The Impact of the Secular Mind Upon the Christian Mind: Readings With Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor’s Secular Age is a mammoth of a read, but well worthwhile. The first third, at least for me, was sort of a slog, but as you persevere it gets really good. The following just came up as I continue to read through it, and I thought it might be interesting to share. It pretty much describes most of the conflagration we see taking place on a daily basis on theological social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.). It is the rift that has obtained between so called progressive Christians and conservative (or orthodox) Christians. It is this rift, among many others, that Taylor is so masterfully articulating and enlightening as he uncovers the intellectually processes through which these shifts and caverns have developed. Here he is referring to the impact that the Enlightenment and the ascendency had upon the various fissures we are currently experiencing now. He writes:

What made Christianity particularly repulsive to the Enlightenment mind was the whole juridical-penal way in which the doctrine of original sin and the atonement were cast during the high middle ages and the Reformation. Our distance from perfection was glossed as just punishment for earlier sin; and our salvation through Christ as his offering satisfaction for this fault, paying the fine, as it were.

There were some repugnant aspects of this just in itself. But it became connected to two doctrines which were potentially deeply offensive. The first was the belief that only a few are saved. The second was the doctrine of predestination, which seemed to be generated inevitably from a belief in divine omnipotence in the context of the juridical-penal model.

Now in fact, opinion begins to move against these doctrines in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. On the one hand, there is the “decline of hell”, and the rise of universalism; on the other, there is growing revulsion at predestined damnation, even within Calvinistic societies. Of course, these developments were surely not independent of the one I was tracing above, viz., the growth of confidence in the human power to do good. But they add an extra level of motivation, a revulsion at the orthodox formulations, which must either lead to a revised faith, or in certain cases, to a sharp break with it.

Again, as confidence in human powers grows, and in particular, in the powers of reason, the claims of Churches to authority on behalf of a faith which partly consists of mysteries, becomes harder and harder to accept. This is another way in which a modern rationalism based on science can argue that the rise of science refutes religion.

But this still doesn’t capture fully the negative movement, the hostility to Christianity which spread among elites at this time. It wasn’t just the particular doctrines of the juridical-penal model, nor the rationalist rejection of mystery.

We saw that much of the historical practice of Christianity ran afoul of the new ethic of purely immanent human good: . . .[1]

Taylor’s description of things is apropos. He gets further into the sociological and ideational issues that have led to the post-Christian world within which we currently live; as the last clause intimates. But I thought the doctrinal loci he identified, both unconditional election and predestination, along with universalism and the juridical-penal frame of Christian salvation typically associated with conservative Christians and their adherence to the penal substitutionary view of the atonement, is quite prescient. This is the stuff that makes theological social media turn; over and over and over again.

Interestingly to me also, as far as the doctrinal loci he underscores, is how that to one extent or another shapes my own theological inklings about various doctrinal matters. While we can attribute much of what he identifies as a relative to the rise of reason in modernity, as far as society’s turn against Christian theism and the particular doctrines he notes, it can also be said that some of that critique towards these various doctrines has rootage in the Christian patristic past. So these things are a complex.

The shift we see happening in society, the shift into an absolutely secular self, is not just impacting the secular people, but the Christians as well. It does us well to be critically cognizant of just what is shaping our hermeneutical lenses as we approach the translation of the Christian faith in the 21st century; and Taylor’s work helps with that.

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap of Harvard University Press, 2007), 262-63 kindle.

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A Critique of American Christianity with Reference to Charles Taylor and Karl Barth: The Emergence of Deism as an American Folk Religion

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the religion that Christian sociologist, Christian Smith identifies as the prominent religion of most Americans who claim to be, or in fact are nascent or cultural Christians. We might reduce the catchy language down to one word: Deism. Deism, by definition, entails both moralist and therapeutic; but we can understand why Smith would give us this amplification—for both rhetorical and descriptive reasons. Even so, I think it would be good to expand upon what Deism actually is. Without getting into its history too much (because of space constraints), I thought it would be instructive to allow Charles Taylor to give us further insight into just what Deism is, and even more significantly, how it functions as an ‘opiate,’ of sorts, for so many of us in the affluent North American context. Taylor writes at length:

But with the fourfold eclipse, the very notion that God has purposes for us beyond fulfilling his plan in the world, equated with our good, begins to fade. Worship shrinks to carrying out God’s goals (= our goals) in the world. So element (2) becomes weaker and weaker.

As to element (1), this was expressed principally in terms of a doctrine of grace. This was seconded in lay ethics, like neo-Stoicism, by a sense that the power to impose order on self and world is God’s power in us, which we have to recognize and nurture. With growing confidence, reflected in the new harmonious, economic-centred order, neither grace nor the nurture of God’s power in us seem all that indispensable. Space has been created for a shift, in which the power to order will be seen as purely intra-human.

 It is true that on the Deist view, God can also help us in another way. The very contemplation of his goodness in his works inspires us, and energizes us to do his will.

Thus as the calm and most extensive determination of the soul towards the universal happiness can have no other centre of rest and joy than the original independent omnipotent Goodness; so without the knowledge of it, and the most ardent love and resignation to it, the soul cannot attain to its most stable and highest perfection and excellence. [Frances Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy, p. 217]

The strength that this can impart to us is not negligible, and perhaps most people will recognize the need for some source like this. But having got this far, it is not clear why something of the same inspiring power cannot come from the contemplation of the order of nature itself, without reference to a Creator. And this idea has recurred in exclusive humanisms.

And so exclusive humanism could take hold, as more than a theory held by a tiny minority, but as a more and more viable spiritual outlook. There needed two conditions for its appearance: the negative one, that the enchanted world fade; and also the positive one, that a viable conception of our highest spiritual and moral aspirations arise such that we could conceive of doing without God in acknowledging and pursuing them. This came about in the ethic of imposed order (which also played an essential role in disenchantment), and in an experience with this ethic which made it seem possible to rely exclusively on intra-human powers to carry it through. The points at which God had seemed an indispensable source for this ordering power were the ones which began to fade and become invisible. The hitherto unthought became unthinkable.[1]

Clearly, Taylor has other previous context he is referring to; with his reference to his points (1) and (2). Because it is too lengthy to elaborate on all that, for our purposes, we will press onto engaging what I did in fact share from him.

I think what stands out most clearly is the idea that in a world that is disenchanted—a major theme in Taylor’s work—of a world that is inhabited or suffused with the splendor of a mighty and benevolent Creator God; the world is still in need of some sense of Divine Transcendence. As Taylor helpfully underscores for us, when the personal Christian God is abandoned, the vacuum left is filled by collapsing ‘Him’ into the human-spirit writ large. Herein people still have a sense that in the after-life, based upon their own ethical imaginations and determinations, they will be rewarded with or despoiled of anything good and lively. But here, in the here-and-now, in this ultra-immanetized world, we are the divine sparks of all that can be good and holy; we just need to appeal to our inner-positive-resources, and usher in peace and well being into the world.

What Taylor describes as Deism can come in both hard and soft forms. What we get in the Christian version of Deism is the soft form. When Christians abandon sound orthodox doctrine what they must turn to is themselves; albeit, they no longer have the capacity to distinguish between themselves and the one they call Jesus Christ. It is in this framework that so called moralistic therapeutic deism takes on a life of its own; with a liturgy of nationalist and moralist folkisms in tow.

Interestingly, we have a case study of this in the history, not too far back, in the early to mid-20th century among the German Christians. Karl Barth, per John Webster’s analysis, noted this fall into a sort of deism among the nationalist fervor that took hold of so many Germans in the post WWI context. There was a wily fear afoot in the Weimar Republic that caused even the Christians to turn inward, and engage in this sort of collapsing of God into the inner-recesses of their own will to power; in their own capacity to determine what was right and wrong. Webster notes with reference to Barth’s moral theology:

A large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates.[2]

Interesting that Barth’s primary referent was liberal Protestantism; interesting because I think this can equally apply to what counts as conservative evangelicalism today—and yes Mainlinism, and other religious iterations in the West as well. But Barth’s critique of his own German/Swiss context fits well with what Taylor is identifying for us as the Deist project. A project wherein God and the enchanted world He gives us is pushed to the side, and the disenchanted world takes its place with the primacy of the indomitable human spirit as its center.

It seems undeniable to me that this sort of ‘spirituality’ is the dominant one, even and maybe especially among the evangelical churches. It isn’t for lack of good intention, but lack of good, sound, orthodox doctrine among the churches that has led to this vacuum. Not to dog-pile on the conservatives, we see this Deistic impulse shaping so called Progressive Christianity just as surely; most likely because they operate from a shared anthropological and intellectual heritage. No matter its level of overt exposure, Deism as a powerful source of moral inflection in the world, as far as I can see, is only gaining speed. It can be corrected, but this will only come as Christians come to a point of ‘repentant thinking.’ But will they? In order for repentant thinking to occur, it is required that sound theological teaching is given. But I don’t see this, in the main, occurring in the churches. People are largely being fed a pabulum of individualistic spirituality that majors on the self, and minors on God. True, we do see a resurgence of Reformed theology; but I’d contend, at root, that its understanding of grace and election only plays into the sort of Deism that Taylor (and Barth) describe.

 

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap of Harvard University Press, 2007), 233-34 kindle.

[2] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 35-6.

Feeling the Weight of Secular Emptiness: A Self-Generated ‘Fullness’ Apart from the Pleroma of God in Jesus Christ

I just started Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which I’ve wanted to read for quite some time. Just as I’m splashing in he, expectedly, offers insight, and provides some grammar I’ve held in unarticulated form—or at least unarticulated relative to the way that Taylor articulates it—in regard to the ‘secular’ or ‘unbelieving’ via. Increasingly (and I’m 44) I have felt the creep of secularization growing in exponential ways over these past two decades. What has disillusioned me most is not that this creep has been happening in the ‘world’—that’s bad enough!—but that the evangelical churches themselves have been participants and even engineers of this sort of so called ‘secular’ creep.

In the following, Taylor describes the way the ‘unbeliever’ or the ‘secular’ attempts to generate meaning. He refers to a ‘fullness,’ which would be in reference to an extra nos or transcendent basis upon which (primarily) the believer finds meaning for life. He also introduces other terms, but I’ll let him do that, and then respond after the fact.

For modern unbelievers, the predicament is quite different. The power to reach fullness is within. There are different variations of this. One is that which centres on our nature as rational beings. The Kantian variant is the most upfront form of this. We have the power as rational agency to make the laws by which we live. This is something so greatly superior to the force of mere nature in us, in the form of desire, that when we contemplate it without distortion, we cannot but feel reverence (Achtung) for this power. The place of fullness is where we manage finally to give this power full reign, and so to live by it. We have a feeling of receptivity, when with our full sense of our own fragility and pathos as desiring beings, we look up to the power of law-giving with admiration and awe. But this doesn’t in the end mean that there is any reception from outside; the power is within; and the more we realize this power, the more we become aware that it is within, that morality must be autonomous and not heteronomous. (Later a Feuerbachian theory of alienation can be added to this: we project God because of our early sense of this awesome power which we mistakenly place outside us; we need to re-appropriate it for human beings. But Kant didn’t take this step.)

Of course, there are also lots of more naturalistic variants of the power of reason, which depart from the dualistic, religious dimensions of Kant’s though, his belief in radical freedom of the moral agent, immortality, God—the three postulates of practical reason. There may be a more rigorous naturalism, which accords little room for manoeuvre for human reason, driven on one side by instinct, and on the other hemmed in by the exigencies of survival. There may be no explanation offered of why we have this power. It may consist largely in instrumental uses of reason, there again unlike Kant. But within this kind of naturalism, we often find an admiration for the power of cool, disengaged reason, capable of contemplating the world and human life without illusion, and of acting lucidly for the best in the interest of human flourishing. A certain awe still surrounds reason as a critical power, capable of liberating us from illusion and blind forces of instinct, as well as the phantasies bred of our fear and narrowness and pusillanimity. The nearest thing to fullness lies in this power of reason, and it is entirely ours, developed if it is through our own, often heroic action. (And here the giants of modern “scientific” reason are often named: Copernicus, Darwin, Freud.)

Indeed, this sense of ourselves as beings both frail and courageous, capable of facing a meaningless, hostile universe without faintness of heart, and of rising to the challenge of devising our own rules of life, can be an inspiring one, as we see in the writings of a Camus for instance. Rising fully to this challenge, empowered by this sense of our own greatness in doing so, this condition we aspire to but only rarely, if ever, achieve, can function as its own place of fullness, in the sense of my discussion here.[1]

I live in such a world; I don’t know about you! I hold my ‘faith’ dear to my heart, and attempt to bear witness to the reality therein; but the world, the big world seems to bustle along, typically unbeknownst to its own intellectual antecedents and informants, in such a way that the scandal of the particular in the cross of Jesus Christ doesn’t even seem foolish anymore—it seemingly seems as if it is just one of many a religious symbols on tap for the taking (or not!)

I think what stands out most to me, in regard to Taylor’s thinking, is the idea of a self-generated fullness; I take this to be the greatest hallmark of secularity. As James Sire noted, as he described existentialism as a philosophy of life, it is the idea of ‘existence preceding essence.’ I think it is important to dwell here; to feel the nihilist weight of it all; to allow the abyss-nature of the secular mind to press in and pierce our ‘holy Christian’ hearts. Often, at least in my experience, it isn’t until I feel the weight and fallout of deep existential angst, that I find myself in a posture of crying out ‘my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me,’ in echo of the Savior’s cry. Often it isn’t until the dereliction and emptiness of darkness seems to overcome us, that the desire for God’s Bright Light in Christ to come issues in maximal force.

What Taylor describes describes almost every single person I encounter ‘out there’ in the big world. There is a sense of loss, and yet a determination to construct personal meaning, that dominates the human landscape. I mean, as Christians we know this simply as a heart in bondage to its sinful appetites and affections; a heart dead-set on being like God knowing good and evil. Even though we know this, narrativally-canonically as Christians, the emptiness, and its deleterious outcome is all around us. We should feel its weight; if only so we might have compassion, and then also gratitude for the great gulf that has been recreated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 8-9.