A Secular Age:

The truth?

posted by Simon During

secular_age.jpgAs many here have noted, A Secular Age is a remarkable achievement. And it marks the culmination of a life’s work. As far as I’m aware, Charles Taylor’s argument first took shape in an essay he wrote forty years ago as a member of the Catholic New Left for the volume From Culture to Revolution (1968). At the time he was committed to an anti-marxist “radical socialism” which recognized that man needs “to reach beyond himself and renew contact with the non-human, and…the more than human.” For Taylor then, Marxism was an enlightened humanism that failed to understand that human beings “define themselves” in relation to the non-human Other which constitutes the Real. So alienation under capitalism cannot be annealed inside the humanist “desacrilization” put in place by Protestant “character forms based on ascesis or sacrifice” and Protestantism’s subsequent “privatization of life.”

Strangely, it’s an argument that resonates with recent Lacanian/Augustinian Tory Leninists like Zizek and Badiou. But the restitution that Taylor encouraged against desacrilization and privatization was not a transcendentalising resacrilization or (impossible) encounter with the Real as much as an identification of the non-human Other with community. From within what Iris Murdoch in the fifties had called the “new house of theory,” community can be figured as a proxy for the divine able to ground both participatory socialism and a restored “public meaning.”

A Secular Age is less politically engaged than this. Now Taylor argues that the West has indeed undergone secularization but not because science has disproved religion or because religious interests and institutions have been separated from politics and state-government. Rather it’s because, over centuries, Christianity became committed to the Aristotelean project of general human flourishing which, during the Enlightenment, gradually transformed itself into a humanism whose ethical and conceptual framework and purposes were wholly immanent. In the process a cultural “nova” appeared which sprouted new knowledges, faiths, orientations, styles of life and identities. At the same time, governmental apparatuses developed autonomous privatised “buffered selves” capable of making choices between proliferating faiths and identities. For Taylor, there is no renouncing either the humanist focus on happiness and health, or modernity’s cultural nova. But what has been lost in both is a “higher,” “fuller” sense of the transcendent based on tradition (although, admittedly, “tradition” is not a concept Taylor emphasises). To restore the sacred Taylor now looks not to participatory socialism but to a somewhat less collective “conversion into fullness” and “openness to transcendence.”

One of A Secular Age’s most distinctive features is its genre. Taylor is the only intellectual I know who hearkened to the New Left call for theory by revivifying a genre known in the eighteenth-century as “philosophical” or “conjectural” history. Books like Adam Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) and John Millar’s The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks (1771) were monuments of emergent secularism of course: their stadial theory of history, along with their capacity to classify historical formations and tendencies into units which instantiate discrete abstract categories, were important in generating the command over the past required by progressivism. If A Secular Age has forbears, those are they.

Taylor too uses stadial theory and a historiography reliant upon more or less discrete categorical classifications. Like his forbears, Taylor has a liking for dividing history into the triplets that Barthold Niebuhr in his 1811 History of Rome (a devastating critique of conjectural history and a milestone in Biblical criticism) thought characteristic of mythic narration. (Cf Robert Bellah’s last post). But whereas Ferguson and Millar looked to a progressive extension of liberty and rationality, Taylor tentatively hopes for the transformation of Aristotelian humanist flourishing through openness to the (preferably Catholic) transcendental.

Despite its capacity to claim mastery over the past, conjectural history is rarely written these days in part because it can’t well account for historical causality. Ultimately it is interested not in historical cause but in telos. And it seems that Taylor neglects important underlying material causes (e.g. capitalism) not so much because the full effects of such causes remain opaque to us but because he believes that to engage them is to risk embracing a reductive form of immanence, namely materialism. It has to be said, however, that if he thinks the secular world has lost a fullness available only through the transcendent, the secularist may feel an equivalent emptiness in his own analysis since it barely attempts to tell why history happened and happened differently in different places in the way that it did. (Cf Wendy Brown above). This leaves an absence at its centre. There are modes of deep immanence for which history itself is the enigmatic ground of being. They are not on show here.

But it is only right to receive a book as rich as A Secular Age on its own terms. And if, for me, it is not finally persuasive, that’s because of a series of interlinked problems, many of which have been referred to in this blog, and of which I can only touch on a couple.

First, it is important to Taylor’s argument that he discounts the fact that Christianity is a revealed religion most of whose central claims are, under modern truth regimes, false, unverified or unverifiable. This means that believing or not believing Christian doctrine is not a choice for those living “in the true” of rational, probabilistic knowledge, nor is it necessarily an expression of a preference for humanist flourishing. It is impelled upon them in something like the same way that they are impelled to know that George W. Bush is currently president of the US. Taylor argues that the modern skeptical truth regime is embedded in a particular post-Cartesian, empiricist Lockean epistemology (in what he calls a “closed world structure”) to which we ought to prefer its Heideggerian deconstruction. But that seems doubtful: modern truth regimes have a complex genealogy partly deriving from age-old everyday practices that don’t require formal epistemologies of representation at all (feeling for scabs under the belly of a sheep that you are about to acquire to see whether it’s diseased or not is one such old, rough, vernacular, evidentiary, cross-cultural empiricism).

In modernity, where such modes of verification have become rationalized, governmentalized and, often, hegemonic, and where Christianity’s untruth is itself a historical agent, Christianity still need not be simply false. Not just because it can resist making truth claims based on revelation, but because it may enter the domain of modernity’s most characteristic, extensive and powerful truth-mode: truth which is also untruth, and which, in one of its forms, we call the fictional. When Christianity stops being true in fact, it may still be true as feeling, as morality, as tradition, as a disposition, as myth, as fiction. Indeed its untruth may purify Christianity, and, by lightening its load of knowledge and reason, help further disseminate it. None the less, from that perspective, Taylor too can be considered a religio-philosophic fictionalist contributing (in an academic genre) to the modern cultural nova that largely runs on untruths, true or not.

As to my second point, Taylor can elide the question of Christian revelation’s untruth because, despite his closing theological chapters, his basic interest seems to be the distinction between the transcendent and the immanent rather than religion as such. Indeed, if I read him right his preferred theological avatars are Pascal, Francois de Sales and Fénelon, the last of whom in particular flirted with heresy (he came under the influence of the quietist Madame de Guyon whom the Church imprisoned as a renegade) and who helped develop a Tory mysticism committed to liberating faith from all truth claims (in William Law for instance, it ended in a barely Christian and self-consciously allegorical Behmenism) and which continues to attract adherents.

But if Taylor’s doctrinal commitments are obscure to me, it is clear that he conceives of the transcendental/immanence difference as a tight ontological opposition rather than as an analytic distinction whose terms are open to conjunction, especially under literary license.

Let’s put it like this: as soon as you de-ontologise transcendence and immanence, you don’t have to choose between them and can find another way of avoiding Taylor’s modernist-conservative narrative of enchantment’s loss. In placing transcendence and immanence on a single plane, you can even avoid the snare of Foucault’s empirico-transcendental doublet. The immanent can contain transcendence. Taylor himself treats of this possibility most carefully in his discussion of romantic nature-poetry under the guidance of Earl Wasserman’s term “a subtler language”, before, however, dismissing romantic “natural supernaturalism” as lacking “ontic commitment.”

But other post-romantic, post-Spinozist forms of immanent transcendence are possible. Let me just gesture to one found in the final paragraphs of Helen Waddell’s (somewhat Benjaminesque) introduction to The Desert Fathers (1936). Waddell suggests, paradoxically, that the early Christian hermit saints have enriched all our lives by their denial of life, and contends that, even if secularists like herself cannot “devalue time by setting it over against eternity,” nonetheless the desert fathers have enabled secularists to “judge experience by its quality rather than its duration” and have enabled lived time to bear “eternal freight” “even to those of us who see our life as a span long, beginning in the womb and ending in the coffin or a shovelful of grey ash.” The desert fathers’ rejection of the world for Christ’s sake helps sacralize modern profane experience. Hermetic lives, now memories and commanded by untruth, are conditions for a secularized “fullness” of experience available today by way of religious history. This is perhaps a rather unambitious example: the real adventure is to deepen and thicken immanent understanding to the point where it can mime transcendence in its truest form as a refusal of finitude. That is to say, Taylor’s “fullness” is more likely to be found where an enigmatic “deeply” materialist immanence meets the profane, fictionalized transcendental, than in, say, Christian doctrine or faith.

And not to be forgotten: there are those who feel quite at home in ashen temporalities, in the mundane where experience trumps thought, where satisfaction trumps aspiration, where this world trumps the next, and the capacity of such happy immanentists to spur the religious to prodigies of irritated organization, learning and conversion is a not unimportant source of theopolitics, not least across the long history of anti-clericism that Taylor also rather neglects.

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