Arminianism & the Rise of Secularism?

by W. Jackson Watts

Recently I’ve been lumbering through Charles Taylor’s widely discussed book, A Secular Age. Published in 2007 by Harvard’s Belknap Press, this dense, 800+ pager (with endnotes) is an expanded presentation of the material Taylor originally gave for the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 1999.

A Secular Age is a difficult book to read for many reasons, its length being one of many. I don’t think it is so much the professional or cultural divide of him being a bilingual, Catholic philosopher from Canada. I think it is largely because he is making his argument by telling a story, and that story brings together history, theology, philosophy, sociology, cultural analysis, and more. In that sense, it’s a very interdisciplinary story—one that must be read slowly and carefully. (Thankfully, the Gospel Coalition has called attention in several posts to James K.A. Smith’s helpful engagement with Taylor, see here, here, and here.)

One of Taylor’s remarks that caught my eye comes at the end of a lengthy episode when he is describing how the Reformation contributed to the disenchantment of the world that we commonly associate with  secularism, or modernity more specifically. Most sociologists explain disenchantment as a feature of modernity in which the former, dominant outlook of the world as being charged with spirits, demons, and moral forces (including the activity of God), eventually recedes from dominance, and ultimately disappears.

Taylor says a lot of interesting things about this transition, and how the Reformation contributed (intentionally or not) to this process of disenchantment. Yet then he provides the one reference to Arminianism that can be found in the entire book:

Of course, we could go on holding to the express belief that only God’s power makes this possible; but in fact the confidence has grown that we, people like us, successful, well-behaved people, in our well-ordered society/stratum, are beneficiaries of God’s grace—as against those depraved, disordered classes, marginal groups, Papists, or whatever…As a general proposition, of course, it remains true that the majority of humankind is destined for damnation, and that the minority of the saved are very lucky; but in practice, we are confident that we belong in this minority, and that the universe is unfolding as it should….I have described a change as it might happen among the less reflective and devout members of the community. But the sense of greater control also effected the more reflective and devout. Thus Arminianism arises after a time in all Calvinist societies, provoking as it does revivals of predestinarian orthodoxy, but then returning in force again. This development was inevitable, in view of the very success of Calvinism in changing people’s lives [1].

It’s important to note that this quotation appears in the larger context of a fairly sophisticated argument about how Protestant doctrine’s rejection or revision of sacramentalism contributed to the rise of secularism. This argument exceeds the space I have here, but I want to simple pull on the specific thread here about Arminianism and control.

It’s difficult to tell if Taylor is arguing whether this is simply a tug-of-war between two religious groups contending for market share (more of a social development), or if the issue is actually the way these two traditions address the quest for human control and autonomy. I think it’s possible that he means it in both ways, but I think the latter way is most relevant to those trying to advance an accurate understanding of Arminianism today.

Our Challenge

It has been argued that one of the reasons Calvinism receded in influence for a significant period in early American history was because of how its assertion of God’s sovereignty wasn’t congenial to the broader movements of freedom, economic opportunity, and expressive individualism in mainstream culture. This isn’t really a philosophical argument, though obviously ideas have consequences (and antecedents). This is more of a part of the story that a lot of American religious historians tell.

Conversely, it would seem that Arminianism is a much more plausible outlook to modern Christians because its assertions about God’s sovereignty and human freedom are formulated differently. Arminianism doesn’t have to compete with the same vigor for the same religious market-share because it has the cultural sensibilities of freedom-loving, but also God-loving people on its side.

I think this argument, as reasonable as it may sound to some, doesn’t really have the kind of explanatory power or scope than some people think. Let me offer one reason why I think this is the case.

It seems to reduce negative cultural change (like the slide toward secularism) more of the type of subtraction story that Taylor himself rejects.

By “subtraction story,” Taylor means the way apologists for secularism act like the move toward secularism was just a journey of being able to discard certain elements from the past, like beliefs in myth, magic, or spirits, in order to arrive at a moment of unveiling what was really there all along: nothing! Apologists for secularism think that because we’ve shed or subtracted our religious dogmas and myths, we’ve now gotten to the truth. They fail to acknowledge where they have actively substituted exclusive humanism in the place of the religious dogmas.

Similar to the argument about Arminianism, if one claims that people by default are Arminians (as sometimes I’ve heard Michael Horton and others in the Reformed crowd imply), they would have to show where some act of substitution has actually taken place. Yet they cannot; If the doctrines of grace require unpacking and explicating for those in churches from the Calvinist tradition, then it seems like those with an Arminian heritage would have had to have been exposed to confessional teachings from James Arminius for them to even be thought to be “of the Arminian heritage.” Otherwise, the “default setting,” as it were, may be some combination of beliefs about God’s existence, human freedom, Wesley’s hymns perhaps, and a certain reading of Bible. But it won’t be confessional Arminianism.

I suspect most persons in mainstream evangelicalism have found certain theologies more appealing because of how they seemed to gel with their own privately-held beliefs. But in terms of default settings, I think you have more of a little bit of this tradition, mixed in with a little bit of that tradition, situated against the backdrop of American cultural influences that all of us have been shaped by.

One of the ways Taylor’s work is helpful is because of how he doesn’t focus on secularism as some disappearance act of the church or religious influence from the state (Secularism 1), or even the decline of religious belief and practice (Secularism 2). He does discuss these, but he is decidedly focused on a third type of secularism, which has to do with the conditions of our beliefs. In other words, the important “secular question” to explore is how is it that we have come to the place where what once was the default position for most, has now become simply an option among many, and not a very good one?

Secularism calls attention to how the conditions of certain kinds of beliefs or commitments in this age are under examination. That we would be choosers of our religion in a way that we wouldn’t have been in 1500 bespeaks secularization. Secularity, in this way of understanding it, “is a matter of the whole context of understanding in which our moral, spiritual or religious experience and search takes place” [2].

I think this is a fruitful way of studying history and cultural change. It’s also a helpful way of thinking about the history of doctrine. It reminds us that (1) Some beliefs do take hold at certain times for reasons which sometimes aren’t all that theological in nature, and yet (2) If we believe that the pursuit of sound doctrine is a moral responsibility for believers, then there will always be a deliberative component to our pursuit. That is, the mind, heart, and will are involved in the adoption of sound, biblical beliefs. Though we seek diligently and humbly to understand “the material conditions of our existence,” we don’t have to be a slave to them.

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[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007), 84.

[2] Taylor, 3.

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