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.