Thursday, March 10, 2011

An Imaginary-shift (ch. 9)

Taylor’s story leaps ahead a bit in this chapter: we are now plunked in the 19th century, famous for an explosion of unbelief (cp. Hempton, Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt). But Taylor suggests that the unbelief of the 19th century is not just more of the same, the growth and steady accumulation of the nova effect. No, he argues, “the turn to unbelief in the middle or later nieteenth century is in a way something new” (322). Why? Because it now reflects a shift in our modern COSMIC imaginary—the “shift from cosmos to universe” has now started to take root in our social imaginary (“social” in the sense of being shared by many; recall the dual nature of “social” in social imaginary). In other words, there has now been a fundamental shift in how people imagine nature, their environment, and our cosmic context.

I want to emphasize that I am talking about our sense of things. I’m not talking about what people believe. Many still hold that the universe is created by God, that in some sense it is governed by his Providence. What I am talking about is the way the universe is spontaneously imagined, and therefore experienced (325).

This is not about “how one theory displaced another,” Taylor emphasizes (325). When the story is confined to that theoretical level

But Taylor emphasizes that we’re not primarily talking about a change in theory because most people don’t theorize! However, we all do “spontaneously imagine” ourselves in a cosmic context, and it’s that which Taylor is after: “I’m interested,” he says, in “how our sense of things, our cosmic imaginary, in other words, our whole background understanding and feel of the world has been transformed” (325).

Taylor encapsulates this imaginary-shift as the move from a “cosmos” to a “universe”—the move of spontaneously imagining our cosmic environment as an ordered, layered, hierarchal, shepherded place to spontaneously imagining our cosmic environment as an infinite, cavernous, anonymous space. While this shift might have been prompted and amplified by increasing empirical evidences (geological evidences pointing to an older earth; astronomical evidences pointing to an expanding universe, etc.), Taylor emphasizes the existential nature of this shift: First, there is a fundamental extension of the cosmic environment—in space and time—that is uncanny, Unheimlich, dis-placing, such that we no longer feel that we “fit” into a cosmos that is a cosmic home. Instead we see ourselves adrift and cast into an anonymous, cold “universe”: “Reality in all directions plunges its roots into the unknown and as yet unmappable. It is this sense which defines the grasp of the world as ‘universe’ and not ‘cosmos’; and this is what I mean when I say that the universe outlook was ‘deep’ in a way the cosmos picture was not” (326). And so we find ourselves now in the “dark abyss of time”: “Humans are no longer charter members of the cosmos, but occupy merely a narrow band of recent time,” for example (327).

Second, there is the increasingly sense that things evolve (327)—a sense that precedes Darwin. In such a pictures we lose the cosmos’ forms and essences—the order created by design. This might also explain the new design-fixation as a response in this era: “What makes for the heat at this nevralgic point is that there is a strong sense of deficit in a world where people used to feel a presence here, and were accustomed to this support; often couldn’t help feeling the lack of this support as undermining their whole faith; and very much needed to be reassured that it oughtn’t to” [329]. Such design fixation is also already a sign of waning devotional practice: “once people come to live more and more in purely secular time, when God’s eternity and the attendant span of creation becomes merely a belief, however well backed up with reasons, the imagination can easily be nudged towards other ways of accounting for the awkward facts” [328].

What’s the result of such a shift? Well, even the believers end up defending a theistic universe rather than the biblical cosmos. Eliminating mystery as a consequence of Protestant critiques of allegorization (330; cp. Harrison), even believers end up reading the Bible as if it were a treatise on such a universe; in short, you get the emergence of young earth creationism (330). Indeed, we only get the so-called war between science and religion once the modern cosmic imaginary has seeped into both believers and unbelievers: at that point, “these defenders of the faith share a temper with its most implacable enemies” (331). In other words, no one is more modern than a fundamentalist. This is why the “face-off between ‘religion’ and ‘science’” has a “strangely intra-mural quality” (331). But this supposed “pure face-off between ‘religion’ and ‘science’ is a chimaera, or rather, an ideological construct. In reality, there is a struggle between thinkers with complex, many-levelled agendas” (332).

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