Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Impersonal Order: on the Excarnate God

Student Presentation by Matt Dodrill

Subtraction Stories as Inadequate

• The process of determinative negation (or subtraction stories) does not adequately explain the ways in which the modern self-understanding has been constructed throughout history.
o Deism is not merely the “next layer” on the continuum of subtraction stories. The temptation for an “impersonal order” was present during the Patristic era. However the Patristics were able to tame Greek philosophy and bring it into harmony with Christian orthodoxy.

Strands of Deism

• 1. Disenchantment -- the mother of “causal laws”: Disenchantment leads to perceiving the world as mechanization. Aristotelian teleology is replaced by the causal explanations of science. Spirits and demons are no longer extracted from matter.
• 2. The disappearance of legend and the homogenizing of “profane time”: History excludes the stories of heroes and legends. Time is homogenized into profanity.
o Hence moral therapeutic deism (a term borrowed from Christian Smith)
o Hence the loss of the liturgy and sacred time (and watching Charles Stanley on television instead).
o Biblical criticism: if heroes and legends are excluded from history, how shall we read Scripture? This strand subjects Scripture to Cartesian (and Lockean) epistemology.

Plausibility Conditions: a Reminder

• Taylor reminds us that deism never sees the world as it is "given" to us.
o 274: “That their paradigm of ‘religion’ is a negative one is not the result of empirical discovery, but of their pre-existing framework.”
o 275: “…their stance is not forced on them by the ‘facts’, but flows from a certain interpretive grid.”

Some Pre-Modern Points of Tension in the Patristic Church

• 1. Platonic subordination of the body
• 2. The re-entry of the body and a new significance of history
• 3. Gathered stories and individuation
• 4. New significance of contingency
• 5. The emotions
• 6. God as a personal and communal being
o This (6) is the context in which 1-5 are set. Modern deism integrated 1-5, but not 6. Thus, the deistic grid is pretty different. What is missing in the deistic account is a personal God/personal order.

What Made the Deistic Grid so Powerful?

Latitudinarians and Categorical Societies

• Latitudinarians are an affinity to disenchantment and “authoritative” causal laws.
o 282: …”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 contrasts with communion and agape, which are not based on by the “rules” or “codes” that categorical societies are bound by.
• Autonomous reason and dignity vs. subjection and mercy: Even the "boundary" ethics of modern societies was birthed out of autonomous reason. The law constraints of the categorical societies are based on what humans want, not on demands imposed from without. Thus, humans are not constrained by authority. Law is self-imposed -- it's impersonal. By contrast, Christians see their highest mode of being arising out of relation that is not equal. There is a hierarchical authority retained. We need grace, and grace trumps the "supremecy of a high code" (p. 283).

Disengagement and Objectification

• 283: “Disengagement is correlative to what I have called ‘objectification’. To objectify a given domain is to deprive it of normative force for us, or at least to bracket the meanings it has for us in our lives. If we take a domain of being in which hitherto the way things are has defined meanings or set standards for us, and we now take a new stance towards it as neutral, without meaning or normative force, we can speak of objectifying it.”
• Mechanization neutralizes the whole domain.

Excarnation and “Embodiment within the Bounds of Reason”

• Deism excarnates the Scripture narrative. That is, the tensions described above are explained in terms of reason (disembodied minds, in contrast to incarnation).
o Two consequences:
 1. Factor out embodied feeling (Kant)
 2. Base morality on emotions (Hume)

Modern Reflections of Deism

• Commercial society’s rejection of communion-defined Christianity.
• Unitarianism
• Christianity as “right belief”; theology as “correct description.”

What’s next? Unbelief? (See La Mettrie’s quote, p. 293).


• What role would Taylor say science should play? He has shown how the scientific revolution helped drive the excessive emphasis on causal law, but what is a corrective?
• We do not want our apologetic approach to (perhaps unwittingly) carry deistic assumptions. However, how should we defend against the charge of fideism?

Excursus on Apologetics

In this context, Taylor offers an analysis that is very germane to our work as Christian philosophers. In trying to assess just how the modern social imaginary came to permeate a wider culture, Taylor focuses on Christian responses to this emerging humanism and the “eclipses” we’ve just noted. And what he finds is that the responses themselves have already conceded the game; that is, the responses to this diminishment of transcendence already accede to it in important ways (Taylor will later call it “pre-shrunk religion” [226]). As he notes:

the great apologetic effort called forth by this disaffection itself narrowed its focus so drastically. It barely invoked the saving action of Christ, nor did it dwell on the life of devotion and prayer, although the seventeenth century was rich in this. The arguments turned exclusively on demonstrating God as Creator, and showing his Providence (225).

What we get in the name of “Christian” defenses of transcendence, then, is “a less theologically elaborate faith” which, ironically, paves the way for exclusive humanism. God is reduced to a Creator and religion is reduced to morality (225). The particularities of specifically Christian belief are diminished, as is any attention to religion in terms of worship (cp. 117).

In other ways, this mode of “Christian” apologetics bought the spectatorish “World-picture” of the new modern order. Rather than seeing ourselves positioned within a hierarchy of forms (in which case we wouldn’t be surprised if “higher levels” are mysterious and inscrutable), we now adopt a God-like, dispassionate “gaze” that surveys the whole. In this mode, the universe appears “as a system before our gaze, whereby we can grasp the whole in a kind of tableau” (232). And it is precisely in this context, when we adopt a “disengaged stance,” that the project of theodicy ramps up. But this is taken up in a way that is completely consistent with the “buffered self” (228): While earlier the terrors and burdens of evil and disaster would have cast us upon the help of a Savior,

[n]ow that we think we see how it all works, the argument gets displaced. People in coffee-houses and salons [and philosophy classes?] begin to express their disaffection in reflections on divine justice, and the theologians begin to feel that this is the challenge they must meet to fight back the coming wave of unbelief. The burning concern with theodicy is enframed by the new imagined epistemic predicament (233).

It’s very difficult for me to resist recognizing how much of the “industry” of Christian philosophy and apologetics today remains the outcome of these shifts. Just compare Christian responses to the “new atheists” which, in a similar way, have already conceded the game to exclusive humanism by playing on their turf. Or consider how much “Christian” philosophy is content to be “theistic” philosophy.

Here’s where Taylor’s “irony” comes into play: What’s left of/for God after this deistic shift? Well, “God remains the Creator, and hence our benefactor…but this Providence remains exclusively general: particular providences, and miracles, are out” (233). In other words, God plays a function within a system that generally runs without him (cp. Heidegger on “ontotheology”). “But having got this far,” Taylor concludes, “it is not clear why something of the same inspiring power cannot come from the contemplation of the order of nature itself, without reference to a Creator” (234). In other words, once God’s role is diminished to a Deistic agent, the gig is pretty much up: “And so exclusive humanism could take hold, as more than atheory held by a tiny minority, but as a more and more viable spiritual outlook. […] The points at which God had seemed an indispensable source for this ordering power were the ones which began to fade and become invisible. The hitherto unthought became thinkable” (234).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Spectre of Deism: On the Way to Exclusive Humanism (ch. 6)

Taylor’s quarry is still to discern just how exclusive humanism became a “live option” in modernity (222), resisting typical subtraction stories which posit that “once religious and metaphysical beliefs fall away, we are left with ordinary human desires, and these are the basis of our modern humanism” (253). This is an important point, and we won’t understand Taylor’s critique of subtraction stories without appreciating it: on the subtraction-story account, modern exclusive humanism is just the natural telos of human life. We are released to be the exclusive humanists we’re meant to be when we escape the traps of superstition and the yoke of transcendence. So exclusive humanism is “natural.” But Taylor’s point in this chapter is to show that we had to learn how to be exclusively humanist: it is a second nature, not a first.

So what made that possible?

1 / The Anthropological Shift

Taylor sees a theological shift in how we come to understand Providence; but this gets reflected in an anthropological (or even anthropocentric) shift in four movements. We might also describe this as a fourfold “immanentization” (anticipating how Taylor will speak of this below):

i) An eclipse of “further purpose” or a good that transcends “human flourishing”

This is a theme that Taylor has broached before (151, 152) and I think it deserves some reflection and discussion. The point is this: in the premodern, enchanted social imaginary, there was an end for humans that transcended “mundane” flourishing ‘in this world,’ so to speak. In short, both agents and social institutions lived with a sense of a telos that was eternal—a final judgment, the beatific vision, etc. And on Taylor’s accounting, this “higher good” was in some tension with mundane concerns about flourishing (recall his earlier point re: equilibrium). This entailed a sense of obligation “beyond” human flourishing.

What happens in the “new Providence,” according to Taylor, is a kind of “shrinking” of God’s purposes, an “economizing” of God’s own interests: “God’s goals for us shrink to the single end of our encompassing this order of mutual benefit he has designed for us” (221). So even our theism becomes humanized, immanentized, and the telos of God’s providential concern is circumscribed within immanence—even for “orthodox” folk: “even people who held to orthodox beliefs were influenced by this humanizing trend; frequently the transcendent dimension of their faith became less central” (222).

Discussion: I think this is a very germane point for us, located here at John Calvin’s college which is so influenced by the Kuyperian tradition. Indeed, one could see a strain of Kuyperianism as a confirmation of just this point; one might even posit that evangelicalism is just beginning to go through this shift (which is probably what motivated my friend Hans Boersma to write his new book, Heavenly Participation: Weaving a Sacramental Tapestry).

However, one might also ask whether Taylor’s formulation of this is also problematic: does orthodox Christian thought really posit the sort of tension between human flourishing and transcendent glory that Taylor suggests? Or is this Taylor’s own imposition of a dichotomy onto a frame that really posits a fundamental continuity between them? (There are some complicated issues of description vs. prescription also at issue here.)

ii) The eclipse of grace

Taylor describes the second aspect of this anthropological shift as the “eclipse of grace” (222). Since God’s providential concern for order is reduced to an “economic” ordering of creation to our mutual benefit, and since that order and design is discernible by reason, then “[b]y reason and discipline, humans could rise to the challenge and realize it” (222). The result is a kind of intellectual Pelagianism: we can figure this out without assistance. Oh, God still plays a role—as either the watchmaker who got the ball rolling, or as the judge who will evaluate how well we did—but in the long middle God plays no discernible role or function, and is uninvolved (222-223).

iii) The eclipse of mystery

Since what matters is immanent, and since we can figure it out, it’s not surprising that “the sense of mystery fades” (223). God’s providence is no longer inscrutable: it’s an open book, “perspicuous” (cp. Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science).

iv) The eclipse of theiosis

Finally, and as an outcome, we lose any “idea that God was planning a transformation of human beings which would take them beyond the limitations which inhere in their present condition” (224). We lose a sense that humanity’s end transcends its current configurations—and thus lose a sense of “participation” in God’s nature or “deification” as the telos for humanity. [Cf. Billings on theiosis in John Calvin.]]

But what underlay these shifts? Again, Taylor emphasizes the new focus on economic-centric harmony as the new focus and ideal: “The spreading doctrines of the harmony of interests reflect the shift in the idea of natural order which we described in the previous part, in which the economic dimension takes on greater and greater importance, and ‘economic’ (that is, ordered, peaceful, productive) activity is more and more the model for human behaviour” (229).

Monday, February 21, 2011

“Social Imaginaries”: Broader, Deeper, Wider, Stronger

Lander Hultin, Starter Presentation from 17. February, 2011

“In talking of our self-understanding, I am particularly concerned with what I will call our “social imaginary”, that is, the way we collectively imagine, even pre-theoretically, our social life . . .” (146)

Methodological Relevance: The “more than” principle

· the social imaginary is a non-reductive counter to the temptation of subtraction stories

· if the social imaginary is more than can be theoretically articulated (173) then subtraction stories as explicit theories telling a straight-shot story cannot be sustained and are glaringly insufficient

173: “It is in fact that largely unstructured and inarticulate understanding of our whole situation . . . It can never be adequately expressed in the form of explicit doctrines, because of its very unlimited and indefinite nature.”

Difference between “social imaginary” and “social theory”: Power to the (ordinary) people!

(1) Ordinarily expressed: ‘Imaginary’ because ordinary people do not usually imagine their social surroundings in theoretical terms; rather this imaginary is carried, loaded into and unloaded out of, images, stories, legends, and so on.

(2) Sufficiently social: ‘Theory’ is insufficiently social – typically theory is held by a small minority rather than the ‘imaginary’ that is shared by large groups of people

(3) A Better Possibility: Consequently, an ‘imaginary’ better accounts for common practice and the correlate sense of shared legitimacy—‘social imaginary’ is a more adequate condition of possibility

Complexity: both factual and “normative”

· Factual: a sense of how things usually go

· Normative: but also an idea of how things ought to go

Our normative understanding also shows us “what would constitute a foul”

More than Heidegger: Not just one-sided

172: “the social imaginary extends beyond the immediate background understanding which makes sense of our particular practices”

· In short this is because our practices also inform our background understandings, not just the other way around

o In other words, the understanding carries the practice and the practice carries the understanding. Both serve as possibility conditions for each other. In fact in having “no clear limits” the “wider grasp” of a social imaginary, it seems, complicates the very idea of the conditions of possibility. It is, as Taylor often repeats, much more than that.

173: “If the understanding makes the practice possible, it is also true that it is the practice which largely carries the understanding.”




Understood Practice, Practiced understanding

The “repertory” inherent: our implicit “map” of social space:

This “repertory” is the collection of common actions that we, as a social group, know how to perform. Again, this “know how” is pre-theoretical and in some sense, it seems, Taylor again pushes past Heidegger’s practical “know how” to show that this environmental familiarity cannot be explicated.

Webbed in Imagination: The Wider World

174: The social imaginary doesn’t include everything in our world—it isn’t total. But at the same time the features which make things make sense cannot be encompassed or “circumscribed” and consequently the social imaginary draws on our whole world.

In other words, we may not include every social aspect of every society, but there is a sense in which each society is webbed together such that the social imaginary of one society will tug at or pull on every other.

Meta-philosophical Question: How Do We Now Do Philosophy?

Is Taylor’s A Secular Age a work of philosophy? Does his (sometimes frustrating) story-telling better uncover the structures of human life? Is the point of philosophy to “uncover” in the first place? Is there a philosophy of the unsayable? If so, what’s the point of still saying something?

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Great Disembedding (ch. 3)

In chapter 3, Taylor further considers the emergence of the super-buffered individual (here we’re on the terrain of his earlier work, The Sources of the Self). And let’s keep in mind—anticipating chapter 4—that his concern is how such an individualism becomes sedimented in a social imaginary, not just part of a social “theory.” What emerges, then, is “a new self-understanding of our social existence, one which gave an unprecedented primacy to the individual” (146). We’ll see in a moment that his use of the term “understanding” here is significant because of its Heideggerian echoes.

Taylor now describes this shift—in which society will come to be seen as a collection of individuals (146)—as “the great disembedding.” But we can only make sense of this claim about disembedding if we appreciate the embedding that it’s dissing, so to speak. Most germane to understanding the point of this chapter is appreciating what Taylor calls the “triple embedding” of premodern societies, a configuration of society which goes along with what he’s been calling enchantment: “Human agents are embedded in society, society in the cosmos, and the cosmos incorporates the divine” (152).[1] The dis-embedding, then, happens gradually by targeting different facets of this triple embedding (e.g., disenchantment targets the 3rd aspect; social contract theory targets the second aspect, etc.).

In a somewhat strange way, Taylor tells this story in a way reminiscent of a “history of religions” approach, or in a way that calls to mind Karl Jaspers’ grand stories about human cultural development. So you’ll note that Taylor keeps speaking about a shift from tribal, “smaller-scale” societies (147) to the emergence of the “Axial” religions in the first millennium B.C.—the emergence of Judaism, Confucianism, Greek religion, etc. from the more primal religions of tribal societies. It seems that Taylor’s point is that the Axial religions are already on the way to disembedding the individual. So if there is an “irony” that, say, Christianity unleashes forces that will lead to exclusive humanism, he seems to be noting an earlier irony here. This tension comes back at the end of the chapter in his discussion, following Ivan Illich, of the “corruption” of Christianity (158): while on the one hand Christianity was a driver of disembedding, on the other hand such a configuration of Christianity was already a corruption, one that failed to appreciate that Christianity envisioned not disembedding but an alternative embedding—a “network of agape” which transcended tribal identities but still saw the individual embedded in the polis and the polis embedded in the divine life (a “participatory” ontology). But instead this Christian impetus became “the disciplined society” (158).

[1] Note how he suggests creation ex nihilo already breaks this chain (152).

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Creation, Nature, and Incarnation (early sections of chapter 2)

(a) Incarnational investment in “nature”

Taylor’s case-in-point w/r/t his "zig-zag" approach is a shift to a new interest in “nature,” or more specifically nature “for its own sake” (90). Now, from the vantage of point of secular humanism, this new interest in nature can look like the next logical step on the way to pure immanence: first distinguish God/nature, then disenchant, then be happy and content with just nature and hence affirm the autonomy and sufficiency of nature.[1] Such a story about the “autonomization” of nature posits a contrast or dichotomy between belief in God and interest in “nature-for-itself” (91).

The only problem with such a story is that it fails to account for two important historical realities: (1) it was precisely Christians who were exhibiting a new interest in creation/nature for theological reasons; and (2) this interest was clearly not mutually exclusive with belief in God and an affirmation of transcendence. In particular, the late medieval and Renaissance[2] investment in nature/embodiment/particularity is rooted in a new Incarnational spirituality (93ff.). This was very much an “evangelical” development, concerned with bringing Christ to the world, and thus recognizing God’s own “incarnational” move in that regard—meeting humanity where it is, in bodies, history, etc. “So it is not altogether surprising that this attempt to bring Christ to the world, the lay world, the previously unhallowed world, should inspire a new focus on this world” (94). This can be seen in art during this period as well (96). So this was primarily a revolution in devotion, not metaphysics. Thus “the new interest in nature was not a step outside of a religious outlook, even partially; it was a mutation [?] within this outlook” (95). While this shift might, from a later vantage point, look like the first step toward exclusive humanism and pure immanence, it was not at the beginning—and could have gone otherwise.

(b) Complications: the nominalist revolution

True to his zig-zag account of causal complexity, Taylor notes another development, roughly parallel to the incarnational emphasis: the rise of nominalism which is a metaphysical thesis. Now, Taylor notes that nominalism was not a proto-secularism precisely because the motives behind nominalism were fundamentally theological. In particular, nominalism arose as a way of metaphysically honoring a radical sense of God’s sovereignty and power. The issue is this: Aristotelian notions of a human “nature” saw the good of the human being determined by the nature or telos of the human being: so there was a defined way to be good. Now while God the Creator might have created this telos or nature, once created it would seem to actually put a constraint on God, since enabling humans to achieve their (good) end would require that God sort of “conform” to this good/telos.

“But this seemed to some thinkers an unacceptable attempt to limit God’s sovereignty. God must always remain free to determine what is good” (97). DISCUSS. So if one was going to preserve God’s absolute sovereignty, one would have to do away with “essences,” with independent “natures.” And the result is a metaphysical picture called “nominalism” where things are only what they are named (nom-ed, 97).

“But if this is right,” Taylor comments, “then we, the dependent, created agents, have also to relate to things not in terms of the normative patterns they reveal, but in terms of the autonomous super-purposes of our creator [which can’t be known a priori]. The purposes things serve are extrinsic to them. They stance is fundamentally one of instrumental reason” (97). Part of the fall-out of such a metaphysical shift is the loss of final causality, the eclipsing of any teleology for things/nature. Understanding something is no longer a matter of understanding its “essence” and hence telos; rather, it requires a “mechanistic” concern with efficient causality that can only be discerned by empirical observation: hence, the scientific method, etc. The result is nothing short of “a new understanding of being, according to which, all intrinsic purposes having been expelled, final causation drops out, and efficient causation alone remains” (98).

But keep in mind Taylor’s zig-zag point: the incarnational interest in nature was not necessarily a step on the way to the autonomization of nature; rather, only when it is “mixed” with another development, nominalism, does it seem to head in that direction. But it could have been otherwise, and without the triumph of nominalism we might have had a very different concern with nature for its own sake.

[1] [It is fascinating (at least to me) to consider how much such a story informed Francis Schaefer’s “big story” about the West. But Schaefer saw the Frankensteinish catalyst for this in Aquinas’ distinction between nature and grace and then tended to see the Reformers as resisting this; whereas Taylor sees Aquinas’ working with still a fundamentally “enchanted” ontology and sees the real shift in the Reformers.]

[2] Recall Ruskin’s “two Renaissances.”

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Changing of the Natural World

The Old Order of Nature

· The Forms: The Old Order believed all of nature was comprised of ‘forms-at-work’ (132). All of nature is comprised of certain instantiations of forms (we have the form Human Being) and these forms impose order upon things. For example, a ‘bouncy ball’ without form is just a heap of matter, the form of bouncy ball orders that matter (in an Aristotelian-Thomist understanding). The form gives the bouncy ball its bounciness, shape, etc. (potentiality/actuality distinction). There is also a notion of teleology present in things. Things bear their own teleology; it is not imposed on things from ‘outside.’

· This notion is also applied to human beings. The form human being imposes order on a person (including the will) (130-131). There is a way human beings should be that is imposed on them and must be actualized. This order is not something outside of things, but something already existent within things.

· Our passions are signposts pointing to an end. Our experiences of limited happiness point forward to true happiness.

· What is important to Taylor about this view is that there is an order and purpose within all things (130).

· The Four Causes[1]:

o Material: the underlying stuff of things.

o Formal: the form of a thing.

o Efficient: ‘that which actualizes a potency and brings something into being.’

o Final: the end or purpose of a thing.

The New Order of Nature: Taylor believes there is a remarkably different picture of things and nature beginning around the 1500’s that leads to the ‘buffered-self.’

These differences are seen especially well in Descartes and are as follows:

· A person imposes order upon nature. Our will imposes form on the world (leading to a mechanistic view of teleology – the will imposes purpose) (130-131). The only cause left is a ‘type’ of efficient causation.

o The separation of the mind and the body. The mind gives ‘life’ to the outside world (131). This is the buffered-self, there is no form ordering a person’s life (whether from oneself or from the world). Nature is not in any way realizing a form; human beings/minds are imposing form upon things (instead of actualizing the latent potentialities already within things).

· The passions are not potentialities pointing to an end or purpose. They are instruments that must be controlled by reason (131, 135-136). Passion corrupt a person’s rationality.*

o Purpose in life is no longer about being ‘in tune with nature, our own and/or that in the cosmos. It is something more like the sense of our own intrinsic worth; something clearly self-referential’ (134).

· A new Natural Law theory that believes there are ways things fit together rationally, which is the binding norm (126). A mechanistic view, like how a clock ‘fits’ together to work (the ‘world-machine’).


1. How widespread was this notion of forms (Platonic or Aristotelian-Thomist) in the medieval world and before? Was this understanding as common as Taylor seems to portray it to be?

2. How much is the ‘Old Order of Nature’ dependent on Platonic or Aristotelian metaphysics? Can it in any way be separated from them?

3. Is Taylor too harsh on natural law theory and does he paint it more negatively than it is? Were there other natural law theories during this time that took a less mechanistic view of the world?

[1] See Edward Feser, Aquinas, (Oneworld Publications, 2009), pg. 16-23

Methodology Redux: Straight Shots vs. Zigs & Zags

I've noted earlier that Taylor sees "story" as inherent to his project in a significant sense, precisely because it's a story about secularization that he's contesting.

In chapter 2 Taylor re-emphasizes an important point: the path from 1500 to 2000 is not a straight shot; that is, as he’s said before, this is not just a “subtraction” story of “progress.” Subtraction stories are straight-shot accounts which assumes the truth and goodness of the terminus, and thus simply read developments as steps on the way to that end (90). In contrast, recognizing the complexity of causes and the contingency of different developments, Taylor offers a “zig-zag account” which recognizes a contingent sort of pinball effect. The point is that developments which from our (modern, secularist) perspective might seem to be “advances” toward our secular accomplishment “in other circumstances might never have come to have the meaning that it bears for unbelievers today” (95). Our anachronistic hindsight tends to impose a secularist trajectory on earlier shifts whereas, in fact, they might have been “pointed” in a very different direction.

Friday, February 11, 2011


While there are many “causes” for the shift just documented, Taylor appeals to something like a meta-cause—or perhaps better, an umbrella name for these multiple causes: “Reform” (with a capital-R). This rubric names a range of movements already underway in the late medieval period (61). This desire for Reform finds expression in a constellation of movements and developments. In particular, Taylor argues, was “a profound dissatisfaction with the hierarchical equilibrium between lay life and the renunciative vocations” (61)—a rejection of “two-tiered religion” (63) or the “multi-speed system” (66). In other words, this Reform targets element (iii) above. And while there were internally Roman Catholic expressions of this, one can see why Taylor makes the Protestant Reformation a central, if not pivotal (p. 77), expression of Reform which turns into “a drive to make over the whole society to higher standards” (63) as well as the motivating conviction that “God is sanctifying us everywhere” (79). Together these commitments begin to propel a kind of perfectionism about society that wouldn’t have been imagined earlier.

1. Leveling

This development, then, targets the prior “equilibrium” noted earlier (change iii). Rejecting the “multi-speed” models, Reform ratchets up our expectation: all our expected to live all of their lives coram Deo. The flipside is a sanctification of “ordinary life.” The result is that “for the ordinary householder” this will “require something paradoxical: living in all the practices and institutions of flourishing, but at the same time not fully in them. Being in them but not of them; being in them, but yet at a distance, ready to lose them. Augustine put it: use the things of this world, but don’t enjoy them; uti, not frui. Or do it all for the glory of God, in the Loyola-Calvin formulation” (81). We Protestants so take this burdensome dynamic for granted that it’s difficult to imagine it being otherwise.

There are a couple of ways that this finds expression: on the one hand, ordinary, domestic life is taken up and sanctified; on the other hand, renunciation is built into ordinary life (81b). So the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker are affirmed in their “worldly” stations as also called to serve God, just as the priest; on the other hand, the domestic laborer does this with something of a mendicant asceticism.

2. Disenchantment

Coupled with this was the Reformation’s “radical simplification,” as Taylor describes it (77). The Reformers “all see the reigning equilibrium as a bad compromise”—a Pelagian assumption of human powers and thus an inadequate appreciation for the radical grace of God—for God’s action in salvation. If anything of salvation is under our control, then God’s sovereignty and grace are compromised. This leads Reformers like Calvin to reject the “localization” of grace in things and rituals, changing the “centre of gravity of the religious life” (79). Taylor consider John Calvin as a case study: in emphasizing the priority of God’s action and grace, Taylor notes, “what he can’t admit is that God could have released something of his saving efficacy out there into the world, at the mercy of human action, because that is the cost of really sanctifying creatures like us which are bodily, social, historical” (79). One can see how this entails a kind of disenchantment: “we reject the sacramentals; all the elements of ‘magic’ in the old religion” (79). If the church no longer has “good” magic, “then all magic must be black” (80): all enchantment must be blasphemous, idolatrous, even demonic (Salem is yet to come). And one the world is de-charged, we are then free to re-order it as seems best (80). In other words, the Reformers’ rejection of sacramentalism is the beginning of naturalism.

>Discussion: note Taylor’s counterfactual reflections—that things could have gone differently with respect to the Reformation, 75, 76, 78-79. But this would have required both different sensibilities on the part of the Reformers as well as a different stance on the part of Rome.

It was this “rage for order,” Taylor suggests, that unwittingly contributes to the disenchantment of the world: “This, plus the inherent drive of the religious reformations, made them work towards the disenchantment of the world, and the abolition of society based on hierarchical equilibrium, what that of elite and mass, or that we find reflected in the Carnival, and the ‘world turned upside down’” (87). Both religious and secular Reform share this concern.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Five Contrasts: or, Removing Obstacles to Unbelief

Note Taylor’s qualifier and emphasis: “What I am trying to describe here is not a theory. Rather my target is our contemporary lived understanding; that is, the way we naively take things to be. We might say: the construal we live in, without ever being aware of it as a construal, or—for most of us—without ever even formulating it” (30). The reason it’s important to note this is because it is at this “level” that the shift has occurred: it is a shift in our naïve understanding, in what we take for granted (30-31).

i) Disenchantment and the “Buffered” Modern Self

This first element address the third “obstacle to unbelief.” Note what characterizes disenchantment for Taylor: it is the shift in the location of meaning from “the world” into “the mind” (30, 31). And minds are “bounded,” inward spaces.

But we need to appreciate how this differs from the “enchanted” understanding where all kinds of non-human things mean—are loaded and charged with meaning (32). And because of this, power resided in things (32, re: relics). As a result, “in the enchanted world, the line between personal agency and impersonal force was not at all clearly drawn” (32). There is a kind of blurring of boundaries so that it is not only personal agents that have causal power (35). This leads Taylor to describe such as porous (35). Just as premodern nature is always already intermixed with its beyond, and just as things are intermixed with mind, so the premodern self’s porosity means the self is essential vulnerable (and hence also “healable”)—we are essentially open to an outside (whether benevolent or malevolent). This sense of vulnerability,” Taylor concludes, “is one of the principal features which have gone with disenchantment” (36).

So the modern self, in contrast to this “porous” premodern self, is a “buffered” self, insulated and isolated in its interiority (37), “giving its own autonomous order to its life” (38-39).

OK, so what does this have to do with our overarching question? Why would this make unbelief so hard in a premodern world? Taylor’s insight here is fascinating: in such an enchanted, porous world of vulnerable selves, “the prospect of rejecting God does not involve retiring to the safe redoubt of the buffered self, but rather chancing ourselves in the field of forces without him. […] In general, going against God is not an option in the enchanted world. That is one way the change to the buffered self has impinged” (41). In other words, it wasn’t enough to simply divest the worlds of spirits and demons; it was also necessary that the self be buffered and protected. Not until that positive shift came about does atheism/exclusive humanism become more “thinkable.”

ii) Communitarianism

“[L]iving in the enchanted, porous world of our ancestors was inherently living socially” (42). The good of a common weal is a collective good, dependent upon the social rituals of the community. “So we’re all in this together.” As a result, a premium is placed on consensus and “[t]urning ‘heretic’” is “not just a personal matter.” That is, there is no room for these matters to be ones of “private” preference. “This is something we constantly tend to forget,” Taylor notes, “when we look back condescendingly on the intolerance of earlier ages. As long as the common weal is bound up in collectives rites, devotions, allegiances, it couldn’t be seen just as an individual’s own business that he break ranks, even less that he blaspheme or try to desecrate the rite. There was immense common motivation to bring him back into line” (42). As a consequence, the social bond is sacred (43).

iii) An equilibrium b/w self-transcendence and human flourishing*

Taylor identifies, especially in Christendom, a unique tension between what he calls “self-transcendence”—a “turning of life towards something beyond ordinary human flourishing”—and the mundane concerns of human flourishing. This equates to a tension between “the demands of the total transformation which the faith calls to” and “the requirements of ordinary ongoing human life” (44). Society creates rituals to deal with this tension, in order to foster equilibrium: for example, Carnival (45ff.). I think it’s important to note that society deals with this tension dynamically, over time, not statically by simply carving up a division of labor. What society recognized was a need for ritualized “anti-structure” (50).

This gives us a lens to note a difference in modernity: our secular age still has its public rituals. But these “secular feasts” are not anti-structure, but rather hyper-structure: the intensify the structure rather than offering a means of finding equilibrium for the tension. Instead, anti-structure gets pushed to the newly forged “private” realm (52-53). Publicly what we get is utopian revolution: “the anti-structure to end all anti-structure” (53).

iv) Time

There is a significantly different time-consciousness in this pre-modern understanding. Because “mundane” or “secular” time is transcended by “higher” time, there is an accounting of time that is not merely linear or chronological. Higher times “introduce ‘warps’ and seeming inconsistencies in profane time-ordering. Events that were far apart in profane time could nevertheless be closely linked” (55). This is somewhat akin to Kierkegaard’s account of “contemporaneity” in Philosophical Fragments: “Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion than mid-summer’s day 1997” (55). Our “encasing” in secular time has changed this, and so we take our experience of time to be “natural” (i.e., not a construal): “We have constructed an environment in which we live a uniform, univocal secular time, which we try to measure and control in order to get things done” (59).

v) From cosmos to universe

The final aspect of the shift involves our view of the natural world: in the premodern imaginary, we live in a cosmos, an ordered whole where the “natural” world hangs within its beyond (60). In contrast to this, the modern imaginary finds us in a “universe,” which has its own kind of order, but it is an immanent order of natural laws rather than any sort of hierarchy of being (60). This theme is expanded significantly on pp. 322-351.

So in this section Taylor has aimed to show how shifts in modernity targeted, or at least chipped away at, the obstacles to unbelief that made atheism difficult before 1500. However, he still hasn’t identified any causal factors in this story yet. That begins in the next section.

More than Subtraction: Premodern "Obstacles to Unbelief"

So the question is: how did we get here from there? How did we go from a situation in which atheism was unthinkable (1500) to one in which it is the “default” position for many (2000)?

Taylor begins by noting three features of the medieval “world” that significantly contributed to the plausibility in conditions in 1500 and thus “made the presence of God seemingly undeniable” (25). He later describes these as “obstacles to unbelief” (29):

1) The natural world was constituted as a cosmos which functioned semiotically to point to what was more than nature;

2) Society itself was understood as something grounded in a higher reality: earthly kingdoms were grounded in a heavenly kingdom;

3) In sum, people lived in an enchanted world.

It’s not that these features guarantee that all medieval inhabitants “believe in God;” but it does mean that, in a world so constituted, “[a]theism comes close to being inconceivable” (26). So some part of the answer to his overarching question is that “these three features have vanished.”

But while that is clearly a necessary part of the story, it is not a sufficient answer to the question: “the rise of modernity isn’t just a story of loss, of subtraction” (26). It’s not just that God is lost in a disenchanted world; it’s also that God is replaced by “exclusive humanism” (26). And if “Man” comes to replace “God,” then “modern humanism…had to produce some substitute for agape” (27).

So the “story” of the shift from medievalism to our “secular age” is not just a story of dis-enchantment but also a story about the emergence of “exclusive humanism” as an alternative option (28).

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Taylor's Method

I think it’s important to recognize the centrality of story in Taylor’s method. “Why tell a story?,” he asks (28-29). In part this is necessary because he is countering “subtraction stories” (26-27) which simply see modernity as the sloughing off of superstition and enchantment. Because those are inadequate, Taylor needs to offer a rival story.

But ultimately, akin to MacIntyre, Taylor seems to recognize that we are “narrative animals”: that we define who we are, and what we ought to do, on the basis of what story we see ourselves in. While we might have all kinds of syllogistic criticisms of secularism or the new atheism or “exclusive humanism,” Taylor suggests that one could really only counter them if you have an equally cogent story to tell.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Taylor's Taxonomy of the Secular

Taylor’s question puts him on the terrain of “secularization” theory. But he introduces an important nuance by means of a three-fold taxonomy of “secular.”

1) (pp. 1-2) In classical or medieval accounts, the “secular” amounted to something like “the temporal”—the realm of “earthly” politics or of “mundane” vocations. This is the “secular” of the purported sacred/secular divide. The priest, for instance, pursues a “sacred” vocation, while the butcher, baker and candlestick maker are engaged in “secular” pursuits. Following Taylor, let’s call this secular1.

2) (pp. 2-3) In modernity, “secular” refers to a non-sectarian, neutral, and a-religious space or standpoint. We’ll refer to this as secular2. It is this notion of secular2 that is assumed both by the secularization thesis and normative secularism. According to secularization theory, as cultures experienced modernization and technological advancement, the (divisive) forces of religious belief and participation would wither in the face of modernity’s disenchantment of the world. According to secularism, political spaces (and the constitutions that create them) should carve out a realm purified of the contingency, particularity, and irrationality of religious belief and instead be governed by universal, neutral rationality. Secularism is always secularism2.

3) But Taylor helpfully articulates a third sense of the secular (secular3): a society is “secular3” insofar as religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested). At issue here is a shift in “the conditions of belief,” or what Peter Berger would call the “plausibility structures” of a society (detailing this “shift” is the focus of chapter 1). As Taylor notes, the shift to secularity “in this sense” indicates “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace” (SA 3). It is in this sense that we live in a “secular age” even if religious participation might be visible and fervent. And it is in this sense that we could still entertain a certain “secularization3 thesis.” But this would be an account, not of how religion will wither in late modern societies, but rather of how and why the plausibility structures of such societies will make religion contestable (and contested). It will also make possible the emergence of “exclusive humanism” (p. 19).

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Taylor's Question

One of the biggest challenges in reading a big book like A Secular Age is keeping track of the argument through the thickets and rabbit trails of such a sprawling account. One way to keep in task, then, is to keep in mind Taylor's quarry--his concern and project. The project is to answer a question that is formulated in a couple of different ways early in the book:

How did we move from a condition where, in Christendom, people lived naively within a theistic construal, to one in which we all shunt between two stances, in which everyone’s construal shows up as such; and in which moreover, unbelief has become for many the major default option?” (p. 14)

Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?” (p. 25)