Part 2. Reform: The Rage for Order
Many societies have moments of 'reform', but Taylor wants to make the case that the rage for Reform in the Latin West was unique and was central to the emergence there of the secular society Westerners introduced to the world. As described in Part I, a system of spiritual hierarchical complementarity developed in the Christian West in which almost everyone was nominally Christian, but some Christians, a minority, felt compelled to leave the world to go into monasteries, while ordinary householders, magistrates, soldiers, etc., lived with varying degrees of religious commitment in the secular world. There was in that old Catholic arrangement a sense of higher and lower vocations--or vocations at different speeds--that correlated with spiritual/secular.
The secular majority, like humans everywhere, was concerned with ordinary human flourishing, and until the modern period lived in an enchanted world in which they had to contend with malign spirits and propitiate benign ones in order to secure it for them and their families. The monastic minority also lived in an enchanted world, but the religious task for them was to transcend all of that by aligning one's life with a higher "Good" that required leaving behind all the sublunar concerns of the world and to live according to different norms. As early as the 3rd century, this minority faction left the "world" to live as hermits in the Egyptian desert, and then later, as the Roman empire in the West collapsed, they went into the monasteries founded on the Benedictine Rule.
These spiritual virtuosi were a sign to everyone living in the "world" that there was a higher possibility, that there was something more to which one could aspire. But since that life had norms that required renunciatory practices and disciplines, it was a life chosen only by a minority. It's the same in Buddhist societies. As with all things human, some who rose to this post-Axial, soul-transformative spiritual challenge were more successful than others. But that some were successful cannot be denied, the great saints, mystics, philosophers from Hildegard of Bingen and Hugh of St. Victor, to Francis, Bonaventure, and Aquinas, through Eckhart, Tauler, a Kempis.These are all people who climbed to the mountain top, breathed in its cold, thin air and returned to tell the rest of us what they experienced about the Real there.
For the majority, Christian and Germanic or Celtic pagan practices were merged syncretically, but in a way that was more pre-Axial than post-Axial, more about ordinary human flourishing than about spiritual transformation. The majority's religious practice was mostly concerned with managing their lives in an enchanted world in which you propitiated spiritual beings to support you in your hopes for long life, prosperity, fertility, and success in one's projects.
There was an assumption among elites, carried to an extreme later with Calvinist ideas of predestination, that most people were damned, and the proof of it was the dissolute, quasi-pagan lives most ordinary people lived. As suggested in Part I, the impulse for top-down reform to raise the standards of practice for secular Christians began in the 11th Century as Europe emerged from the "Dark Ages". (There were also popular spiritual movements linked to some of the people listed above that arose from below, but we'll talk about those another time.) And so a well-intended desire on the part of elites began to take hold, which was to close the gap between the "higher" spiritual life lived by those in the monasteries and the spiritually lax lives of ordinary people in the "world". The emergence of the Dominicans and Franciscans in the 13th Century was largely impelled by this desire to take the spirituality out of the monasteries and into the world. Instead of demanding that everyone go to the mountain top, they sought to find ways to bring the mountain top to those living in the lowlands.
Calvinist societies continue the reform traditions of the late Middle Ages, but on a much more ambitious level. The problem for the Calvinists lay in two dilemmas they faced: one, in trying to eliminate the two-tiered vocational system; two, in maintaining an attitude of humility as they took on this ambitious task of radical reform. The best among the reformers, whether Catholic or Protestant, knew how difficult it was to zealously take on ambitious projects consciously justified as for the greater glory of God, but which in reality unconsciously were for the greater glory of one's self.
So in dealing with the first dilemma, the radical Calvinist reformers utterly rejected the idea of Christianity at different speeds because they were committed to the idea of equality of all before God--how can there be first- and second-class Christians? So that meant that they had to pick one speed, and expect everybody to run at it. So where do you set the speed? Clearly not everyone, even in the Age of Faith, is equally pious or serious in his spiritual commitments. And even for the pious householder who wants to live a righteous life, there seems to be a bedeviling paradox in that on the one hand God wants him to flourish and be happy, and on the other serious Christians need to distinguish themselves from the quasi-pagan, drunken, fornicating, relic worshipping, saint-propitiating nominal Christians who were more or less the norm in medieval Christendom.
How do you hold the two together? The dilemma was faced in the late medieval period by pre-Reformation Catholic reformers who wanted to raise standards of practice:
Any attempt to tie it down faces two opposite dangers. One is to set the element of renunciation so high as to make the life of flourishing a travesty of itself [e.g., don't take any pleasure or joy from sex]. The other is, to set a bare minimum. Think of the minimum necessary for salvation: keeping certain important commandments. But then we know even these will often be broken; so in the end the minimum demands simply that you repent in time.
The end result here is that an inherent danger built into this tension itself now befalls us. We clearly set the renunciative vocations above the ordinary lay ones. There are first- and second-class Christians; the second being in a sense carried by the first. We fall back into hierarchical complementarity.
Whereas the crucial truth that we wanted to hold on to was the complementarity of all lives and vocations, where we all serve under God, and can't put some above others.
So there seems to be a dilemma here, between demanding too much renunciation from the ordinary person on one hand, and relaxing these demands, but at the cost of the multi-speed system, on the other. (81)
So the Catholics tinkered with reforms here and there, but pretty much stayed with the multi-speed system, and do so to this day. They Christianized some pagan practices, substituted relics and other sacramentals for pagan talismans, introduced or maintained propitiatory practices to the saints and the Virgin, whose merit the people could call upon for their own benefit, and we all know how this kind of thinking went off the rails with the indulgences controversy. But--
Radical Protestantism utterly rejects the multi-speed system, and in the name of this abolishes the supposedly higher, renunciative vocations; but also builds renunciation into ordinary life. It avoids the second horn but comes close to the first danger above: loading ordinary flourishing with a burden of renunciation it cannot carry. It in fact fills out the picture of what the properly sanctified life would be with a severe set of moral demands. This seems to be unavoidable in the logic of rejecting [hierarchical] complementarity, because if we really must hold that all vocations are equally demanding, and don't want this to be a leveling down, then all must be at the most exigent pitch.
Here is where it becomes significant that Protestantism is in the line of continuity with medieval reform, attempting to raise general standards, not satisfied with a world in which only a few integrally fulfill the gospel, but trying to make certain pious practices absolutely general.
But in view of the importance now given to social order, the generalization of moral demands involved not only placing high moral demands on one's own life, but also putting order into society. This was not seen as involving a watering down of the standards of personal morality, but as completing them. Calvin held that we have to control the vices of the whole society, lest the vicious infect the others. We are all responsible for each other, and for society as a whole. (81-82)
In other words, for the Calvinists, the high standards of conduct the best of them followed would become the same standard for the worst of them. They demanded that everyone live in the thin air of the mountain top, even if they had no real experience of transcendence in living there. And the ideal exemplar for holiness changed from the extraordinary holiness of the saint to the ordinary righteousness of the good burgher.
The Puritan notion of the good life . . . saw the "saints" as a pillar of a new social order. As against the indolence and disorder of monks, beggars, vagabonds, and idle gentlemen, he "betakes himself to some honest and seemly trade and [does] not suffer his senses to be mortified with idleness" (106)
The model Christian is the model bourgeois. The Calvinists rejected the Catholic model, and they rejected sectarian or separatist models, as well--e.g., those developed by Anabaptists like the Amish and Hutterites. The Calvinists were bent on reconstructing the whole system so that it would align with their idea of a righteous society. Reformers looked to the theocracy of ancient Israel as a model, and from this followed the radical experiments in Geneva in the 1550s, Boston in the 1630s, and London in the 1650s.
This impulse to reform the whole of society is a significant turning point, and one has to ask what motivated it. Taylor points to a couple of reasons. First, there was a sense that God judged the whole community, and that the eternal fate of the best was linked to the eternal fate of the worst, so it was incumbent on the best to discipline the worst. (How this jibes with predestination, I'm not sure.) Secondly, Puritans feared the unruly and irreligious and saw them as a threat to civil order, peace, and prosperity. Third, it's very difficult for someone who lives a life of renunciation to live cheek by jowl with those who don't. If you're not going to leave society, as monks or sectarians do, to live in an environment where the temptations will be fewer, then you have to demand that the society live according to your high standards, assuming you have the power to do it. The struggle for power in mid-17th century England was largely about whose standards was England going to live by--the standards of the quasi-papist Anglicans or the standards of the more rigorous Puritans.
So the Calvinist reform project has first to get rid of the two-speed Catholic system of hierarchical complementarity, and second, to completely disenchant Christian society. The Calvinist impulse was not just to tinker with this or that problem or adapt to local customs, but to wipe the slate clean and start anew. The goal was to destroy the whole magical, superstitious, enchanted superstructure root and branch. But to do this effectively, one had to re-order the entire society.
Christian liberty for Calvin consists in this: that one see salvation in faith; that one serve God with one’s whole heart; and that one no longer be scrupled by indifferent things. We can cast aside all the myriad rituals and acts of propitiation of the old religion. Serving God now in our ordinary life, guided by the spirit, we can re-order things freely. We don’t need to be too impressed by custom; this can lead us terribly astray.
The energy of disenchantment is double. First, negative, we must reject everything which smacks of idolatry. We combat the enchanted world, without quarter. At first, this fight is not carried on because enchantment is totally untrue, but rather because it is necessarily ungodly. If we are not allowed to look for help to the sacred, to a “white” magic of the church, then all magic must be black. All spirits now are ranged under the devil, the one great enemy. Even supposedly good magic must really be serving him. . . .
The more so, in that the second energy was positive. We feel a new freedom in a world shorn of the sacred and the limits it set for us, to re-order things as seems best. We take the crucial stance for faith and glory of God. Acting out of this, we order things for the best. We are not deterred by the older tabus, or supposedly sacred orderings. So we can rationalize the world, expel the mystery from it (because it is all now concentrated in the will of God). A great energy is released to re-order affairs in secular time. (79-80)
So much of what constrained reformers was simply jettisoned by the radical Reformers. We are left with a much starker world, one in which there is God alone in his heaven who must be obeyed, and on whom we must rely, but the world is otherwise evacuated of mystery, of spiritual beings and spiritual forces, except as they are evil forces. The ambition, if not hubris, of this project is really astonishing. Just to believe that it would be possible to succeed with the intractable depraved material that these Puritan "saints" believed they had to work with alone would discourage lesser men. And for a while, in New England and Geneva, they succeeded.
But in the long run this project was doomed to fail on religious grounds and to morph into something unintended. For such a society to persist with the ideals for which it set out to live, the motivation had to be maintained from generation to generation, and that proved impossible.
First, the one speed solution proved impossible to sustain. The tension between renunciation and flourishing was challenging for the most gifted, but hard to maintain by ordinary people. The challenge of holding the two together was bound to break down, and it's not hard to understand why the flourishing side of the tension won, and it's not hard to understand why, except for a gifted spiritual minority, the spiritual component became an empty form, a repressive code that later generations threw off.
In the end, most people can't live in the thin air of the mountain top, and a levelling takes place; lowland pursuits take precedence without much thought of there being mountains to ascend. Puritan societies morphed into good capitalist societies where success in business for individuals was proof of God's favor and of their being among the elect, so long as they kept up pious appearances. Whited sepulcher syndrome becomes common if not the norm. It is a fact of human nature, but perhaps more so in matters of religion and politics, that those who are most confidently mistaken rise to positions of power and shape the narrative the rest of us must live by.
Second, was the other tension between ambition and humility that eventually proved too difficult to hold in balance.
Puritan spiritual life moved between a Scylla and a Charybdis. On one hand one had to have a confidence in one's salvation. Too much anxious doubt amounted to a turning away of God's gift, and could even be a sign that one was not saved after all. But at the same time, an utterly unruffled confidence showed that you were altogether forgetting the theological stakes involved, forgetting that one was a sinner who richly deserved eternal damnation, and was only saved form this by God's gratuitous grace; that one was in fact hanging over a cliff, and was only held back by God's outstretched hand. . . .
Consequently, a third level of order-building arises in Protestant (and also some Catholic) spirituality: building the right inner attitude. Being able to avoid despair or paralyzing melancholy, on one side, and a facile, unthinking confidence on the other. (83) . . .
So as long as the ambition that motivates the social reform is balanced by the humility of one's awareness of himself as a sinner, a genuine spiritual idealism can be at work here, but as an inner attitude that is difficult enough balance for extraordinary individuals to maintain--and surely some individuals maintained it--but it is much more difficult for an entire society to maintain it, and so a facile, unthinking confidence won out in the end:
the reversal is prepared in the fact that as an order is built in conduct, and at least seen as within our power to encompass in society, and more crucially, as people learn the secret of a kind of motivational equilibrium whereby they can keep themselves on the track to both of these external orders [personal moral conduct and moral social order], the possibility is opened to slide de facto, without even feeling it, into the Scylla mentioned above, that is, into a confidence that we have this things under control, we can pull it off (84)
That is, we know what's best; no matter what we tell ourselves and one another, we have God and his grace by virtue of our being the pillars of the community, the flourishing, well-heeled elect. And from there, it's not a big jump to think that we don't need God or his grace at all.
Of course, we 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. It is hard to dent this confidence as long as we can keep the triple-level order in being. 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. The declarations that we are helpless sinners become more and more pro forma. (84)
And an us-against-the-world attitude develops. We are the holy society, a light shining unto the nations. And without the grace, we're left with the smug, priggish moralism that we all have come to associate with Puritanism. Instead of creating a space for a genuine, lighthearted Christian freedom by clearing away all the medieval clutter, the Puritans simply replace it with another kind of bric a brac, and a kind that is dehumanizing compared to pre-reformation (in both its Catholic and Protestant forms), enchanted-world tolerance.
A humorless determination to castigate sin and disorder takes over, a denial of ambiguity and complexity in an unmixed condemnation, which reflects the attempts by controlling elites to abolish carnivalesque and ludic practices, on the grounds that they see disorder, mix pagan and Christian elements, and are a breeding ground of vice. (We are witnessing the birth of what will become in our day p.c.) Delumeau relates this to a parallel shift in the attitude to madness, where previously this could be seen as the site of vision, even holiness, it now comes more and more to be judged unambiguously as the fruit of sin. (87)
There was more tolerance for diversity, for the poor, and the 'cunning' women in an enchanted world, but not for them in one that was so radically disenchanted.
So in the short run this could lead to an intensification of certain of the old beliefs, particularly in witches, who were now redefined in a much more sinister role as helpmeets of the devil. Salem becomes possible. But in the longer run this attack could not but undermine the whole outlook within which these persecutions made sense. (80)
They made no sense, and anybody with any common sense or common decency saw that and was repelled by the inhumanity of it, and in the second half of the 17th century, in the wake of the religious wars on the continent and England, parallel to developments in science or natural philosophy, alternative religious ideas emerged that rejected both Catholic enchanted medievalism and Protestant moralism. Providential Deism embraced an even simpler understanding of God and his purposes than the revisions proposed by Calvin--the Deists' God was so much more reasonable, he didn't interfere in human affairs, and a belief in such a reasonable god avoided all the ridiculous confessional strife.
But a certain rage for order had been unleashed on the world, and its influence is something that we feel to this day. If its religious motivations have faded, its more need-for-control motivations have not, and in many ways what was begun then was the harbinger of the police state and technocratic state. Taylor talks about how this impulse to reform from its earliest manifestations was characterized by four basic traits:
There are certain common features running through all these attempts at reform and organization: (1) they are activist; they seek effective measures to re-order society; they are highly interventionist; (2) they are uniformizing; they aim to apply a single model or schema to everything and everybody; they attempt to eliminate anomalies, exceptions, marginal populations, and all kinds of non-conformists; (3) they are homogenizing: although they still operate in societies based on differences of rank, their general tendency is to reduce differences, to educate the masses, and to make them conform more and more to the standards governing their betters. . . . (4) they are “rationalizing” in Weber’s double sense: that is, they not only involve an increased use of instrumental reason, in the very process of activist reform, as well as in designing some of the ends of reform (e.g., in the economic sphere); but they also try to order society by a coherent set of rules. (86)
But the takeaway for now is that the disembedding process that began in the Axial Age comes to a kind of culmination in the Calvinist reforms, and disembedding is the essential condition without which secularism is impossible. For secularism is the social condition in which enchantment is quite thoroughly abolished from the social imaginary. The impulse that drove this for both the late-medieval and post-Renaissance Reformers was to clear the ground for a purer kind of faith in the One God. That the purity of this kind of faith is authentically achieved at an altitude where the oxygen is rather thin I do not question. But if most people cannot live at that altitude, that doesn't mean that many of these remarkable men and women in the 16th and 17th century did not truly live there. The mistake they made was not in their misinterpeting the profundity of their experience, but in expecting to shape a whole society based upon it. People need to run at different speeds and to live at different altitudes. And while there are different qualities of depth and intensity of the Real, grace is nevetheless to be found everywhere, high and low. The gospels couldn't be clearer about that.
Although their reforms, like many human projects, were at first impelled by genuine idealistic motivations, they sour into something relentlessly repressive, and the idealistic rationale becomes an ex post facto rationalization to justify other less idealistic motivations. For what we are seeing emerge here is the fundamental top-down reform dynamic that, while it was motivated in its earliest manifestations by a sincere desire for spiritual reform, becomes later the dynamic that manifests in the secular revolutions that start erupting in the late 18th century and through the 20th century.
While these revolutions are secular and immanentizing social engineering projects through and through, they would not have been possible if the Calvinists had not cleared away all the medieval clutter that otherwise stood in the way, at least for the elites who wanted to effect the reforms. Paris of the 1790s would not have been possible without similar projects already undertaken in the Geneva of the 1540s, Boston of the 1630s, and London of the 1650s.
And while I think there are good arguments made mostly by Catholics and conservatives of a Burkean stripe that the Reformers were fundamentally mistaken in attempting to do it the way they did, it's really rather a moot point at this juncture. We are where we are, and we have to work within the historical reality in which we find ourselves. And I am inclined to think that the reform impulse, even its revolutionary manifestations, no matter how flawed in its execution, is consistent with post-Axial ideals, insofar as it is an impulse to disembed us from the constraints of the old, enchanted, customary social imaginary to clear the way for the emergence of something transcendently new.
So one final thought along these lines to be developed in a future post. I have for a long time thought of secularism as not an attack on Christianity, but a chapter in its development. I think of it as a collective, culture-wide Dark Night of the Spirit. It's a time when everything is stripped away except what is essential, and it's up to us to grope around in the darkness until we find the one thing needful. But dark it is, and grope we must. But because what we grope for is not easily found does not mean it isn't there. It's just that we haven't learned where to look, and Taylor in his treatment of what he calls the 'anthropocentric turn' points us, I think, in the right direction. But that's for another post.