Saturday, October 24, 2015

Charles Taylor's "A Secular Age": Book Review

The first half of this massive 2007 study by a Canadian philosopher has appeared as Gifford Lectures, the prestigious Scottish series which since 1888 has featured leading thinkers discussing "natural theology." In the third and fourth paragraphs of his preface, Taylor admits the sketchiness of much of what follows, and his determination nonetheless to map out a vast intellectual terrain, in hopes others will fill in the blanks. While the results may frustrate those who find his habitual enumeration and his tendency to go two steps forward and one step at least back, as he zig-zags across the past five centuries, and while the prose leaves one wishing for the grace of his predecessor at the Lectures, William James, it nonetheless represents a formidable achievement that kept me thinking, annotating, and reacting.

As Taylor does often, one must sum up his argument by his own numbers.
David Ewart paraphrases Taylor's three stages of secularism thus:
  1. "The first stage is characterized by the withdrawal of the religious world-view from the public sphere. This is the result of much more than just the rise of scientific world-view. This is the disenchantment of the cosmos. Secularism is the move from the enchanted reality to the de-enchanted reality - this freed science to follow its own trajectory. In an enchanted worldview science, politics and religion all shared the same world view. When that enchanted world-view disappeared science became free to follow its own rationale.
  2. The second stage is seen in the decline in personal religious practice and commitment. This is a individual's withdrawal from the community. People shift the source of meaning away from external 'eternal' sources to more personal choices.
  3. The third stage is the most recent development, which has caused a fragmentation of our ideas of social order. This is the shift in the culture away from assuming Religious Faith is the norm, or the default expectation of how to live your life. Faith is now one option among many. This is society living in a universe which has no central point around which it revolves."                 

Some of this, of course, is familiar. Max Weber's theory of "disenchantment" as driving secularism inspires Taylor's first parts of his schema. But he denies "subtraction theory" as the fullest explanation for why people don't believe like they used to. Simply saying religion retreated as science advanced leaves us wondering about the contested turf, for the same pre-modern landscape did not exist, for two worldviews to fight over. Instead, since 1500 or so, Taylor accounts in part three of his stages for the key difference making his analysis fresh. He shows how a "buffered" sensibility in modern people supplanted the "porous" reception of impacts and influences which characterized our forebears. They saw themselves as open to the spirits for better and worse; the divine bulwark of intercession and protection helped people withstand trouble and attain reward. A "buffered" identity keeps us at a distance; we can no longer be "naive," whether believers or skeptics, in a system where the "cosmos" ordered by God or gods becomes a "universe" which includes us, but removes most contemporary adherents from the nearby intercession and interference of an intimate divine presence.

This hefty narrative stumbles along. Taylor keeps glancing ahead and then looking back as he tries to progress. He does not translate all of the French and German he cites. Some thinkers or scholars are not credited except by surnames. Taylor presumes erudition on his audience's part, so academic references may lack context or introduction. Quotes may not be integrated or identified clearly. Endnotes are uneven: they can provide valuable insight, or they can be terse and formulaic; the reader of the text proper, from that alone, may have no idea which without checking out each enumeration. Sharper editing would have improved this. This thesis did not need a hesitant, repetitive elaboration.

However, it gets easier halfway in. The Victorian doubters (even before Darwin, and this is Taylor's point proven, for it was not as if one day evolution shoved aside faith for believers) such as Carlyle, Arnold, and his niece, novelist Mrs. Humphry Ward (the last in a novel about a clergyman's unease with his creed and his replacement of a messianic Jesus-as-God with an ethical figure as a model) emerged on behalf of those unable to countenance childlike faith. This era's gradual slip, starting with these intellectuals, from confidence in religion to grudging or fuller conviction in modernism means that the Enlightenment, Counter-Enlightenment and Romanticism, and political- economic changes in the "North Atlantic" (his term for "the West") had to precede "science" as we know it. That transition and reorientation sets us in a universe edging on darkness, rather than an ordered cosmos full of light.

The conditions for "human flourishing" alter any modern believer or non-believer's reception of the religious messages we inherit. Taylor in his later chapters considers the difficulties of the therapeutic (human-potential movement, therapy, transformation from within) and transgressive (anti-humanist, Nietzschean, revolutionary) responses to religious hegemony, as neither to him satisfy the yearning. This inner longing persists no matter if the conditions for religion fade, and while Taylor never appears to question his own Catholicism or the reality of the Incarnation, he examines how the opposite, an "excarnation," has weakened the ability of many believers or skeptics to handle the needs of the body, from which we have become detached, dismissive, or destructive. He looks with caution at regarding only what Jesus taught and not what Christ did, and while Taylor's faith persists a priori, I would have liked the professor's insight into why this is so for him; this appears to limit the applicability of his lessons to non-Christians. Whatever one's identity, Taylor locates the loss of the "equilibrium" most of us need between fervor and denial; if not religion as we've known it, he reckons desire for the transcendent beyond existential limits or hedonistic immersion may endure.

He suggests that poetry, as in Jeffers, Hopkins, or Péguy, might heal the divided contemporary consciousness. He applauds church reform, but he also sympathizes with those who find, whether they themselves believe, in a weaker cultural impact for this force. Younger people are losing "some of the great languages of transcendance," and "massive unlearning is taking place" in consumerism.

In conclusion, neither "exclusive humanism" nor the Nietzschean revolt against restrictions convince Taylor. His drifting final section passes intriguing terrain. Part 5:17 has a great survey of how Christianity incorporated violence into its purportedly peaceful preaching, and death and sexuality earn attention in this chapter. But that ends not with a bang but some whispers about two stories we share. "Intellectual Deviation" tracks our cultural evolution away from medieval religious conformity imposed by a clerical elite and then upon a post-1500 community freed from "priestcraft" but a regimen insisting on communal piety, into "the rise of a culturally hegemonic notion of a closed immanent order". "Reform Master Narrative" required all to be 100% Christian, but this discipline discouraged many. The elite looked to Providential Deism as a halfway point to a mechanical model that broke away from the need for a Creator, and by the Victorians, this began to spread into the middle classes. While many adhere to fundamentalism and obedience today (an aspect under-examined in what is admittedly a rambling study and one far too long as it is), Taylor combines the theoretical ID with the RMN mass phenomenon explanations as two influences making up the "social imaginary" we all agree has replaced in the North Atlantic civilization the state-clerical polity. This prepared the way for Darwin (Marx and Freud are barely mentioned!) and the massive shifts in contemporary mindsets. Out of this two-track path, we emerge. So, we can "explain religion today."

(The above appeared with my reduced summation of the Ewart enumeration at Amazon US 1-2-15.) P.S. The Divine Conspiracy provides a pdf (search at the site) of Taylor's introduction and of Chapter 10 "The Expanding Universe of Unbelief."

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