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 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 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 could be taken seriously could be said about God, especially the God presented in the Bible. Taylor grants that this is true insofar as God is identified with the religious practices and beliefs that shape the 'social imaginary' of an 'enchanted' society, but religious faith and enchantment are not the same thing, and the 'disenchantment' or the world 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.
Let's define some terms. By 'social imaginary' he means the dominant world picture, with its practices and beliefs, people in a particular society naively (uncritically) assume to be reality. 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 changes in 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. Most people take their thinking and their values from the groups that they feel most at home with, whether they chose membership in that group or not. In pre-Reformation 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 cosmos 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.
The premodern imaginary was hierarchical, communal, and face-to-face in its social/political imagination 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 the macro-cosmos and replicating it as a micro-cosmos. By contrast, the modern, secular social imaginary is individualistic, allowing for a socially and cosmically disembedding freedom that promotes autonomy and distance from the fears of the supernatural with which premoderns had to cope, but also promoting anomie and social atomization. Its cosmic imaginary is one that envisions a universe that is impersonal, rational, and lawful, but with no interventions by God. 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 currtent, decadent 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; premoderns 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 about 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's 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)
So in societies with this post-Axial, dyadic structure, 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 in the spiritual world. 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 was 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 spiritual possibilities, 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 premodern 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 spiritually motivated.
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, before the reform bug bit elites in the West, a system of spiritual hierarchical complementarity developed in Christian societies in which almost everyone was nominally Christian, but some Christians, a minority, felt compelled to leave the 'secular', world to go into monasteries, while ordinary householders, tradesmen, magistrates, soldiers, etc., with varying degrees of religious commitment remained in the secular world.
There was in that ancient Catholic arrangement a sense of higher and lower vocations--or vocations at different speeds--that correlated with spiritual/secular. There was always a tension between the two because of the challenge that the spiritual posed to the secular, but the arrangement remained fairly stable until a shift began around the turn of the first millennium, and a desire arose among educated elites to raise the standards of Christian practice for those who remained in the secular world.
In pre-Reformation Christendom the secular majority, like humans everywhere, was concerned primarily with ordinary human flourishing, and its spiritual practices were for the most part subordinated to those ends. Everyone, secular and spiritual alike, lived in an enchanted world, but the religious practice for those who lived in the secular world focused mainly on their need to contend with malign spirits and to propitiate benign ones in order to obtain the good health, long life, prosperity, and other forms of success that are important for human flourishing everywhere.
For the majority of European Christians, Germanic or Celtic pagan practices and beliefs were merged syncretistically with Christian practices and beliefs, but in a way that tipped more toward pre-Axial concerns than toward the post-Axial transformative challenge posed by the gospels. These practices were more about ordinary human flourishing than about spiritual transformation. And so the religious practice for most Christians concerned mainly rituals, prayers, pilgrimages, etc., that were designed to help them manage their lives in an enchanted economy: beating the bounds, Ember Days, the veneration of relics, and the propitiation of spiritual beings--the Virgin, the saints, etc. All of these practices came to be seen by the Reformers as a 'white magic'.
The monastic minority also lived in an enchanted world, but their spiritual task was to transcend secular concerns regarding ordinary human flourishing by aligning their lives with a higher "Good", and that required living according to different norms defined by values that were outside the secular worldly system, so to say. 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', to use Weber's term, were a sign to everyone living in the secular world that there was a higher possibility, that there was something more to which one could aspire that lay outside secular preoccupations. But since that life in pursuit of the higher had stricter moral norms and 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 challenge were more successful than others. But that some were successful cannot be denied: great saints, mystics, and philosophers were nurtured in that old system, from Hildegard of Bingen and Hugh of St. Victor, to Francis, Bonaventure, and Aquinas, through Eckhart.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 transcendent Real there.
There was an assumption among educated Christian 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 in the secular world. 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 that arose from below, but we'll talk about those in Part 4, "The Anthropocentric Turn".) And so a well-intended elite project started to get some traction, 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 secular 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, out of the spiritual sphere and into the secular. 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 elites continued the reform traditions of the Catholic elites during the late Middle Ages in societies where they had control, but on a much more ambitious level. The first task was to completely eliminate whatever remained of the enchanted world in Christian practices. The second task was to eliminate the two-tiered vocational system; and a third challenge lay in maintaining an attitude of humility as this new kind of 'saint' 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, which though consciously justified as for the greater glory of God, in reality very often were unconsciously ego-driven causa sui projects that were motivated for the greater glory of one's self.
So the first, the Reformers needed to complete the disenchantment project:
. . . we reject the sacramentals; all the elments of "magic" in the old religion. They are not only useless, but blasphemous, because they are arrogating power to us, and "plucking" it away "from the glory of God's righteousness". This also means that intercession by saints is of no effect. In face of the world of spirits and powers, this gives us great freedom. 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)
That sense of freedom derived from opposition to these forces of enchantment, now all of which are by definition malign, is a key element in understanding the attractiveness of becoming a buffered self, the kind of self that filters the supernatural out. The buffered self lives in a mystery-free zone, except for the occasional frisson he experiences when passing by a graveyard, so to say, or more recently when he watches a supernatural horror film. When he leaves the theater, he leaves the imaginative re-creation of that eerie, enchanted world. People living in an enchanted imaginary cannot leave it because their whole world is the 'theater'.
Becoming a buffered self gradually becomes an attractive option in early modernity, first for elites, then for everyone else, because it becomes a way of leaving the enchanted theater, which brings with it, understandably, great relief and an increased sense of control and autonomy. But with that control also comes a flatness and deadness of soul, because it's not only the eerieness of the spiritual world that is filtered out. It also filters out a vital sense of connection to the life world. The world becomes Hamlet's 'sterile promontory', and a sense of felt meaning becomes rarer the more buffered one's self becomes. Another kind of free-floating anxiety becomes common. Existential dread becomes common. And neurosis, a breakdown in the filtering system, becomes a possibillity for moderns in a way that was not possible for premoderns. The psychotherapist replaces the priest, and his job is to help the patient patch up the filtering system and get him back into buffered control, i.e., back into alignment with the disenchanted social and cosmic imaginary that modernity gradually manifests.
The second task for the Calvinist Reformer is to eliminate the two-tiered system. The radical Calvinist Reformers utterly rejected the idea of Christianity being lived at different levels (or speeds) because they were committed to the idea of equality of all before God--how can there be first- and second-class Christians? But that meant that they had to pick one level and expect everybody to live at it. So where do you set the level? 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 sincerely wants to live a righteous life, there seems to be a bedeviling paradox in that on the one hand he is told that God wants him to flourish and be happy, and on the other that he must distinguish himself from the quasi-pagan, drunken, fornicating, relic-worshipping, saint-propitiating nominal Christians who were more or less the norm in medieval Christendom. Be happy, but not too happy. So where do you draw the line? And how--
. . . do you hold the two together? The dilemma was faced first by the late medieval 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., no festivals, dancing, no 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-level system of hierarchical complementarity, and do so to this day. They compromised by trying to bend some pagan practices to more Christian ends, endorsed relics and other sacramentals as a substitute for pagan talismans, maintained and further developed 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 mountain air, even if most 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 moralistic righteousness of the good burgher. Theosis as a possibility is no longer on the table.
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 goal was to avoid leveling, but leveling was exactly what happened. The model Christian in Calvinist societies became the model bourgeois. The Calvinists rejected the Catholic two-tiered 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.
So the Calvinist reform project has, first, to eliminate completely enchantment in Christian practice; second, to get rid of the two-level Catholic system of hierarchical complementarity. 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. This impulse to reform the whole of society is a significant turning point, and one has to ask what motivated it. Taylor suggests these 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.)
Second, Puritans feared the unruly and irreligious and saw them as a threat to civil order, peace, and prosperity. The Puritan desire for reform jibed with a broader civil interest to reduce crime, brigandage, social violence for reasons that have little to do with religious reforms, but the civil reforms that were increasingly common throughout Europe in the early modern period were almost always framed in religious terms.
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 secular society, as monks or sectarians do, in order 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.
So much of what constrained the earlier Catholic 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 broad social reform 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 in the broader population 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 in maintaining a lively sense of its ideals, the motivation had to be maintained from generation to generation, and that proved impossible.
First, the one-level solution proved impossible to sustain. The tension between renunciation and flourishing was challenging for the most gifted, but impossible to maintain in the long term by ordinary people. The ability to hold the two together in a tense balancing act was unsustainable, 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 mountain air, 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 wrong rise to positions of power and shape the narrative the rest of us must live by. This is as true in Catholic societies as in Protestant ones.
Then there was another dilemma posed by the 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 from 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 that is an inner attitude that is difficult enough for extraordinary individuals to maintain in balance--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 under control, we can pull it off. (84)
In other words, the good burghers know what's best because they believe that they have God and his grace by virtue of their being the pillars of the community--the flourishing, well-heeled elect. But it becomes a bubble reality, and bubbles by definition are impermeable to influences outside of it, including grace. And so from this lived reality, since grace is no longer really a factor, conformity to external moralistic codes is all that matters, and spiritual authority in the community correlates with behaving according to a strict moral code and one's wealth and success are signs of having been blessed by God:
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 a bright island in a sea of darkness and depravity. But with such a sense of oneself, one loses perspective and humility, and forgetfulness of grace, and what's left is the smug, priggish moralism that we 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 brice-brac, and a kind that is dehumanizing compared to pre-reformation tolerance of enchanted-world practices.
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--even at the time--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 austere 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 need-for-control motivations have not, and in many ways what was begun then was the harbinger of the police, technocratic, and surveillance states. 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 that makes secularism possible. 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 with which people experience the transcendent Real, grace is nevertheless to be found everywhere, high and low. The gospels couldn't be clearer about that. Because pagan practices interweaved with Christian ones in the old enchanted order does not mean that grace wasn't also interwoven with them as well.
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 justification for 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, ironically becomes later the dynamic that manifests in the secular, anti-Christian revolutions that start erupting in the late 18th century and into 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. (But also Charles Borromeo's Catholic Milan in the 1560s.)
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 secular 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. This historical challenge is to hold the reform impulse in a kind of tension with existing practice while understanding that the influence of the first on the second over time has a transforming effect. Problems arise when existing practice rigidifies or when the reform impulse becomes a radical, top-down, social engineering project.
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 as 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.
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 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 a 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 between generations 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 worthy of our 'ultimate concern' and what obstructs or distracts us from loving that which is truly worthy. 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. For Christians 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 stories 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 humanity'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” (theosis). 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. 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 the gift of 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, people less frequently conduct business by trusting people with whom they have long acquaintance. The handshake agreement becomes a thing of the past. 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. But the whole process becomes depersonalized compared to traditional practice.
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.
Part 4: The Anthropocentric Turn
Let's sum up what we've presented in Parts 1 - 3. Part 1 focused on the process of disembedding from the premodern enchanted social and cosmic imaginary to one that is thoroughly disembedded and disenchanted. This disembedding process has produced the buffered selves that we have become and the radically secular society to which buffered selves are native. The radically secularized society culminates a long process that began in the Axial period starting in the first half of the first millennium BCE.
The Axial religions, among them Buddhism, Greek ontology, Judaism--and later Christianity--are significant because for the first time they assert that there is a higher Good than ordinary human flourishing. They introduce the idea that there is a level of Being that transcends our ordinary experience of the world, and that true happiness or liberation lies in aligning with that transcendent, universal Good rather than in traditional religious practices that focus on appeasing or propitiating local gods. So while the enchanted world of spirits, demons, devas is still very much a part of the world in which the post-Axial spiritual practices are developed, the dynamics of the enchanted world are unimportant. The goal is to not worry about all that, but rather to focus on aligning oneself with the higher Good. So this starts the process of disembedding and disenchantment in these different societies, a movement from local and particular to transcendent and universal.
Buddhism envisions liberation as deliverance from the chain of incarnations in world where the ordinary pursuit of human flourishing was considered delusion; the goal was to shed the illusion of one's individuality and to melt back into the cosmic pleroma--the Deep Real. Judaism taught that while there may be many gods, they were false gods, and there was only one that was the true God, a 'personal' Deep Real, whose existence transcended time and space and yet who cared about the people to whom he said he was betrothed. Loving Him and obeying his laws should be their only concern, and the ancient Israelites developed a society that disembedded them from the enchantment-heavy pagan fertility cults in the societies that surrounded them. No need to propitiate or appease the local gods for this and that; there was only the one God: if the good Jew loves this God and follows his law, he will flourish.
Greek ontology asserted that there was a Deep Real that transcended space/time and which provided a universal standard of truth and goodness by which the quality of things in space time could be measured. And Christianity integrates both the Jewish and Greek streams in a synthesis that paradoxically asserts that the transcendent Deep Real--the Logos--entered into space time in a way that opens up possibilities for the transformation of space time that were before impossible. The paradox of the transcendent immanentizing is something that Jews and Greeks (and their rationalist heirs) could not accept then or now. It was blasphemous for Jews and a logical impossibility for Greeks.
Part 2 focused on the unique impulse for reform that developed within Latin Christendom, which goes through two phases: the first, was/is very like the Buddhist model in which there are two levels of religious commitment. The higher level was lived by monks outside the world of ordinary flourishing and committed to the goal of living a life that sought deeper levels of alignment with the transcendent Good. The second level was lived by everyone else whose lives were mostly circumscribed by concerns about ordinary human flourishing--health, prosperity, fertility-- and religious practice for them was mainly one of management of the spiritual forces that promoted or obstructed flourishing. In Buddhist and in Western (and Eastern} Christianity, a two-level system of hierarchical spiritual complementarity developed in which both levels worked in a larger system of hierarchical social complementarity.
This system promoted social stability to a fairly significant degree, although there was always tension because of the gap that lay between the higher and the lower levels. No one in Latin Christendom--or anywhere else--believed during the first millennium CE that society was reformable by the standards presented in the gospels. If the transcendent Good to which the gospels pointed was to have a transformative effect, it would be only in the lives of spiritual virtuosi who left society and went into literal or figurative wildernesses to find the transcendent Good there. As St. Anselm (d. 1109) said:
If thou wouldst be certain of being in the number of the elect, strive to be one of the few, not of the many. And if thou wouldst be quite sure of thy salvation, strive to be among the fewest of the few… Do not follow the great majority of mankind, but follow those who enter upon the narrow way, who renounce the world, who give themselves to prayer, and who never relax their efforts by day or by night, that they may attain everlasting blessedness.
The elitism is pretty stark, and it doesn't have a whole lot to do with the Christ of the gospels who spent most of his ministry with ordinary folks and often society's outcasts. The wilderness and mountain fastness are places where in Jewish and Christian tradition one encounters the transcendent Good, but the goal is not to stay there, but rather to come back into society. So the second phase, which Taylor calls the evangelical turn, seeks to break out of this static, hierarchical, elitist understanding of the Christian life and to raise the standards of religious practice throughout the larger extra-monastic society. In the 1200s the Franciscan and Dominican orders emerge to take the higher transcendently grounded spirituality out of the monasteries and into the world. Other popular religious movements emerge, and a serious Christian life becomes a possibility for people who are not monks.
So in the late medieval period, this kind of seriousness, however, continues to be mixed in with Christianized pagan popular practices that are designed to help the everyday Christian manage in a still very enchanted world. There is this mix of enchanted religion in popular piety, but also a very strong idea that the God of Love who revealed himself in His Son wanted them all to live lives that sought to be closer to Him. In that late medieval world there was an interesting, vibrant mix of religious possibilities. So people were religious in all kinds of ways and at all different levels of seriousness, some in a more pre-Axial key, others in a more post-Axial key for whom spiritual transformation or 'theosis' was the focus of their practice. And the institutional church and its leadership reflected this hodgepodge of possibilities, sometime leaning more post-Axial, sometimes more pre Axial, sometimes just concerned with its own narrow institutional prerogatives and power. The selling of indulgences was clearly more pre-Axial in its mentality, and it was this and other pre-Axial tendencies of the Roman Church that inclined a growing educated, literate class in the Renaissance period to demand radical reforms in the 16th Century.
The Calvinist reformers rejected the Catholic pluralistic model, and adopted a model that was more like the society of the ancient Israelites. There was one norm of righteousness, and everybody had to live by it. No more pluralism of practice, no more Christianity at higher and lower levels or different speeds. Everybody was equal in the eyes of God, and Christian practice was the same for everybody. So this collapsed the two-level spiritual/secular system in the Catholic model--the spiritual as a special vocation of prayer and contemplation was eliminated completely, and with that the eventual unintended consequence of creating a much larger space for the secular.
But to the extent that churches, and later states with churches, set themselves the goal of mobilizing and organizing and actively bringing about these higher levels of conformity to (what was seen as ) the Christian life, this latter comes to be codified, laid out in a set of norms. Reform comes to be seen as a serious business, brooking no alternatives. There is no more separate sphere of the "spiritual" where one may go to pursue a life of prayer outside the saeculum; and nor is there the other alternation between order and anti-order, which Carnival represented. There is just this one relentless order of right thought and action, which must occupy all social and personal space.
How then does the break-out occur? Because the very attempt to express what the Christian life means in terms of a code of action in the saeculum opens the possibility of devising a code whose main aim is to encompass the basic goods of life in the saeculum: life, prosperity, peace, mutual benefit. In other words, it makes possible what I call the anthropocentric shift. Once this happens then the break-out is ready to occur. It just needs the step to holding that these "secular" goods are the point of the whole code. Pushed by annoyance and resentment at the ascetic demands of ultra-conformity, many will be willing to take this step. (266-67)
Any robust impulse within Protestant societies that sought post-Axial aspiration to spiritual transformation or theosis was de-legitimated. There was instead a focus on a piety that at its best sought genuinely to reform society according to the spirit of the gospels, but because that is so difficult to sustain, this project inevitably devolved into a rigid, extrinsic moralism that I call 'whited sepulcher syndrome'. The gospels make fairly clear that this kind of extrinsic moralism is the deepest and most difficult kind of alienation to remedy because it creates a hard heartedness that is impervious to grace.
Part 3 focuses on how parallel to these changes in the social imaginary, there were changes also in the cosmic imaginary. The early Christian thinkers used Greek thought, particularly Stoicism, Neoplatonism, and Aristotle to help them articulate a Christian ontology. The premodern order was based on ancestral heritage on one hand, but also on a Platonic hierarchical cosmic order in which the social order was implicated, and the health of the social order was dependent on its virtue, i.e., the degree to which it realized its ideal form.
It is out of this outlook that the idea emerges that disorders in the human realm will resonate in nature, because the very order of things is threatened. The night on which Duncan was murdered was disturbed by "lamenting heard i' the air; strange screams of death", and it remains dark even though day should have started. . . ."
...in these cases, it is very clear that a moral order is more than just a set of norms, that it also contains what we might call an "ontic" component, identifying features of the world which make the norms realizable.
So there was an organic sense of order in that everybody had a job to do in the way that the head, the heart, and the limbs have jobs to do in the body, and that there was a greater dignity to some of those functions than others. This idea of hierarchical dignity was tossed out in the modern period as the new idea of complementarity was determined simply by the random roles people play in society with no correlation to any ontological order. In the premodern order--
…the hierarchical differentiation itself is seen as the proper order of things. It was part of the nature or form of society. In the Platonic and neo-Platonic traditions . . . this form was already at work in the world, and any attempt to deviate from it turned reality against itself. Society would be denatured in the attempt. Hence the tremendous power of the organic metaphor in these earlier theories. The organism seems the paradigm locus of forms at work, striving to heal its wounds and cure its maladies. And at the same time, the arrangement of functions which it exhibits is not simply contingent: it is “normal’ and right. That the feet are below the head is how it should be.
The modern idealization of order departs radically from this. It is not just that there is no place for a Platonic-type form at work; but connected to this, whatever distribution of functions a society might develop is deemed contingent; it will be justified or not instrumentally; it cannot itself define the good. The basic normative principle is, indeed, that the members of society serve each other’s needs, help each other, in short, behave like the rational and sociable creatures that they are. In this way, they complement each other. But the particular functional differentiation which they need to take on to do this most effectively is endowed with no essential worth. It is adventitious, and potentially changeable. . . . In one way or the other, the modern order gives no ontological status to hierarchy, or any particular structure of differentiation. (163-65)
In the Christian Neoplatonic order the impersonal Logos embraced by the pre-Socratic philosophers through to the Stoics was personalized in the person of the Cosmic Christ depicted in the Prologue to John's Gospel and the first chapter of Paul's letter to the Colossians. The enchanted world is a deeply personal and interpersonal world, and the Christian revelation of the gospels and later the emergence of idea of the Trinitarian structure of the Deep Real reinforces that sense of a deeply personal cosmos in which the Deep Real is the Deep Personal. Salvation or liberation in the Christian scheme is not release from the world, but a release from Deep Alienation--human alienation from God, from the natural world, from one another, and even from one's own deep Self. The goal, in other words, was a liberation from deep alienation, and the cure was the achievement of a deep interpersonal communion analogous to that the Trinity enjoys within itself.
This personal cosmos, however, is significantly depopulated by the Calvinist reformers starting a process that the Enlightenment rationalists will take further. The Calvinist reformers take the process of disenchantment to another level: gone the sacramentals, relics, images and statues, Marian devotion, the intercession of the saints, etc., and all that's left is the remote Father God in his heaven outside time and space. This is a God who must be dutifully loved and worshiped, but who doesn't really need us, and it's just his caprice that some of us he'll save and most he won't.
This is a very severe, austere God, and what it has to do with the God revealed in the gospels, I don't know. But within Catholicism, too, this severe God became embraced by the Jansenists who played a very significant role in shaping the kind of extreme juridical-penal imagination of Christianity that perversely took root in France and Ireland. And then there were the Spanish Dominicans who took this severity to a bizarre level according to their own perverse logic. And then, as if to counterbalance all this severity there was Baroque exuberance in the arts in Catholic countries, and exuberant wealth in the Protestant capitalist societies, as in Holland. There's a lot going on.
This is an important shift. The cosmos already before the dawn of the scientific revolution, especially in Protestant societies, has become disenchanted and impersonal. This is an important precondition for the development of the scientific method, which requires that the meanings of things be bracketed in order simply to understand the mechanical logic of things with instrumental reason. Aristotle and his final causality had to be eliminated. The scene is set for the clockmaker god who built the machine, started it running, and then became the deus otiosus, leaving humans in charge to figure things out for themselves using their instrumental reason.
Living a godly life in this world is something very different from living in the ordered Aristotelian Cosmos of Aquinas or the hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysios. It is no longer a matter of admiring a normative order in which God has revealed himself through signs and symbols. We rather have to inhabit it as agents of instrumental reason, working the system effectively in order to bring about God’s purposes; because it is through these purposes, and not through signs, that God reveals himself in his world. These are not just two different stances, but two incompatible ones. We have to abandon the attempt to read the cosmos as the locus of signs, reject this as illusion, in order to adopt the instrumental stance effectively. Not just on a level of popular belief, as a world of spirits, do we have to disenchant the universe; we have also to bring about the analogous shift on the high cultural level of science, and trade in a universe of ordered signs, in which everything has a meaning, for a silent but beneficent machine. (99)
The enchanted cosmos suffused by the life of the Logos stops its singing (or is it that buffered ears can no longer hear it?). The cosmos is no longer full of angelic hosts, but is now dark, cold, and silent. The earth becomes reified, a thing to be exploited for human benefit. The natural world in this new imaginary is a machine that runs according to the logic of the engineer rather than the lighthearted free play of the artist. This was Blake's lament about how the social imaginary by his time had been Newtonized. The chief human project now becomes to understand its mechanical principles, its clockwork, in order that it might better serve human utility, that is, ordinary human flourishing. We're back in the pre-Axial mode, but now science and technology replaces magic and the ritual appeasement of the gods.
So now that we've summarized this broader historical context, let us focus on the implications for what Taylor calls the 'anthropocentric turn' and the movement to the possibility of the social imaginary embracing an exclusive humanism, i.e., a humanism completely immanent with no need of transcendent reference or grounding. This turn was driven first by the impulse for reform that began in the late medieval period that led to the radical split within Christendom after Luther and Calvin. This in turn led to the grisly confessional wars in roughly the century between 1550 and 1650 that ended on the continent with the Treaty or Westphalia in 1648 and in the Puritans' beheading of Charles I in England in 1649 and the restoration of Charles II about a decade later. This was a grisly, bloody time of so-called Christians killing one another so that confessional factions could insure control of their respective societies.
So it's understandable that many intelligent, decent people coming out the experience of these absurd, disgusting confessional wars would view the claims of orthodox Christianity with a huge degree of skepticism. Both sides did their best to discredit themselves. And so it's understandable that there would be an attempt to retain what was best from the Christian tradition and throw overboard everything that was irrational and violent. The Enlightenment rationalists weren't anti-religion so much as they were anti-Church. As Terry Eagleton puts in in his Culture and the Death of God--
The Enlightenment's assault on religion, then was at root a political rather than a theological affair. By and large, the project was not to replace the supernatural with the natural, but to oust a barbarous, benighted faith in favour of a rational, civilized one. It was the role of ecclesial power in consecrating the ancien regimes, the unholy alliance of throne and altar, which scandalised these scholars more deeply, as the intellectual avatars of an emergent middle class. Some of them were less philosophers in the modern sense of the word than ideologues and intellectual agitators. . . .What seized their imagination was the Baconian project of harnessing knowledge and power, placing the findings of scientific reason at the service of social reform and human emancipation. (12)
A new apologetic project emerged whose goal was to take Calvin's idea of a remote God, and to make him even more remote and 'civilized'. He would be retained as Creator and providential benefactor, but now we see him as the author of an impersonal, mechanical moral order whose code it was the human task to discern. No need for revelation. So now we see a move to understand religion in moralistic or disciplinary terms rather than in devotional or prayerful terms--too irrational (i.e., primitive, barbarous). It's not hard to see how that natural desire to restore peace and order for the pious or impious alike converges in their wanting to take the irrational out of religion. We, therefore don’t need to be soul transformed; we need simply to behave according to prescribed norms and laws. The goal was to become 'civilized' after a century of barbaric religious strife.
So Taylor describes this new moral order that emerges in the late 17th century as having the following six characteristics:
First, God has no other inscrutable purposes for humans other than the fulfillment of their own good understood in terms of normal human flourishing. Post-axial spiritual aspiration drops out. There are no spiritually transformative aspirations, no idea of theosis. Theosis is rejected as anti-social monkishness that impedes rather than promotes the new ideal of mutual support through mutual exchange--
Our primary service to each other was thus (to use the language of a later age) the provision of collective security, to render our lives and property safe under law. But we also serve each other in practicing economic exchange. These two main ends, security and prosperity, are now the principal goals of organized society, which itself can come to be seen as something in the nature of a profitable exchange between its constituent members. The ideal social order is one in which our purposes mesh, and each in furthering himself helps the others.
The ideal order was not thought to be a mere human invention. Rather it was designed by God, an order in which everything coheres according to God’s purposes. Later in the eighteenth century, the same model is projected on the cosmos, in a vision of the universe as a set of perfectly interlocking parts, in which the purposes of each kind of creature mesh with those of all the others.
. . . Locke reasons that God gave us our powers of reason and discipline so that we could most effectively go about the business of preserving ourselves. It follows that we ought to be “Industrious and Rational”. The ethic of discipline and improvement is itself a requirement of the natural order that God had designed. The imposition of order by human will is itself called for by his scheme.
We can see in Locke’s formulation how much he sees mutual service in terms of profitable exchange. “Economic” (that is, ordered, peaceful, productive) activity has become the model for human behavior, and the key for harmonious co-existence. In contrast to the theories of hierarchical complementarity, we meet in a zone of concord and mutual service, not to the extent that we transcend our ordinary goals and purposes, but on the contrary, in the process of carrying them out according to God’s design. (165-69)
Second, the eclipse of grace. God is retained as the creator and designer of the cosmos, but the idea of a God who intervenes in the world is rejected; it is enough that he created a beneficent order and bestowed on humans Reason, which, if used correctly, gives them the capacity to discern God's benevolent purposes in the world he created. If God does not intervene, then there is no grace. There is just the natural capacity of humans to use their brains. The shift to the impersonal god of Deism is not far behind.
Third, in addition to Reason, God, in his benevolence, made humans naturally inclined toward benevolence, if they would just use their Reason to understand the benevolent cosmos as it is. The great obstacles to the natural flourishing of human benevolence are the irrationality of tradition and custom. Religion is fine so long as it is "reasonable" and eschews delusion (i.e., superstition), enthusiasm (i.e., mysticism), and fanaticism (i.e., inquisitions, witch hunts). The imagination of the cosmos as dark, random, cruel will come later after Darwin.
Fourth, God as Judge: he stands at the end of time ready to distribute rewards and punishments. Even if it be in everyone's interest to be reasonable and benevolent, the enlightenment elite, at least at the beginning, thought that the fear of punishment was still a necessary motivator for those who were not intrinsically motivated to be reasonable and benevolent. The need for extrinsic rewards and punishments eventually falls away, and it is seen as morally superior for humans to demonstrate benevolence for its own sake, not as a means to an end.
Fifth, the sense of mystery fades. “If God’s purposes for us encompass only the fulfillment of our own good, and this can be read from the design of nature, then no further mystery can hide here." Evil is dismissed as stupidity and ignorance, and all the motivation we need to be decent human beings is innate, either in our self-interest well understood, or in our natural feelings of benevolence. There is no mystery about God. All we need to know about him is in his plan for us, which is knowable by reason. No miracles or interventions, no grace, no mystery. We're in the suburbs already of the Secular City.
Sixth, God has no plan for human transformation or ‘theosis’. Certainly not in this life, but maybe in the next. After a while, neither in the next. The afterlife becomes a place where we are perhaps reunited with loved ones, but the idea that any kind of profound spiritual transmutation of the human being is a goal is dismissed. And eventually, for many, the afterlife is altogether dismissed as the delusional wish fulfillment of the childish who cannot face the hard truth of the finality of death.
There are so many converging factors that contribute to this shift: increasing literacy, the "taming" of the nobles, the celebration of commerce over warfare, the strengthening nation state, increasing urbanization, the disruptions of war, and significant shifts in technology and production. Taylor spends a chapter entitled "The Spectre of Idealism" in which he argues that these changes on the material level and on the thinking or imaginative level reinforce one another dynamically. There's a lot going on. But the inevitable endpoint of it all is that while many people clearly remain religious believers, a huge space opens up for the possibility of non-belief, particularly among the culture's elite.
There is thus no iron link, but there is also here a possible affinity, which in the absence of other factors can lead people into the sense that a more impersonal reading of Christianity, or Deism, or even something further removed from orthodoxy is more suitable to their age. This link is invoked in another form by David Martin when he remarks about the eighteenth-century British scene “that latitudinarian clergy deployed a public version of Isaac Newton to promote a separation of creation from its Creator in order the better to ensure that rationality ruled both the natural and the social universes”.
This affinity becomes stronger when one thinks of the ethical consequences of the two kinds of belief. 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 form 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 this model; but it is the kind of society that it is meant to be. (282)
Agape is the universalizing impulse at the heart of Christian transcendental universalism, and for Christians a kind of selfless love that is impossible without a grace-nourished spiritual transformation. But Taylor wants to argue that the space created for an exclusive humanism within this impersonal cosmic imaginary needed to see itself as morally superior to what it replaces, and in order to do that it had to find a way to retain this agapic ideal without any transcendent grounding for it. And once achieved a completely immanentized humanism became a possibility. Taylor argues that it was achieved in a completely new way with the celebration of dispassionate instrumental reason, which in those who have realized it come to experience non-transcendent agape, i.e., a natural, magnanimous benevolence. Modern humanism innovated in relation to the ancients in that they drew on the forms of Christian faith it emerged from, but, following the Calvinist lead rejected the post-Axial aspiration to transcend flourishing. “The successor to agape was to be held strictly within the bounds of measure, instrumental reason, and perhaps also good taste.” (247)
The immanent resources of benevolence were found in four places:
- Disengaged instrumental reason. Disengagement itself frees us from the confused, perturbed mass of personal desires, cravings, envy, and liberates a universal benevolence in us. He quotes the atheist Bertrand Russell who articulates this eloquently
Distant ages and remote regions of space are as real to it [disengaged instrumental reason] as what is present and near. In thought, it rises above the life of sense, seeking always what is general and open to all men. In desire and will, it aim’s simply at the good, without regarding the good as mine or yours. In feeling it gives love to all, not only to those who further the purposes of the self. Unlike the finite self, it is impartial; its impartiality leads to truth in thought, justice in action, and universal love in feeling.
No need for God or grace here. The capacity for this kind of universality and magnanimity is within the natural scope of the human being. It begs the question, of course, why humans are constructed in such a way as to have this capacity in the first place. Can it be explained by Darwin?
- Sense of a pure, universal will, an inner power before which we stand in awe, as with Kant. The very fact that we have the power to act by universal law is an object of wonder and infinite respect.
- A sense of natural, universal sympathy, which only needs the right conditions to flourish into virtue. Since the human will is naturally good, it inclines toward solidarity or sympathy with others. This natural ability has been lost and must be retrieved. It has been covered over by the false and denaturing conditions which have developed in history. The goal is to create the social conditions that will liberate and nourish it.
- Eventually, a Feuerbachian vision that the powers we have attributed to God are really human potentialities and must be reappropriated by humans.
Taylor is at pains to point out that this isn’t the discovery of something old that was always there, but the creation of something new, i.e., to live in these modes of moral life in which the sources are radically immanentized. The subtraction story doesn’t allow us to be as surprised as we ought to be at this achievement—or as admiring of it.
The newness of the modern form which Russell articulates is this: that for the first time, we have such an opening to the universal which is not based on a connection to the transcendent. This purely immanent sense of universal solidarity is an important achievement, a milestone in human history. It is an achievement, because getting to the point where we can be inspired and empowered to beneficence by an impartial view of things, or a sense of buried sympathy within, requires training, or inculcated insight, and frequently much work on ourselves. It is in this respect like being moved by other great moral sources in our tradition, be they the Idea of the Good, or God’s agape, or the Tao. These things are not just given to us by birth. Making the new sources available was thus a step in an unprecedented direction. Of course, Nietzsche, the cranky anti-humanist, comes along and says the whole project is just Christianity in disguise, and I think he's right about that. He rejects it for that reason, but I embrace it. I see it, however, as a chapter in a longer, continuously developing story.
But what is the ontic component in this modern understanding of moral order? What makes these norms appropriate and possible of realization? The old order was anchored in the cosmos, which tends to realize itself, and reacts to any breach as the animal kingdom did to Duncan’s murder. So is it just an arbitrary construction? Taylor argues that the new order is not an arbitrary construction, that it speaks to something profound in us, so that building toward it is not like constructing sand castles. On the contrary, it can be self-stabilizing, its realization making us see how much we cherish it. There is just something in us that responds to this idea of universality, even if so much postmodern thought has striven to repudiate it. The attempt to deny it defies common sense and common decency, and it's just unnecessary, even if it is an eddy of thought that some had to go into and explore for a few years.
I think there's an argument to be made, and I don't think is that hard to make, that while it's possible that this universal benevolence and the capacity for reason is something that might have developed in humans as a completely random Darwinian outcome, it's not very likely that it did. It is more likely that what we experience within the human microcosm reflects the larger macrocosm, and sooner or later we'll find our collective way to embracing a social imaginary that retrieves that old idea in a postmodern key.
And whether or not a Christian version of this retrieval is broadly adopted, the whole point of Christ's incarnation was to immanentize the transcendent in the depths of the human soul. Since the incarnation, the "ontic component" is grounded as much in the human soul as it is in the cosmos. The human project, as I understand it, is to develop this interior ontic component, inchoate though it is in most of us, so that the human soul comes gradually to live more in alignment with the cosmic "ontic component".
This means then a retrieval of the Patristic idea of theosis, which is just another way of saying the same thing. That's for me the significance of the anthropocentric turn. The ur-anthropocentric turn actually occurred in the events that trasnpired between the first Good Friday and Easter. The Logos, the Deep Real, lived into human death and alienation so that humans could die into a life of communion with the Deep Real. If before that moment transcendence was experienced by most as outside in, since then gradually it has become something experienced inside out. And the Secular Age is for us like a collective empty tomb that creates the space for that arising from within its austere darkness. No need to go out into the wilderness to find God; the wilderness has come to us. And this experience of transcendence inside out does not require that one be a Christian, but Christianity, I think, gives the most robust explanation for the why and the how of it.