What Does It Mean to Be Secular?

What comes to mind when you hear the word “secular”? Godlessness? Anti-religious sentiment? Apathy toward faith? Our world is often labeled secular, but when pressed we may not know what that really means. In Charles Taylor’s magisterial work, A Secular Age, he offers a definition and explanation that I’ve found insightful and helpful. It’s been insightful because it shows me how to understand the modern Western world I live in—a place where belief in God has been let go in the wind behind culture and popular discourse, drifting in the trees in back of our words and actions. It’s helpful because it suggests how I might talk to people who desperately need the God I love and worship. And that all comes down to a question we might ask any human being: what do you choose?

Defining “Secular”

       While many of us grew up equating the term “secular” with “non-Christian,” Charles Taylor paints a fuller portrait for us, something that helps us see behind the colored movements, ideologies, images, and unspoken values that take hold in our culture, what he calls our social imaginary.[1] Secularity, he says, is “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among many others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”[2] One option among many others—that’s the key phrase. He goes on: “We live in a condition where we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on. We cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time, looking sideways, living our faith also in a condition of doubt and uncertainty.”[3]

"A secular age is an age of options. And the proliferation of options isn’t just tolerated; it’s encouraged."

When we hear “secularity,” Taylor encourages us to hear “options.” And while this seems obvious to us, a fundamental reality, he goes to great lengths to show just how strange this is, even calling it a “titanic change in our western civilization.” Again, the change is put in terms of options that were not there before.

We have changed not just from a condition where most people lived “naively” in a construal (part Christian, part related to “spirits” of pagan origin) as simply reality, to one in which almost no one is capable of this, but all see their options as one among many. We all learn to navigate between two standpoints: an “engaged” one in which we live as best we can the reality our standpoint opens to us; and a “disengaged” one in which we are able to see ourselves as occupying one standpoint among a range of possible ones, with which we have in various ways to coexist.[4]

A secular age is an age of options. And the proliferation of options isn’t just tolerated; it’s encouraged. That’s why secularism and pluralism go hand in hand. The question is, How did we get here as a culture? How did we move from the sixteenth century, where atheism and agnosticism were, in the words of Vizzini from The Princess Bride, “inconceivable!” to the twenty-first century, where Vizzini’s judgment could easily be slapped on a professing Christian?

The Immanentizing of All Things

       If you want a developed and historically nuanced answer to that question, of course, you’ll have to journey through the expansive country of A Secular Age. But there is a way to summarize it in terms familiar to Reformed theology. God is described as both transcendent and immanent, both above us and with us in daily life. But over the last few centuries, there have been ceaseless efforts to make all of reality purely immanent. Taylor calls this the “immanent frame,” the blocking out of all things transcendent. What takes the place of the transcendent God, who created and sovereignly governs all things? Well, nothing really, because you can’t replace God. But what has tried to take God’s place is what Taylor calls “exclusive humanism,” which is “a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing.”[5] In layman’s terms, exclusive humanism just means, “This world is all we’ve got, so we better make the best of it.” There is no transcendent, no God, so we should expend all our energy to make this world and our tiny lives within it flourish. And that’s why Taylor concludes that “a secular age is one in which the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing becomes conceivable; or better, it falls within the range of an imaginable life for masses of people.”[6]

       There’s one major problem with this: it’s doomed to futility. It’s doomed because there’s no such thing as a purely “immanent frame.” And that’s because something within that frame, within each human soul, reflects the light of transcendence: the image of God.

       This is one of the many reasons why Cornelius Van Til was so militant in maintaining the Creator-creature distinction. What’s at stake isn’t just the holiness of God; it’s our livelihood as creatures everywhere dependent on and in need of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Without the transcendent God, there would be no immanent frame, and there’s no purpose, no meaning, no hope when we close ourselves off from God. It doesn’t matter how secular we become, how many options we have. The options are ash in the wind. We can’t outgrow the transcendent, because, as Van Til wrote, “man can never in any sense outgrow his creaturehood.”[7]

       Of course, a culture of the “immanent frame” doesn’t want to hear this. However, that didn’t keep Van Til from saying it. In A Christian Theory of Knowledge, he wrote,

Sinners hate the idea of a clearly identifiable authority over them. They do not want to meet God. They would gladly make themselves believe that there is no clearly discernible, identifiable revelation of their Creator and Judge anywhere to be found in the universe. God’s work of redemption through Christ, therefore, comes into enemy territory. It comes to save from themselves those who do not want to be saved, because they think that they do not need to be saved.[8]

Oh, but the immanent frame needs saving. The secular West has so many options now in the immanent frame that it’s going dizzy. And it will continue to go dizzy. Our secular world will spin with the vertigo of veracity—the truth that will not let it go. In fact, Taylor notes how even in the present day, the fallout for this immanentized secularity aches in us. He calls it the “malaise of immanence,” a disease that makes us doubt the significance of all our significant moments. It brings out a feeling of emptiness and weightlessness we can’t stand.

The sense of emptiness, or non-resonance . . . . can come in the feeling that the quotidian is emptied of deeper resonance, is dry, flat; the things which surround us are dead, ugly, empty; and the way we organize them, shape them, arrange them, in order to live has no meaning, beauty, depth, sense. There can be a kind of “nausee” before this meaningless world.[9]

Since we were made for the high and holy, for the transcendent and exhaustively personal God, “the enclosure in the immanent leaves a hole here.”[10] Taylor suggests that returning to transcendence isn’t necessarily the answer. But you and I know better. Turning our shoulders toward the Trinity is the only answer. That’s why the word “repent” echoes in the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus himself. Without a turning, there is no telling where we’ll go. In fact, it won’t matter, because darkness will have flooded every direction.

"Our secular world will spin with the vertigo of veracity—the truth that will not let it go."

The Conflict in All People

       We need the transcendent God not just in our lives but as the gravitational center. We’re pulled to him at all times anyway, just as we’re drawn to beauty. And we don’t just want God to be present with us; we want to be somehow inside his fellowship, enveloped by a love that gives meaning and purpose and passion. That’s what C. S. Lewis had in mind when he penned one of my favorite essays: “The Weight of Glory.”

We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. . . . At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.[11]

Getting in, of course, would mean leaving the immanent frame, leaving all the options of secularity for the beautiful truth of God’s indwelling presence, bowing to the transcendent Trinity to gain entrance to the home of glory.

       Until then, people will live in conflict. They’ll be flooded with immanent options even while the transcendent calls to them, making them inexcusable (Rom. 1:20). Conflict in the human heart surfaces in contradictions—between profession and action, between claim and candor, between pessimism and hope. A secular culture is a culture in conflict.

What Do You Choose?

       If being secular means being flooded with options, we all have to choose. That’s what we see people all around us doing: choosing. And most of them are choosing something immanent, something bound to flourishing in this life, something blind to the light of the beautiful Trinity. But we can’t turn away from the beauty of God; we’re bound to him as image bearers. We all know him and exist as we do only because of his character and grace. We are because he is.

"We all know God and exist as we do only because of his character and grace. We are because he is."

       In the end, if we do end up associating “secular” with “Godlessness” no one can be truly secular because no one can be free of the conflict. People can’t remove the Godseed buried in their bones. And so maybe being secular means being content with conflict and calloused to eternity. If that’s the case, the church has the task of pointing out conflict and lifting up chins.

Related Resources


[1] Taylor, A Secular Age, 159–211. He defines the social imaginary as “the way in which our contemporaries imagine the societies they inhabit and sustain” (161). More specifically, he is thinking “of the ways in which they imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations which are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images which underlie these expectations” (171).

[2] Taylor, A Secular Age, 3.

[3] Taylor, A Secular Age, 11.

[4] Taylor, A Secular Age, 12.

[5] Taylor, A Secular Age, 18.

[6] Taylor, A Secular Age, 19–20.

[7] Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed., ed. William Edgar (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), 40.

[8] Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, ed. K. Scott Oliphint (Glenside, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2023), 19.

[9] Taylor, A Secular Age, 308.

[10] Taylor, A Secular Age, 309.

[11] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 1980), 42–43.

Pierce Taylor Hibbs (MAR, ThM Westminster Theological Seminary) is Senior Writer & Communication Specialist for Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the award-winning author of many books, including Struck Down but Not Destroyed, The Book of Giving, and The Great Lie. You can learn more about his work at piercetaylorhibbs.com

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