in a Secular Age

Photo by Gavin Spear on Unsplash

By Charles Howell

    16 min. Read Time

Published January 1st, 2021

I. Intro: The Contemporary Dilemma on Goodness
            Contemporary Americans are obsessed with the “good.” Pleas for courage to fight for the good are sounded at every corner of our physical and digital cities. Movements are voicing serious critiques to masculine sexuality, calling for a revival in sexual temperance. And cries for justice echoing through the streets have become a mainstay on news reports. The typical Evangelical response is either to offer hope for a brighter future which, when combined with faith, serves as a means to move beyond the sinful conditions that are causing the injustices and indulgences of the flesh; or to furnish a politicized sense of charity, which may have the bonus effect of attracting various disenfranchised parties to the Christian message. Contemporary America is a time where God and morality are both purely personal, and utterly relative to the embedded context. And it is a time where emphatic claims that there is no fixed notion of the “good” are not only announced, but demanded recognition.
            Our obsession with the good, however, is not matched by adequate reflection on that good. We live in a world enveloped within a contradictory tension, that pulses between the thoughts and actions we direct at nebulous notions of goodness. We oscillate between some sense of duty to unquestionably held laws, which are to be preserved without regard to the outcome of upholding them, and some idea of a perfect society, which can be achieved at an ever-growing cost. In the same breath we cling to vague, axiomatic “rights” to ward off unwarranted regulation, as well as call for the use of power to silence those who disagree with us. We long for self-expression as much as we desire suppression of the “other.” What we offer with the left hand, we take back with the right. How are we to make sense of this?
            Here I want to put forth the claim that appeals to the “good” through right actions are not enough in themselves to produce a coherent means of obtaining that good. This type of moral reasoning inevitable leads us into a contradictory tension. Rather, reflection on our moral landscape and how it influences our sense of the good is a necessary step in the moral development of both ourselves as individuals and our society as a whole. Once we participate in this type of reflection, we will see that our modern moral landscape is noticeably deficient, and needs a theologically based retrieval of core virtuous concepts in order to make it whole again.


2. The Framework of Meaningful Morality
            Charles Taylor succinctly states the core of the tension in modern morality: In speaking about the good, we too often “focus on what it is right to do rather than on what it is good to be, on defining the content of obligation rather than the nature of the good life.”[1] In other words, we focus solely on right actions, and not on the character of the moral agent performing those actions. Further, we operate with this tendency because the landscape within which we reason on morality is itself deficient.[2] Taylor thus offers a contrasting moral framework for reflecting on the “good life,” one decisively more robust in its constitution. This framework is comprised of four points of moral reflection: the ultimate “good” (which stabilizes all meanings of goodness); ourselves in relation to that ultimate good; how to realize that good based on who we are as humans; and the context in which we live, which both determines the possibilities and available avenues in which that good can be realized, as well as exerts a powerful influence on our thinking at all points of this process.[3]
            To use an analogy, we can imagine ourselves as hikers navigating toward a summit. We not only need to have knowledge of the summit (location, altitude, climate, etc.), we also need to know the available routes to get there, as well as an honest opinion of the quality of hikers we are in ourselves—if we’re a bit out of shape, we will need a different, often longer, route than if we were experienced mountaineers. Further, and importantly, we must also possess a knowledge of the terrain in which we find ourselves.[4]
            This final aspect of moral knowledge is imperative to moral reflection, but is notoriously omitted from the reflective process. The landscape, or background context, forms provisional points of reflection on the summit, regulates the available possibilities of routes to the summit, and influences our judgment on how fit we are to make the trek. By failing to reflect on this background context, our contemporary moral sensibilities are vague and somewhat hollow. We consequently lack a clear conception of the good, and an honest self-reflection of what kind of moral creatures we are as human people. Operating with modern morality, which lacks any sense of contextual influence, we are seemingly condemned to live in moral confusion.
            Historically, especially in the Christian tradition, the moral theory which supplied the framework for such robust reflection was “virtue ethics.” This theory is based on the idea that the human person has a proper “end,” or a goal to which we strive in order to become “good.” Aristotle (384 – 322 BC), who is the foundational source for most virtue theories, called this final “good” of the human person “happiness,” or, in Taylor’s words, the “good life.”[5] This goal, however, cannot simply be attained by sheer tenacity. A certain disposition must be developed in order to have the innate ability to reach the potential goodness available to human persons. This disposition is generally referred to as a “virtuous” one, and is developed by a slow but intentional process of acquiring certain virtuous traits; a process which occurs as one chooses to think and act “rightly” in the face of the multitude of moral dilemmas thrown at us in everyday life.[6] Consistently right moral judgments, based on reflection of the ultimate good, lead to right moral acts, which will consequently shift the character of the acting person towards the final good of humanity. Eventually, the entire process transforms the person into a new type of human and has the potential to transform our social context into a new type of world.
            Virtue ethics was adopted into the Christian tradition, which occurred (in a systematic fashion) at least by the time of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274).[7] Once embedded in this tradition, the virtues which define a virtuous person are divided into two groups: the “cardinal” virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance; and the “theological” virtues of faith, hope and charity.[8] The emphasis on these virtues in Christianity was always placed on developing a Christ-like character by the active influence of God in our worldly context. The virtuous character is slowly becoming purified from a sinful state, and becomes transformed into an image of the “goodness” that awaits us in the resurrection. In this moral theory, the importance of the good in our lives was about becoming a better person in order to invoke and inaugurate a better life in a better world once Christ returns.[9]

III. The Modern Moral Reduction
            Yet, our contemporary moral landscape stands in stark contrast to those of Aristotle and Aquinas. The sources sedimented into the present landscape are the moral philosophies forged during the modern age.[10] The two great modern moral theories which exert the most influence on our moral reasoning are those which focus on “duty” alone as the driving force behind morality; and those which focus on the social, cultural, and moral “results” to be reached in sake of the progressive means.[11] While it is true that modern moral theories do offer strong options for determining moral actions, it is also true that they speak very little to what those actions have to do with who we are as moral actors, and inherently struggle to deal with applying moral norms in various landscapes. The moral calculations of modern theories are coldly rational and overtly instrumental. Stuck between these two options, we stagger back and forth between a sense of obligation for the present moment and a desire for a brighter future which shines a blinding glare on the present moment—all the while losing sight of who we are in ourselves, and how our moral choices are changing our nature.

            Yet, the stagger in our walk is not from a moral drunkenness, from ingesting too much moral thinking. Rather, the point of judgment from which we make moral decisions is itself caught up in the modern moral dilemma. We lack the wisdom to decide how to decide moral concerns.[12] But this is not entirely our fault. It has been powerfully argued that the great moral theories of the last few centuries were themselves built on a faulty foundation; one which has left an ontological void at the core of their sense of value. According to Alasdair MacIntyre, modern moral theories “are the fragments of a conceptual scheme” which have been removed from the context in which their moral concepts hold meaning, and make moral sense.[13] The “fragments” about which MacIntyre speaks are the historic “virtues” listed above. The context he refers to is the moral landscape, with the four facets of moral knowledge outlined by Taylor (the ultimate good, the individual person, the contextual landscape and the best path from where we are to the good). Since the moral landscape has shifted so dramatically,

modern theories lack a sort of holistic coherence required for them to be abundantly meaningful in everyday life. It is like holding an empty water bottle in the middle of a desert—the bottle quickly loses the meaning of providing water in the absence of a source to fill it, and inescapably takes on some new meaning. And, without an immediate and pressing sense of meaningfulness, morality itself seems less worthy of our attention, and we collectively lapse into a moral rationale, void of any absolute “good.”

            Taylor refers to these shifting background contexts as “social imaginaries,” which operate by providing some sense of direction to life.[14] Social imaginaries supply an implicit notion of “up” and “down,” “left” and “right,” within the landscape of our world. Within our moral framework, these background contexts operate as a compass on our journey from our current place in the world, to the mountaintop we hold as the good. These backgrounds largely determine the available routes on which we strive for the good, as well as our initial thoughts on what this good is actually like.
            Even further, social imaginaries also influence our sense of ourselves. We, as individuals, change as much on the journey toward the good as does the means and methods by which we structure our journey. It is not difficult to accept that if a person from Chicago was dropped in the deserts of Arizona, not only will the meaning of the bottle in their hands shift, but the entire process of that person would have to transform if they were to survive. In fact, it would be relatively easy to accept that an indigenous framework is more suitable for survival in such a context than a modern cosmopolitan one. Much as Alexis de Tocqueville reckoned during his eighteenth century travels in the wilderness of western America, “Therein the social scale was in fact turned upside down; thrown into complete darkness, reduced to his own devices, the civilized man moved like a blind man, incapable not only of guiding himself through the maze he was crossing but even of discovering the means of sustaining life there.”[15] The inherent void of these modern moral theories is not just a matter of making sense of the good—but, much more importantly, a matter of providing a means for the good to “sustain life” in our moral frameworks, and a means to hold our attention by its meaningfulness. Yet, the answer is not to go back in time. We cannot simply cling to the historic virtues, as our predecessors understood them, in hopes of instilling moralistic notions in our contemporary context. This is akin to clinging to the bottle of water, hoping that the fountains of the city will appear in the barrenness of the desert. We need to transport those virtues into our present moral landscape by a process of retrieval, yet do so in a way that sustains the meaningfulness they once presented to everyday life.[16]


IV. The Secular Context of Everyday Life
            Understanding the importance of background contexts for our sense of ourselves and the good, the question becomes: what sort of context—social, cultural, political, theological—do we currently inhabit? The answer would inevitably return as “ a secular one.” But there is much debate on what exactly it means to live in a “secular” age. The same narrative which compelled modern moral thought to make a clean break from the classical theories also compelled a century of reflection on the change of modern society; and the same instrumental logic which produced disengaged moral axioms was used to produce longstanding theories of the secularization of the West. These types of theories can be grouped together as “subtraction” theories. Subtraction theories either claim that (1) the modern progress of knowledge has led people away from belief, and thus religion and theological concerns are “subtracted” from everyday reasoning and acting, or they claim that, (2) since human beings are all the same without reference to God, any mention of the things of God should be “subtracted” from civil discourse, and relegated to the private sphere.[17] Both theories have exerted tremendous influence on theologically based moral reasoning.
            In fact, the vast majority of Christians who are concerned with developing a virtuous life often accept these subtraction stories as the diagnosis to religion’s social ills. In other words, Christians tend to see the world as “secular” in the sense that God has been “subtracted” from our personal and social context. And, according to such a diagnosis, the church then reasons that the antidote is to put God “back in society,” and fill the void left by modern progress.
            However, Andrew Root skillfully explains that this entire line of thinking is wrong.[18] In assuming a high degree of accuracy in these subtraction stories, Christians end up fighting against sociologically conceived secular ghosts. We are armed with the knowledge of God, “for the demolition of strongholds,”  but are fighting imaginary enemies.[19] This issue is not that God and religion have been subtracted from our moral landscape—the issue is simply that the landscape itself has shifted, and thus our understanding of the things of God, and how they fit into contemporary life, is colored in a different light.
            Along these lines, Taylor develops another version of a secularization story by arguing that our social imaginary has shifted by a “substitution” of the “conditions of belief.”[20] It is not that we have stopped believing in or referring to transcendent reality for our sense of good; only that the way in which we do so has radically altered. Faith (in a Christian sense) is now lived as one option among many other, viable and enticing ones.[21] The Christian tradition attempts to maintain sound footing among these novel options, but is inevitably caught in the “cross-pressures” between atheism and new forms of spirituality.[22] These cross-pressures play tug-of-war on Christian theology, causing some to move a step to the left for stability, and others to stagger toward the right for strength. Faith, as well as the rest of the theological virtues, is no longer simple nor “automatic” in this secular landscape, but must be fought for and from within a drastically different world. And intellectual temperance, or wisdom, is needed now more than ever to gauge the “middle way” between the constitutive extremes of our moral cross pressures.
            What this means for our moral sensibilities is that the starting points from which we begin our moral journey are inherently varied. Thus, the application of virtues, and the transformation of a virtuous person, will inescapably look just as varied, even as we work towards a common good. Even if, as Christians, we agree on the location and altitude of the mountain top of goodness found in the person of Jesus Christ, we find ourselves approaching this summit from a multitude of different angles within an utterly foreign landscape. However, and importantly, understanding the influence of our context does not mean that we necessarily fall backward into some form of religious pluralism. It simply means that we should have a healthy recognition of the variety of religious positions within the modern social imaginary, and some ecumenical empathy in order to help all positions continue their journey to the good.


V. The Theological Framework of Inaugurated Eschatology
            Yet, even with Taylor’s sympathies towards theology, he is still presenting a socio-cultural account. If we are to heed Root’s warning of allowing sociology to direct theology, we need to bring the insights on our moral landscape into the fold of Christian theology. Without doing so, the only guard against lapsing back into a religio-moral pluralism is some axiomatic authority in this socio-cultural idea itself—a type of authority we should reserve for God’s own revelation.
            This means we need to move beyond a theology based on socio-cultural theories of secularization, to a “theological theology,” informed by other fields of study, but grounded by the revelation of God through Jesus.[23] Doing so offers another, more stable bulwark against normative pluralism, because Christians have a common and stable good toward which they aim. By shifting our focus in this manner, we cast a theological light onto our moral landscape, and retrieve theologically based theories of virtue ethics. And in this light, we see that, even though we may be approaching from a variety of different positions, on a multitude of various paths, there is only one end, one goal, one ultimate “good”—and we call Him Lord.
            By beginning here, “taking every thought captive to obey Christ” with a theological claim of the divinity of Jesus, we can work backwards into reflecting on how developing virtues looks in our secular context.[24] A Christian theory of virtues argues that our God is not a distant being, of which we know little about, and from which we are a very long ways off. As Christians, our God is the person who became a human, who struggled with hunger and tired from labor, who sought justice in politics, and blessed the disenfranchised. Even now, as He sits at the right hand of the Father, reigning in the kingdom of God, He is still more closer to us than we are to ourselves. As Christians, our God dwells within our very being—and, with such an indwelling power, we are capable of living now as if we are living in the new heavens and earth. The virtuous character of Christianity is about the realization of our final destination. It is about making tangible what John recorded in visions. It is about doing as much as in our capacity to make this world look and act like the next. And doing all of this not by actions alone, but by promoting a transformation of the individual person.
            Christian virtues in any age, even a secular one, is about becoming as much like our resurrected selves as possible on this side of death. We are but a mere shadow of our future selves; but a shadow that is becoming more real, and more light filled, with every virtuous decision we make. And, in so doing, infected our moral landscape with the transforming light of God’s spirit.



            [1] Emphasis added. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1989), p. 3.
            [2] Taylor, Sources of the Self, pp. 3-4.
            [3] Taylor, Sources of the Self, pp. 41-2.
            [4] The importance of understanding the terrain is a noticeable lacuna in virtue ethics, such as the version presented by C.S. Lewis: See, C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 1952), pp. 69-75; Or the version presented by N.T. Wright (although it should be noted Wright does a fair amount of work in understanding the moral options of our contemporary context): See, N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2010), p. 29.
            [5] In Greek, “εὐδαιμονεα,” which is notoriously difficult to translate into our present context, and is likely best done so as “human flourishing.” Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, J.A.K. Thomson, trans. (New York: Penguin Classics, 1953), Book I, Chapter VII.
            [6] Acting “rightly” means consistently judging a balance between two extremes. See, Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, Chapter II.
            [7] Most theologians agree that St. Ambrose (c. 340 – 397) played a decisive role in weaving Aristotelian ethics into Christian theology; but they would also agree Aquinas is clearly the first systematic attempt to do so. see, J. Warren Smith, Christian Grace and Pagan Virtue: The Theological Foundation of Ambrose's Ethics, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). 
            [8] It is important to understand that the “cardinal” virtues were not inherently developed by the Christian church. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, “cardinal” here is derives from the latin cardinalis, which means something which acts as a “hinge,” or, more applicable to a moral discussion, something that is “pivotal.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 1952), p. 76.
            [9] N.T. Wright presents a positions which uses neuroscience to partly explain this transformation. See, Wright, After You Believe, pp. 37-43.
            [10] Taylor summarizing our contemporary moral landscape with three concepts: modern inwardness, the affirmation of everyday life, and the expressivist notion of nature. Taylor, Sources of the Self, p. x.
            [11] For the former, technically referred to as “deontological” ethics, see: Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, 2nd Edition, Thomas K. Abbott, trans. (London: Longmans, Green, 1879). For the latter, technically referred to as “consequentialist” or “utilitarian” ethics, see: Jeremy Bentham, “Of the Principle of Utility,” in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789; reprint, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879); John Stuart Mill, “What Utilitarianism Is,” in Utilitarianism, 7th ed. (London: Longmans, Green, 1879).
            [12] In Taylor’s words, we are attempting to operate with an “impoverished philosophical language,” which requires an “exercise in retrieval” for its correction. Taylor, Sources of the Self, pp. x-xi.
            [13] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1981, 1984, 2007), p. 2.
            [14] Taylor has several definitions of “social imaginary”: “the way that we collectively imagine, even pre-theoretically, our social life”; or, “the generally shared background understandings of society, which make it possible to function as it does.” Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007), pp. 146; 323.
            [15] Alexis de Tocqueville, “Two Weeks in the Wilderness,” in Democracy in America: and Two Essays on America, Gerald E. Bevan, trans. (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003), p. 950.
            [16] For an understanding of the concept of “retrieval,” see: Hurbert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor, Retrieving Realism (Cambridge, MAA: Harvard University Press, 2015), pp. 27-54; MacIntrye, After Virtue, pp. 109ff; Gavin Ortlund, Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), p.13.
            [17] Taylor, A Secular Age, pp. 1-4; 20-2.
            [18] Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age:Responding to the Church’s Obsession with Youthfulness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1017), pp.108-9
            [19] 2 Corinthians 10:4, CSB.
            [20] Taylor, A Secular Age, pp. 3-13.
            [21] Taylor, A Secular Age, pp. 300-4.
            [22] Taylor, A Secular Age, pp. 594-600.
            [23] For a description of ‘theological theology,’ see John Webster, ‘Theological Theology,’ in Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (New York: T&T Clark International, 2005), pp. 11-32; and, Darren Sarisky, ‘Theological Theology,’ in Theological Theology: Essays in Honour of John Webster, eds. R. David Nelson, Darren Sarisky, and Justin Stratis (New York: T&T Clark, 2015), pp. 1-6.
            [24] 2 Corinthians 10:5, CSB

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