A Secular Age:

Belief, spirituality and time

posted by William Connolly

Charles Taylor, in his magisterial book on the Secular, periodically engages a constituency he calls immanent materialists. I would like to pursue that discussion, focusing on a subgroup within it, to see how its devotees and those Taylor identifies with most might interact in noble ways.

I actually have two groups in mind. The first, immanent naturalists, includes thinkers such as Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius, Spinoza, Gilles Deleuze, Ilya Prigogine and Michel Foucault. The second, philosophers of becoming and immanence with a trace of transcendence, includes Henri Bergson, William James, Alfred North Whitehead and perhaps Marcel Proust. Both groups emphasize the ethico-political importance of dwelling in fecund moments of duration. And all pose a world in which time is neither circular, linear nor purposive but, periodically folds the new into being in a universe that is intrinsically open to an uncertain degree.

In a world of becoming, time periodically brings new things into being, things irreducible to patterns of efficient causality, purposive time, simple probability, or long cycles of recurrence. Emergence occurs in part through collisions between different tiers of chrono-time, when neural, geological, climatic, species, and civilizational force-fields set on different tiers of chrono-time bump into each other, in part through the triggering of new capacities for auto-poeisis when such collisions occur, and in part through patterns of reverberation back and forth between such infections and the auto-poeisis it foments.

In a world of becoming, as visualized by both groups, there are periods of relative stability and equilibrium in each zone of being: A human life endures, a geological formation persists, a climate pattern stays, a civilization retains a relatively high degree of stability, a biological species survives, a faith evolves slowly. But, particularly when one of these modes of endurance is touched, infected or battered by those on other tiers of chrono-time, a notable or dramatic change may be in the cards. As when an asteroid shower destroys dinosaurs and sets the stage for more rapid evolution of human beings, or when a period of capitalist growth accelerates an era of climate change that recoils back upon it.

All the thinkers listed above also find it important to cultivate and amplify gratitude for life in a world of becoming. Such modes of cultivation are important for the positive ethical energies they generate when you respond to new circumstances for which old moral principles, codes, rules, and habits are not adequately prepared. All, then, are post-secularists who are not exclusive humanists.


By radical transcendence I mean a God who creates, informs, governs or inspires activity in the mundane world while exceeding the awareness of its participants. By mundane transcendence I mean any intensive activity outside of conscious awareness that crosses into actuality, making a difference to what it becomes without being susceptible to full representation. I cannot disprove radical transcendence. But I confess radical immanence, replete with fugitive encounters with mundane transcendence.

Can those who confess mundane transcendence sink into the experience of duration? Yes. You do so by dwelling in a fecund moment to see whether something new and pertinent blooms forth through you, particularly when you encounter suffering or difficulties for which an established code of divinity, rights, morality and identity has not adequately prepared us. If, as the layered past communicates with a new encounter, you help to usher something new into the world, it will filter through the experience of duration; it will be touched by the sensibility you bring to the moment of dwelling; and it will later be influenced by the intelligence you bring to bear as you modify it in relation to established codes, principles, understandings and creeds.

To an immanent naturalist such experiments sometimes involve becomings in which that which has heretofore been unthought—not quite shaped like thought—bumps or surges into an ongoing pattern of thought under the pressure of a new shock or need. That which undergoes such a passage cannot be known or represented before it appears, because it did not possess the shape of the representable. It was first merely sensed and then emergent, confounding those who demand that all passages be smooth. This crossing may even be comparable to the crossing of the first energized forces into life from non-life, irreducible to that from which they emerged.

Such a set of views is what I mean by the creed/philosophy/faith of radical immanence, including its image of mundane transcendence. Sometimes, a seer dwells creatively in a fecund moment of crossing, as when Epicurus conceived the very idea of atoms that swerve, as when Spinoza conceived of body and mind as two dimensions of the same substance, as when Zarathustra first dreamt eternal return as the return of the fecundity of difference and then affirmed a world defined by such a condition, as when Gilles Deleuze first drew something magical from his encounters between experimental film and the desolate landscapes of post World War II Europe and then helped to usher into being a concept of causation through resonance that cuts across the distinction between social science and interpretive cultural theory. None of these guys is transfixed by violence—as Taylor sometimes suggests immanent naturalists are who follow in the wake of Nietzsche. All transcend the mundane experience of homogeneous time from time to time, even as they recognize, with Bergson, that homogeneous time fits the operational requirements of action oriented perception.


It is one thing to believe in a world of becoming; something additional is needed to affirm it. To come to affirm such a world, it is needful to dwell thoughtfully in such moments and to work on ourselves by multiple means to overcome resentment of the world for not possessing either providence or ready susceptibility to human mastery. Taylor is dubious about our doctrine, though he acknowledges that he cannot give knockdown arguments against it. So in a second movement he recoils back upon that judgment, calling upon himself and others to enter into what I would call a relation of agonistic respect with the bearers of such a creed. This is the nobility of Charles Taylor.

The minor post-secular tradition embraced here is replete with difficulties, puzzles and problems, amidst its glowing promise. It pursues a conception of ethics, grounded first and foremost in a love of the world that emerges as you overcome resentment of existence without providence. This ethic seeks to infuse mundane human interests, tasks and understandings rather than to express an unconditional law or divine inspiration. It is impure, essentially. Its advocates acknowledge tragic potential in a world without either divine providence or a natural predisposition to human mastery. Moreover, we seek to translate the quest to discover transcendent meaning into one to invest selected activities with meaning. Further, we seek to challenge the vexed tradition of free will (in which the will is deeply divided against itself after the fall) with a notion of freedom bound to the fecundity of thinking, particularly when you dwell creatively in uncertain situations. Freedom to us is not the property of agents; it is a larger process in which we participate. Finally, we replace the mystery projected into radical transcendence with an element of mystery projected into our experiences of nature, time, causality, duration and freedom.

From the vantage point of a philosophy of immanence set in a sensibility of care for this world, the most pressing need today is to negotiate deep, multidimensional pluralism within and across territorial regimes. That is, as I receive him, Taylor’s pursuit too, inspired by a different source in the first instance.


Here I need to test another possible point of contact or difference between us—and a point of struggle within myself. Class, age, race, ethnic, gender, and creedal “positions” do not suffice to explain political stances. Another source is differences in existential sensibility among people who share some subject positions. So I will imagine a “matrix” in which an array of creedal beliefs stretches across its horizontal axis; and an array of existential sensibilities across its vertical axis. In forming such a matrix I do not suggest that belief and sensibility are fully separate. Rather, affect and belief are interinvolved, on several layers of being. But neither is entirely reducible to the other, as we can see when we share a belief but hold it with different degrees of intensity.

Back to the matrix. The distribution of belief flows from faith in a single God on the right side to belief in the eternality of becoming on the left, with several stances in between, including the limited god of William James and Henri Bergson. On the vertical axis are differences in existential sensibility, with love of this world forming the top of the line and existential resentment the bottom. On the upper right are saints who embrace God and love of this world; on the upper left side are prophets who embrace immanence and love a world of becoming; on the lower right are those who combine belief in God with deep existential resentment; and on the lower left those who resent the world of becoming they themselves confess.

The point of the schema is this: Today one constellation of elites, resentful white secular males, and a faction of evangelists enter into spiritual alliance across notable differences in belief. They depress their differences of belief to accentuate affinities of spirituality across them. Egged on by the media they form a veritable resonance machine. The right edge of the capitalist class is prepared to sacrifice the collective future to its current greed; the extreme edge of the evangelical right looks to a second coming in which the future of the earth becomes unimportant.

My sense is that it is necessary today to expose and contest the spirituality invested in the contemporary evangelical-capitalist resonance machine, even as we seek to promote another set of spiritual affinities across lines of class, ethnicity, generation and creed. I know it is risky to make the first set of charges. You run the risk of replicating the stances you resist as you encounter them. Nonetheless, it may be that those who prize democracy, deep pluralism, egalitarianism and the future of the earth must now run these very risks. There is no risk-free way to proceed in the current historical conjuncture.

How to negotiate the risks? One way is to always remember that no single subject position conforms neatly to the existential disposition you seek to expose, resist and overcome. A second is to probe points, places and constituencies on the margins of the assemblage you resist to draw more participants away from this dangerous machine. A third is to re-engage yourself on this front from time to time, particularly when you are reading others symptomatically, to ensure that you do not become what you seek to overcome.

If I read Taylor correctly, he concurs in advance, not with the existential creed I confess, but with the need today to amplify positive existential sensibilities across several creeds. He also supports formation of a new spiritual assemblage—cutting across differences of class, gender, sensuality and creed—to foster pluralism, egalitarianism and care for the future. Where we may differ, I am unsure, is in the hesitancy Taylor displays to read some theistically defined movements symptomatically and to issue robust challenges to them. I am unsure how deep this latter difference goes, or who is right about it. I know I am divided against myself at this point, while today finding it necessary to give priority to one side of that division.

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