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.


  1. I appreciate Taylor's "buffer" descriptor regarding the modern self, where it is manifested by both a narrowing and binding of reality into the mind: aka, we plug into things like the iphone and Facebook in order to absorb and lessen the shock of a larger, more complex world -- a convenient simplification of things. What I am a bit fuzzy about is, how does Taylor come to the conclusion that this amounts to a dis-enchantment? Aren't we, the modern self, just rerouting the vast, wider energies/enchantments of an otherwise porous premodern world into a narrower channel, thus concentrating and amplifying its effects therein, via cell phones and laptops or whatever? In other words, the outside world of the modern self seems even more enchanted than ever, as these powers are being concentrated and specialized into greater more persuasive forms. This then seems to connect with the second contrast where we no longer live communally because we have so many "things" to keep us plugged in and sated.

  2. ..although, perhaps Taylor would respond, "while the modern reality may seem like it boasts a greater enchantment, busying us with devices and such, it is not a genuine or responsive enchantment." And so, an iphone only has so many apps to work with, and when it runs out of options there is no improvisation or spontaneity on its part.