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  • At the Limits of the Secular: Reflections on Faith and Public Life ed. by Jr. William A. Barbieri
  • John Berkman
William A. Barbieri Jr., ed. At the Limits of the Secular: Reflections on Faith and Public Life. Grand Rapids, mi: William B. Eerdmans, 2014. Pp. 386. Paper, us$35.00. isbn 978-0-8028-6877-0.

This collection of essays arose from a research project that began with a colloquium in 2009 entitled ‘‘Faith in a Secular Age,’’ which featured a presentation by Charles Taylor, whose magisterial A Secular Age is the point of departure for this collection.

Editor William Barbieri makes two substantial contributions. First, he provides an excellent introduction to the contemporary debate on secularism and faith in the public sphere—and Taylor’s major contribution to it. Second, in his essay contribution Barbieri helpfully lays out promising paths in post-secular thinking through a conceptual ‘‘ground-clearing’’ exercise. Space limitations preclude comments on all essays, so I will restrict my comments to four essays that vigorously engage and challenge Taylor’s grand narrative regarding our secular age.

The sociologist Michelle Dillon challenges Taylor’s narrative that the last two generations have seen a concomitant decline in ‘‘community’’ and in ‘‘religion’’ (Taylor, chaps. 12 and 13). According to Dillon’s analysis of the sociological data, there has not been a decline but rather a reconfiguration, and the rise of the ‘‘spiritual but not religious’’ is not to be taken as a loss of community or commitment, but rather a migration from institutional religion to new forms of communities. Dillon’s highly pertinent sociological analysis is driven in part by her explicit commitments to the notion of democracy defined in key parts as ‘‘acceptance of pluralism’’ and her view that the hallmark of modernity is ‘‘affirming recognition of differences’’ (300).

The systematic theologian Anthony Godzieba opens his rich and complex essay on imagination by noting the irony of Taylor’s emphasis on social imaginaries while neglecting to discuss imagination (199). A further irony is that while Taylor acknowledges the necessity of pre-theoretical common understandings of particular cultures ‘‘carried in images, stories, legends’’ to generate grand narratives, he fails to discuss how these common understandings might generate these grand narratives. For Godzieba these ironies point to the centrality of the notion of imagination. Noting the inherent limits of the secular imagination, Godzieba points to the sacramental imagination, ‘‘the conviction that the finite can mediate the infinite’’ (206). Bringing together the sacramental imagination and a phenomenology of the body that reveals its contingency and limits, Godzieba displays (rather than argues for) the sacramental imagination at work in the sculptor Bernini and the composer Bach. In their highly affective (i.e., moving and erotic) compositions, one glimpses some of the imaginative possibilities within a life of faith.

Catholic studies professor William Cavanaugh challenges Taylor’s identification of the religious-secular distinction with enchantment-disenchantment. According to Cavanaugh, the rise of the religious-secular distinction in the modern period was not the discovery of some trans-historical reality that earlier cultures had somehow missed, but rather the process by which rulers dispossessed Christian faith of social and political dimensions, making it ‘‘inward’’ and ‘‘otherworldly’’ (105, 117). In so doing, whether intentional or not, these rulers secularized the sacred and sacralized the state, thus effectively inheriting what approached absolute sovereignty on ‘‘public’’ matters (113–114). Contrary to Taylor, Cavanaugh argues that our secular age remains deeply enchanted, the object of our enchantment merely migrating to the political, or to consumerism (or even to sports teams, I might add). With this migration, one cannot help but see ‘‘religious’’ violence as ‘‘fanatical’’ and ‘‘profane,’’ whereas violence for the nation-state is rational and sometimes necessary. Taylor’s key claim that in a secular age religion is necessarily ‘‘optional’’ is in itself the overriding mythos of a secular age, where the one thing that isn’t optional about religion is its ‘‘optionality.’’ Taylor fails to see that in replacing the [End Page 293] transcendent God with the sovereign self, liberalism is just as enchanted, just as ‘‘capable of producing the same kinds of idolatry and violence that other so-called religions have produced’’ (127...


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