Taylor – A Secular Age: Part 1, “The Work of Reform”

The Work of Reform!!

The Work of Reform!!

Aaaannnd, we’re back.  Thanks to all who posted on the opening piece – it’s always easier to get up the motivation to write another we’re all engaged in a discussion.  I’ll try to continue to respond to questions & comments as well.  What I’m going to try to do in these next posts is to split each into two halves; in the first half I’ll try to give a brief (and therefore unfair) overview of whichever of the five parts we’re dealing that week.  In the second half I’ll try to pick one particularly important theme/idea and show how it might shed light on our own situation as ministers in the 21st century west.

So, where were we?  Oh yeah… so a Secular Age for Taylor is an age in which the shape of a society is such that giving a transcendent interpretation to moments of fullness is ever more difficult to do; it’s an age in which goals beyond that of immanent human flourishing are very often eclipsed.  Good enough.  But, rather than just giving bald assertions, how does Taylor go about showing us this?  Well, for those of us who are the cultural heirs of Latin Christendom (i.e., Europe, North America, maybe Australia, etc.), he re-frames, re-tells, the story of the last 500 years of our history.  So, Part 1 is the starting point for this story, it’s the setting of the stage and introduction of the main players (here: the concepts through which he’ll tell this story).  And he gives Part 1 the title: “The Work of Reform.”

One last pre-lectionary note before we dive in, as we go through this I recommend paying attention to two major ideas: (1) the porous vs. buffered self, and (2) the reform of societies built on the complementarity between the sacred and the secular.

Diving in.  As you might well guess, in order to have a reform there must be something that is being reformed.  That something is described by Taylor as the “enchanted” world (read: as opposed to the Weber-ian “disenchanted” world).  The enchanted world is disenchanted through the reform of three bulwarks that supported and structured belief in and around the year 1500 within Latin Christendom.  These three bulwarks are: (1) the natural world, (2) society, and (3) the enchanted world itself.  Let’s describe reform as it happens in each of these realms, before taking a look at how this reform gives rise to the modern buffered self and what one of the effects of the buffered self is on our contemporary ministerial situation.

[1 – The reform of the natural world]  So, through the movement of reform God’s presence recedes in, first, the natural world.  We might say that, in 1500, the natural world is related to God in that “its order and design bespeak creation; but also because… great events… were seen as acts of God” (25).  Here we can see that God is intimately involved in both space (as seen in the sacred spaces of, e.g., Holy Groves or inside a Church) and time (as seen in sacred times, like Good Friday or the high feasts around the solstice in pagan territories).  What we have in the enchanted world is an understanding of space and time which is utterly different from the Newtonian/Kantian sense of there being indifferent containers through which experiences come to us today.  For example, today we see the universe as meaningful only through being subject to standard natural laws.  In 1500 the universe would not have been a universe at all but a “cosmos”, in which I have a place and take my meaning.  So, the process of reform no longer allows us to understand time and space in relation to the “higher time” or the “sacred space” that gave them meaning.

[2 – The reform of society]  In 1500, Taylor posits that “God was also implicated in the very existence of society… A kingdom could only be conceived as grounded in something higher than secular time” (25).  The kingdom had been founded in a sacred, higher, time, and even the person of the King exists on a higher ontological level than does the laity.  This higher level reminds of that old teaching (which we may or may not want to rehabilitate): complementarity.  Here we have the ancient understanding of society in which the many are made holy through the sacrifice of the few.  This conception still lives in places, we can see it, for example, in those Buddhist countries where the monks are fed by the townspeople who are in turn made holy through the monks prayers.  The dissolution of the social system build on complementarity will be one of our focuses below, so I will suffice it to say here that the ancient society is one where we could have innocently said: “we are linked in society, therefore God is” (43).

[3 – The enchanted world]  What are we pointing to by “enchanted” here?  Not that everyone in an enchanted society believes in the Trinity, but that European peasants understood themselves as able to be affected by forces – spirits, etc. – which dwelt outside of them in some mysterious way.  This kind of vulnerability points to a certain kind of self – the porous self which we mentioned above.  The self that lives in the enchanted world (the self of 1500) we can rightly call the porous self in that such a self is both vulnerable and healable, its interior can be strongly affected by what is outside it. It “shows a perplexing absence of certain [essential] boundaries” (33).  This gives us an explanation for the power attributed to certain physical markers such as relics (i.e., the “white magic” of the Church) and curses.  For a European peasant living around 1500 there was simply no removing oneself from this world of spirits – indeed, even an unbeliever at this time really couldn’t be what we refer to as an atheist today because removing oneself from the protection of God simply meant being subject to other spirits (i.e. the Devil, etc.).  So, to say that for European peasants in 1500 it was God that held the spirits at bay is to say that those peasants had a porous self.

No... he doesn't mean that kind of Buffer...

No... he doesn't mean that kind of Buffer...

Of course we all (being the smart cookies that we are!) can already see the striking contrast to the self-understanding within which we

live today.  The very idea of being an atheist today means having not only of the society/natural world in which we live and how God interacts with that society/natural world, but also a different vision of the human self.  Oversimplifying, the self can no longer be lived as “open and porous and vulnerable to a world of spirits and powers,” it now must be buffered (27).

These modern, buffered selves in which we dwell always have the possibility of “disengaging from everything outside the mind.”  To put it otherwise, we are always already Cartesians we come to the question of belief.  The mind and body have been separated, truth resides in adherence to the clear and distinct principles presented to the mind.  I may decide to believe in God, but this very decision emerges from a buffered self “aware of the possibility of disengagement” (42); a self that lives with the possibility of erecting a clear boundary between my inner self and the power that used to be found in the world around me.  “The [buffered] self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it” (38).  The boundary, between mind and world, which was 500 years ago quite porous has become quite strong.

Taylor cashes out some of the consequences of the move (which is not all bad!  This is not castigation but contextualization!) in these words: “Perhaps the clearest sign of the transformation in our world is that today many people look back to the world of the porous self with nostalgia.  As though the creation of a thick emotional boundary between us and the cosmos were now lived as a loss.  …[hence] people go to movies about the uncanny [The Exorcist, Twilight, etc.] in order to experience a frission.  Our peasant ancestors would have thought us insane.  You can’t experience a frission from what is really in fact terrifying you” (38).

So we see that disbelief is hard in an enchanted world.  It is so hard because we are not in the situation of the buffered self, the porous self, living in an enchanted world, is not simply safe on its own but “chancing ourselves in the field of forces without Him.  Practically our only resource is to seek another protector” (41).  What we see is that the turn to the buffered self removes a tremendous obstacle to unbelief.

Whew.  Time for a breath.  But don’t worry, we’re almost there!  Time for applications!  Yippee!  Okay, so let’s pause and sum up for a moment.  We can even use Taylor’s own words.  He writes: “I have been drawing a portrait of the world we have lost, one in which spiritual forces impinged on porous agents, in which the social was grounded in the sacred and secular times in higher times, a society moreover in which the play of structure and anti-structure was held in equilibrium; and this human drama unfolded within a cosmos.  All this has been dismantled and replaced by something quite different in the transformations we roughly call disenchantment” (61).

I have no doubt we’re all saying “Gotcha Chuck, let’s move on.”  Or maybe that was directed a me… if so, you guys are mean.

Application time.  In order to put some the insights to work I want to look at the consequences of the reform of the system of complementarity we mentioned earlier. There we saw that the social system of 1500 was one in which complementarity of social roles was inbuilt.  This complementarity functioned not only on the social level but on the religious level as well – i.e., there were “religious virtuosi” understood to be pursuing higher values at a higher “speed” on one level and masses of the “hoi poloi” on another level, those who admitted an inability to pursue perfection in this way and moved religiously at a lower speed.

Man, that's a lot of speeds

Virtuosi, and laity, and cool blue-striped laity...

My bet is that even in reading this presentation you can feel the hairs on the back of your neck start to rise.  And that’s partially because it’s totally socially taboo in our 21st century west to even call some people “religious virtuosi” and others religious “hoi poloi.”  It violates at least two of the fundamental, often unspoken, tenets of our society: (1) equality and (2) the sacralization of ordinary human life.

Taylor describes (in painstaking detail…) the roots of this conflict we feel.  He does it by painting a picture of the great desire often found in the 16th and 17th centuries to flatten this two-speed system and call everyone to the perfection to which the few were called.  This is the real engine of reform for which Taylor argues.  It’s the effort construct social systems that collapse the gap between laity and the virtuosi.  Within this large reform Taylor locates both the classic reforms of Luther and Calvin (who collapse the gap by disintegrated the “higher” vocations and inculcating renunciation into the lives of ordinary Christians), and the classic counter-reformation (i.e., we Jesuits who try to give people tools to attend to the “grandeur of God” in their ordinary lives).  Indeed, it is this same process of reform that is the progenitor of Vatican II’s “universal call to holiness” – a call which (as a Religious myself) I both want to fully affirm, and which causes me no end of interior trouble (why sacrifice what I do when ordinary human life and ordinary vocations are also called to universal holiness?).  It’s a fascinating dilemma, and one we will come back to (at least in Part V if not before).

Whew (again, I know).  That’s a lot.  But, I hear my inner voices asking: where does this leave us today?  Well, what we’ve tried to do is take a quick (that was quick?!  Well, it’s an 800 page book, so yes…) look at how the process of reform has torn down the bulwarks of belief as they existed within Latin Christendom in and around the year 1500.  But, as we saw in the application we made today (exemplified the universal call to holiness) this movement of reform allows Taylor to show us the roots of a dilemma that we still feel in our own time, the dilemma between (1) the demand we can feel to love God to the point of following Him to the Cross, renouncing everything, and (2) the demand we can feel to affirm the holiness of ordinary human life.

I find this stuff fascinating.  And helpful to my own vocation.  And super provocative.  I hope that you all can say the same.  If there are questions/critiques please comment with them and I’ll try to give more full answers than I was able to in the already-too-long blog.

Prayers all.



One Response to Taylor – A Secular Age: Part 1, “The Work of Reform”

  1. J.W.B. says:

    Well done sir!

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