February 5, 2009
Vol. 28 No. 9

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    Political scientist, philosopher to discuss A Secular Age with University religion scholars

    By Josh Schonwald
    News Office

    As the Industrial Age revved up at the beginning of the 20th century and as human control of the environment increased, many leading thinkers believed that religion and its social significance would diminish in the modern world.

    That belief, known as The Secularization Thesis, proved to be massively false, said William Schweiker, Director of the Martin Marty Center and the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics in the Divinity School. Religion has not only thrived in fundamentalist societies, but also in so-called secular societies.

    The author of one of the most ambitious and influential efforts to explain this seeming paradox—why religion has not proved to be antithetical to secularism—will come to Chicago for a public lecture at the Divinity School on Friday, Feb. 13.

    Charles Taylor, professor emeritus of political science and philosophy at McGill University, is widely regarded as one of the most influential contemporary philosophers and renowned for his work on Hegel. The author of 20 books, Taylor has influenced many religious scholars, but it was his 2007 work A Secular Age that has had a profound impact on religious scholarship.

    It is unique not only its historical sweep, but in its theoretical sophistication, said Schweiker. For the past year, a group of 10 to 15 Divinity School faculty members has regularly convened to discuss the nearly 900-page work. “It’s reframed the whole debate about secularism and religion.”

    The centerpiece of Taylor’s visit will be his 4:30 p.m. lecture in Swift Hall, in which he will discuss his book, which examines the role of religion in a secular age—and what happens when a society in which it is virtually impossible not to believe in God becomes one in which faith is only one possibility among others.

    Following Taylor’s lecture, two Divinity School scholars, Schweiker and Paul Mendes-Flohr, Professor of Modern Jewish Thought, will present responses; Kristine Culp, Dean of Disciples Divinity House and Associate Professor of Theology, will moderate.

    Also during his visit, Taylor will engage in a private seminar with Divinity School faculty, and will hear responses to his work from Hans Dieter Betz, the Shailer Mathews Professor Emeritus; Willemein Otten, Professor of the Theology and History of Christianity; Richard Rosengarten, Dean of the Divinity School; W. Clark Gilpin, the Margaret E. Burton Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Christianity and Theology; Kevin Hector, Assistant Professor of Theology and the Philosophy of Religion; and Martin Riesebrodt, Professor of the Sociology of Religion. “The fact that it engages with such a wide range of scholars gives you a sense of the scope of the book,” said Schweiker.

    Divinity School faculty also are excited about Taylor’s visit because, Schweiker said, “it offers an opportunity to educate him.” Taylor’s work is a tremendous accomplishment, but, in part, because of its sweeping nature of integrating history, sociology, philosophy, literature, art and theology, it has “inevitable points where clarification and amplification about the specific import for scholars of religion come to the fore,” added Rosengarten.

    “For example, Taylor does not discuss the rise and development of modern historical-critical study of the Bible,” Rosengarten said, “which many scholars of religion regard as a central ‘site’ where questions of religious authority play out in modernity.”

    During last year’s discussion, faculty members raised important questions about what is missing from the work. Several of the school’s theologians have raised questions about Taylor’s choices of the religious figures he profiles.

    Taylor was eager to get feedback from religious scholars. “It’s a chance for him to get detailed and nuanced responses, said Schweiker. “He’s very excited.”

    Schweiker said he hopes a key message is shared. “In our age, you simply cannot ignore the study of religion and understand the world we’re living in. Religion is now integral to the many other ways of studying societies and cultures on a global scale.”

    While some may view A Secular Age as a new direction for Taylor, Gilpin sees the book as a continuation of the philosopher’s interest in understanding modernity. In one of his earlier works, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, Taylor examined the way modernity has changed how humans think about the nature of self and its relationship to society. “I think A Secular Age is another way for him to pose the big question,” said Gilpin. “What constitutes modernity? And how is it different from earlier ages?

    For more information on Taylor’s visit, go to http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/about/.

    To review some of the conversation surrounding A Secular Age, visit, “The Immanent Frame,” a blog created by the Social Science Research Council that hosts discussion about secularism and religion: http://www.ssrc.org/blogs/immanent_frame/.