Part 1: Disenchantment: Post Axial Disembedding
Charles Taylor's A Secular Age seeks to answer the fundamental question: How is it that if five hundred years ago it would have been very unusual to profess yourself an atheist, today it is no longer the case, and among intellectuals it's arguably the majority position. Another way of saying it is that there were always the impious or people for whom religion meant little, but before the modern age, they were marginal. During modernity impious meant little ideas have become not only acceptable, but in some precincts--inhabited these days by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and their fellow travelers--the new orthodoxy.
Taylor is at pains to reject classical secularization theory as a subtraction story that is too simplistic, and wants to tell instead a story about secularization that is much more complex and interesting. By subtraction he means that as the powers and characteristics ascribed to God fell away when science developed alternative explanations, very little was left that one could say about God, especially the God presented in the Bible, that could be taken seriously. Taylor grants that this is true insofar as religion is identified with the practices and beliefs that shape the 'social imaginary' of an 'enchanted' society, but 'disenchantment' has been the project of the post-Axial 'higher religions' for at least the last 2500 years.
I'll explain these jargony terms below, but it's important to understand that secularization theory assumes that enchantment and religion are synonymous, and they are not. 'Disenchantment', while it was a precondition for the development of a secular society, does not lead necessarily to materialism or atheism. It creates a space for their possibility, but it also creates a space for a more mature kind of theistic belief and practice, and it can be argued that disenchantment and the secular society it has produced is a desirable "theistic" outcome, at least insofar as it is a chapter in a longer, larger, continuously developing story.
By 'social imaginary' he means the dominant world picture people born into a particular society naively (uncritically) assume to be reality. Intellectual developments are part of what shape an imaginary, but there are many other factors that come into play. So Taylor wants to tell the more complex story that focuses not so much on how new scientific discoveries and other intellectual developments changed our thinking, but how our imaginaries changed the way we inhabit and experience the world. Most people, even intellectuals, are not particularly independent or critical thinkers. Most of their beliefs remain unexamined, unless some crisis forces them to examine them. Most people take their thinking and their values from the groups that they feel most at home with, whether that group was chosen or not. In premodern Latin Christendom, as in most premodern societies, there were not many choices. In the modern era choices wildly proliferate.
Taylor describes a process that focuses primarily on developments within Latin Christendom, whose premodern imaginary embraced a cosmos suffused with all manner of spiritual beings and forces with a personal God at its center. This God in a myriad ways, through his intermediaries--saints, angels, the Virgin--intervened in human affairs for human benefit. This was an enchanted cosmos full of invisible spiritual forces that had a profound influence on just about everything that happened, from storms and drought, to fertility and health, to prosperity and victory in war. An enchanted world is one in which human agency and freedom are severely constrained by these outside forces. A process of disenchantment from this enchanted world accelerated starting during the Renaissance/Reformation era, but it has its origin in earlier developments.
The enchanted cosmic imaginary was replaced gradually since the Renaissance by the flat, impersonal, disenchanted imaginary that people in first-world, secularized societies live in today, even if they are believers. An enchanted cosmos requires human beings that have what Taylor calls 'porous selves', a disenchanted universe requires human beings with 'buffered selves'. Most of us, especially if we are literate, urban, TV-watching Westerners are deeply buffered in this sense. More details about these types later, but it's important to note that while there are advantages to being buffered, there are also disadvantages. The filters that buffered selves have developed during the modern era, while they have given buffered people a sense of autonomy, objectivity, individuality, and freedom, have also given them a world that is imaginatively and emotionally flat. There is a malaise that affects many moderns that did not affect our premodern ancestors. Some moderns have been more deeply affected by it than others.
The premodern imaginary was hierarchical, communal, and face-to-face in its social/political imagination of itself and in its practices, and "enchanted" in its imagination of the cosmos. Dante assumed the readers of his Comedy inhabited an enchanted cosmic imaginary; Shakespeare's audience was in transition. The enchanted social and the cosmic imaginary reinforced one another as the social/political derives its legitimacy from its being embedded in and its replicating the hierarchical cosmos. By contrast, the modern, secular social imaginary is individualistic, allowing for a socially disembedding freedom that promotes autonomy and distance from the fears of the supernatural that premoderns had to deal with, but also promoting anomie and social atomization. Its cosmic imaginary is one that envisions a universe that is impersonal, rational, and lawful (no interventions by God--invisible hands are simply metaphors for laws that operate impersonally within the immanent frame, not by any intervention from outside of it). And since Darwin, it imagines a cosmos that is purposeless, random, and cruel.
A basic premise of this blog is that we are on the cusp of another shift in our imaginaries. As we shifted from premodern to modern, we are now in the process of shifting from modern to whatever comes next. Our current condition described as 'postmodern' is the last gasp of modernity in its reductio ad absurdum. It's an age in which debunking for the sake of debunking is the rule, and we have nothing positive--except a kind of groundless freedom--that can be affirmed. It is The Age of Whatever, a period of ontological vertigo in which any belief or practice is defensible. This can't last; nobody, even intellectuals, want to live in a world like that, and it's not the only legitimate option, even if many intellectuals haven't been persuaded of that yet.
If modernity mainly identified itself over against pre-modernity, we are moving into a new phase, if all goes more or less well, that will synthesize what is essential from modern developments--science, critical consciousness, equality ideals, the importance of the free individual--with much of what modernity rejected as irrational and delusional--a sense of the sacred, the sacrament, the movement of grace, a renewed sense of the Deep Real as personal, perhaps even a retrieval of lost knowledge/wisdom that persists in the not-quite-extinguished "enchanted" shamanic and totemic cultures that persist mostly in the global south.
Taylor isn't concerned to talk about what comes next so much as he is to explain how we got here, and also to create an intellectual space for legitimate belief, and I believe, as space for the development of a positive ontology in a post-Axial key that can be broadly accepted, even by philosophers. I see his work as foundational, something that must be understood and assimilated before moving forward. In what follows in this post and in three posts that follow, I want to provide a summary with my own glosses of his analysis of the factors that so profoundly shifted the social imaginary of Latin Christendom.
But before talking about the dramatic shift in the social imaginary that occurred during the modern era, I want to provide a broader historical context, which for Taylor begins with what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age. This was the extaordinary time around 500 BCE when various higher forms of religion emerge seemingly independently in different civilizations, marked by such founding figures as Confucius, Gautama, Socrates, and the Hebrew prophets. The 'axial' impulse begins a process of disembedding. In "embedded" societies human beings are enmeshed in their surroundings to such a degree that their identity and sense of personal agency are severely limited by "outside" factors that surround them. The embedded human being has what we have already described as a 'porous self', one where the boundaries of his individuality are very permeable to outside social and spiritual influences. His personal identity is deeply merged with that of his tribe, clan, polis, and he is broadly vulnerable to the influence of spirits and spiritual forces, both malign and benign that, though invisible, are all around him and with which he must contend.
For the porous self, the cosmos is enchanted not as a matter of belief or theory, but as a matter of experience. Think of the way the gods influence the fates of the Greek heroes in Homer's enchanted world. The hero's personal prestige is linked to how he performs in battle, but that performance is determined by whether he is favored by the gods or not. Paris let's loose his arrow, and Apollo guides it to its mark in Achilles' heel. It's Apollo's achievement, not Paris's skill that effects Achilles' demise.
Moderns call it luck; premodern called it good or bad fortune. But good or bad fortune is not random; it is personally intended by the gods. Humans act, but they are mostly reacting to outside spiritual influences that have the larger role in determining the outcomes. Julian Jaynes talks about this way of experiencing the world in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976). The point here is not whose interpretation what was going on then is correct, but simply to establish that the premodern experience of porous selves was very different from the experience of the world that we buffered moderns accept (naively?) as real.
So religion in its pre-Axial modality is about trying to navigate in such an enchanted environment, appeasing or propitiating the malign spirits and enlisting the support of those who are benign. The goal of pre-Axial religion is to develop rituals and practices in an enchanted world that are designed to promote ordinary human flourishing--long life, prosperity, success in all one's worldly projects.
Societies that live in an enchanted social imaginary are embedded societies, but a shift toward disembedding begins in the Axial period. Taylor explains:
Human agents are embedded in society, society in the cosmos, and the cosmos incorporates the divine. What I've been describing as the Axial transformation breaks this chain at least at one point, if not more. Oakley argues that the break point which was particularly fateful for our development in the West was the rupture, as it were at the top, the Jewish idea of (what we now call) the creation ex nihilo, which took God quite out of the cosmos, and placed him above it. This meant that potentially God can become the source of demands that we break with "the way of the world"; that what Brague refers to as "the wisdom of the world" no longer constrains us.
But perhaps the most fundamental novelty of all is the revisionary stance towards the human good in Axial religions. More or less radically, they all call into question the received, seemingly unquestionable understandings of human flourishing, and hence inevitably also the structures of society and the features of the cosmos through which this flourishing was supposedly achieved. The change was double. . . . On the one hand, the “transcendent” realm, the world of God, or gods, spirits, or Heaven, however defined, which previously contained elements which were both favorable and unfavorable to the human good, becomes unambiguously affirmative of this good. But on the other hand, both the crucial terms here, both the transcendent and the human good are reconceived in the process.
We have already noted the changes in the first term. The transcendent may now be quite beyond or outside of the cosmos, as with the creator God of Genesis, or the Nirvana of Buddhism. Or if it remains cosmic, it loses its original ambivalent character, and exhibits an order of unalloyed goodness, as with the “heaven” guarantor of just rule in Chinese thought, or the order of Ideas of Plato, whose key is the Good.
But the second term must perforce also change. The highest human good can no longer just be to flourish, as it was before. Either a new goal is posited, or a salvation which takes us beyond what we usually understand as human flourishing. Or else Heaven, or the Good, lays the demand on us to imitate or embody its unambiguous goodness, and hence to alter the mundane order of things down here. This may, indeed usually does, involve flourishing on a wider scale, but our own flourishing (as individual, family, clan, or tribe) can no longer be our highest goal. And of course, this may be expressed by a redefinition of what “flourishing” consists in.
Seen from another angle, this means a change in our attitude to evil, as the destructive, harm-inflicting side of things. This is no longer just part of the order of things, to be accepted as such. Something has to be done about it. This may be conceived as an escape through self-transformation, or it may be seen as a struggle to contain or eliminate the bad, but in either case evil is not something just to be lived with as part of the inevitable balance of things. (152-53)
The Axial Age introduces a new idea that things are not what they seem; that what people have always accepted as normal reality, enchanted as it might be, is not necessarily the best reality, and that 'normal reality' is something from which we need to be liberated. Something more and better is possible. A tension is created between this idea of a transcendent Good and the life most people live in pursuit of ordinary human flourishing. And this tension is destabilzing. But the "higher" life is not for everybody because leaving normal reality, like Abraham leaving Ur, is not easy. (Ask Lot's wife.) And so in some societies, those shaped by Buddhism and Christianity for instance, a stabilizing compromise was developed in which some people left the world of ordinary human flourishing to live in the wilderness or in monasteries. It's a compromise because these individuals who responded to the Axial challenge and who left the 'world' behind still remained in relationship with the old world, and the people left behind looked to those who went into the monasteries as having a special role to play as 'holy' men and women who could provide spiritual benefit to those who remained in the 'world'. A spiritual/secular dyad develops, and with it a sense of complementarity:
So that those who are fully dedicated to the "higher" forms, while on one hand they can be seen as a standing reproach to those who remain in the earlier forms, supplicating the Powers of human flourishing, nevertheless can also be seen as in a relationship of mutual help with them. The laity feed the monks, and by this they earn "merit", which can be understood as taking them a little farther along the "higher " road, but also serves to protect them against the dangers of life, and increases their health, properity, fertility. (154)
There were those who pursued the spiritual life in a purer, more demanding form in the wilderness or monasteries, and there were those who lived in the secular world, but who drew strength and inspiration from those who lived outside of it. This compromise as it worked in Latin Christendom was rejected by the Reformers in the 16th Century. The Reformers insisted that a Christian society is one in which everyone is equal before God, and so there should not be 'special' vocations: they only lead to spiritual pride. Their model was more that of ancient Israel, in which the whole society was expected to live a rigorous spiritual life, and this led to experiments like those in Geneva or Boston.
These experiments failed for a complex of reasons that we'll explore in more detail later. But it's interesting to note that an unintended consequence ensued: in a world where the spiritual and secular were collapsed into one another, a new social construct was created in which a sense of higher, spiritually transformative possibilities were de-emphasized and replaced by a rigorist, if not suffocating, moralism, i.e., a focus on codes of behavior more than on spiritual transformation. This causes a significant flattening of human possibiliites, especially in Protestant societies.
Not all monks achieved significant (or any) levels of spiritual transformation, but some did, so the possibility of a monastic vocation always held out the possibility of that kind of transformation. That disappears in Protestant societies. And in the long run the moralistic rigor of the Puritan societies breaks down, because most people, even in the Age of Faith, have little reason to remain religious once the spell of primitive enchantment has been broken. Maintaining such a society might have worked in ancient Jerusalem more or less, but not in a burgeoning, modern commercial society. Too many other options were becoming available to those who were not particularly spiritually interested or gifted and who didn't feel particularly at home in these strait-laced New Jerusalems. In such a pluralizing social context, if there is no spiritual/secular dyad, then everything tends to collapse into the 'secular' by default. It's not hard to see how a loss of a sense of the "higher" as a human possibility follows.
And it's not hard to see how a reversion to older, pre-Axial understandings of human flourishing develop as the norm for Christian societies who gradually lose any sense of the post-Axial challenge to aspire to a transcendent Good, especially in Calvinist societies: God who is Good wants our good; he wants us to flourish, and we will flourish if we follow his commandments. We must live ordinary lives in the ordinary daily, disenchanted world; we must be good householders, i.e., we must work hard, take care of our families, be responsible and productive. If there is no "higher" to be achieved in this life except to live righteously in this sense, then human purposes become focused on flourishing in the ordinary sense--long life, prosperity, victory over one's enemies (mostly papists and other infidels). Taylor says that Weber, if not in every detail, was fundamentally right about his connecting the rise of capitalism with the Protestant work ethic. I've always thought so, too.
The Protestant model was still post-Axial, but more in the mode of ancient Israel, where the whole society had to live righteously in conformity with the Law. We can see how this attitude persists among the "theocrats" on the religious right in the U.S. today. And we can see how it leads to a kind of assimilation to, rather than contradiction of, the mores of a society whose idea of flourishing is 'consumption'. The Catholic model, insofar as it maintains the tension in the spiritual/secular dyad, also maintains a tension between pre-Axial and post-Axial, between concerns about everyday flourishing in the world and the aspiration to be spiritually transformed.
But we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves here. The point for now is to understand that for the first thousand years of Christianity, if one was serious about pursuing a higher Christian spiritual life, one had to leave society. The rest of society was nominally Christian, but still largely enchanted and "superstitious" in its popular piety, and it concerned itself primarily with how spiritual beings and forces--saints, relics, sacramentals, rituals like beating the bounds, etc., could be used to promote human flourishing in the pre-Axial sense. A shift in which spiritual elites move toward reforming the 'secular' realm begins in the 11th Century--the Hildebrandine reforms, the Lateran Councils, the evangelical mission of the Dominican preachers, Franciscan mendicants, and the Waldensians, Wycliffe & the Lollards, Hus, etc., and all of that culminates in the Reformation in the 16th. The nature of this reform dynamic is arguably unique in the Latin West, and while it has led to the secularized society in which we now live, it's important to undestand how it was in its roots religiously motivated. But more about that in future posts.
[This completes Part 1. Parts Two, Three, Four, etc., will follow in posts written over the next weeks discussing Reform and the Disciplinary Society, more on the Buffered and Porous Self, the Enlightenment and the Anthropocentric Turn, Deism and the Impersonal Order, more on the modern social imaginary and modern moral order, and other topics I have yet to consider.]