An Interview with Goodwin Prize Finalist Matthew Wiley on Charles Taylor and the Secular Age

Awards for the Goodwin Prize are given to graduate students whose essays demonstrate creative theological thinking, excellence in scholarship, faithful witness to the Christian tradition, and engagement with the community of faith.

An Honorable Mention of $200 goes to Matthew Wiley (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) for the essay, “Sacramental Theology in a Secular Age: Charles Taylor and the Evangelical Church.”

What inspired you to pursue an advanced degree in theology? 

Well, I guess I’ve been interested in theology for a while now. I studied it in college, but in some ways that seemed to provide even more questions when thinking about God, his church, and his world. So, I felt led to continue to study theology as an important part of my preparation for pastoral ministry. 

What do you hope to do with your degree?  

In the long term, I am hoping to pastor a church. So in many ways, that’s the main thing I’m trusting this degree is preparing me for. More immediately, I’m applying to PhD programs and am hoping that someone will let me study and write for a few more years as I continue to be shaped and prepared for pastoral ministry.

Where do you see connections between your personal faith, your intellectual work and the other aspects of your life?  

The blessing and curse of studying theology is that it has everything to do with my faith and other aspects of my life. A lot of my schooling thus far has forced me to think about maturity and godliness in very concrete ways. After all, sometimes sanctification looks like getting up at 5:00am to brush the snow off your car in order to make it on time to your Hebrew midterm, and to learn to do this without complaining. And the things that occupy my mind for most of the day in school are brought out through my experience in the local church. How does my clearer understanding of Chalcedonian Christology inform the way I think about leading my church small group? In more ways than I initially imagined. 

How would you summarize your paper for someone without a theological background? 

Basically, this paper is about doing theology in a world where belief in God is one option among others. A philosopher named Charles Taylor wrote a book in 2007 called A Secular Age, which gives an account of this shift (usually referred to as secularization) that has been occurring over the past 400 years or so in the West. Part of the shift is what Taylor calls a ‘disenchantment’ of the world, where the social imaginaries of people have been limited to a more immanent understanding of their daily experiences. So, the paper is about how to do theology in this ‘disenchanted’ age. How do we speak about divine action in a world where almost everything can be explained naturally? What can we say about the Lord’s Supper when the plausibility structures we have in place buffer us from a sense of transcendence? In short, this paper is about how to recover a sacramental theology in a secular age. 

How might this award make a difference in your life? 

It’s a rare thing to have someone read your work and honor it, and it’s remarkably affirming. Especially as I am considering doing more school, it inspires me to keep going.

How do you spend your time when you are not studying? 

I like to read fiction and poetry and am glad when I get the chance to do so. A good cup of coffee is a gift to me, so I find myself drinking that in perhaps gluttonous ways. But really, I’m just an extrovert at heart who loves nothing more than spending a lazy afternoon sitting around a living room with people who are dear to me.  

Any other comments? 

There are a few people that I would like to thank. First, thanks to Karen Marsh and the Board of Directors at Theological Horizons for offering and awarding this prize. Also, thanks to the donors who support this ministry and are willing to make this competition possible—may their tribe increase! Second, I’d like to thank my professors for their support and encouragement along the way. Thanks to Dr. Ashish Varma for introducing me to Taylor’s work, and to Dr. Harold Netland for letting me write the paper and giving much needed suggestions as I did. Finally, thanks to my church, Evanston Bible Fellowship, for showing me what is real.