Faith In A Secular Age Conference Q&A

On March 1-2, the Wheatley Institution and Maxwell Institute will sponsor the “Faith in a Secular Age” conference at Brigham Young University. The conference was organized by Miranda Wilcox, Sam Brown, and Jim Faulconer.

This conference will feature topical sessions in which Latter-day Saint and Catholic scholars consider many of the intellectual questions that have animated modern thought. The presenters will consider whether, with help from framing proposed by people like philosopher Charles Taylor and theologian N.T. Wright, there are resources in our faith traditions that might help us broaden the horizons within which we have tended to approach questions relevant to belief and practice in contemporary society.

No registration is required. All sessions are free and open to the public on the campus of Brigham Young University. Free visitor parking is available by the Museum of Art on Friday, and all parking lots are open to visitors on Saturday. The sessions on Friday will be in the Harold B. Lee Library Auditorium, and the sessions on Saturday will be in the auditorium in the Talmage Building (1170 TMCB).

We were grateful to sit down (in the virtual realm) with the conference organizers for a few questions and answers.

What do you hope to achieve with this conference?
Sam: I would love to see more Latter-day Saint intellectual and religious life able to engage our place in the late-modern world not just by way of capitulation and accommodation on the one hand or isolationism on the other. I’d like us to be vibrant contributors from within our tradition and community. I’m not taking about arming fighters in the culture wars but in solving real and important intellectual and spiritual problems that engage what is best in the world without abandoning what is best in our living heritage.

Miranda: I hope that scholars of faith will discern how their faith tradition intersects with, and may have been shaped by, broader secular forces but also perceive new ways that their faith traditions might offer alternatives to exclusively secular culture.

Jim: I hope that the Latter-day Saint community will come to understand the degree to which the view of the world that often seems natural to them and is often at odds with their faith is constructed. It has been and could be otherwise. At the same time, I hope they’ll find that our beliefs not only stand up to scrutiny, but also can strengthen our understanding of the larger world in ways that may not be open to others.

Who is the target audience for this conference?
All: We hope that Latter-day Saints interested in the life of the mind and religion would enjoy this, whether students, faculty, or community members. We also hope that people of other faith communities would enjoy the presentations and conversations.

What inspired this conference?
All: Our proximate inspirations are Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) and N.T. Wright’s 2018 Gifford lectures, “Discerning the Dawn: History, Eschatology and New Creation.” Both thinkers explore credible options to other forms of knowing in the academy, where religious faith and intellectual inquiry are often assumed to have suffered an acrimonious divorce. Both thinkers identify and trace how widely shared cultural and philosophical presumptions have conditioned our contemporary world view in ways that unnecessarily constrain our ability to think and know. They discover resources within in their faith traditions (Taylor is Catholic and Wright is Anglican) to critique some of the presumptions of secularity as well as resources that to broaden these horizons. We want our speakers to engage thinkers like Taylor and Wright as models and address how as Latter-day Saints or Catholics they might grapple with the dimension of secularity they have been invited to examine.

Sam: The conference’s title reflects our interest in the utility of Charles Taylor’s influential approach to clarifying the intellectual infrastructure of modern secularity. I think Charles Taylor is the brightest philosopher of the twentieth century. He’s certainly the one who has most affected my own thinking. He’s a Canadian (mixed French and English heritage) Catholic philosopher who helped deal with nationalist conflicts within Quebec. He started writing about Hegel decades ago and has published several influential books that work to understand what we are and what the world is in the late modern world. He’s much more irenic than some of the aggressive traditionalists (e.g., Alasdair McIntyre) but still pushes readers of all descriptions to think harder about what is going on in the world and how to make sense of it.

Jim: Besides all of the things that Sam said, Taylor’s the thinker, perhaps the only one, who has been able to translate much of what happened in 20th- and early 21st-century German and French thought into something that North Americans can understand. Though he doesn’t fall into the jargon of people like Heidegger or Jean-Luc Marion, he understands them and the issues they discuss, has his own take on those issues, and can explain himself well.

Miranda: N.T. Wright is an Anglican theologian, biblical scholar, and retired bishop. In the Gifford lectures, he traces how the re-adoption of Epicurean attitudes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries among Western European intellectuals profoundly impacted the trajectory of natural theology, a field that investigates the relation of God and the world. These thinkers advocated a profound rupture been heaven and earth. However, Wright suggests that exploring ancient Jewish and Christian cosmology and eschatology, the roots of the Christian tradition, challenges the Epicurean assumptions and offers a renewing message of the profound love of creation. This message resonates well with the Latter-day Saint vision of rupture healed and creation united.

Why did you invite Catholic scholars to the conference?
All: Although some Protestants have taken to Taylor’s thought, the reality that much of the theology underlying modes of secularity that don’t seem so persuasive comes from within Protestantism. At the back of my mind I always have that moment late in Joseph Smith’s life when he realized that he had more in common with the Catholics than any other religious group. It also seems that Catholicism has deep roots in many of the issues that feel importantly Latter-day Saint—persistence of the village in the city, the interrelationships of church and scripture, the importance of some kind of hierarchy.

What’s the story about the keynote address?
All: Dr. Gregory is an accomplished historian and professor at University of Notre Dame. His Unintended Reformation is a dazzling treatment of the side roads and detours of the Protestant Reformation. He focuses especially on the ways that our notion of the “good life” (living well) has changed to a model of the “goods life” (living with lots of stuff) and that the idea of “quality of life” shifted from the tenor and beauty of a life well lived into a strict utilitarianism that counts dollars and productivity instead. In his keynote Dr. Gregory be talking about the ways American consumer culture infiltrated and shaped the Catholic church in America.

What about those who don’t live in Utah? Anything for them?
All: Although we think people will love to be at the conference in person, we are mindful of those who can’t travel. The presentations will be filmed, and the videos will be available on the Wheatley Institution’s website. In addition, the presenters will shape their talks into essays which will be published in a collected volume we will submit to a university press, although that will take some time to happen.


  1. This looks like a great event.

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