Taylor – A Secular Age: Part 3, “The Nova Effect”

How you doin'?

Ahh April.  Springtime in America.  Flowers, showers, and baseball.  And, for yours truly, along with the start of the baseball season comes my annual ritual of having my hopes for a Milwaukee Brewers championship dashed like a peppershaker.  Of course the Crew started 2011 a forgettable 0 and 4.  The only thing that can cure my Brewer’s-blues?  You know what it is – more Chuck Taylor.  Let’s get to it.

In our look at Part 1 of A Secular Age we spent time identifying the reform of the self that happened through the reformations (plural) of the 16th and 17th centuries and lead to the creation of a buffered rather than porous self.  Our look at Part 2 was mainly an examination of the form of religion that fit with a reformed, buffered, self; we saw that Deism was that form of religion.  Now, while we looked at the kind of God that emerges out of Deism and saw that such a God made it easier to see how secular humanism arose as a living option, we hadn’t quite connected Deism as a religious form to the rise of an exclusive secular humanism that has no need of referencing God.  Let’s do that very (read: unfairly) quickly.

Taylor argues at the end of Part 2 that Deism, a religion without need of revelation (remember Kant’s “Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone” here), does not have a place for a personal God with whom we relate devotionally.   He closes Part 2 by saying: “the move to Deism involves more than just a change of belief; more even than a shift in what was taken to be rational argument… it really reflects a major shift in our background understanding of the human epistemic predicament… disintricating the issue of religious truth from participation in a certain community practice of religious life” (294).  What this means is that Deism opens the ground for secular humanism because it makes religion into something that promotes the stability of the modern political and social order.  We can see that such religion, when no longer needed to support societal stability, may, like the skin of a snake, be sloughed off.

Let’s be clear as to what Taylor is referencing here.  He’s doing historical and cultural philosophy, so this theoretical description we’re getting about the relation between Deism and secular humanism happens historically.  In this case we know that Deism developed in conjunction with the beginnings of the modern political and social orders; that Deism fits with rise of the nation-states in Europe and North America.  So, as the modern world develops, as science reveals more and more the natural world and the buffered self gets enmeshed in societies (like the United States) based on the mutuality and equality of citizens, different and new responses to “religious” experiences begin to be possible.  They become possible because of the insufficiency of Deism as a religious form to explain our experiences of fullness.   Disappointment with what Taylor refers to as “the impersonal order” of the universe abounds.  And not only abounds, but stirs up a huge variety of responses.  It is these responses which constitute the “nova” to which Taylor devotes Part 3 of this great work.

Today we’re on to Part 3 of A Secular Age where we’ll think through this “Nova Effect.”  What this term describes is the explosion of believing and unbelieving options that arise out of the felt disappointment with the impersonal order within which Deism fit so cleanly.  So, the nova is the multiplicity of options that arise out of our discontent, but what is this discontent itself?  Where does it show up?  Taylor gives at least one excellent example here.  He says that the absence we feel after having turned to a scientific understanding of the universe arises because, while the mechanical theories of science could very easily allow us to understand our world as having been created by a benevolent God, mechanistic theory also undermines any active, living presence God may have within such a world.  In Taylor’s words, “mechanistic theory fragilized faith… because mechanism undermines enchantment… and thus made the presence of God in the cosmos something which was no longer experience-near” (p329).  In other words, we feel an absence because God has disappeared from the world. “[T]here is a strong sense of deficit in a world where people used to feel a presence, and were accustomed to it’s support; often they couldn’t help feeling the lack of this support as undermining their whole faith” (p329).  Taylor argues that it is this felt lack, as it is produced within the modern impersonal order, that serves as the catalyst for the nova, for the explosion of believing and unbelieving options that begins even in the 18th century and continues to this day.

So, to oversimplify, it is the believing and unbelieving reactions to experiences of fullness within the impersonal order that opens the way both for the reductive atheistic materialism of a Daniel Dennett or a Richard Dawkins, and for today’s pluriform modes of orthodox belief (i.e., the versions of Catholicism, Lutheranism, Judaism, etc. which we live today).

Woah, my head is spinning!

Now, this may make our heads spin like some sweet rims on tricked-out Caddy, but that needn’t be the case.  Let’s step back and take one more run through the process to make it even clearer.

Let’s start with the big picture.  The point of all this, for Taylor, is to describe the context within which belief and unbelief are lived today.  If we lift up our heads from Taylor’s pages for a moment we can easily see that any accurate description of this context for un/belief must have a place for the huge variety of un/believing options that lie before in the 21st century west. It’s this panoply of options that makes up the nova.

The question then is not just how did these options arise, but why did they do so?  And what are some of these believing and unbelieving options?

We’ve seen why (the impersonal order cuts off the presence of God in the world a produces a widespread discontentment with the disenchanted world), so let’s look at some of the possible options that arise.  No doubt we could name them if we went back through our memories of Western history in the late 18th and the 19th centuries, but let’s separate these options into two “camps”, making four “camps” in total.  As the nova expands we find alongside (1) traditional, orthodox believers and (2) the modern materialist atheists supportive of the immanent order, both (3) new forms of religion and (4) different readings of immanence.   In Taylor’s words, “the need for meaning can be met by a recovery of transcendence, but we can also try to define the ‘one thing needful’ in purely immanent terms, say, in the project of creating a new world of justice and prosperity” (p310).  To explain this a bit better take a look right below at the diagram I’ve drawn up (just click to expand it, or right click and open it in a new window):

Man, is that cool, or what?!  Ahh… ahem… sorry, got carried away for sec.  Anyways… you’ll notice that I’ve set up the nova as a four-cornered battleground, as four different camps which give different interpretations of the experience of fullness.  One of the things I’m trying to show in this picture is Taylor’s claim that “the debate in our society has to be understood as suspended between extreme positions, of orthodox religion and… materialist atheism.  It is not that middle positions don’t abound… it is rather that these positions define themselves (as we always do) by what they reject.  …In this sense, the cross pressure defines the whole culture… cross pressures of this kind have been responsible for a host of new positions, which constitute what I have been calling the ‘Nova.’  We are torn between an anti-Christian thrust and a repulsion toward some… extreme form of reduction; so we invent new positions” (p598).

For the sake of brevity lets look at just one of these new positions: the immanent interpretation of fullness.  It’s here that we can locate not only Freud, Nietzsche and etc., but also great artists such as Goethe or D.H. Lawrence, who might argue that the aesthetic category of the sublime can serve as a perfectly adequate secular explanation for the experience of fullness.  Sublimity, the central aesthetic category of the Romantic Movement, is itself one of the secular novas that emerges out of the felt desire to resist the mechanization of modern life.

Indeed we should note that this turn to the immanent interpretations of art arises in response to the felt malaise noted above, the malaise that spurred the rejection of pure materialism.  And this new aesthetic interpretation in just that: new.  The Romantics and their successors really do open up a new form of art to go along with the new world in which they live – a world in which the meaning of ordinary life is a task rather than a given.  This is why it is with the Romantics that, Taylor argues, art becomes something more than beautiful idealized imitations of the surrounding world; art now becomes the possibility of experiencing the world as meaning in a new way.  It is with the Romantics that we see for the first time art that envisions a new world of meaning through the artwork itself.  We ourselves know from our experience of having read Byron’s poetry or being mesmerized by Wagner’s operas that these works of art, though anthropocentric in nature, can be profoundly moving as well.

And it’s here that we can see our lone field of application for today in that this newly created experience of a kind of validated, immanent fullness provides a way of living that (1) rejects materialism, (2) remains in contact with fullness, and yet does so in (3) an unbelieving mode.  This is a brand new possibility and serves us well as an example of the plurality of believing and unbelieving options that open up in the nova and surround us today.  Taking a deeper look at this group (the orange group in the diagram) it’s in this camp that Taylor locates unbelievers (often educated and tasteful) who recognize their need for fullness, but choose to interpret such experiences as coming from an immanent, secular source.


Indeed it’s this camp from which, if I am honest, I face one of the most stringent challenges issued to belief by secular interpretations of fullness.  Such a challenge might run like this: if an unbeliever can live a secular life filled with genuinely moving experiences of aesthetic fullness, all while serving others and working for justice (e.g., the praiseworthy Albert Camus here) and being sustained in their mode of life, what incentive can a believer offer that might entice them to give up their secular interpretations and accept a religious ones?  It seems to me that this is where the apologetic battle must be met in our day and age – not between the believer and some straw-man unbeliever embodied in the foolish Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, but in the much more challenging person of an Albert Camus, and etc.

Let’s leave this quandary standing for the moment, because it should be evident by now that we have a good grasp on the nova and its origins.  We can now easily see how it is that, by the 19th century, there exist an enormous variety of versions, or modes, of unbelief within western culture.  We can see how it is that so many people stand in the cross winds, feeling pulled by both belief and unbelief, how it is that “we are now living in a spiritual super-nova, a kind of galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane” (p300).

Part 4, which will occupy us next time, will delve even more deeply into this mounting pluralism.  Until then: prayers all.



5 Responses to Taylor – A Secular Age: Part 3, “The Nova Effect”

  1. You continue to do an excellent job of making Taylor clear; no small task.

  2. J.W.B. says:

    Thanks for another excellent summary. I have read a lot of Taylor and you are really doing an impressive job.

  3. Peter Paul Fuchs says:

    “Indeed it’s this camp from which, if I am honest, I face one of the most stringent challenges issued to belief by secular interpretations of fullness. Such a challenge might run like this: if an unbeliever can live a secular life filled with genuinely moving experiences of aesthetic fullness, all while serving others and working for justice (e.g., the praiseworthy Albert Camus here) and being sustained in their mode of life, what incentive can a believer offer that might entice them to give up their secular interpretations and accept a religious ones? ”

    I agree with the others, you are getting at some good things in Taylor’s book. Better than others in the Catholic ambit I’ve read. And the challenge you limn above is right on. If religious lives are so filled with meaning that they become obvious for that fact, then there is no need of incentives. If not, then you are issuing an uninviting incentive. By that standard religion can only be considered partially, or variably attractive. There’s the rub. That is why religionists usually don’t like this mode of analysis, and fall back on separable demands of doctrine.

    • What’s up Peter,

      Charles Gelman over at the Immanent Frame site recently translated this from a German blog on Taylor and Pink Floyd. It resonates with what you’ve picked up on re: what I set down. Here’s the link: http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2011/06/24/is-there-anybody-out-there-pink-floyd-and-charles-taylor/. Let me know what you think if you’d like.

      “But Taylor also expresses doubts that romantic expressivism in its secularized, “late-modern” version suffices by itself and in the long run to secure for modern subjects a “resonant” relation to the world. The creatively and imaginatively self-evolving subject relocates itself, as it were, in a “natural resonance” but finds no evidence of a transcendental reverberation. Romantic expressivism therefore provides no answer to Pink’s [the protagonist of Pink Floyd’s The Wall] existential question, “Is there anybody out there?” The romantic-expressive relation to the world by itself is incapable of overcoming the world’s indifference: Even if resonances between self and world may be experienced in this manner, it is difficult for the modern subject to construe them in the sense of an affirmatively acknowledging, positively accepting relation.”

      For me the relevance of posting this is the challenge that romantic expressivism presents to 21st century believers… a group among which I’d like to count myself.


      PG, SJ

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