A Secular Age:

The slipstream of disenchantment & the place of fullness

posted by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

secular_age.jpgOne of the most important books of our time, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age explains how many Europeans and their cultural heirs have come to experience moral fullness and identify their highest moral capacities and inspirations purely within the range of human power and without reference to God. It presents an alternative to “subtraction stories” of modernity in which superstition and belief are understood to have withered away, leaving room for modern science and humanism to flourish uninhibited by metaphysical constraints. In place of this well-worn narrative, Taylor offers a rich genealogy of the creation of new moral sources comprising what he calls “secularity 3”: a cross-pressured condition and context of understanding in which belief and unbelief coexist uneasily and where our experience of and search for fullness occurs.

Taylor convincingly argues that historical processes associated with secularization were deeply intertwined with Reform within Christianity, concluding that the movements drawing the largest masses of people into the “slipstream of disenchantment” were religious ones. As a result, the new humanism bears the mark of its origins, not only in being committed to an active, instrumental ordering of self and world, but also in the central role of universalism and benevolence within it.

It is because Taylor draws on such an impressive historical and literary repertoire and writes with such philosophical dexterity and generosity that his dismissal of the immanent counter-Enlightenment strikes me as problematic. He approaches the transcendent/immanent distinction such that the “place of fullness” is either: 1) outside or beyond human life (the position of “religious” transcenders); or 2) within human life with no reference to transcendent reality (the position of “faithless” immanentists). The “religious,” then, approach fullness as transcendence in a particular way. Religious faith in Taylor’s strong sense entails belief in transcendent reality and the aspiration to a transformation beyond ordinary human flourishing. So “religion,” at least in the historical European experience, is, essentially, Christianity.

Fair enough, until you get to the implications for those who fall outside the bounds of both “religion” and exclusive humanism. These radical theorists of immanence trouble Taylor throughout the book. They cannot be accommodated in the “face-off” between traditional faith and secular humanism because—neither endorsing “religion” nor eschewing metaphysics altogether—they are simply not playing the same game. Though Taylor wrestles with the need to adjust his categories and amend the rules such that a three-way face-off between these rivals becomes a genuine possibility, he struggles with the implications of doing so, and never commits to that path. Instead, he consigns unbelievers to living in a universe cloaked in absolute darkness. “A race of humans has arisen which has managed to experience its world entirely as immanent,” he writes. “We may judge this achievement as a victory for darkness, but it is a remarkable achievement nonetheless.”

Though I sympathize with Taylor’s antipathy toward the unreflectively anti-Christian strains of modern unbelief, I do not believe it needs to extend to all modes of believing or unbelieving (the categories themselves becomes problematic here) that fall beyond the reach of both “religion” and exclusive humanism. Though he acknowledges the proliferation of such alternatives with his figure of the “supernova,” he dismisses modes of belief/unbelief that come from within Western experience yet operate outside of and often in tension with the Christian categories that animate his extraordinarily rich analysis. We are led to conclude that he is pulled so strongly toward his version of the transcendent that what becomes most threatening are not exclusive humanists who “close the transcendent window” but their “nonreligious” rivals who represent an alternative to both a philosophy of transcendence and a philosophy of radical atheism.

Though it makes no appearance in this book, Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism comes to mind. For non-Christian metaphysicians like Deleuze, the transcendental field is transcendental in that it resides above or below appearance, but not in that it is unquestionable or authorizes a morality of command.

Can the field of immanence be “experience-far”? Can it also hold mystery, and, if so, would this open interesting possibilities?

I would have appreciated a more nuanced engagement with these questions. Instead, Taylor portrays exclusive humanism as the rightful heir of (Reformed) Christianity, while the immanent revolt is shunned as the illegitimate offspring of Reform, “a resistance against the primacy of life, but which has abandoned these traditional sources” (372). Taylor shuns it not only because it rejects his mode of transcendence (though this matters too), but because in equating a diverse tradition with a particular reading of Nietzsche, the revolt becomes nearly synonymous with proclivities toward fascism and a fascination with death and violence (637-38). With this position condemned both politically and metaphysically, Taylor bypasses an opportunity for what might have been a fascinating engagement between rival metaphysical traditions.

Perhaps this three-way face-off still lies ahead. And A Secular Age is magnificent nonetheless.

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2 Responses to “The slipstream of disenchantment & the place of fullness”

  1. avatar Diego Rossello says:

    I found this review very helpful for understanding both the merits and limitations of Taylor’s project. I share Hurd’s concern about Taylor’s identification of the “religious” with a Christian form of transcendence, because this seems to leave aside other forms of religious experience which do not find a sense of fullness in transcendence. For instance, the emphasis placed by the Judaic tradition on the ordinary and everydayness (Rosenzweig) does not fit easily either in the category of fullness as transcendence or in its opposite, the notion of faithless immanentism.

    Hurd’s review also underlines the peculiar relation that exclusive humanism has with Christianity. According to Taylor, exclusive humanism, the modern and agnostic version of humanism, still carries the signs of providence. Since this type of humanism favors the development of the highest human faculties (freedom, art, reason, etc.), Taylor’s appreciation is not difficult to understand. However, Hurd introduces Deleuze as positing problems for Taylor’s mapping of Christianity and exclusive humanism in our secular age. Hurd argues that Deleuze is a non-Christian metaphysician who is consciously avoiding Christianity and exclusive humanism at the same time, by taking transcendence to be something beyond the empirical rather than the place in which fullness is achieved or sought after. In this context, as Hurd also notes, Nietzsche is also a problem for Taylor’s project because he is a critic of the Judeo-Christian tradition as well as of enlightened humanism.

    I would like to follow up on Hurd’s articulation of the critical project of Deleuze. Since Taylor takes modern humanism to be the legitimate heir of Christianity, the works of Agamben and the late Derrida on the animal and the human-animal divide should be understood as carving out a space beyond the providential exclusive humanism proposed by Taylor. In other words, thinking the human as a human-animal today may challenge the exclusivity of a metaphysical humanism marked by its continuity with Christianity. This metaphysical humanism placed the human at the top of the great chain of being and therefore acted as (implicit or explicit) justification for numerous forms of violence against forms of life coded as less than human. Thus, thinking the human as a human-animal may add another language game hard to accommodate in the vast literary universe so cogently discussed by Taylor.

  2. avatar James Poulos says:

    Hurd seems right that Taylor has the most trouble with people who have concluded that the ‘fullness’ promised by religion is without promise because ‘fullness’ itself is an impossible condition. Among these people are mystical postmodernists, metaphysicians of feeling and experience who eschew any concept of authority as ‘moral command’. They go for a ‘sense of fullness’, comfortable with settling for the powerful but fleeting sensations that seem to transcend the everyday self but nonetheless refer back to the everyday self and ratify its pragmatic morality/immorality.

    This posture is the greatest danger, I think, to what Taylor wants us to make of religion now, in no small part because it’s so close to it. But funnily enough this posture is also a problem that Rorty was never able to adequately treat, either. Postmodern atheist bourgeois materialist liberalism cannot account for the absurd tendency of otherwise pragmatic moralists to continually import emotional mysticism into their ethical, social, personal, and sexual improvisations. It’s possible that neither Taylor nor Rorty have been able to recognize this strange group of people as the pioneers of that third way of the therapeutic that wishes in every way to have its cake and eat it too.

    Two other opponents — Tocqueville and Nietzsche — each suggested a fate for failed liberal democrats that we seem stubbornly inclined to resist. Tocqueville hinted at an ineffable return to the enduring habits of faith in God; Nietzsche to an inescapable plunge toward truth at any cost. Both of these ostensible fates are too costly. They take too much effort for not enough payoff. Our virtuosos of the self have adjusted their aspirations. Indeed, they are able to incorporate a sense of faith and a sense of truth into their moral pragmatism. Both senses join a general toolkit for loving people as they are, however they are, the basic pragmatic rule of thumb in a world where violence, God, condemnation, and the stationary self are all passe. Which mere mortals can resist the rise of this ethos — if not to engulf the world, then at least to a position of privilege and dominance in the West?

    Regarding Rossello’s comment above, it’s also notable in this context that it’s only when Alasdair MacIntyre moves toward lowering the human-animal divide, and raising our awareness of our common fragility, that he opens the door to the organic development of Rortyesque pragmatic morality. Again this suggests (a) how a Hellenic spirituality of love and limits creates certain possibilities that a Hebraic divinity of fear and interdicts forecloses and (b) the shared way that Taylor and Rorty both downplay the affinity between therapeutic moral pragmatism and experiences of transcendence. Faith has always remained useful after Freud.

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