Taylor – A Secular Age: Part 2, “The Turning Point”

Well, well!  A good day to you all out there gazing lovingly into your computer screens!  …okay, maybe that was a bit much…


But… It is lovely to have you back after wading with me through the muck (beautiful muck though it was!) of the first part of Herr Professor Taylor’s work.  I thought we’d kick things off by reminding ourselves of where we left off last time.  Part 1 of A Secular Age set the scene for answering the question of how we have created a social context within which it’s possible for human beings to be satisfied with interpreting our highest moments (moments of “fullness”) as wholly immanent.  It’s about how it became possible for we moderns to be self-sufficient secular humanists.

In Part 1 Taylor introduced us to the concept of reform.  We saw that this didn’t just include Luther and Calvin and the great reformers, but also included those involved in the counter-reformation.  Now these reforms quite obviously took different forms, the former reforming through flattening the “higher” vocations (there should be no monks, religious, etc.) and the latter reforming by raising up the “lower” vocations (finding God in our ordinary lives within the world).  Further, we took a look at three lenses through which such reform could be viewed: that of the natural world, of society and of the enchanted world itself.  This, we saw, helped to create a new version of the self that could thrive within such a reformed society, a self which Taylor names “buffered” in contrast to the “porous” self which was at home in an enchanted world.

Part 2 of the book (as you most likely astutely noted above in my spiffy titular heading above) deals with the “turning point.”  What is this turning point, though?  Suffice it to say that this turning point deals with the reconstruction of a type of society in which belief in God is accommodated to the buffered self that is being created through the reformation of the enchanted world.  Let’s say it again: the turning point is a middle place between the world of 1500, in which God was deeply embedded, and the world of 2011, in which it is possible for God to not be embedded at all.  The question we will want to get at in this section then, is: what kind of accommodations are made to fitting God into the reformed society that is being constructed during this time period (basically 1700 to 1850 or so)?  Or even more simply (hey, gimme a break, sometimes it takes me a few tries to get out what I want to say!): What is the place of God in a reformed society?  Certainly we can see that the place of God in society will have a big impact on the kind of belief (and the kind of believer) that will fit within such a society.

...shoulda read your Charles Taylor before making this sign...

So then, let’s put it in Q&A form.  Question: what kind of religion do we find thriving within a buffered, reformed society?  Answer: Deism.

What we find is the general, impersonal and providential faith of the founding fathers of the U.S.A.  We find, to use Taylor’s term, Providential Deism, and the deepening through it of the impersonal ordering of the natural, social and religious worlds we saw begun in Part 1.  Deism is the way belief in God comes to fit into a reformed world, and (because of the particular and quite obvious weaknesses in the Deistic position) it is this particular form of fitting that eventually provides the doorway through which a self-sufficient exclusive humanism will eventually walk.

So, Deism is what happens, but how does this accommodation happen?  What steps does it take for Deism to emerge as a plausible vision how God interacts with the world?  It happens, argues Taylor, through four anthropocentric shifts, each one of which will reduce “the role and the place of the transcendent” in our world (222).  Let’s walk through them one by one before we turn to some applications of how this may be relevant for us today.

(1) With Deism we see eclipsed the sense that God can call us to some great purpose.  What we owe to a Deistic God is not loving fidelity in relationship, but the realization of his plan among human beings.  Now, this is not to belittle theologies that want to better the lot of humankind, but rather to point out that when we take the highest human good as existing with the immanent, worldly realm, that our conception of God has begun to shift dramatically.  Even further we might recognize, with Taylor, that “the idea can gain currency that these ends are within the scope of unaided human powers” (261).  So, the first anthropocentric that lays the groundwork for self-sufficient humanism is the limiting of God’s providential purposes to those which are this-worldly and be carried out by human beings.

(2) With this first anthropocentric shift we can see that another lies close at hand: the shifting of the moral sources through which we realize God’s plan from God to ourselves.  That is, the second shift is the shift from our being able to live with and toward God only by God’s grace to our being able to rely on our own, immanent, intra-human moral sources.  With this shift our ancestors who lived under Deism began to be able to see themselves – for the first time! – as “actuated by purely human motives, like a sense of impartial

Love in reality is a harsh and terrible thing compared to love in dreams...

benevolence.”  From our believing perspective we might say that here the same battle St. Augustine won over Pelagius (really over Julian…) is reopened: we can rely on will rather than grace.  (Side note: isn’t this exactly what Dostoyevsky was fighting against in The Brothers K?  Especially with that great line: “love is reality is a harsh and terrible thing compared to love in dreams” – even if not, what a great book that is.  Okay, back to the task at hand!).

(3) Given the first two shifts, my bet is that many of you can already see the third: the dispelling of mystery within our world.  If God’s plan is accessible through reason (universally present in all human beings, thank you Kant), and we can realize this plan through our own resources (saying to God: “Thanks, but I got this”), what use have we for mystery?  For miracles?  For Sacraments with the capital “S”?   This is such a powerful consequence of the move to Deism, and we should remember that this accommodation of God to belief in a social context that we are calling Deism is happening at the same time that our human powers to control the world are actually expanding exponentially.  That is to say, Deism arises alongside the great (and good!) gains made by the natural sciences.  With such an expansion of our collective human cognitive powers is it any wonder that our image of God would change?  I for one can hardly bring myself to lay much blame at all at my imagined ancestors – wouldn’t I have likely succumbed to the same seductions?  Anyway… on to #4!

(4) With Deism’s eclipse of transcendent purpose, our need of God’s grace to realize that purpose, and the corresponding loss of mystery in the world goes a fourth anthropocentric change: the restriction of kinds of transformation we human beings can imagine for ourselves.  No longer are we able to think of ourselves in relationship with an active God who desires theosis for and in us.  With the rise of Deism it becomes a challenge, a task, even to imagine again this possibility for ourselves.  Instead, we are to focus on the transformation into (to use Kant’s language) fully rational beings who to pursue with benevolence a universal good accessible to all regardless of confessional belief.

Now, dwelling (as we are limited to doing in so short a discussion) on the theoretic changes can blind us from seeing how they happen.  But Taylor goes to great lengths to show us how these four changes came about in various areas of human life (i.e., science, economics, philosophy, etc.).  Let’s look to the economic realm for a quick example.  Alongside (mutually spurring one another on!) Deism arose capitalism in quite modern forms.  One of the key elements of such capitalism is the idea of the “invisible hand” which guides and harmonizes the laissez faire market system, lifting all who participate in it.  Taylor’s words can help us tie these movements together, he writes: “We can perhaps see how this economic-centered idea of harmony could contribute to the fourfold anthropocentric shift I described above.  The confidence in our own order-creating powers which the belief in harmony betokens made the help of grace seem less necessary.  The very scrutability of the whole [e.g., economic] system left little place for mystery.  And the very idea the peace and order depend not on some high heroic aspiration, but on the lowly, interest-driven self-love in us, seems to render otiose any attempt to transcend ourselves, to aim beyond ordinary human flourishing” (229-30).

So, after the “turning point” God is understood (even more: experienced and felt!) as limited in God’s possible ways of accessing the human world.  This God might remain my creator and benefactor, the one to whom I have a vague sense of gratitude, but this God is not “my God.”  Indeed, this is the Watchmaker God of whom we have so often heard.

And let’s just remind ourselves: Taylor’s aim here is not to talk of the Watchmaker God as a new idea or as inherently correct; instead, he’s trying to show us how such a conception of God has contributed – has helped to literally construct within our collective human imaginations! –  to the possibility of self-sufficient secular humanism becoming a living (and lived) option for many.

The applications we can make of Taylor’s story are many.  And indeed we’ve already seen a few as we’ve gone along (and I have little doubt as you all have read that you’ve leapt to many more).  So, I’ll limit myself here to discussing two further consequences, to further ways we can see ourselves and the dilemmas we face as believers today within this story.

(1) We can begin to see a decline of heroic religious behavior.  Now this can be understood both in the sense of the decline in explicit (Catholic) religious vocations because of the decline in their social rationale, but it can also be understood more broadly.  Certainly we have saints in the 19th century (St. John Bosco, St. Theresa Lisieux), but within the spreading of the elite Deistic culture “high flyers were seen as being filled with prideful illusion, as though they could do without what ordinary human beings need as God made them” (230).  One of the things I find myself wondering (in my more piously wistful moments) is how many great saints has the world lost because they were unable to come to terms with the Deistic God this impersonal society presented to their buffered selves?  Instead of theosis, the only transcendence of which it’s socially acceptable to dream is self-transcendence through the use of our panoramic reason. This is, of course, the classic stance of modern disengagement, and it leads to the last application point I’d like to make.

Contextualizing the Theodicy problem

(2) We can being to see that the way we are able to envision God shapes the kind of thinking we do, along with the corresponding problems we seek to address.  Specifically, a Deistic vision of God often leads to a heightening of the theodicy problem we still feel today.  Let’s look at the problem this way: if created human beings have been created with the power to achieve harmony in this world without the use of grace or mystery or heroic vocations, then why does evil still exist?  It is only by rejecting (a) God, (b) the goodness of God, or (c) the premise that we can rationally plumb the depths of God’s purposes that the theodicy problem can be reconciled… and the likelihood of our rejecting/limiting the power of reason seems to be getting slimmer and slimmer as Deism and the impersonal order take hold at this “turning point” of our western history.

Now, obviously the story is not over; there are many holes which we ourselves can poke in the Deistic formulation.  Indeed, it is to the multiplicity of holes that are poked in this Deistic synthesis by both believers and unbelievers that we will turn in our next discussion of A Secular Age.



6 Responses to Taylor – A Secular Age: Part 2, “The Turning Point”

  1. You are doing an excellent job summarizing and commenting on Taylor. He is fascinating in many ways, but not a quick read.

  2. William Atkinson says:

    I like it, way yu open doors and doorways to such an exciting future; Yes reform, kind of John XXIII gave us or Vatican II’s document on Religious Freedom, and then along came John Paul II, the great catholic reformer of modern church era… Now we move into realm of freedom, where principals of American founding fathers are driving changes, even back within its own American system, and resulting in global reform of all social systems. Out with the old controled by a man or men ruling systems overlording it over other men (and women) and after period of hugh chaos arises a new global reformed system in where mankind recognizes his and her creation of a free social structure free from dominance of any kind, even of god/gods (angels and satans) created by mankind to be in mankinds image and likeness. Where all this secular reform is going is a hugh open arena of pragmatic practical unknown. It challenges us and makes us search the unknown (Hubbel telescope type) for what ever lies out there in the real and unreal unknown universe and where oh where is that constantly changing and moving “turning point”,. Jesus Christ had it right in every way, even as a radical activist reformist as he was, when he answered his companions when asked in most simplist of ways “Who is the Father” and “What must we do to gain entrance into this Kingdom he so often spoke of”…
    Many of his followers turned away and went back to their former ways… their Stomaches pained them cause this Jesus guy spoke of freedom from the overlords of His days….

  3. Father Dick Tomasek, S.J. says:

    Great job, Paddy. You are a good pedagogue. I worked my way through about half of Taylor’s book a couple years ago and got to busy to continue. Your summary as a great review of what I read and a tantalizing preview of what I might still get to read in more detail. This is a very important work. Please publish your article. It will open more readers to understanding the secularist world we live in and the depletion of spiritual energy and hope which so many are experiencing without being able to understand the causes.

  4. Alec Entress says:

    I think that this summary is great, and I especially like the idea of the Deistic society that we have become. I have noticed that there is a sense of “fashionable piety” in our culture, in the sense that people are supposed to have morals and some belief in God, but not necessarily talk about God or religion. I definitely agree with the four anthropocentric shifts, but I do have a question about them. I think the answer to many of the most difficult questions in life is to find a balance, but how do we find the balance between reason and religion. It is so easy (or so it seems) to get a false sense of security in secular reasoning and humanist ideals. How do we rejoice in and accept our capacity to reason, while understanding that this reason cannot hold all the answers? Along with that question, though in a way this is the million dollar question, what will it take(if it is possible) to drive our society to this balance? To me it seems that organized religion of any kind is “unfashionable” in this day and age. This Deistic society, which ultimately perverts the true nature of God, is what is “in”. Can we ever return to the strictly religious society of the past, and will that be beneficial? (Not the religion, but the religious society). Thank you very much for the article and thanks in advance should you respond.

    • Alec, great stuff here. You’re right in saying that that’s the million dollar question, and I will praise you to the sky for (while remaining a believer!) recognizing that a return to a strictly religious society is not all good – God is the good one, not us despite all our institutional efforts. Of course that just brings the question forward one level to ask why we should belong to any/a particular religious institution. I think there are answers to those questions, and one of those answers keys on the balance and insufficiency of reason that you mentioned. One of the things I wonder is how we believers can recognize the social-culture-religious context we’re currently in and respond to it with the wisdom of our tradition. In an ideal world the resulting synthesis would incorporate the gifts of both partners in the dialogue: modernity and the new self we inhabit today, and the long tradition(s) of relationship with a good God.

      Really appreciate your response. Hope the post on Part 3 is helpful as well, Alec. Prayers.

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