As an historian and an expert on Christianity and modern secularization, associate professor of history Dr. Kevin Flatt sees an empty pocket of knowledge — one that he is well positioned to fill. Flatt’s ultimate goal is to produce a textbook-style narrative history of the secularization of Western civilization. With help from a generous Zylstra grant, he can really dig into the work in store.
“The secularization of Western thought, culture and society in recent centuries is one of the most important developments in the history of Western civilization,” Flatt observes. “Yet there are few books that treat this subject as a whole, and fewer still that address it with an approach that is historically grounded and theoretically sound.” Flatt aims to change all that.
As he notes, many sociologists have written on the general process of secularization, but these books deal with abstract patterns, not historical events. Even historians dealing in secularization have tended to focus on particular parts of the story rather than a comprehensive whole. Charles Taylor’s famed tome A Secular Age comes close, but weighing in at a whopping 874 pages, it is not for the faint of heart. Neither does it deal much with historical narrative. Flatt’s book will.
With the grant money awarded through his Zylstra grant, Flatt will be able to research a wide array of material in the discipline and develop a proposal for a book that he has been preparing to write, in one way or another, for his entire professional life.
As an initiative of the Redeemer Centre for Christian Scholarship, the Zylstra grants are intended to promote research from a Christian perspective. So how, exactly, does a history of secularization fit the bill?
Flatt pinpoints the major misconception that modern culture tells itself about itself: that it has progressed beyond the need for religion. In fact, our society ought not to be so certain that it’s left religion behind. Take some of the thornier issues of public debate, Flatt argues, such as reasonable accommodation for Muslim immigrants or hegemonic perspectives on sexuality. “What people think about these things is often rooted in imagined historical narratives” — narratives about religion. Whether or not Canadians spend part of their holy days in a pew, religion still shapes their perspective.
“The marginalization of God from first public, and increasingly, private life throughout the Western world over the past few centuries has to rank as one of the greatest setbacks for the kingdom of God in Western history.”
Academics studying secularization no longer believe that modernity automatically produces a decline in religious faith, but that storyline is still referenced almost everywhere else. Under the influence of Redeemer’s neo-Calvinist traditions and armed with a CV that boasts plenty of popular writing, Flatt is well-suited to reframe the story from a faithful perspective for a wider audience.
Flatt sums up this project’s importance: “The marginalization of God from first public, and increasingly, private life throughout the Western world over the past few centuries has to rank as one of the greatest setbacks for the kingdom of God in Western history. Investigating how this occurred and explaining it in an accurate but accessible format is an important step in equipping Christians to not only think rightly about this change, but to better resist the secularizing pressures that surround us.”