Part 3: The Impersonal Order
In Part 1, I discussed briefly Taylor's ideas about a social imaginary. I don't think the idea is hard to understand, but understanding its implications reinforces the idea I have written a lot about on this blog, which is the way we moderns imagine 'reality' is very provisional: humans did not always think/experience the world the way as they do now, and they are not likely to think/imagine it in the same way in the future.
I am persuaded that because we live in a decadent period right now, which means to be in a collective situation of neither here nor there with no collective sense of future possibility, our current imaginary is fragile, unstable, and won't last. Understanding how the premodern imaginary morphed into the modern imaginary is interesting to me because it helps us to think about how our current imaginary might morph into something else in the future--for better or worse.
We assume that we now understand the world more clearly and more accurately than our ancestors did, and we do understand the mechanics of the material world better than they. We also tend to believe if we are the typical secular modern that everything our ancestors believed about the spiritual world is superstition and delusion. Some of it was, but much of it wasn't. Knowing how to discern the difference is a new skill we shall have to learn in the future, but it's not a skill that the "buffered selves" can be much good at. Because their condition as buffered is one that filters out the "data" that must be discerned and evaluated. No data to work with, no possibiliity to develop a skill to evaluate it.
In the meantime, we are in the Age of Whatever, snd sooner or later something new will arise that will give us that sense of a positive future worth working for, a future that currently we cannot imagine. Isn't that the source of our current global, collective free-floating anxiety? The Age of Whatever is the Age of Anxiety. The cause of the anxiety is the ontological groundlessness of social and cosmic imaginaries that shape our existential experience of the world in which we live.
Our current "postmodern" imaginaries give us no robust sense of future possibiity because there is enframed within them nothing deeply worthy of our aspiration. There are all manner of things to which we san 'No", but nothing to which we can say a deeply felt collective 'Yes'. The postmodern moment is essentially a negating one. The cultural Right says No to everything in the hope that it might preserve what has already been lost. The cultural Left continues to debunk for the sake of debunking. Negation is part of growth, but it is useless if it doesn't open up new possibilities for affirmation.
I have deep respect for the stance "I don't know", so long as it is a stance of radical openness. And I respect the stance of embracing a refusal of hope when the hope being refused is not hope at all but a kind of bogus optimism that finds the most trivial entertainments and projects "exciting" as seems de rigeur for "unalienated" members of our pop and business cultures. At best this kind of refusal of hope is transitional, but too often I think there's a way that people get stuck in its negating temper. This is especially true when this kind of despair or pure negating oppositionalism becomes fashionable or a tribal shibboleth, because then it is just another form alienation. Seeing through what is bogus is an important step, but it is pointless if it does not open up the possibility to see more clearly what lies hidden behind the bogus.
At some point, not any time soon, something positive, something worthy of our collective affirmation will emerge, and with it a new grand narrative and a new imaginary. I suspect that while aspects of this imaginary will be completely new in the sense of 'currently not imagined', other aspects of it will involve a retrieval of forgotten things that were once imagined by our ancestors. I suspect that one of the things that will be retrieved is a deep sense of the "personal" nature--the "Thouness"--of the Deep Real. I would at least like to argue for that as a possibility, or at least that if Christians have anything to contribute to a future social cosmic and social imaginary, it's this.
For Taylor our social and cosmic imaginaries are the pre-reflective sense we have of our world, its sense of conventional reality, its myths, norms and practices, in all their taken-for-grantedness. Although in traditional societies these imaginaries tend to be static, in the sense that they don't change significantly over relatively long stretches of time, the imaginary of the societies shaped by Latin Christendom, has undergone very significant transformations starting around the turn of the first millennium C. E. and accelerating over the last five hundred years. Taylor's project in A Secular Age is to trace out this "long march" toward our current secular age over the last millennium and to understand the complex factors that caused it.
The social imaginary consists of the generally shared background understandings of society, which make it possible for it to function as it does. It is 'social' in two ways: in that it is generally shared, and in that it is about society. But there are also generally shared understandings about other things as well, and these are 'social' only in the first way. Among them is the ensemble of ways we imagine the world we live in.
And just as the social imaginary consists of the understandings which make sense of our social practices, so the "cosmic imaginary" makes sense of the ways in which the surrounding world figures in our lives: the ways, for instance, that it figures in our relgious images and practices, including explicit cosmological doctrines; in the stories we tell about the other lands and other ages; in our ways of marking the seasons and the passage of time; in the places of "nature' in our moral and/or aesthetic sensibility; and in our attempts to develop a 'scientific' cosmology, if any. (323)
What I’m calling the “long march” is a process whereby new practices, or modifications of old ones, either developed through improvisation among certain groups and strata of the populations;. . . or else were launched by elites in such a way as to recruit a larger and larger base. . . . Or alternatively, a set of practices in the course of their slow development and ramifications gradually changed their meaning for people, and hence helped to constitute a new social imaginary. . . . The result in all these cases was a profound transformation of the social imaginary in Western societies, and thus of the world in which we live. (176)
He wants to distinguish imaginary from theory. Everyone lives with an socially shared imaginary, not everyone lives with a theory. The movement from one imaginary to another, like the one that happened in the West from premodern to modern, and to whatever it is we have now (because it is no longer modern) is a movement that started as theory but then came to permeate social practice. The movement, the “long march”, traced starts from the classical/medieval imaginaries based on Platonic/Aristotelian ideas of form and teleology and hierarchical complementarity that shaped both social and cosmic imaginaries to our modern order based on instrumental reason and utilitarian mutual benefit.
People tend not to realize how profound the changes are if they are living through them. They tend to focus on the continuities rather than the discontinuities, but when the discontinuities take hold, the imaginary changes. In more intense periods of social change there is often what has been called a generation gap. Some of this is superficial in the sense of changes in fashion that older people may not be attuned to, but some of it is deeper and contributes structurally to changes in the imaginary. The older generation is shaped by older practices and ideas that shaped the imaginary into which they were acculturated as children, and the younger generation, while deeply influenced by the imaginary of the older generations, is also shaped by new practices and ideas that introduce discontinuities that the older generation feels uncomfortable with.
In traditional societies there may be differences of opinion and temperament when it comes to dealing with certain issues, like war or peace. But there is no generation gap in the modern sense. In traditional societies the wisdom of the elders counts for something because their greater experience in a relatively stable world retains its relevance. In a rapidly changing world the experience of the elders counts for little because their knowledge has become largely obsolete and experience irrelevant. Adaptability to the rapidly changing new is prized, and that is a talent exhibited mostly by the young.
So in this post I want to follow some of Taylor's effort to trace the generation-by-generation changes in the social and cosmic imaginaries of Latin Christendom, from the hierarchical, impersonal social and cosmic imaginaries of classical antiquity to the hierarchical, personal social and cosmic imaginaries of the Latin medieval period to the flattened, impersonal social and cosmic imaginaries of the Enlightenment rationalists.
Taylor argues that during the Patristic period, Christian thinkers wanted to use Greek ideas to help them to articulate their understanding of the significance of the Christian revelation. There were elements in Greek thinking, particularly from Aristotle, Neoplatonism, and Stoicism that were helpful, and there were other elements that were distortive. Much of the arguing during this period focused on how much one gains or gives up in using Greek ideas to establish a Christian ontology and moral order. Taylor argues that the struggle was argued out on six axes of significance where Christian ideas using the Greek philosophical framework made significant alterations that were to have a significant shaping effect on the imaginaries of medieval Christendom:
- The significance of the body. While Greek spirit/body dualism persisted in some Christian thought, the more significant dualism for Christians was the one articulated by Augustine's "two loves" (love of self vs. love of God), based on the Jewish dualism of the heart of stone versus the heart of flesh. It is not the body that presents a problem qua body. The problem rather is what is it that is worthy or our love, or to put it another way, what is so much as our 'ultimate concern' and what obstructs or distracts us from loving that which is worthy of it. That is a function of the predisposition of the heart. The life in the body is validated for Christians by its havng been hallowed by the Incarnation and the resurrection event. The body has been redeemed in a way impossible to embrace within the pure Greek scheme. The goal is not to escape from the body but to transform it.
- The significance of history. The Incarnation event gives history and the events that happen in it a significance not found in Greek thought. In addition, the Greek idea of eternity--the beginninglessness and endlessness of time--is replaced by the Jewish/Christian idea of creation and the idea of history's eschatological culmination at the end of time. History has a plot: it is a story of falling away and return. The turning point in the plot is the Incarnation, and the end point is the eschatological gathering of all time together in the communion of the saints. The lives of the saints are the lives that depict the story of return--of alienation and reconciliation. The Prodigal Son is the archetype.
- The significance of the individual person. Individuation was not particularly important for Greek thought. But for Christians the significance of history enhances the importance of the individual whose eternal destiny is worked out in time. This sense of the individual is not important in the Plotinian Neoplatonist ontology, for instance, for which the goal is rather Eastern in the sense of the individual overcoming the illusion of individuation and melting back into the cosmic pleroma. And while for Aristotle the physical body was important, the individual had particularity only insofar as it is secured by matter. No body, no individuation. The eternal desinty of the individuated immortal soul is a Christian preoccupation. There's a lot of murkiness about the status of the individual in his post death existence, but the ultimate destiny of the human person is to be bodily transformed as Christ's body was transformed in the resurrection. Individuation and the Body are linked in this very important sense.
- The significance of contingency. Stoic fatalism and Plotinian necessity requires that things are exactly as they should be because they could not be any other way because God could not have created any other world. The human task for classical Stoics and Neoplatonists is simply amor fati. The idea of changing anything for the better or that there there could be such a thing as human progress is futile and delusional. This idea is challenged by Christian ideas of freedom and grace--although Plotinian necessity is still echoed in Augustine's and later Calvin's bizarrely un-Christian doctrine of double predestination. The more authentically Christian position is that there is no total plan, God created a more interesting universe than that:
...the Christian eschaton is made up of paths, of stories. And these are shaped by contingencies. That the sotries end well is sometimes seen as their having been rigorously scripted from the beginning. This is often what people call Providence, following the Stoics. God plans sins, so that he can script in some mercy.
But a rather different model is suggested by the Bible. God's Providence is his ability to respond to whatever the universe and human agency throw up. God is like a skilled tennis player, who can always return the serve. We can see this mode, for instance, in the famous phrase of the Preface of [the] Easter Vigil:"O felix culpa" (happy fault), applied to Adam's sin; happy because it brought such a response from God to redeem it. . . .
[The Good Samaritan story] takes us beyond any established relation into the domain of accident or contingency: my neighbour is someone I come across, bleeding in the road. It was sheer accident that I came along at just that time; but this accident can be the occasion for rebuilding a skein of human relations animated by agape. The Samaritan's action is part of God's response to the skewed serve the robbers have lobbed into history. (275)
- The significance of the emotions. Life in the body is good, and it is human's eternal destiny to be embodied, so the challenge is not to suppress the emotions, but to transform them. Emotion and desire are affirmed and Stoic apatheia is rejected. The idea of a compassionate, suffering God was an impossible idea for Greek thought, and a stumbling block for anyone whose thought was deeply embedded in the Greek imaginary. And unlike Buddhism, desire qua desire is not the problem so much as on what the human heart focuses its desire and its longing, on what it loves--see number 1 above.
- The significance of God as ‘person’ capable of ‘communion’. The Cappadocian formulation of the Trinity is of three persons in communion. God’s intervention in history, and in particular the Incarnation, was intended to transform us, through making us partakers of the communion which God already lives. It was meant to effect our “deification” (theiosis). Salvation is thwarted to the extent that we treat God as an impersonal being or as merely the creator of an impersonal order to which we have to adjust. Salvation is only effected by our being in communion with God through the community of humans in communion with one another.
This understanding of communion as the telos of history is the central idea, the hermeneutic key, without which it is impossible to understand the animating spirit of the Christian Revelation.
At the heart of orthodox Christianity, seen in terms of communion, is the coming of God through Christ into a personal relation with disciples, and beyond them others, eventually ramifying through the church to humanity as a whole. God established the new relationship with us by loving us, in a way we cannot unaided love each other (John 15: God loved us first.) The lifeblood of this new relation is agape, which can’t ever be understood simply in terms of a set of rules, but rather as the extension of a certain kind of relation, spreading outward in a network. The church is in this sense a quintessential network society, even though of an utterly unparalleled kind, in that the relations are not mediated by any of the historical forms of relatedness: kinship, fealty to a chief, or whatever. It transcends all these, but not into a categorical society based on similarity of members, like citizenship; but rather into a network of ever different relations of agape.
Of course, the church lamentably and spectacularly fails to live up to this model; but it is the kind of society that it is meant to be. (282)
If you want a basic criterion to judge whether someone who claims to be Christian is truly animated by the spirit of the gospels, you can do so by evaluating to what degree he wants to include rather than exclude, to embrace rather than shun, to give the benefit of the doubt rather than to judge, to forgive rather than condemn, to converse with the enemy rather than to attack him, to obsess about rules rather than the quality of relationship. Yes, Christians are admonished to be wise as serpents and guileless as doves. This is a warning to be not foolish or naive, but while the dove and the serpent need to be talking to one another, the dove sets the agenda. Too much church history, especially the kind that has been motivated by concerns about institutional preservation, alas, has come from the serpent setting the agenda, and for this reason its spectacular failures.
Taylor argues that while the Fathers broke from the classical Greek positions on these axes, the Enlightenment rationalists more or less adopted/adapted the Christian positions on the first five but not the sixth. Deism was embraced precisely because of its impersonality and because a deist god does not intervene in history. So there is continuity between the Christian and Enlightenment social and cosmic imaginaries, but this one discontinuity is deeply signifiant, and it creates the space for an exclusive humanism, i.e., one that has no need of transcendence or grace. No interventions, no grace. How can there be in universe in which God has no interest in human affairs. The god of the Deists built the machine, set it in motion, and then bowed out. He gave humans reason to figure out how the machine works, and it's up to them to understand its operations so that they can exploit it for human flourishing. We fulfill God's will insofar as we prosper and help one another to prosper.
So, how did this play out? Again, there are many factors that contribute. Taylor lays out these five:
First, the world was already becoming very disenchanted driven by the disembedding, anti-pagan reform impulse that began in the 11th Century. This was religiously motivated and does not require that God be relegated to impersonal status, but it creates a space for it to happen, especially in the decades subsequent to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The idea of a God who cares to intervene in human affairs has way too many problems: For instance, why do bad things happen to good people? Why didn't God intervene to prevent this disaster or that massacre? And then there was the absurd way that Christian factions in the religious wars of the preceding period insisted that God was on their side and prayed for his intervention to ensure their victory. Clearly the stalemate that ensued undermined any such beliefs in any such interventions. (The answer, btw, to these questions of theodicy lies in distinguishing the purposes of the post-Axial, transcendent God of faith with the immanent pre-Axial gods concerned with ordinary human flourishing. The transcendent Good and the immanent good are not necessarily opposed, but they are not to be conflated.)
Second, the loss of face-to-face, personal relationships in the social hierarchy that characterized premodern societies (I talk about how this played out in American society here after the revolution). This tends to create a society where atomized equals become more the norm especially as society urbanizes and industrializes. As our experience of the social world becomes gradually more impersonal and atomized, so does the way we imagine the cosmos. The two mutually reinforce one another.
Third, in a more complex and impersonal social world, it is no longer possible to conduct business trusting people with whom we have long acquaintance. We need rules, laws, contracts, and courts. We have a society best understood by codes and rules rather than relationships. This allows for the emergence of a free individual unconstrained by authority, in the sense of deference to one's "betters". This is attractive because the new atomized man freed from his niche in the social hierarchy has ‘adult’ dignity and latitude for a more autonomous way to live in the world.
Fourth, a process of objectification/disengagement derived from the methods of natural sciences gains huge prestige. It has created a world that has no meaning in the way the world defined by the Platonic/Aristotelian chain of being did. Gone are the days when reading nature was reading God's script. In the classical model we experienced and perceived the world through its meanings. The objectification of scientific method brackets these meanings, and they no longer animate enquiry. Descartes pushes this even further by having us not only withdraw from the old field of meanings but also from the body, i.e., into disembodied consciousness. And then because of the prestige of the scientific method, there is a spillover effect--so that what is appropriate for enquiry regarding the mechanics of the material world extends into domains that are neither mechanical nor material. And so what is not mechanical or material ceases to be interesting because it cannot be worked with and eventually ceases to have any real legitimacy.
Fifth, a stadial consciousness develops, i.e., a new framework of thinking that sees something new developing all around, that real progress is being made, that the only thing impeding further progress is the irrational baggage of tradition and custom, and that all we need is to be reasonable so that a better world can be achieved. If we are to have a new commercial elite, a new politics, why should we not have a new religion--or no religion? This stadial consciousness is, so to speak, the ratchet at the end of this shift, which makes it (near) impossible to go back on it.
The signifcance of the shift is profound. It creates the conditions that make possible what Taylior calls the 'anthropocentric turn', and I will address that in Part 4.