A Secular Age:

Spinoza’s immanence

posted by Lars Tønder

secular_age.jpgHas A Secular Age exhausted the meaning of immanence? That is, does Taylor’s analysis of belief capture the alternatives available to constituencies struggling with the meaning of religion and politics? If it doesn’t, might there be other ways of construing “the immanent frame”? If so, would these alternatives make the frame more receptive to people of different faiths, creeds, and beliefs?

In her provocative essay posted on this blog, Elizabeth Hurd encourages us to probe these questions. She argues that Taylor “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.” Moreover, she speculates whether “the field of immanence [can] be ‘experience-far’? Can it also hold mystery, and, if so, would this open interesting possibilities?”

I want to pick up on this line of inquiry because it seems critical to what we make of the immanent frame. My hunch is that immanence does not necessarily lead to the “exclusive humanism” of which Taylor is so critical. My hunch is also that by questioning this connection we may (1) see some of Taylor’s own blind spots and (2) create a new frame of experience irreducible to dichotomies of belief and unbelief, naïveté and reflexivity, interior and exterior.

To make this argument, we would have to engage the long history of immanence. From Lucretius’ naturalism over issues of evil in late medieval philosophy to the gay science of Nietzsche, immanence has been a challenge to both atheists and believers. It identifies a surprising agreement among them: while atheists and believers disagree on whether or not to affirm the source of enchantment, they agree that the source itself lies beyond this world. Unsatisfied with how this agreement squeezes out an affirmation of this world, radical immanence takes a third position, fusing enchantment with a worldly orientation to religion and politics.

The fusion finds its boldest expression in the work of Spinoza. Situated at the junction of Judaism and Christianity, Spinoza launched what not only his contemporaries but also subsequent critics thought was a scandalous critique. The critique probes the historicity, legitimacy, and authority of religion. Spinoza’s project in that sense parallels Taylor’s: both reveal a change in the conditions of belief, both investigate the causes of this change, and both aim to make belief more legitimate, more democratic.

Surprisingly, then, Spinoza doesn’t play a prominent role in A Secular Age. On the few occasions that his work does appear, Taylor focuses on the depreciation of religious experience, aligning Spinoza with a movement that resists the enchanted qualities of lived experience. For example, Spinoza’s attempt to write off historical religion as “a pandering to popular fears and illusions” leads to seeing “awe-inspiring acts and experiences of ordinary people…in a derogatory light.” Likewise, by “following a path opened by Spinoza,” we may realize that “our attachment to rational freedom…shows us how we ought to behave.” Finally, the impersonal bent of Spinoza’s God made it possible to “rise above and beyond our particular, narrow, biased view of things, to a view from everywhere, or for everyman, the analogue of the ‘view from nowhere’ which natural science strives to occupy.” On the whole, then, Spinoza seems the perfect candidate for the kind of exclusive humanism that organizes the immanent frame.

Is this really how we should understand Spinoza? A posting on this blog cannot answer this question conclusively. But take the case of prophecy. Skeptical of how individuals might communicate with an otherworldly agent, Spinoza does indeed show how prophecy historically has been used to instill fear in the multitude. And yet this is not all there is to the discussion. For rather than disregarding prophecy tout court, Spinoza makes two additional moves: first, that prophecy relies on imaginative powers; and second, that the authority of prophecy is a moral one. Both moves emphasize the cultural, historical, and affective circumstances of prophetic utterances. Moreover, they downplay prophecies as explanations of natural phenomena while recognizing how prophets are able to inspire new encounters with the world. Spinoza, in order words, does not disregard awe-inspiring experiences, nor does he try to establish the possibility of rational freedom independently of lived experience. Rather, he places both within a broader context in which some—but not all—experiences affirm the enchanted quality of life. A subset of these affirmative experiences might be religious.

If this is the case, we do not have to see Spinoza as a proponent of exclusive humanism. Indeed, a radical immanence like Spinoza’s seems very much at odds with a privileging of the human (whether we understand this privileging in existentialistic or rationalistic terms). It does so because the alignment of God with nature, expressed in the doctrine Deus sive Natura, points to an ontology of connections and crossings rather than separations and domestications. As the impersonal God expresses its power through nature, modes of being emerge as animated flows of embodied material. Some of these modes may be characterized as uniquely human. But the majority will entail a combination of things, humans, and animals. In that sense we may approach the field of immanence in terms of assemblages for whom there are no absolute distinctions between interior and exterior, inside and outside.

But again, this does not mean that there is no space for belief. Here it might be helpful to invoke the work of Deleuze. A follower of Spinoza, Deleuze insists on the need for belief: as he says in his study of cinema, we “need to believe in this world.” For our purposes, the phrase “this world” might be the most significant one. Anticipating Taylor’s analysis, Deleuze identifies a break between the world as it is and the world as we see it, a break that has made us detached viewers of our own lives. (We find here a similar claim to what Taylor calls the “buffered self”.) But rather than turning to a transcendent agent of fullness, Deleuze proposes a transformation of belief as such. This transformation targets what we see and hear within concrete assemblages, reckoning the flows and depths of immanence. To believe in this world is in that sense to perpetuate life, to affirm its cracks and dissonances as sites of undisclosed potentiality. It is, we might say, an immanent enchantment.

I detail these aspects of immanence because they point to a constellation of the immanent frame that differs from the one we get from Taylor’s discussion of exclusive humanism. That is, the field of immanence does not necessarily entail a “victory for darkness” (A Secular Age, p. 376), nor does it simply oppose all modes of religion. Instead, it tries to locate sources of enchantment within this world so that apparent modes of suffering and injustice can be fought at the level of lived experience. This struggle entails faith, belief, and enchantment—in part because no one can master the field of immanence completely, and in part because the registers of faith, belief, and enchantment inspire new perspectives on and encounters with the world. Without engaging this richer account of immanence more affirmatively, Taylor may risk losing an important ally in the struggle for a better world.

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One Response to “Spinoza’s immanence”

  1. avatar Robert Bellah says:

    Having read Lars Tønder’s contribution, it to some degree parallels some discussions at the AAR panel on Taylor’s book last month. Taylor does seem to use the idea of immanence in a very negative way, but even in the Immanent Frame chapter he distinguishes between open and closed immanence, and it is the latter he is criticizing. There is a long tradition of religious immanence, including even Augustine, and Taylor draws examples from that tradition. So I think there is a terminological problem with “immanence” having two meanings and Taylor is to be sure not clear in distinguishing them.

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