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).

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this blog. Any chance you could be a little more concrete re: '“shrinking” of God’s purposes, an “economizing” of God’s own interests'? I see all the moves that grow out of there, but it's not clear to me exactly what you're talking about. Maybe names, whether of people or ideas, or dates would help.

    Or maybe I missed a previous blog entry that this is building on. :) My guess is that Taylor expands on this, whatever the case. (You don't write 900 pages of philosophy without a little expansion, eh?)