Friday, January 15, 2010

The Bulwarks of Belief (K Sheppard; repost)

Charles Taylor's A Secular Age is a sustained criticism of negative secularization theories. As we saw in the introduction that Frank's post provided, Taylor is primarily concerned to narrate the transformation of the "conditions of belief" from premodern to modern societies. He does so in order to reveal how the background to lived experiences (and the aspiration to flourishing, fullness) proves crucial to understanding the shift from naive belief to an awareness of many belief options.

Chapter 1, "The Bulwarks of Belief", begins with differences between what Taylor calls an "enchanted" and "disenchanted" world, borrowing from Max Weber and Marcel Gauchet. But this shift is only one part of the story, which Taylor discusses under the headings "obstacle", "equilibrium" and "a common understanding done away with".

(I) The enchanted world is a world filled with what Taylor calls "porous" selves. A porous, premodern self places the locus of meaning and action in the world "outside" him or herself, "exogenously". The enchanted word was spiritual, where things themselves had meaning, where meaning could be extra-human and intra-cosmic. This contrasts with the modern, disenchanted world where meaning is fundamentally construed as "within" ("endogenously"), and specifically within the human mind. This buffered self sets up a series of boundaries not present in premodern selves: between agents and forces, mind and world, physical and moral. Where the natural world, the existence of society and the enchanted cosmos affirmed the existence of God, it was very hard to embrace unbelief. If someone denied God they did not thereby leave the "field of forces" that remained, many of which were malevolent, making unbelief difficult to entertain.

(II) Porous selves were thus vulnerable selves. They were also part of communities that felt themselves to be part of a spiritual and force-filled world. That is why, Taylor argues, there was such enormous pressure to conform, such intolerance for heretics, and so little unbelief.

(III) Porous selves were also part of a society that held two goals in tension: that of self-transcendence associated with the ideals of Christianity, and that of normal human flourishing. Taylor uses Turner's concept of play between structure and anti-structure, as embodied in medieval Carnival, for example, to demonstrate how this equilibrium was held in balance. It was both functional, in "letting off steam", and affirmational, in confirming the normal order of society.

Subtraction stories do not pay enough attention to these changing conditions of belief and are therefore unable to explain the transition from naive belief to an awareness of belief options. Taylor supplements this criticism with a narration of such changes, from the enchanted to the disenchanted world, from the porous to the buffered self, and from the world of play between structure and anti-structure to its restriction in contemporary life.

One may perhaps suggest a few avenues of criticism: first, on a methodological level, with Taylor's argument that the conditions of belief and background need to be front and centre in any account of secularization; second, even if one accepted Taylor's methodology, one might then criticize his use of existing scholarly material to posit the transitions he does. While it would be foolish to think consensus was ever likely to emerge on either point, evaluating Taylor's contribution must begin here.

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