I've been reading in philosopher of religion Charles Taylor's new book, A Secular Age, which explores the monumental cultural shift over the last 500 years from having the "social imaginary" of premoderns to that of moderns. By social imaginary he means a culture's collective representation of reality. The medieval peasant in France has more in common with his medieval peasant counterpart in China than than he would with a French worker living today. The greater divide is not between the medieval Frenchman and Chinaman, but between the Frenchman with premodern consciousness and the Frenchman with modern consciousness.
It's not just about the cultural differences. It's about the reality differences because the premodern social imaginary shapes one's consciousness of reality in a profoundly different way from the modern social imaginary. And we're living in interesting times now, because as the modern imaginary is breaking down, we're in the process of developing yet another social imaginary, which we've been calling postmodern for want of a better name--because it's whatever comes after the modern. Philosophers like Jean Gebser call it the "aperspectival". But more on that another time.
The interesting thing for Taylor is not that the world changed because of scientific discoveries, but that the imagination of the world changed during the modern era in such a way that an ordered, meaningful "cosmos" morphed into a vast, empty, disenchanted "universe". In other words, he seeks to describe how and why we have become secularized moderns. And without diminishing all the important advantages that come with our having become moderns, he challenges us to recognize what has been lost and the price we have paid for those advantages. He is not a conservative lamenting our cultural degradation. He's a philosopher--and a Christian believer-- trying to understand what happened to us and what' its implications are.
Although Taylor's erudition is more than I could acquire in two lifetimes, he is groping with the same themes I've been exploring here at After the Future. This past summer (check July archive posts on "Naturalism and Supernaturalism") I got into it with some naturalists with whom I argued that they were unnecessarily limiting themselves by insisting only on naturalistic explanations for everything, including religious experiences. The more thoughtful naturalists who commented here admitted the reality of experiences that religious types like me call transcendent, but don't see how they provide proof of anything that points to a spiritual dimension that coexists or even envelops our material existence.
I am not going to rehearse the back and forth that went on about that again. But during those those exchanges it struck me how difficult it is for modern naturalists to stand outside of their assumptions, I think because those assumptions are still so strongly reinforced by the modern rationalist social imaginary. So as a remedy, might I suggest to open-minded naturalists to read Taylor if they are interested to get some perspective on terrain that is already very familiar to them if they are truly open to seeing this familiar territory in a larger, evolving context. For me the value of the book is to see one's own little mental world as but an eddy in this larger, magnificent stream. I think secular moderns of the naturalist variety would have a similar experience.
So don't get me wrong, if I had to choose who to spend time with stranded on a desert island, I'd much rather spend it with Sam Harris than someone like Pat Robertson. Robertson represents what I have called zombie traditionalism--traditional forms possessed by the ghoulish spirit of jingoistic, consumer capitalism. People so possessed tend to be hopelessly ineducable. Harris, on the other hand, represents the moribund spirit of Enlightenment rationality. It still has some kick in it, and I think with enough time I could show him that it has no future. That the future lies elsewhere.
When Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins talk about the horror of religious belief, they are talking about the curdled vestiges of premodern and early modern religious impulses that have overstayed their welcome. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm interested in religion in a postmodern key, which is something these atheists are for the most part unaware of or too easily and thoughtlessly dismiss.
My argument is that these atheists are still constrained by the modern cultural template that has been breaking down for almost a century now, in part because it no longer works, and we are no longer willing to pay the price for the diminishing benefits it provides. But while we're waiting for something new to gel, anything goes, and for want of anything better to do, the culture rehearses over and over again the arguments advanced during the Scopes trial assuming that one or the other has to be right without considering that both are terribly, horribly wrong.
And those of us who see that,while we would gladly pay, and extravagantly well, for a new social imagination of the world that would offer the depth and beauty and meaning that is so lacking in our current soul-flattened world, we are not willing to pay for solutions we have reason to believe will disappoint us. We're skeptical for good reason. There are snake oil salesmen on every corner hawking elixirs that will cure what ails us, and what mostly ails us is anxiety about the future. And while they promise to give us what we long for, they don't deliver, not the least of which those proposed by the churches in their present state of diffidence or fanaticism. There are exceptions here and there, but while some offer better remedies or temporary anodynes than others, none have the deep, resounding collective resonance required for the transformation of the collective imagination or social imaginary that we know will come sooner or later. We're at slack tide right now, but there will be a shift and anybody with half a clue will recognize it for what it is.
This week I met with a friend, and she said something I've been thinking about since. She asked me how I was imagining the future, or words to that effect, and I said I was having a hard time with that, or words to that effect. Imagining next week is a big enough task for me at the moment. Nevertheless, I took it as an important reminder about the true nature of our task: She said we have to bend our efforts to create the future in our imaginations. We need to write novels and songs and poems. We need to create movies and plays and use all the media available to us to create the future in our imagination of it.
Something in time will emerge out of these efforts, because the future is not something that happens to us anymore; it's something that at some level we have to choose and create. It's not enough anymore to just point out what wrong; we have to create a world that's right, and it starts in our efforts to think about such a world and to imagine it as a real possibility. What would such a world look like? I'd argue that right now that's the difference between the right and the left. The right has an imagination of the future that is based on a return to an imaginary past. The left no longer believes in the future and has no compelling vision to compete with the Right. The energies of the traditional left are tired and dissipated--it provides no compelling social imaginary.
For whatever any of us thinks of as real is only our current provisional imagination of it. Our modern naturalist social imaginary is a temporary house of cards, currently collapsing in slow motion. That isn't to say that there is nothing real about the cards in use now--but only that we are dealing with half a deck. In a hundred years we will have reshuffled the deck that by then, if things go well, will include cards that have not yet been discovered and others that were lost and have been found, and we will assemble them into something new. If things go badly, we could then be looking back from the other side of technological singularity--if they go well from a spiritual singularity--perhaps a new axial age. I don't know how this will play out, no one does. But something's got to give, and the responsibility for making the future happen, as never before, is in human hands.
Reality is not something that we can allow to just happen to us. If we do, then the bad guys win by default. For my friend is right: reality is a work of the imagination. Our work with the imagination, of course, has has to operate within the limitations of the cards we have to play with, but it's important that we play with all the cards, not just the ones we're most familiar with and most comfortable with. And this discovery of the new and the remembering of the old keeps the process interesting and dynamic. And because it is so dynamic and evolving, both Christians and naturalists would do well to have a lot more humility and flexibility about what they think of as real.
I've been saying all along that ultimately the solution isn't political. We have to do what we can to restrain the forces of powerlust and greed from dominating the political and economic sphere, but saying No to them, while it is a tactical necessity, is not a long-range strategy. Changing the social imaginary is.