Our fractured age

Since Sources of the Self Charles Taylor has contended that ours is a fractured world. The world in question is twofold. First, the geographical space of Europe and North America. And second, the worldview that has dominated that geographical space. Sources examines what Taylor takes to be the trajectory of the moral and mental background of North Atlantic culture over the past 500 years. In another of his works, Varieties of Religion Today, he suggests that the history of this world can be characterized by a “reform master narrative.” As the title indicates, he uses William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience to flesh this out.

James defined religion in terms of individuals rather than communities or institutions. And he described religion’s truest expression as a matter of the heart rather than the head. This means that he bracketed the communal, the institutional, and the intellectual to a very considerable degree. Why? According to Taylor, James preferred individual feeling, the religion of the heart, because so many of the figures he admired were dynamic personalities whose behaviour was neither routine nor banal. They were “sick souls” who had to cross an abyss of melancholy. We can fault James for reading the experience of his heroes with rather blinkered lenses, Taylor admits, but we can also ask the sharper question of whether or not it is even possible to make sense of “religious experience” without a situated context.

James preferred studying religious personalities who had emerged from some kind of existential crisishe admired the viewpoint of an individual who had searched for truth with passion, desire, and will, who had been to the valley of despair, and who had resolved this crisis in a conversion experience. As a result of these sympathies, Taylor thinks James embodied some prominent countervailing pressures favouring belief and unbelief around 1900. Most importantly, he saw in the individual “sick soul” a Pascalian truth: that in order to know it was sometimes necessary to “feel” first. And this truth cut both ways for Jamestowards religious belief and towards unbelief. Taylor thinks that North Atlantic society remains in a Jamesean position because we still inhabit a world where meaning has been uncoupled from the older cosmic orders in which it had been inscribed for centuries.

This brings me to the “reform master narrative.” Taylor uses this story to account for the changing conditions of belief in the North Atlantic world over the past 500 years. A Secular Age takes 800 pages to outline this process, and so I can only gesture towards its complexity here. Pace Weber and similar sociological “subtraction stories,” Taylor’s narrative is one of what you might call active disenchantment. The “reform master narrative” isn’t simply the process by which the sacred is slowly stripped away to reveal an underlying, uncontested, secular nature. Instead Taylor tries to trace the historical means by which the architecture of the North Atlantic worldview was rearrangedvery often for religious reasons. This entails a broad sketch of how the cosmic, local, temporal, social, and practical spheres of existence in the North Atlantic world were each uncoupled from their hierarchical orderings as they had been formulated and embodied in antiquity and the middle ages. These older orderings, in their ideal types and in practice, assumed an interrelation and interpenetration of the sacred and the secular. To take one instance, the secular time of everyday life could be, on certain occasions such as Good Friday, suspended or related to a sacred time which subsumed or displaced ordinary time; a connection between the first Easter and its ritualistic re-enactment breached the secular flow of time. The processes of active disenchantment involved a reordering of the sacred and the secular. By the year 2000 Taylor claims that we have a complex secularity in which the cosmic, local, social, and moral world are much more “horizontal.” The temporal connection between the first Easter and the Easter service at a church today will probably be mnemonic rather than kairotic.

The thrust of Taylor’s argument in A Secular Age is that this “horizontal” conception is itself a historical construction which is no more given, no more natural, than the hierarchical world which preceded it. Instead our “horizontal” world is a re-description and a re-embodiment of a previously hierarchical world. Thus, the “reform master narrative” is a history of the changing maps of meaning in the North Atlantic world. And these changes aren’t necessarily bad. Indeed Taylor frequently insists that there have been very many important gains in modern life, such as the political recognition of equal and universal human rights, as well as costs, such as the sense of vertigo many individuals in North Atlantic culture feel in a universe that can seem emptied of meaning. James himself seems to have felt this vertigo along with many of his appreciative twentieth-century readers. Moreover, Taylor finds that in today’s “horizontal” world alternative routes for tapping into the older notion of “fullness” persist, but that these routes have been pluralized, take different trajectories, and are related to order in new ways.

A generous, shorthand way of reading Taylor’s work would be to say that our fractured age is constraining in its horizontality, yet replete with potential ways of achieving “fullness” within such strictures. These structures of meaning have never been static anyways, since their embodiment entails constant negotiation. In his early “philosophy of the will,” Paul Ricoeur made an analogous point with respect to the conditioned freedom of human existence. We might say that the freedom to pursue “fullness” in Taylor’s sense is only possible given the constraints necessity places on all of us. This includes the social, moral, political, and historical context of our conceptions of “fullness.”

It’s fairly clear that A Secular Age is arguing against those who claim that there is only one “map” for finding meaning in the modern world and only one “blueprint” for its structure. The secularization theory which predicted the subtraction of the sacred from the secular, its eventual disappearance, and its inevitable conclusion in exclusive humanism, is clearly one of Taylor’s central targets. For the past 25 years he has forcefully asserted that there are several coexisting “maps” in which “fullness” can be sought, each entailing different “blueprints” for the ordering of society, and he has attempted to explain how these “maps” were generated and why they have exercised such explanatory power.

Taylor’s ambitious work deserves the critical scrutiny to which it has been subject. However, given the present tensions within North Atlantic pluralist liberal democracies his story also deserves serious political consideration. What, then, are the political terms under which we can best manage the competing “moral maps” and notions of “fullness” by which we live? That’s obviously a big question. In order to provide the basis for an answer Taylor has told a very grand story.

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