Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: Charles Taylor (page 1 of 1)

Roberts on Taylor

My friend Adam Roberts is doing a read-through of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and I started to comment on his most recent post and then realized that I didn’t have enough room. So I’m posting my comment here. 

Adam, I think one of the weaknesses of Taylor’s book is that he doesn’t often enough remind us of the scope of his argument (and its limits). But in this case he does say, in a passage you quote, that he’s talking about a change that he believes happened after 1500. So nothing from the early history of Christianity is directly relevant to the argument.

As I read the broad sweep of his case, adding in the proper qualifiers that he sometimes forgets to add, it goes something like this:

1) The Middle Ages in Western Europe is characterized by a long process by which the Catholic Church consolidated an intellectual framework for understanding the world and humans’ place in it. We are porous selves, open to the divine and demonic alike, and the Church uniquely offers access to the former and prevents entry by the latter. By emphasizing its uniqueness, it gradually disciplines and masters much of the theological pluralism that had characterized earlier ages. (You may see this as the gaining of a valuable unity, as Catholics do, or as the imposition of spiritual totalitarianism, as Simone Weil did; but it happened anyway.) This doesn’t mean that you don’t get dissent, but dissent is dealt with

2) This understanding was disrupted by the emergence of the various movements we lump together under the category of Reformation. Great social unrest ensued, but for Taylor the significant point is that intellectual confusion ensued. “‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,” says Donne. “A dissociation of sensibility set in,” etc. So far, so Eliotic. 

N.B. This is where I think we get some serious slippage in Taylor, because the earlier understanding of porous selves nurtured and protected by the Church was a universal one, shared by the unlearned and the learned alike. From this point on, though, I am often confused about whether he’s describing movements among the intellectual elite or within European society as a whole. I think he has a kind of trickle-down theory, but he doesn’t account as he should for the widely varying speed of the trickling in different cultures. Sometimes he writes as if the changes he describes are happening all over Europe, when in fact they’re only happening, in a serious way anyhow, in England and the Netherlands. 

Just as he operates with an implicit trickle-down theory of intellectual change, Taylor also, I think, holds the “ideas have consequences” view of social change: that is, he treats intellectual changes as occurring within a largely intellectual causal environment, after which those ideas have social effects. I think this is wrong. I am not an economic determinist, but I do find much more persuasive those accounts that see economic and intellectual changes in a dialogical or dialectical way, as mutually interanimating — books like Dierdre McCloskey’s bourgeois trilogy or Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches. Anyway, onwards: 

3) Intellectuals respond to this disruption and dissociation by building what Taylor calls the Modern Moral Order, in which human beings are understood as (a) rational, (b) sociable, and (c) buffered selves who flourish through the pursuit of disciplined practices, social and personal, that are in principle available to all. Again, Taylor seems to see this concept trickle down from pointy-heads like Locke to the whole society of increasingly energetic bourgeois. 

4) But this Order, while workable for a while, comes to seem dull and flat, too limited in its understanding of human flourishing, too … secular. And that’s where the Nova comes in. The Nova is a series of increasingly varied ways to pry open those buffers and let the divine back in: Maybe through a Catholic retrenchment (Chateaubriand), maybe through evangelistic revival (the Methodists), maybe through quasi-mystical encounters with the natural world (Wordsworth) maybe through a high metaphysics of the Sacred Self (Rousseau) — or maybe, and you know this argument from me, through artistic experiences that allow us to have a temporary vacation from the Modern Moral Order without radically questioning it. Meanwhile, others double down on the MMO and embrace a wholly secularized world, as when Laplace’s cosmology doesn’t acknowledge God because he “had no need for that hypothesis.” 

In conclusion, sir: Taylor would respond to your post by saying that the Nova initiates an era of intellectual/religious/spiritual pluralism that (a) would have been unimaginable in the year 1500 and (b) is dramatically more pluralistic than the early Christian church because it makes public room for belief systems that have no use for Jesus at all, and maybe not for any kind of God. You rightly note as the great variety of Christian heresies — or of Christian theologies later designated as heresies — but in comparison to a world in which Wesley and Wordsworth and Bronson Alcott, Laplace and Chateaubriand and Ben Franklin, all rub shoulders, it seems to offer a relatively narrow set of options. 


Here’s a brief summary by Charles Taylor of a contrast that’s vital to his thinking: porous vs. buffered selves. The porous self is open to a wide range of forces, from the divine to the demonic; the buffered self is protected from those forces, understands them as definitively outside of it. The attraction of the porous self is that it offers a rich, multidimensional cosmos that’s full of life and saturated in meaning; but that cosmos also feels dangerous. One’s very being can become a site of contestation among powerful animate forces. The buffered self provides bulwarks against all that: it denies the existence of those forces or demotes them to delusions that can be eradicated through therapy or medication. But the world of the buffered self can feel lonely, empty, flat. “Is that all there is?”

The positive valence of porosity is fullness; its negative valence is terror.

The positive valence of bufferdness is protection; its negative valence is emptiness.

Taylor’s thesis is that over the past five hundred years Western culture has moved from a general condition of porosity to a general condition of bufferedness. That claim can be, and has been, contested: see this post on my old Text Patterns blog for an example. But I think he’s probably basically right. Taylor doesn’t see this movement occurring in a straight line; he discerns again and again dillusionment with the disenchanted world of the Modern Modern Order generating alternatives, from nature-worship to spiritualism; but he does see a general trend towards accepting a disenchanted world.

Even if that’s true, I am interested in the ways that individuals and cultures oscillate between the porous and the buffered condition. As terror grows, we seek protection; but as emptiness grows, we seek fullness. And I am, further, interested in the ways that people seek an escape from this oscillation, some structure of experience that claims to provide fullness without terror, protection without emptiness. That’s why, having in the past taught a course called The History of Disenchantment, I’m now teaching one called Beyond Disenchantment.

The story I’ve just sketched out is, I believe, proper context in which to read, as we just have, Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines. The one thing needful for the person encountering Kurzweil’s book is to realize that, for all his technological talk, it’s not a narrative that arises from the “technological core” of society but rather from the “mythical core” — indeed, it is itself a myth, the myth by which Kurzweil himself hopes to live. Kurzweil’s myth promises the security, stability, safety of a self that’s uploaded to the cloud and multiply backed up, and the fullness that comes from the ability always to fulfill not only our sexual desires but our spiritual ones, located in the God module. No terror, no emptiness — so says the myth.

If you grasp this, you will understand why Meghan O’Gieblyn responded to the book the way she did:

I first read Kurzweil’s 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, in 2006, a few years after I dropped out of Bible school and stopped believing in God. […]

At Bible school, I had studied a branch of dispensational theology that divided all of history into successive stages by which God revealed his truth: the Dispensation of Innocence, the Dispensation of Conscience, the Dispensation of Government … We were told we were living in the Dispensation of Grace, the penultimate era, which precedes that glorious culmination, the Millennial Kingdom, when the clouds part and Christ returns and life is altered beyond comprehension. But I no longer believed in this future. More than the death of God, I was mourning the dissolution of this teleological narrative, which envisioned all of history as an arc bending assuredly toward a moment of final redemption. It was a loss that had fractured even my subjective experience of time. My hours had become non-hours. Days seemed to unravel and circle back on themselves. […]

It’s difficult to account for the totemic power I ascribed to the book. Its cover was made from some kind of metallic material that shimmered with unexpected colors when it caught the light. I carried it with me everywhere, tucked in the recesses of my backpack, though I was paranoid about being seen with it in public. It seemed to me a work of alchemy or a secret gospel. It’s strange, in retrospect, that I was not more skeptical of these promises. I’d grown up in the kind of millenarian sect of Christianity where pastors were always throwing out new dates for the Rapture. But Kurzweil’s prophecies seemed different because they were bolstered by science.

O’Gieblyn was “not more skeptical” of Kurzweil’s promises for one overriding reason: because they provided a mythological framework to replace the mythological framework that she had recently lost.

At the time, I would have insisted that my rituals of self-abuse — drinking, pills, the impulse to put my body in danger in ways I now know were deliberate — were merely efforts to escape; that I was contending, however clumsily, with the overwhelming despair at the absence of God. But at least one piece of that despair came from the knowledge that my body was no longer a sacred vessel; that it was not a temple of the holy spirit, formed in the image of God and intended to carry me into eternity; that my body was matter, and any harm I did to it was only aiding the unstoppable process of entropy for which it was destined. To confront this reality after believing otherwise is to experience perhaps the deepest sense of loss we are capable of as humans.

And “what makes the transhumanist movement so seductive,” especially to someone who has undergone that profound loss, “is that it promises to restore, through science, the transcendent hopes that science itself obliterated.” It is a myth against myth. When Kurzweil tells you that nanobots — he loves to talk about the infinite powers of nanobots — will do nondestructive scans of your brain and upload your identity to the cloud forever, such utterances are functionally identical to “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” And about as empirically justified.

So now on to a myth that is essentially the opposite of Kurzweil’s: The Dark Mountain Manifesto.