies, which were features of an enchanted world. This was also a society ordered by God, making the desire for reform rather dubious from one point of view. And yet the Christian gospel contains the dynamic of Reform, as it calls people to turn away from the world and towards the kingdom of God, whose transforming fullness is yet to be consummated in history. Hence, in various ways from the middle ages, the church tried to mobilise ordinary Christians to engage in the Christian life in a more disciplined and radical way. From a political point of view, a disciplined society became desirable because it was more productive and could field more effective armies.

Part 2 of the Book is called The Turning Point. As Taylor see it that turning point for the western story is the emergence of an exclusive humanism (exclusive of God, that is) as a viable alternative to Christian orthodoxy for more than a very few. Taylor argues that the efforts within Christendom towards reform and discipline transformed the sense of self and its relation to the world that we share. We became buffered, disciplined selves in a disenchanted world, reimagined as a world created and beneficently ordered by God so that we humans enjoy happiness and flourishing as we engage in mutual service. Thus a providential deism emerged, that allowed the possibility of sidelining God as inessential to the achievement happiness and flourishing. With God sidelined, it could simply be that humans enjoy happiness and flourishing as we engage in mutually beneficial service. And this new exclusive humanism was able to win wider allegiance than the ancient exclusive humanisms (Lucretius and Epicureus) because it carried over in a sense of universal benevolence, a trace of the Christian agape (love). Thus in place of the grace of God putting the love of our neighbour into our hearts we may rely upon the benevolence within our own nature, and the guidance of our reason, to impel us to mutual service.

As this exclusive humanism became a viable option to Christianity in the west, it provoked many reactions, both believing and unbelieving, giving rise to new spiritual options. Unbelieving anti-humanisms arise (quintessentially Nietzsche, but many others too), as well as believing reactions that are not a return to orthodox Christianity (many Romantics). This Taylor calls the is the Nova Effect, and Part 3 of the book tells that part of the story, which covers the resurgence of piety that the nineteenth century saw with, e.g. the Evangelical Movement, as well as the renewed turning to unbelief in that century, which Taylor argues was deeper and more deeply anchored in a universe that was experienced very differently because of the reimagining of the old cosmos of Christendom.

The last stage of the story is the way that the pluralisation of religious options that were available to the elite became the spiritual condition of the whole society. In Part 4, Narratives of Secularization, Taylor explores the revolution that we have been living through since the 1960s, which has seen dramatic decline in religious adherence in terms of church going and religion in public life in many places. He dubs the last 200 years as the Age of Mobilisation, where the great social changes wrought as modernity arose through revolutionary industrialisation, urbanisation, specialisation etc. compelled new religious forms, practices and polities to be envisaged and created. The Methodist movement is an important example. These religious forms were successful until the Age of Authenticity began to flower in the 1960s. In the Age of Authenticity, individual expressivism reigns, and insight and feeling by and for each individual are what counts. Being mobilised to conform to a group culture in a church and to submit to the authority of a community run counter to the spirit of this new age, and Christians find it hard to address people with this outlook of individual expressivism.

Part V of the book is a long meditation aptly entitled Conditions of Belief. I found this to be the most abstract and difficult part of the book (in patches), but fascinating nonetheless. Taylor traces out the interaction between three poles or camps of belief—believers, humanist unbelievers and anti-humanist unbelievers, and argues that far from any one camp having all their problems solved, they all wrestle with the same dilemmas, favouring different ways of seeking their resolution. Taylor wants to promote mutual understanding and sympathy in the midst of some angry and shortsighted polemics that go on in our culture. He also engages more and more with his own religious position, which I might guess could reasonably be approximated by the label ‘liberal Roman Catholic’, addressing his readers more and more from this perspective.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in this book and I’m not really in a position to offer him a lot of advice about all the things he’s missed and the ways he could make the book better. The book contains the reflection of a lifetime. So I’ll just say that I found his book a great companion for those couple of years it was my companion, and feel like it could be one of those books worth reading again down the track. He’s down on Calvin and substitutionary atonement (which I’m not), but I wasn’t reading him for theology I agreed with completely. I’m interested in the sociology of secularisation, and this is a very intellectual tour of secularisation—thinkers and ideas more than societies and cultures. But that’s ok—I love intellectual history. I recommend this book to all and sundry. I’m sure you’ll learn something. I learned plenty. 

Ben Underwood, WA

 

A Secular Age

Charles Taylor

Harvard University Press, 2007

 

It took me a couple of years to work slowly through Charles Taylor’s massive tome A Secular Age, before finally finishing it in 2011, but I thoroughly enjoyed the journey. It was like a good fruit cake; eaten in small slices (mostly) but each piece rich and delicious. This will be not so much a review as an impression: the book is 776 pages long, with another 75 pages of notes at the end. Taylor is Canadian, now Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at McGill University in Montreal after a long and distinguished career as a philosopher. He is also a believing Roman Catholic.

 

Taylor opens his book with the question, ‘What does it mean to say we live in a secular age?’ He is not going to give the kind of answer that some give – that is that to live in a secular age is to live in an age which has (rightly) outgrown religious belief and where more and more people have been freed (and will be freed) to live without the distortions that such illusions foist on us. He has the eyes to see that things are more complex than that.

                 Taylor begins by defining three senses of ‘secularity’: firstly the absence of religion and religious foundations from society’s political structures and spheres of shared activity; secondly the declension of religious belief and practice in the population, and thirdly, a set of conditions for belief which mean that believers experience religious faith not as an obvious and axiomatic part of life, but as one possibility amongst others; perhaps as a minority  view in a society more likely to think of religious faith as implausible and inconceivable. It is this third sense of secularity which Taylor proposes to examine. In particular he wants to tell the story of how Western culture got from a situation where it was ‘virtually impossible not to believe in God’, to a situation where not believing in God is ‘easy, even inescapable’ (p 25).

                 Another foundation Taylor lays in the introduction is his discussion of what is ‘religious’ and what is ‘unbelieving’. Taylor is interested in where one looks for ‘fullness’, that is the full, rich, meaningful, admirable, empowering, joyful mode of life. Believers live, suggests Taylor, thinking of this place of fullness as located ultimately beyond this world, and the flourishing that is possible for us within our ordinary lives. Ultimately, reaching fullness is a matter of undergoing a transformation that opens us to something transcendent (e.g. God). On the other hand, unbelievers live thinking of the place of fullness as immanent within the conditions of our human lives and what ordinary flourishing we can enjoy. Living for something beyond our present life will only be to the detriment of our actual experience of fullness.

                 Setting up the distinction in this way does capture something deep about families of world views and approaches to life and is a helpful way to approach the matter quite generally. Taylor does not leave things there, however. His book is an exploration of the exploding gamut of believing and unbelieving positions that have arisen over the last five centuries, and the way these react to and upon one another to produce an even more complex array of moral and spiritual outlooks. Ultimately, suggests Taylor, this nova of new spiritual options underlies secularity as we experience it today. Whatever we believe, we are aware of others who believe differently—our position is just one option amongst many, and everyone’s position is cross-pressured and made more fragile by the existence of the other options. This does not mean that everyone feels uncertain about their world view, but it does mean that at least some feel the pull and pressure of other positions, and can find them plausible and attractive, without adopting them (cross-pressure). It also means that we may not share the spiritual outlook of our parents or children or our siblings. (Mutual fragilisation—e.g my family: my dad professes atheism, I am a Christian, my mother and one brother have become Christians since I have. Another brother would be something else again, I suspect. In another age/place, family and culture would almost certainly determine religious outlook. Not in our secular age.)

 

Taylor describes his book not as a continuous story and argument, but rather as ‘a series of interlocking essays, which shed light on each other’ (p ix). These sets of essays do move broadly forward through an historical progression, providing a loose narrative with many dimensions, beginning at 1500 C.E (!) or so and ending in the present. I cannot now come even close to summarising the various lines of argument and topics of definition and discussion that Taylor unfolds. I can say that I found just about every page and every discussion absorbing, insightful and instructive. His tone is sympathetic, his writing style is easy and conversational, his thinking is broad and deep. His discussion of the nature of religion and unbelief, of the porous self and the enchanted world giving way to the buffered self and the disenchanted world, of the modern moral order and modern social imaginaries is all rich and fascinating, and this main line of the story has plenty of fascinating side discussions about the way we think of and experience time and eternity, the nature of modern art and music, even extended discussions in later chapters of points of Christian doctrine such as the atonement and issues which surround it, or of modern atheism. As one reviewer put it, the book is ‘an education in itself’ (David Martin, quoted on the dust jacket), and thus even to outline and discuss the main lines of argument would take some doing.

                 Instead I will mention a few more of the themes which impressed themselves on me. One important thesis is that modern secularity has been constructed via a series of historically contingent religious, intellectual and cultural moves, rather than the alternative kind of view (which Taylor calls a ‘subtraction story’), that modern secularity is rather the result of stripping away various wrong (religious) ideas about the human person and the cosmos in order to uncover the true (modern, secular) sense of the human self, society and the universe. It is important to Taylor to challenge the idea that our modern, secular condition is that we have seen through to the self-evident truths about who we are and how we are related as individuals and societies, in contrast to our unenlightened forbears who believed in the Great Chain of Being, or that goals beyond ordinary human flourishing might direct us towards true fullness of life. Taylor wants to tell the story of how the outlook that seems self-evident to us was constructed through a contingent historical process.

 

Part 1 is entitled The Work of Reform. Taylor uses the term Reform to refer to one of the great historical and cultural forces that has shaped the western outlook, the great, multifaceted and ongoing  project to make over the whole of society so that it conforms to the higher standards of an ideal whose realisation lies in the future, rather than seeing the present order as something not needing to be ‘made over’, but to be received and participated in as it is. The roots of Reform lie in the Middle Ages, and work themselves out in the Reformation(s) and Counter-Reformation within Christendom, but Reform spills out beyond Christianity to produce the ongoing reform movements of the present day, such as civil rights, feminism, or the normalisation of homosexuality.

                 He begins by seeking to help us into the sense of self and the cosmos that was shared by Europeans around the beginning of the sixteenth century. He draws the reader into imagining a quite foreign conception of the human self—a porous self, susceptible to penetration by external forces and agencies, which were features of an enchanted world. This was also a society ordered by God, making the desire for reform rather dubious from one point of view. And yet the Christian gospel contains the dynamic of Reform, as it calls people to turn away from the world and towards the kingdom of God, whose transforming fullness is yet to be consummated in history. Hence, in various ways from the middle ages, the church tried to mobilise ordinary Christians to engage in the Christian life in a more disciplined and radical way. From a political point of view, a disciplined society became desirable because it was more productive and could field more effective armies.

                 Part 2 of the Book is called The Turning Point. As Taylor see it that turning point for the western story is the emergence of an exclusive humanism (exclusive of God, that is) as a viable alternative to Christian orthodoxy for more than a very few. Taylor argues that the efforts within Christendom towards reform and discipline transformed the sense of self and its relation to the world that we share. We became buffered, disciplined selves in a disenchanted world, reimagined as a world created and beneficently ordered by God so that we humans enjoy happiness and flourishing as we engage in mutual service. Thus a providential deism emerged, that allowed the possibility of sidelining God as inessential to the achievement happiness and flourishing. With God sidelined, it could simply be that humans enjoy happiness and flourishing as we engage in mutually beneficial service. And this new exclusive humanism was able to win wider allegiance than the ancient exclusive humanisms (Lucretius and Epicureus) because it carried over in a sense of universal benevolence, a trace of the Christian agape (love). Thus in place of the grace of God putting the love of our neighbour into our hearts we may rely upon the benevolence within our own nature, and the guidance of our reason, to impel us to mutual service.

                 As this exclusive humanism became a viable option to Christianity in the west, it provoked many reactions, both believing and unbelieving, giving rise to new spiritual options. Unbelieving anti-humanisms arise (quintessentially Nietzsche, but many others too), as well as believing reactions that are not a return to orthodox Christianity (many Romantics). This Taylor calls the is the Nova Effect, and Part 3 of the book tells that part of the story, which covers the resurgence of piety that the nineteenth century saw with, e.g. the Evangelical Movement, as well as the renewed turning to unbelief in that century, which Taylor argues was deeper and more deeply anchored in a universe that was experienced very differently because of the reimagining of the old cosmos of Christendom.

                 The last stage of the story is the way that the pluralisation of religious options that were available to the elite became the spiritual condition of the whole society. In Part 4, Narratives of Secularization, Taylor explores the revolution that we have been living through since the 1960s, which has seen dramatic decline in religious adherence in terms of church going and religion in public life in many places. He dubs the last 200 years as the Age of Mobilisation, where the great social changes wrought as modernity arose through revolutionary industrialisation, urbanisation, specialisation etc. compelled new religious forms, practices and polities to be envisaged and created. The Methodist movement is an important example. These religious forms were successful until the Age of Authenticity began to flower in the 1960s. In the Age of Authenticity, individual expressivism reigns, and insight and feeling by and for each individual are what counts. Being mobilised to conform to a group culture in a church and to submit to the authority of a community run counter to the spirit of this new age, and Christians find it hard to address people with this outlook of individual expressivism.

                 Part V of the book is a long meditation aptly entitled Conditions of Belief. I found this to be the most abstract and difficult part of the book (in patches), but fascinating nonetheless. Taylor traces out the interaction between three poles or camps of belief—believers, humanist unbelievers and anti-humanist unbelievers, and argues that far from any one camp having all their problems solved, they all wrestle with the same dilemmas, favouring different ways of seeking their resolution. Taylor wants to promote mutual understanding and sympathy in the midst of some angry and shortsighted polemics that go on in our culture. He also engages more and more with his own religious position, which I might guess could reasonably be approximated by the label ‘liberal Roman Catholic’, addressing his readers more and more from this perspective.

 

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in this book and I’m not really in a position to offer him a lot of advice about all the things he’s missed and the ways he could make the book better. The book contains the reflection of a lifetime. So I’ll just say that I found his book a great companion for those couple of years it was my companion, and feel like it could be one of those books worth reading again down the track. He’s down on Calvin and substitutionary atonement (which I’m not), but I wasn’t reading him for theology I agreed with completely. I’m interested in the sociology of secularisation, and this is a very intellectual tour of secularisation—thinkers and ideas more than societies and cultures. But that’s ok—I love intellectual history. I recommend this book to all and sundry. I’m sure you’ll learn something. I learned plenty.

Ben Underwood, WA