Conditions of Belief in A Secular Age: Secular Age Round 1

sec ageI finished Charles Taylor’s monumental A Secular Age last summer, and it was one of those books that you finish reading and the world feels like an entirely different place. In this book, Taylor examines not only the emergence of Western secularism, but the experience of living in it. His project is phenomenological as much as it is genealogical; tracing the winding paths and new terrain that deposited us in this creedally pluralistic society, while also examining the pathos, the uncertainty, the limitations and fruits of navigating our way through the midst of many plausible alternatives of how to believe and how to live.  For this reason, I found the book not only intellectually enlightening, but spiritually awakening.

In this series of blog posts, I hope to sketch some of his insights and observations on the history of our secular condition and the “cross-pressures” we experience within it. I will interweave some musings on some of the implications for or intersections with [my experience of] Mormonism. In other words, consider this a very selective [1] Cliffnotes version with some commentary.  In these first few posts, I’ll start with the introduction and try to tackle sequential chapters in following posts–though Taylor admits his work is not linear, but rather a series of interlocking essays (so don’t expect too much linearity in how I proceed, though I’ll do my best). Here it goes!

First, terms. What does Taylor mean by a “secular” age? Taylor outlines two conventional definitions, and then formulates a third: secularism as (1) emptying public spaces and activities of references to/invocations of God; (2) decline in personal belief in God; and finally, (3) a condition where (2) is an option. In other words, how did we go from a society in which belief in God is “axiomatic,” “unchallenged and…unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace”? [2]

Thus, Taylor is focusing on the conditions and lived experience of belief, rather than their content (secularism 2)–though of course they are related. So this book examines belief not as a theory or creed, but as an experience situated in a “background” of the “taken-for-granted” that shapes and limits the possibilities of belief. Taylor’s questions are not what people believe, but what is it like to live as a believer or an unbeliever. In other words, what are the “alternative ways of living our moral/spiritual life”? And how do we arrive at these options?

Though he eschews any universalizing theories of religion, Taylor claims that this is a question that concerns all of us living in today’s world: “We all see our lives, and/or the space wherein we live our lives, as having a certain moral/spiritual shape” [3]. We are not just thinking creatures; we are desiring creatures [4]. And we all desire the good life, or fullness— a deliberately expansive and neutral term that Taylor reiterates as the state where “life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worth while, more admirable, more what it should be” [5]. The source of and path to that fullness constitutes the moral/spiritual shape and direction of our lives, whether the source be “the presence of God, or the voice of nature, or the force which flows through everything, or the alignment in us of desire and the drive to form,” among others.

One of the fundamental distinctions between believers and unbelievers [6] is where they locate this place of fullness. For the Christian [7] believer, the source of fullness is located without or beyond human lifein a transcendent force that does not simply “empower” us in our present condition, but brings us “out of self.” Fullness is not only transformative, it is gifted (by God) and therefore relational; a loving exchange between a giver and a receiver. It is thus necessarily non-self-enclosed. For the unbeliever, fullness is located in what Taylor will later call the “immanent frame”– located within the self or its immanent environment  (i.e. reason; self-expression; will; moral autonomy; nature, etc.) and thus accessible to an individual without reference to or need of a transcendent figure or transformative process. (And then there is a third category who reject even the possibility of fullness [e.g. postmodern deconstructionists], to which Taylor will devote more time towards the end of his book.)

What makes our age secular in Taylor’s third sense is the multiplicity of options of fullness within these various matrices– and the consequent experience that “we [believers and unbelievers] cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on”; in other words, there are many viable sources of fullness; thus, “we cannot helping looking over our shoulder from time to time…living our faith also in a condition of doubt and uncertainty” [8].


This is an important point for a couple reasons. Taylor believes that we cannot avoid the condition of doubt, with the exception of fundamentalists (theists and atheists alike) who manage a hermetic seal against the secular (v3) environment. But I think Mormonism has actually managed this seal for a long time. To even concede alternatives to belief (construed broadly [God, Christ, etc.] and narrowly [the LDS Church et al.]) has long been painted as a sign of moral failure, spiritual blindness or delusion, or sin. Mormon leaders are only now coming to terms with this fundamental fact of modern Western existence: that believers confront alternatives. This is not, I think, conceding that much. To be reflective human beings in our age, it cannot be otherwise.

Even so, most Mormon leaders and laymen have not gone so far as to acknowledge that there are legitimate alternatives. It is now more commonly conceded that for faith to be a meaningful choice, there must be alternatives from which to choose: i.e., doubts. Doubt is often treated like a temptation at worst, a structural feature at best, to make our choice to believe a meaningful moral act; but belief is always the morally superior choice.  This is distinct from Taylor’s autobiographical description of the modern believer: “I am never, or only rarely, really sure, free of all doubt, untroubled by some objection–by some experience which won’t fit, some lives which exhibit fullness on another basis, some alternative mode of fullness which sometimes draws me” [8].

Is it possible to ask more of Mormonism–or any religion with absolute truth claims? Is it simply relativism to concede morally legitimate alternative modes of belief?

Taylor is certainly no relativist; he is, after all, a practicing Roman Catholic. However, Taylor makes a case (implicitly [9]—he is not setting out to be an apologist) for belief on more phenomenological grounds, and I find this hugely effective. That is, Taylor puts our experiences of modernity on the table, and then assesses how different modes of belief and unbelief answer those experiences, and how well they do so on their own terms. So Taylor is not a relativist; modes of belief and unbelief can succeed or fail at internal consistency and at how much they account for our experiences. Yet throughout A Secular Age, Taylor presents the various modes of living out belief and unbelief in their best form. There are no a priori claims nor blanket dismissals; every position is explored to its maximum. Not only does this bolster my confidence in his abilities as a fair, even generous interlocutor, but this approach treats belief a genuine question, rather than a confirmation test. The question is not “what is the right way to believe,” but “Who can make more sense of the life all of us are living?” [10].

Taylor’s approach takes seriously the conditions or “background” of belief, rather than treating belief as a propositional choice. As Taylor writes, we “have to understand the differences between these options not just in terms of creeds, but also in terms of difference of experience and sensibility” [11]. In other words, the various construals of fullness (i.e. belief/unbelief) depend on whole frameworks, normative packages, social imaginaries, cosmological visions– sedimented by those that have come before, and then filtered through our own experiences and sensibilities. To ignore this “background” to our beliefs oversimplifies how beliefs work and where the moral content in them lies. In doing this, we would fail to “escape the “naïvetés on all sides: either that unbelief is just the falling away of any sense of fullness, or the betrayal of it…or that belief is just a set of theories attempting to make sense of experiences which we all have, and whose real nature can be understood purely immanently” [12].

Even so, Taylor’s project is “not to fight the issue to a conclusion, but rather to show how difficult this is” [13]. While ultimately, Taylor does believe that [a qualified form of] Christianity best succeeds at accounting for and responding to the dilemmas of the human condition, I do not believe Taylor necessarily considers this a moral victory; i.e., that arriving at belief is a confirmation of the Truth we should all be recognizing all along, if we are but morally/spiritually attuned. Taylor, in fact, does not think it is possible to achieve the “point of view of the universal”—a point of view that Mormons so glibly express in monthly testimony meetings. His view of truth seems more contextual, subjective—but not relativistic: “Our attachment to our own faith cannot come from a universal survey of all others from which we conclude that this is the right one. It can only come from our sense of its inner spiritual power, chastened by the challenges which we will have had to meet from other faiths” [14].

Perhaps, then, the moral content lies more in the rigor and honesty with which we can undergo the search, the internal consistency and integrity with which we seek to align our experiences and our beliefs—but here I am extrapolating. But I am more convinced, after reading Taylor, of the extraordinary difficulty of “reaching a conclusion.” And I don’t think this difficulty is a reflection of spiritual or moral weakness or even faith “crisis.” As Taylor concludes, this pluralism of compelling alternatives simply constitutes the “new context in which all search and questioning about the moral and spiritual must proceed” [15].




[1] Taylor’s book continues to overwhelm me as I reread it. My posts will be a hopelessly small sliver of what Taylor discusses, and I don’t even know if I grasp the slivers. To understand Taylor, you really have to follow him all the way through; it is difficult to hold so many limbs and layers of information, but I think it is easy to misunderstand him otherwise. I’ll do my best, but will surely fall short; I hope the comment section will be populated by fellow Taylor readers who will help carry out the conversation!

For those who are intimidated by the 800+page investment, you can read a very useful abbreviated version produced by James K. Smith, How to (Not) Be Secular (2015).

[2] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See James Smith’s insightful treatment of this notion in his book, Desiring the Kingdom.

[5] Taylor, 5.

[6] Of course, we all “believe” something; clearly, belief is a shorthand here for belief-in-transcendent-fullness / theists. Unbelief is a neutral term indicating unbelief-in-transcendent-fullness [but belief-in-immanent-fullness, or the third category of nonbelief in fullness].

[7] While Christianity is a chief representative of belief in Taylor’s Western narrative, he also intersperses examples of Buddhism and other “transcendent” faiths; in this case, Buddhism’s “Fullness” is also about transcendence and transformation, though not necessarily through an outside being. Taylor limits his study to the Western religious experience, thus bypassing messy questions like “what is religion.” The transcendent vs. immanent correlation to [religious] belief vs. [non religious] unbelief speaks to Western experience of religion in ways that do not necessarily need to apply to others. It gets slippery at times, but Taylor believes it’s a sufficiently meaningful and reasonable distinction to move the narrative forward, and I think it largely works.

[8] Taylor, 11.

[9] He doesn’t hide his own position as a believer, and this shows through explicitly at times. But more implicitly, he concludes the book with the chapter “Conversions,” where he explores what the move from an immanent to a transcendent frame looks like in this age.

[10] Taylor, 638.

[11] Taylor, 14.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Taylor, 712.

[14] Taylor, 680.

[15] Taylor, 20.



39 comments for “Conditions of Belief in A Secular Age: Secular Age Round 1

  1. Thank you for posting on this book. It has been in my “pile” for a long time, and I have not gotten to it yet. I will now bring it to the top.

    Also thank you for your considered analysis. In Mormon culture, like all culture, doubt arises in the inconsistencies between belief and experience. Some of what we teach does not correspond anymore to lived experience. Pluralism exasperates the inconsistencies by showing that there are other options to help explain them, and in some cases can explain them in a better way. This should be a good thing, but when we teach our way is the only way (that is, the modern, middle class American-Mormon interpretation of the gospel), then we can run into real problems.

    Thanks again.

  2. Thanks for the review. Taylor exhibits a very stripped down belief in God and Catholicism that is greatly at odds with the very vivid view of God, revelation, and miracles held by a great number of believing Catholics. Taylor is a cultural Catholic. He identifies as a Catholic, but appears to ignore the question of the reality of some of the more fantastic claims about history and nature in Catholicism. The Catholic religion is so large and so diverse that it permits the fusion of different cultural elements (including Taylor’s modern intellectual culture) with Catholicism and allows people to call it Catholicism. Taylor never takes on any tough questions in his book such as, was Jesus really born of a virgin or did he make his body live again after he died (resurrected). As for Mormonism, there is much much less tolerance for cultural Mormonism, both on the part of the leaders and the culture. The LDS leaders play a much stronger role in defining Mormonism, its acceptable beliefs and practices, and have a much stricter definition of who gets to consider themselves an LDS member in good standing. To be a member in good standing, one probably has to profess actual belief in a greater number of fantastic claims. There are those who claim to be practicing Mormons in good standing who at the same time do not profess the belief that Jesus appeared to people on the American continent. Perhaps they go for years skirting around the question, but with correlation, callings, temple recommend interviews, social pressure from friends and family, it is hard to go too long before feeling pressured to openly take a side on the question of the Book of Mormon’s historicity. Those who openly profess a lack of belief in that are highly likely to have a strained relationship with the LDS leaders and believing community. In Catholicism there is a great deal more wiggle room.

  3. John, I confess I’ve started the book more times than I care to admit. Still haven’t gotten very far even though so many people I respect have praised it. Maybe time to give it an other go.

  4. I do not recognize the Mormonism that you describe and then criticize. I do not see how you get from the question asked in the First Vision to the idea that Mormonism “only now” recognizes that believers face alternatives. Seems to me like alternatives have been with us for a long, long time.

    I certainly agree that others’ beliefs should be understood as fully as possible in their best light. Perhaps your fellow parishioners deserve the same courtesy. Could it be possible that some, most, or all of the confidence expressed in Fast and Testimony Meeting comes from inner spiritual power, obtained from God-assisted wrestles with all manner and nature of doubts?

  5. John – I agree with your assessment. Certain strands of Mormon theology (the “truth-seeking,” eclectic borrowing, etc.) harness that pluralism in really productive ways, but certain strands (perhaps more cultural) exacerbate dissonance by being so certain and totalizing about some of its universal claims (which I don’t think are always theologically warranted).

    Clark – I actually found the Audible version much easier to get through. This book is the product of his Gifford lectures, and I think the (somewhat meandering) narrative format can make for easier listening than reading. So if you have any cross-country road trips coming up….

    Brad – I’m not sure analyzing those claims is necessary to his project here, but I agree that Catholicism exhibits more “wiggle room” in some ways; I think some of their mechanisms for doing that are interesting. Like the early creation of religious orders for example (Dominicans, etc.) – they emerged because the Church [at the time, the universal “c”atholic Church) wanted to prevent apostate break-offs and neutralized the threat by creating a space for that “pluralism” under the umbrella of the Church. Give us a couple thousand years, maybe?…

    Ugly Mahana – in reference to the First Vision, I think the question Joseph Smith asked is not a question any Mormon–or anyone– should technically be able to ask anymore, right? Joseph faced “compelling alternatives” because none of them were actually the “right/true” one, according to the First Vision narrative; now that he brought about the “restoration of the one true Church,” no one is in that position of neutral pluralism anymore. So my question is genuine: can Mormon doctrine accommodate a person who finds “compelling alternatives” without undermining those universalizing truth claims? And I found Taylor’s approach really interesting in that regard; I interpret him as working from the ground-up instead of the top-down, in a way. Instead of trying to ask that kind of universal question, he looks at what our options are, what our experiences are, and what “beliefs” make more sense of them, so to speak. I’m sure reading him will help clarify what I’m trying to say.

  6. I’m not sure analyzing those claims is necessary to his project here

    Of course not. But to reiterate, or put it in a different way, Charles Taylor’s main point of the book, that religion and belief in god persists in spite of the advancement of scientific discovery and inquiry, rests on the idea that religiosity can be defined only based on whether or not one professes a belief in something or someone that they call “god.” I disagree with Taylor. I think that he is not recognizing the fact that 1) the are thousands of concepts of the god (he just says “god” as if that is immediately understood what that is supposed to mean) and 2) there were a great deal more litmus tests that cultures throughout the world subjected someone to in order prove his/her religiosity before the spread of modernity and there continue to be more litmus tests in cultures in the less developed world. There are simply more expectations on individuals in rural Africa and India to profess beliefs and perform complex rituals in order to show religiosity than there is on individuals in urban centers in the developed world. While modernity hasn’t killed belief in god (and never mind that the monist concepts of the divine for literally hundreds of millions in Asia is completely different than the Abrahamic concept of god), it has most certainly reduced the requirements for what people need to say and do in order to be considered valid believers in god, or legit religious people. Different forms of non-committal moralistic deism are more widespread and considered valid expressions of religiosity as a result of the rise and spread of modernity. Lastly I think that Ugly Mahana touches on an important point. The trend in Mormonism is now against the idea that other Christian sects, and other religions for that matter, are abominations in the sight of god. Whereas, early Mormonism appeared to express its collective ‘self’ against the backdrop of an ‘apostate Christian other.’ This change in trend and tone most certainly reflected in the 1990 change to LDS temple ceremony.

  7. I thought I edited it. Sorry. Should read: “1) there are thousands of concepts of god”

  8. I do not agree that no one should ask the question Joseph asked. It seems to me that one of the most powerful points of the Restoration is that his question, and many others, can be asked by *anyone*, and then answered by God. Not only once for all time, but repeatedly in individual experience.

  9. I, like Clark, have started the book but have never been able to finish it. But it does sound as if I need to make a more concerted effort to do so.

  10. I’m delighted that more people are starting to engage Taylor from within and about the Mormon tradition. For those who gave up, read pp1-50 and then skip to chapter 15 and read to the end. You’ll miss important bits, but you’ll have a sense for the arguments and more patience to return to the middle parts. For academics, I thought the HUP proceedings from the conference on ASE gives the best sense of the book, including the nausea it induces in many academic historians. Taylor’s afterward to that volume is better than the Smith book at summarizing ASE. I liked the Smith book a-ok, but, as Smith himself acknowledges, it isn’t very rigorous or thorough. I thought the HUP volume was better for that, for academics. For general and devotional readers, I think Smith works great.

    On the question of Mormonism, Rachael, I think I disagree with you, even as I admire your thinking. I see Taylor as suggesting that the groups that manage to resist cross-pressures do so in specifically “secular” ways (e.g., through invocation of detached reason or positivism). I’m not entirely sure that he’s correct here, even though I am sympathetic to his basic point that everyone, both believer and non-believer breathes and moves in a “social imaginary” that has been deeply influenced by secularity3. Certainly latter 20C Mormonism looks sometimes quite secular in that sense (take Nibley and FARMS apologetics as an example), but it simultaneously evinces a pre-secular sensibility. Specifically, there’s a sense in which Mormon truth is organically integrated into Mormon society, liturgy, and experience. I think it’s a bit too superficial a reading to see the apparently positivist turns of phrase in testimony meetings (“I know the church is true”) as secular3 the way Taylor suggests we probably should. Instead, I hear them as expressions of a kind of pre-secular sense of the integration of truth with community and experience. I think we as a people resisted it in large part through our creation of an isolated society in the Intermountain West. [sorry to split, but I’m on call tonight and have to run. I look forward to additional fascinating thoughts from you on this question. There’s a lot of interesting work to do.]

  11. ^^ ASE is American Society of Echocardiography, of which I am an apparently too proud member. It was meant to be SA, for Secular Age. Sorry.

  12. Ray Ray, I’ve never commented here before, but I had to quickly say that I’m glad that your doing this, even as I wish you were summarizing Taylor’s more recent Retrieving Realism, that he did with Dreyfus. I’m currently working my way through that and would love to hear what others think. Still, I always enjoy hearing a new engagement of SA. As you said, it’s a complicated and layered project, that is easy to get lost in or annoyed by. But if you give it a chance and try to appreciate Taylor’s style rather than get annoyed by it, it’s worth it. I have to agree with the earlier comment about Varities of Secularism in A Secular Age (HUP) being an excellent (necessary?) companion volume. Taylor’s conclusion to that volume, again as mentioned above, is really helpful:

    Another great resource, in addition to several other Taylor lectures available online, are the three lectures he gave at the Berkeley Center in 2008:

    Interested to see where you go from here in this series, and hope things are well.

  13. smb – Thanks so much for your comments and suggestions, Sam. I hope you can explain more of your second paragraph when you have time. I’ll go back again, but I thought Taylor made the point that fundamentalists of either stripe (like New Atheists or creationists) were ones who ignored or insulated themselves from the “cross-pressures”; everyone else encountered and responded to them in varying ways (instrumental reason, reform, Romanticism, etc.) but still exhibit the tensions. I’ll mull that over. I am really intrigued by your idea of a pre-secular approach to truth; do you mean, it reflects the ca. 1500 “naivete” Taylor juxtaposes to modern secularity3? That sounds somewhat different than the “integration of truth with community and experience,” and I’m really interested to know what you mean. I would love to interpret those truth claims differently, as I can only understand them at this point as a form of incomplete “positivism” (I have “experimented” by tasting this one thing and can now claim that is the “only” true thing… really, it’s the word “only” that throws me for such a loop). It sounds like his new book combatting the “individualization” of knowledge might be getting at what you’re suggesting?

    Speaking of, TG– I was hoping you would drop by! Stay and comment loads; you should be writing these posts. I’m so glad to know his recent book is so great–I can’t wait to dive in. What are your thoughts so far?

  14. I’m with all the people who have started the book but never finished it. Mostly because it seems that he made his case in the first couple of chapters, and then kind of drones on ….

    Also, the notion that atheism was impossible in the ancient world has now come under serious attack, and several new books examine “secularity” in the Axial Age.

    Anyway, a Cliff’s Notes version of the book is a great service, because reading it was a gauntlet that I couldn’t endure.

  15. Thanks, Rachael–I read this book several years ago and, ever since, I’ve been looking for a good excuse to think it through again (and again…) more deeply.

    Also, I’ve heard particularly good buzz about Taylor’s even-more recent book, the Language Animal. (And, ultimately, I think this most recent book might get more directly and productively at smb’s concerns above regarding the importance of the pre-secular language of Mormon worship, even while it becomes reinterpreted and transformed by our increasingly secular lives.)

  16. “Mormon leaders are only now coming to terms with this fundamental fact of modern Western existence: that believers confront alternatives.”

    Isaiah, just one among many great Mormon leaders, saw this fundamental fact long before Machiavelli and his successors laid the groundwork for Charles Taylor and the modern celebration of secularism and doubt.

  17. “Taylor, in fact, does not think it is possible to achieve the “point of view of the universal”

    This is certain: no one can ever achieve the point of view of the universal with that attitude.

  18. “Machiavelli and his successors laid the groundwork for Charles Taylor and the modern celebration of secularism and doubt”

    OK, I couldn’t resist. You know that Mormonism is essentially a celebration of Joseph Smith’s doubt of the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian doctrines, which according to what is accepted as god’s words in Mormonism, are abominations in god’s sight, right? Mormons doubt other religion’s claims just as strongly as atheists, humanists, and many people of other religions doubt the claims of Mormonism.

    You also know that Mormonism owes its existence and growth to secularism, right? Secular culture in the US has frowned on the persecution of people because of their religious beliefs.

  19. Rachael, you seem to be describing a world in which there is no spiritual authority. Authority is what allows us to confront pluralism and say with confidence that one view is correct and others are mistaken, that one perspective represents true faith and others represent doubt and ignorance. Of course, many people today feel that there is no spiritual authority, but Mormons disagree. Perhaps you do not feel that authority yourself, but feeling and recognizing it is as essential to Mormonness as anything could be. To ask church leaders to regard other perspectives as legitimate is to ask them to give up any notion of spiritual authority. That is not going to happen, and I don’t think it would be a good thing to do.

    Let me be clear: I am not saying that to be in doubt, or even to be confused about faith and authority is to not be Mormon, full stop. But doubt, in the sense of having difficulty recognizing authority, is a shortcoming with regard to faith.

    You seem to be describing a situation in which doubt is normative. In significant segments of our culture, certainly doubt in this sense is taken to be normative. This is especially true in academic culture, with substantial exceptions for its own dogmas, of course, which are presented unapologetically as moral imperatives. However, if you think that doubt is in fact normative-that it is a morally superior approach than faith-you need to offer an argument for that claim! And you need to take seriously the fact that to see doubt as normative is to give up the heart of faith in any traditional sense.

    Perhaps doubt is a pervasive feature in modern society, but there is a big difference between seeing this as a fact of how “our” experience (typically, postmodernistically) works and seeing it as a moral achievement. I think it’s pretty clear that even Taylor himself sees much loss in this state of affairs. You seem to read Taylor as regarding doubt as normative, but I think you are misreading him.

    What you say about the impossibility of asking Joseph’s question today is fully baffling to me, Rachael. Mormon testimony meetings are a weekly re-telling of Joseph Smith’s experience as repeated in the lives of individual Mormons-asking what church is true and receiving an answer. Not all testimonies are this precisely, of course, but they routinely take essentially this same form. Of course the conviction they express is not the “universal” type that you describe-of having thoroughly surveyed all the alternatives and drawn one’s conclusion from there. Rather, the typical form of conviction is precisely one of experiencing the inner power-in other words, authority-of spiritual truth and the Spirit that witnesses to it.

  20. Hi Ben- Thanks for the comments. To clarify, I don’t think doubt is normative or superior, and I’m not sure how that came across– I just agree with Taylor that it’s a condition of our secular age (nor do I think Taylor regards this as a “loss”). It’s more about simply describing/accounting for what most of us in the West experience, than what is “normative.” Those in the early modern period generally experienced a “naive” construal in which unbelief wasn’t really an option, at least on a general level. Today, it’s not just an option, it’s often the default one; the burden of proof is now more on belief. I’m also not discounting the possibility of spiritual authority or revelation; but that is not a “for granted” option anymore; for most inhabitants of a Western secular age, arriving at spiritual authority requires some conscious working-out of competing options and frameworks, so that revelation/spiritual authority can even be understood as a legitimate option. I disagree that the only conclusion, however, that one is “right” and the others are merely “ignorant.” This is precisely the kind of dismissive reductivism Taylor is advocating against, for various reasons that will become clearer towards the end of his book (and thus the end of my series). But I gesture at it here another way, saying that I find Taylor’s phenomenological approach to be sounder and more satisfying, where the conclusion may be that one way is more internally consistent and responds more comprehensively to our experiences than other options, but that doesn’t mean it’s the “Right” one, because we are not in a position to know that. “Right” with a capital R implies the ability to judge from a universal standpoint, and I don’t think we have access to that (and the possibility of doing so wasn’t even conceivable until the 17th/18th centuries; the fact that we think we can and should access that point of view is itself a product of certain frameworks I’ll delve into more in coming posts); I’m still working out what role Mormon conceptions of revelation play in this, but JS’s descriptions of revelation certainly endorse the idea that they come in our own language and situatedness. This is one of the reasons I find claims to “I know the Church is True” problematic in the way people seem to intend it, though Jacob Baker’s recent essay over at BCC is giving me more food for thought. In sum, what you say at the end is what Taylor is saying, and what I am more comfortable with: “Our attachment to our own faith cannot come from a universal survey of all others from which we conclude that this is the right one. It can only come from our sense of its inner spiritual power, chastened by the challenges which we will have had to meet from other faiths.” But I’m not convinced Mormons are, or think they should be, sincerely chastened by those challenges, and I do find that insularity to be a weakness when paired with universal claims to the Church’s truthfulness. The claims should fit the evidence/experience, and that certainly requires more modesty than what such Mormon claims display.

    As for asking Joseph’s question– I disagree. Have you heard any missionary asking an investigator to inquire which church is true? In my experience, they are asking if THIS church is true (and on the flipside, that everything else is “not True”). No one is asking them to embark on a universal search or sampling of all the churches to find the right one, because we think the right one already exists, and are asking people to confirm that–that is a fundamentally different landscape then what we think Joseph encountered, because we believe that *there was no correct option* when he asked that question. Now there is, so the burden of verification is on anyone who asks; within that Mormon narrative, it is not possible for someone to come up with an alternative answer that is true (“none of them are true” or “Quakerism is true,” etc.). We have an a priori Truth, and I think that is a misleading place to start. I might be taking this out of context, but that is also what I find Adam Miller’s read on Bruno Latour to be saying in “Speculative Grace” (that we should not begin with a priori theories, but from our own experience), and I really agree with that, and that is what I think Taylor is doing as well.

  21. That’s a good point Rachael. Indeed one could say doubt is nearly constitutive of our age given the place of Descartes. And of course Descartes largely ushers in the modern era by a switch to epistemology focused philosophy and a philosophy of doubt.

    One other comment of yours caught my notice.

    “I’m still working out what role Mormon conceptions of revelation play in this, but JS’s descriptions of revelation certainly endorse the idea that they come in our own language and situatedness. This is one of the reasons I find claims to “I know the Church is True” problematic in the way people seem to intend it, though Jacob Baker’s recent essay over at BCC is giving me more food for thought.”

    I think there is always a situatedness to revelation. (Nephi seems to suggest this is innate in 2 Ne 31:3) Obviously this opens up a reason to think through all this via phenomenology although one can push it too far.

    I’m not sure how this relates to the “I know the Church is true” claim. I think this gets misunderstood a lot. I remember a show on either RadioWest or Mormon Stories where Dennis Potter, Kristine and a few others discussed this. I was surprised no one raised the old English form of true still part of our language. Things like how bikers true a wheel for instance. Likewise Hebrew notions of truth are roughly more akin to Aristotle’s notion of essence that is revealed as a thing shows itself to be the thing it represents itself as. I discussed that notion of truth back at my blog a few months back relative to Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture.

  22. Rachael, you say that you don’t think doubt is normative, but then you turn around and say that you think it is a mistake to think we can say what is Right with a capital “R”. I don’t see how this can be consistent. If you are saying that we are not in a position to say what is Right, then you are saying we have no access to spiritual authority. Moroni says, “by the power of the Holy Ghost you may know the truth of all things.”

    Maybe we are getting mixed up because there are two senses of “we” here. The “we” of the generic postmodern subject that Taylor is talking about, in the default position that our culture offers, has to make do without a clear spiritual authority, perhaps. This person is not in a position to say what is Right, as you put it. If, by “we” you mean we Mormons, though, it sounds like you are not just saying that most people lack access or easy access to spiritual authority but that there is none, period. How is there room left for spiritual authority if there is no room left for claiming to know what is Right?

    You seem to think that the “universal claims of Christ’s truthfulness” can only be supported through a comprehensive survey of philosophical-religious possibilities. Of course, I don’t see how any actual human could ever complete such a survey because I am not convinced there is a limited number of possibilities, and I’m quite sure that not all the possibilities are available to us here and now. Nor is it safe to say that someone who surveyed them would necessarily be able to make a reliable judgment about which one is best or most true.

    But even supposing that were a possible and reliable strategy, I don’t accept that it is the only one. We can know what is Right because God knows it and he can tell us. Do you allow this as a possibility?

    Now, of course, I don’t think that knowing what is Right means thinking that everyone else is merely ignorant. This is an option that Mormonism simply rules out, in fact. One of the revealed truths of the Book of Mormon is that God speaks to all people in his own way, and even that at some point these truths of various peoples are to be gathered together. I’ll be interested to see how this compares with the kind of openness that Taylor likes.

    I think you are right that generally Mormons have not been chastened by an encounter with other faiths. What kind of chastening would you like to see?

    As for Joseph’s question, I said we ask it all the time, and you responded by saying that we don’t because there is a different answer available now. I don’t see that the answer changes the question before it has even been asked, though. As it happens, Joseph was asking the question on the assumption that there was a true church that he could be directed to; he was surprised that the answer is that none were true. So the availability of a positive answer actually brings us closer to the situation Joseph thought he was asking about rather than farther. Now, you may be right that missionaries are usually inviting investigators to ask whether this one specific church is true, rather than to ask which church more broadly is true. But that doesn’t mean that lots of people aren’t actually asking the question in an open way. The open-ended question (“which church is true?”) is just as available now as it was in Joseph’s time, isn’t it?

  23. I’d just say that while we can know the truth of all things by the spirit, in practice the answer to many things is either “not now” or nothing or “go study.” LOL. That’s not to deny important things we do believe we know answers to. However I certainly have far more questions than answers.

    That said I think most also read Moroni 10 in light of Alma 32 and related passages where what we have is a process of coming to certainty. This is a very different approach than say Cartesian approaches to epistemology. (I’d argue it’s very similar to pragmatic approaches to truth/knowledge although not everyone agrees)

  24. I think there’s a difference between saying something is normative and something is possible, and there’s quite a bit of room between saying we can’t access the Universal “Right” and we must therefore dwell in doubt. (If we consider Adam Miller’s take on Latour, even God can’t access that view, because he is one object among many in an ontologically “flat” universe). I think inspiration can reveal truth, but what “truth” means in relation to the standpoint of the universal would have to be clearer–I don’t think that’s self-evident, and we are clearly operating on different interpretations.

    Again, I am not convinced the Universal Standpoint is possible, so of course I don’t think that’s the only way one could verify the truth of Christ’s claims. I agree with Taylor’s “subjective” approach, that we can claim their truth in how they operate in our lives. But Church members proclaim “The Church is the only True Church” in a way that implies a Universal standpoint that a) is far outside their evidence/experience and b) not even possible. I think the Church can be “true’ in many other ways. Clark’s take on “truth” in the Hebraic sense points to one possible direction, in his linked blogpost.

    Re: the “chastening”– I think some leaders have articulated a move in this direction by suggesting that missionaries engage in genuine questions and conversations with the people they encounter/teach, and overall increased collaboration with other faiths. There’s a lot that could be done in de-insulating and being more “chastened” by others faith claims like reading other sacred texts, dialoguing, asking questions, etc.

    As for Joseph’s question: I’m saying the Church asks people to verify, not to ask, because they have staked an a priori truth claim based on Joseph’s answer. I’m not referring to whether we are asking the question in the same way/same expectations as Joseph, but whether the question itself (and its relation to an a priori answer) is repeatable. I don’t think we can have our cake and eat it too. We have an a priori truth claim or we don’t.

  25. Rachael, yes, there is a big difference between saying that something is normative and saying it is possible. But you are saying that to know what is Right is “(b) not even possible.”

    I have two responses, essentially taking another run at points I’ve been making before. Perhaps my point will be clearer now and we will make more progress.

    First, what argument do you have for this? You and I both have doubts about achieving objective, certain knowledge, as a human being, through some universal survey of the possibilities that one has conducted oneself. If this is what knowledge from the Universal standpoint is, then I won’t argue it is possible. Nor do I see any sign that Mormons are recommending this kind of Universal standpoint. But I don’t concede that this is the only way to know what is Right. Do you think it is? Can you offer an argument?

    Perhaps we need another word to identify certain knowledge that is reached another way. We could use the word “Objective” to refer to knowledge that would in fact be borne out through a universal survey, but has not been reached in that way. The usual Mormon view is that one can arrive at Objective knowledge through having that knowledge delivered or confirmed by God. Maybe God has been through a universal survey (he has time and brain power to spare), or maybe not. Anyway, this is another way to achieve Objective knowledge as a human, to hear from God. This is learning what is Right through spiritual authority. Do you accept this as possible? If not, why not?

    I’ll just leave Latour aside for now, because no one else I know thinks that God is just another being in the wide universe, with no better access to truth than we have.

    Second, if you reject the possibility of Objective knowledge in this sense, what is left of spiritual authority?

    On chastening, you seem to be running together two completely different things. To “engage in genuine questions and conversations” and “increased collaboration” with those of other faiths in no way requires that someone be uncertain about spiritual truth. When Jesus was hanging out with publicans and sinners, was it because he was still trying to figure out whether extortion or prostitution might be a good idea after all? No.

    People who are not confident about the truth may have lots of open and genuine conversations with people of varying viewpoints, or not. Similarly, people who have a firm conviction or even knowledge may have such conversations, or not. What church leaders are calling for is not a dialing back of conviction, but a dialing up of love. Love is the reason why we should want to have genuine conversations rather than dogmatic, judgmental ones. To suggest that genuine conversation requires epistemological uncertainty is to nullify the power of love to shape our interactions.

    So, to call for some epistemological chastening in order to improve conversation I think is deeply confused.

    Unfortunately, in our current culture of doubt, epistemological pessimism is actually making the conversations much worse. When people stop thinking they can arrive at the truth, they stop talking. When they don’t see any reliable, shared reference frame for answering questions, they have a strong tendency to either (a) dismiss the question and conversation as pointless and turn their attention to other things (like material wealth, pleasure, power, etc.–i.e. making us and our relationships with others shallower and more self-serving) or, where they feel a continued urgency to the question despite the unavailability of a shared reference frame for answering it, they tend to seek solutions through the sheer exercise of power over those they disagree with, whether through trickery and manipulation (“if you loved me, of course you would have sex with me” . . .), political coercion, or through simple violence. Witness our current, poisonous political discourse, leading presidential candidates that are despised by far more Americans than support them, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS.

    As for Joseph’s question, sure, someone who is already sure of the truth of one answer can’t ask the question the way she or he did before getting the answer. But you are mixing up the questioner with the person who has the answer. Once we have the answer, of course we approach the question differently, but the main people we are interested in when we are thinking about asking questions are the people who don’t already have the answer, and there are still plenty of those around, as there were in Joseph Smith’s day.

  26. I don’t like using the term “objective” to refer to a degree of confidence. Typically by objective we mean something that doesn’t change in meaning depending upon who is thinking about it. So objective truths is really about shared or universal truths. Our confidence in beliefs seems different and it’s useful to distinguish them.

    The problem with making God speaking to you as the only criteria for justification is that we can of course be deceived by someone pretending to be God. Or, in more practical terms where’s God’s communications are typically not terribly clear, we can misinterpret them. So appealing to revelation doesn’t get us as far in practice as it might seem at first glance. (This of course is noted in scripture such as places like Alma 32 where coming to know is a process)

    I’m sure everyone reading knows all this so I don’t want to come off pandering. Just that is’t important to keep these in front of us when we think through the issues.

  27. Ben (21.2) – Responding to all your comments would take a lot more time and space to establish working definitions for “right,” “truth,” etc., which goes beyond the project I’m interested in at the moment (Clark 21.3, I appreciate the clarification of some of those distinctions). Hopefully what I’m trying to say will be clearer as I go. In sum, I resonate with Taylor’s description of the conditions of doubt and pluralism, I do think revelation has a place in affirming or revealing “truths” from within our epistemological limitations (per JS’s “crooked, broken language,” etc.), and I think trying to establish belief in a secular/post-secular world can be very fruitful through Taylor’s phenomenological method. As for the “chastening”: if you are likening Church members to Jesus, and everyone else in the world to prostitutes and publicans, then Taylor (and my posts) are probably not going to resonate with you. The starting point here, per Taylor (and Jamie Smith) is that we are all Thomas.

  28. Hahaha that was a nice dodge, Rachael. Just pretend I’m being hopelessly smug. Or maybe you skipped the paragraph about how genuine conversations should come from love, not from our epistemological status. And the paragraph about how epistemological pessimism can feed all kinds of dysfunctional relationships too . . . The point about Jesus is that *even where it was very clear* that he was in an epistemologically superior position, Jesus approached people with love and understanding and gentleness. It had nothing to do with uncertainty about whether he was right, and so uncertainty should not be necessary for love, patience, and sincerity in our cases either. To insist that the only way to avoid arrogance is for everyone to be constantly second-guessing themselves is to take a rather dim view of human potential. And to rule out a lot of other very important possibilities, like moral courage.

    But you don’t have to twist my words to get a pass for leaving off. The OP came out over a month ago; I’ll watch for the posts to come.

  29. That’s a good point Ben. Even when we know we are correct, how we act needn’t be superior. It’s something we all could do better at and Christ is the exemplar. Learning that “being right” in an argument isn’t the point of a discussion is something many of us (myself especially) ought learn and apply.

    That said, I don’t think Rachael’s comments are act odds with this. I think there’s a functional reason why God doesn’t reveal things in their purity but make us struggle and tends to reveal them in vague ways. I’d add that we know Jesus himself learned grace for grace. So I think this applied to him as well – although exactly what Christ knew and when is one of those questions I’ve long had. Part of this life seems to be to learn patience and faith regarding our fallibilism and ignorance. And that’s a feature not a bug since that appears to be something more difficult to learn when God was before us at all times. Christ needed that too.

  30. “The usual Mormon view is that one can arrive at Objective knowledge through having that knowledge delivered or confirmed by God. ”
    I don’t think you can use a term like “Objective” even if it is capitalized and also say it is the usual mormon view. It seems to me that the word “Objective” is almost completely absent from mormon discourse so it seems unlikely that there is a usual mormon view of it.
    The issue in these discussions always seems to be not so much epistemological doubt as semantic doubt. Since there is no way to tell what the words mean, say “spiritual”, “authority”, “God” it is hard to say where tor if the doubt exists.

  31. “in our current culture of doubt,”
    In seems to me that there is no more doubt in the world, it is just that what people doubt has changed. I meet few people who doubt that they exist, have feelings, and make judgments. Their doubt isn’t radical enough to handle the experiences of the world. You mentioned our political discourse and ISIS.
    I think it is not doubt that creates this poisoned environment, it is that we don’t doubt the causes of our beliefs and experience enough to understand how others acquire their beliefs.
    None of us have the ability to reconcile our model for how others acquire beliefs and the extent of what they have choice over and do not have choice over, with our own model of how we acquire beliefs and the extent of our choices in order to be able to experience objective truth.
    We have one set of rules for the subjectivity of others and another set for our own subjectivity. One set of rules for “common sense” and another set for “spiritual authority”.
    Paradoxically it seems to me that those that turn to power, material possessions and pleasure are faced much more clearly with having relationships with others that are well-informed and highly interconnected. Who has power without understanding fear? Who has material possessions without understanding desire? Who has pleasure without understanding love and friendship?
    I don’t know what it means but it came to me in the night that
    “if you loved me, of course you would have sex with me” and
    “if you love me, keep my commandments” have a tremendously parallel structure. Is it any wonder that feminists experience fear and anger about power?

  32. I agree with everything you say in this comment, Clark (#25) except maybe the part about whether Rachael’s comments are at odds with mine. I think you are stretching the bounds of the conversation so far, in a good way.

    I agree that often, perhaps most of the time, what we know even through spiritual confirmation, even perhaps through more dramatic heavenly visitations, is limited in various ways by our own abilities to imagine or articulate the truth. We have to learn line upon line, through revelations given in our own language with its limitations, until we are able to understand something more complete and accurate. And this is part of why we need to continue to have dialogue even among those who have all received a certain core knowledge from spiritual authority—because there is so much more for us to learn. But I don’t think that means we can’t know anything with certainty through revelation; I just think that means we each, individually, at any particular point in our progression, have limits to what we can know with certainty that way.

    I would be interested to hear if Rachael feels this helps bring our perspectives closer together, but she might balk at the idea that we can have any certainty at all. Her point seems to be more radical than yours: that none of us can claim any more justification than anyone else when it comes to spiritual claims.

  33. I suspect that if there’s disagreement it’s more semantic than substantial. That is what do we mean by “certainty.” I distinguish being certain from feeling certain. The former we just don’t have access to. At best we can consider the justification for our beliefs and how solid that is. From my understanding of the way Hebrews conceived of truth this means that absolute certainty is always endlessly deferred since things are always unveiling themselves. In a practical way this means that so long as we’ve done our diligence in investigation (paying attention to questions and justification), find ourselves unable to believe other than what we believe, then in a practical way we can say we are certain. However because we don’t have access to all information we can’t say that in absolute terms, since some new piece of data might change that.

    With regards to God many would say he does have access to all information and thus can’t be surprised. Others see even God’s knowledge as limited in ways that in small areas even he could be surprised.

    Admittedly in this conception I’m reflecting my bias towards Peircean pragmatic accounts of truth.

  34. Bertrand Russell in his monumental “History of Western Philosophy” (first published 1946) says, in the introduction ” Uncertainty in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales. It is not good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it”. I rather wish I had read that before I became a Mormon 54 years ago.

  35. Well, Fellowbird, I think that learning to live without certainty where we can’t get it is a very important and valuable thing. Faith is partly about dealing constructively with uncertainty. I also think that most people deal with uncertainty rather badly, though, and philosophers are generally not much better at it than others. We tend to seize on certainties as if they were a kind of vital necessity, whether we are justified in them or not, and often these certainties are wrong and very damaging. So trying to do without certainties, at the level of culture, I think is a losing battle.

    If Russell is suggesting that we would all be better off if we could all learn to live gracefully in uncertainty, I think he is (a) assuming that we can’t get legitimate certainty (which I dispute), (b) being deeply unrealistic about what human society is likely to achieve, ever, and (c) being rather naive, in light of (b) about the many bad things that come when elites like Russell give up the search for true certainties on spiritual questions. As I’ve argued above, without certain truths, we tend to fall into worse dogmas, social fragmentation, and terrorism, among other things. Taylor seems to be moved by a similar sentiment to what Russell expresses here, but I think they are both wearing rose-colored glasses and arriving at unwise conclusions.

  36. When considering Russell here it’s worth noting his linguistic theory where he distinguishes between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. So he ends up with the position that “a proposition is certain when it has the highest degree of credibility, either intrinsically or as a result of argument.” I’m not sure I end up agreeing with Russell. Especially not the items he discounts as certain due to lack of acquaintance.

  37. I am not balking at the idea of certainty, though I think that term should be qualified (as Clark does above). I think we can achieve our capacity for certainty (v2) in limited ways (Alma 34:32) without it necessarily reaching the level of Objective or Universal Truth– something for which I don’t find much scriptural precedent (Moses 1 is the closest) or epistemological possibilities. I agree with Clark’s reading that the elusiveness of certainty is a feature, not a bug. Certainty doesn’t seem to have much spiritual value that I can see, and in fact, can shut down a lot of attributes that help us spiritually grow– humility, epistemological insufficiency, restlessness, questioning, openness, collaboration, experimentation, etc. In fact, I take Alma 32 to elevate faith over “perfect knowledge” because of that very dynamic.

    Once again, to be clear– I am not espousing relativism or an inescapable blanket condition of doubt or the inability to make spiritual claims. I think relativism can be combatted with MacIntyre and Taylor’s approach to evaluating a faith or ideology’s internal consistency and ability to do what it sets out to do; I agree with Taylor that doubt is a feature of a Westerns ecular age that we must consciously work through (the reverse of the “enchanted” pre-secular age), and we can make spiritual claims through revelation (with the limitations above) and our own conviction of the reality of their spiritual power in our lives.

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