The Nova Effect – Secular Age, round 7

This third section of Taylor’s book is, to me, the most redundant, so I’m going to make up for lost time by condensing these four chapters into one blog post. In fact, I’ll leave Ch. 11 off entirely because it’s mostly an exploration of the section’s themes through case studies in Britain and France.

In the last post, we saw the effects of the new “Providential Deism” (and the accompanying sociopolitical and economic trends) on the nature of belief in the eighteenth century. Religion among intellectual elites was naturalized (i.e. seen as non-mysterious, accessible by reason or observation) and circumscribed entirely to the flourishing of human beings and society in the here and now. In this post, we’ll see how Europeans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reacted against the perceived stifling effects of this anthropocentric order, and what new modes of belief and unbelief (and countless hybrids) their reactions first spawned.

In chapter 8, “The Malaises of Modernity,” Taylor delves into some of the early “cross pressures” that confronted Westerners who chafed against orthodox Christianity (and its perceived authoritarianism, conformity, focus on human guilt and evil, mystery, etc.) but also the buffered self. Undoubtedly, the buffered self had many attractions—the promise of power to “order our world and ourselves” through reason, self-control, and knowledge; the sense of invulnerability and self-possession or independence, with no need to rely on the power of God or other externals; and a sense of “progress,” having transcended backwards or “childish” narratives. However, the buffered self was also experienced by some as “a limit, even a prison, making us blind or insensitive to whatever lives beyond this ordered human world and its instrumental-rational projects,” with the acute sense that they were “missing something” (302).

Taylor outlines three initial “axes” of resistance against the modern, buffered self. The first was the issue of resonance and meaning: some perceived the package of enlightened self-interest, its moralism and codes, its verison of universal charity, to be too tame, diluted, and flattened; they neglected the human powers of self-transcendence or capacity for deeper motivations, meaning, and purpose. The second axis of critique was the “Romantic,” or the resistance to the modern, buffered’s self enshrining of reason at the expense of ordinary desires like sexual love, play, and so on. Romantics like Schiller sought a way to re-unify the self (and the breaches between self and community and self and nature) against modernity’s binaries of rationality and sensibility. The “romantic” reaction also had a religious counterpart in the pietist, pentacostalist movements that reinfused devotion with a strong emotional component. The third point of resistance was along what Taylor calls the “tragic” axis, or those who rejected the Deistic notions of providence and the Enlightenment’s overly optimistic ideas of human nature. These individuals found the sense that “everything fits together for the good” to be “too pat, and … to deny the tragedy, the pain, the unresolved suffering which we all know is there” (317). Thus, they either embraced the irreparable suffering of the world, or sought refuge in the deeper, heroic virtues of human nature.

All of these axes of resistance highlight the uniquely modern problem of the loss of meaning, and the quest for new modes of belief and new ways of imagining the world, the self, and the universe. This introduced what Taylor calls a “nova effect,” or an explosion of alternatives that destabilized the thick environment of belief and enchantment that previously did not permit viable alternatives.

In the next chapter 9, “The Dark Abyss of Time,” Taylor discusses how new understandings of space and time both tipped wider swaths of people into unbelief, but also opened up in-between possibilities, int he modern social imaginary. With new Darwinian theories and discoveries about the expanding universe, the understanding of the cosmos as an orderly, providentially-guided creation crumbled. As space and time expanded in limitless directions, God’s presence in nature faded. The vast wildness of nature, too, transformed from something to be controlled and cultivated, to something that was paradoxically both deeply alien and deeply connected to human beings. The “sublime” emerged as a realm of irrationality and darkness that beckoned human beings away from their self-absorbed anthropocentrism, erupting their shallow complacency and awakening them to the dark genesis and depths of their own natures, which were meant to be retrieved or overcome—but either way, confronted and examined. Moreover, the sublime “opened a space in which people can wander between and around [a variety of materialist or spiritual outlooks] without having to land clearly and definitively in any one” (351).

Chapter 10, the “Expanding Universe of Unbelief,” tracks how post-Romantic developments in art also facilitated the expansion of this “free space” between the poles of belief and unbelief. With the breakdown of the consensus on reality and “publicly available orders of meaning,” artists forged new, deeply subjective aesthetic languages. This breakdown helps explain the shift from art as mimesis to art as creation, communicated by symbols and severed of direct meanings or shared ontic commitments. Art may disclose deep truths, but those come filtered through the artists’ own references and meanings. Or art may also simply move us—a phenomenon explainable now by “anthropological depths” more than any mysterious external reality breaking in on us, per se. Art could also now replace or complement the shallow moralism of anthropcoentricism as an ethical category; art was the way to human integration, fulfillment, freedom, joy, and self-realization. Belief in God was optional.

However, science also gained an ethical force that tipped some people squarely into the realm of unbelief. While Taylor will explore this in more depth later, it is in the Victorian 19th century that unbelief “fully matures,” thanks in great part to the new narratives of science and scholarship. Taylor argues that it wasn’t merely (if at all) the content of scientific discoveries that undermined people’s belief, but the values scientific belief came to represent. To many, science was the mature, face-the-facts alternative to the sentimental, immature faith in the personal God of Christianity. People of science could face the impersonal universe, and later, the unfathomable, meaningless one, with unflinching courage. To some, this was not only a more mature choice, but a liberating one: not only did such a universe demand no destiny or retribution of us, but “in this purposeless universe, we decide what goals to pursue…[we] discover in ourselves the motivation, and the capacity, to build the order of freedom and mutual benefit, in the the of an indifferent and even hostile universe” (367).

In sweeping summary, our journey from 16th century belief and enchantment to 19th century unbelief emerged through these steps: first, the disenchantment of the world, the stripping away of spirits and forces. But God was still in our conscience, social order, and cosmos (even more so, in the absence of these competing forces), until the anthropocentric turn, when God’s ordering presence faded and human beings “discovered” their innate capacity to order their lives and society. Then the shift in cosmic imaginary encompassed “unfathomable universe in the dark abyss of time ma[de] it all too possible to lose sight of this ordering presence [God] altogether.” While this is not necessarily the case for everyone, it became possible for the first time to “encounter no echo outside”; a “race of humans has arisen which has managed to experience its world entirely as immanent” (376).


One of Taylor’s more interesting underlying themes here, which I’ll take as a point of departure for a (brief) foray into Mormon intersections, is that beliefs come packaged in ethical narratives, and it is these stories that primarily attract or repel people, and who then justify their choices of (un/)belief with subsequent “proofs.” Or in other words, the values those beliefs come to represent propel us in one direction or the other, and the “facts” materialize only secondarily.

While we have had beautiful treatments in recent Mormon writings on the choice to believe (in the absence of or before “proof”) and what that choice represents, and I think we have more room to do the same for unbelief (and all the myriad shades in between). Only by digging into the underlying stories can we really start to understand the full emotional depth that such decisions encompass— the betrayal, the loss, the wistfulness, the sense of moral courage or resolve that can accompany decisions to not believe. And one of the unique facets of modern unbelief, Taylor will later expound on, is the way unbelief has often come to represent for many people the nobler, or at least harder, lonelier choice. I wonder how much this realization would change the dynamics that surround many of these conversations.

Relatedly, what Taylor suggests is that decisions to believe in this post-nova world will require a) stronger ethical narratives for belief that combat the dominant stories of belief as childish, sentimental, and insular, and b) raw experiences that take people out of those childish, sentimental, and insular ideas and expose them to something truer and sounder. Mormon treatments of the weeping God do much, in the absence of a strong theology of the Cross, to provide the first, I think. But perhaps more importantly, and elusively, the decision to believe or not to believe may depend greatly on the encounters we’ve had, or not, with God. Consider these two quotes by Taylor:

“Of course, this story [of religion being afraid to face the “hard facts” etc.] will probably make little sense to someone who is deeply engaged in a life of prayer or meditation, or other serious spiritual discipline, because this involves in its own way growing beyond and letting go of more childish images of God. But if our faith has remained at the stage of the immature images, then the story that materialism [and unbelief] equals maturity can seem plausible” (364)


“Whether one wants to take refuge in this [rejection of belief] will depend, first, on how much one has already felt the inner point of our being nevertheless in the love of God, that God suffered with us. It is easier if one hasn’t, and even easier if one’s sense of the love of God was of a protecting father who could easily prevent this (a sense strengthened by the anthropocentric shift). Then the painful paradox is at its worst, and it can become unbearable to go on holding on to this, and one flips over” (307).

What our religious culture does to encourage these spiritual disciplines, mature narratives, and encounters of God’s co-suffering will make a significant difference in Mormonism’s post-nova navigation. And if those encounters never happen? This is a question I still puzzle over often—when a choice as important as belief seems to depend so much on a two-way encounter we can grasp for but never guarantee; and for which we may lack even the the language or paradigm to guide our seeking and interpreting. The next two sections in Taylor’s book will shed more light, at least, on these languages and paradigms, which are perhaps more tied to the ability to have (or not) those encounters than we realize.

13 comments for “The Nova Effect – Secular Age, round 7

  1. Could you flesh out the three axes a bit more? It seems like there is a lot of overlap in their complaints:

    1) The modern self does not have moral meaning.
    2) The modern self does not have aesthetic meaning.
    3) The modern self replaces messy, organic meaning with the illusion of systematic, mechanical meaning.

    Is this about right?

  2. “What our religious culture does to encourage these spiritual disciplines, mature narratives, and encounters of God’s co-suffering will make a significant difference in Mormonism’s post-nova navigation.”

    What religious culture? Except for a few faithful and a few faithless [so-called] intellectuals, there isn’t one. That’s the problem.

  3. Hi Jeff G – Sure, I’ll try. I’m not quite sure I’d characterize it the way you do– perhaps I’d summarize like so: the Enlightenment (more specific than “modern,” and might be a less ambiguous term) 1) diluted/shrank the self, 2) dismembered the self, 3) coddled the self. I don’t think it’s so much that they critique the modern self as not having *any* moral or aesthetic meaning or as simply being too linear.

    The “resonance” critique found 1) the moral meaning and capacities of the Enlightenment self too diluted, tame, and narrow. Act out of self-interest and voila, you’ve fulfilled your moral duty for the collective good of society and God’s purposes. There was no depth, no true transcendence of your own selfish, egoic nature, no altruism (a theme Taylor explores in Ch. 11 in 19th/20th c. Britain as being a major reaction against the buffered, modern self), no overarching meaning beyond the narrow moralism of following codes of polite behavior for one’s own benefit. So they tried to carve out deeper, more transcendent moral capacities and meanings.

    2) The Romantic critique reacted against the division of the self– think Mozart’s Magic Flute, and his binary of the rational, self-controlled, “enlightened” [male] protagonist and the dark, sensuous, emotional antagonist [female]. The Romantic critique rejected this dismemberment or repression of the self, and reclaimed the sides of the self the “reason” had exiled or repressed. It also rejected the atomism of the self and its division from community and from nature and sought to reunify and re-harmonize them.

    3) The “tragic” critique overlaps a great deal with the first one–the dilution of moral capacity, etc.- with additional critique against the overall idea of “Providence,” of the cosmos and human nature all working smoothly together for everyone’s benefit; but they differ from axis 1 in how they respond. An Atlantic article I just (re)read yesterday captures camp 3 perfectly, so you might be interested in glancing that over. Those names will come up more in the following chapters. I hope that helps? I did find this section of Taylor’s to be the murkiest, analytically, and he doesn’t always provide very clean conceptual categorizations for what he’s discussing.

  4. Hi p – I meant “culture” broadly– the discourse, attitudes, practices, etc., that Mormons (lay and leader) produce. It’s certainly difficult to pin it down without generalizing, but I’d say that it’s rather impossible not to have one.

  5. Sure, there’s “culture” as a general matrix, and then there’s “culture” as something more akin to Jewish intellectual life, in which I would include, as an integral component, literature, esp the forthrightly questioning & troublemaking kind (Roth, Bellow, Bloom, Chabon, Ozick, Antopol). Without this, cultural growth/evolution doesn’t happen, the possibilities you raise are swallowed up in top-down edicts, authoritarianism and control. Unfortunately and generally our people don’t read.

  6. Rachel, so glad you’re back doing these. I really liked these parts of Taylor. Especially how modernism ends up closing avenues off only to have the explode again. I need to find the passages in the text to quote from as I think there’s a ton interesting here. It’s at this moment, especially in the 19th century, that you end up with the rise of secular movements that have all these religious trappings and meanings. (Communism being but only one example)

    Jeff (1), you really should read Taylor. While he’s not doing the same project you are there are a lot of affinities. Basically Taylor argues that the self is grounded with certain heirarchies that arose from late antiquity and the scholastic era that get rejected by modernism. (The Chain of Being is but one example) These then unmoor the notion of the self so it needs to be reestablished. (I’d argue that nominalism does a lot of the work here and that arises earlier but in many ways it’s the widespread acceptance of nominalism that characterizes the modern era)

    Taylor does address nominalism at times, but never goes into as much depth as one might expect given his topic. So for example:

    Hence the importance of studies which show how the subject was changed through a series of steps involving late Scholasticism, Duns Scotus, nominalism, “possibilism”, Occam, Cajetan and Suarez, Descartes, where each stage appeared to be addressing the same issues as the predecessors it criticized, while in fact the whole framework slid away and came to be replaced by another. (Kindle Locations 4785-4787)

    So rather than seeing nominalism as key he sees it more as part of a process where the ground shifts without people really noticing it shifted. A few pages later he notes that among believers Christian nominalism rather than secularism is the residue left behind. He then talks about it again starting on page 12307 (Kindle) where he sees the rise of a dualistic approach (mind against matter) as tied to the acceptance of nominalism.

    P (2) I think an implication of Taylor’s thesis is that with the rise of modernism/secularism that there ceased to be a single religious culture. You can see that with the rise of protestantism of course with its endless variety but also pseudo-religious cultures like in say various Hegelian inspired movements like communism.

    This is a place where I’d quibble with Taylor although it’d take time to make the argument carefully. That is I think there was often more variety in the pre-modern era than he suggests. Although perhaps he might make the move that these were just the initial fingers of secularism’s rise.

    Rachel (3) I’ll confess I’ve not studied romanticism in depth so I may have a lot of erroneous views. But it always seemed like the whole Apollian/Dionysian divide privileged the Dionysian. Maybe that’s just me too influenced by Nietzsche on the subject.

    While this gets put on modernism I confess that it often seemed to me the divide happens much earlier in the medieval era where reason is privileged. It’s true that especially in the more mystic movements (whether more on the heretical side or the more orthodox side) you have the rise of eros as found in Plato which we might call Dionysian. However overall to my eyes it’s how medieval society seems so distrustful of what we’d associate with the Romantics of the 19th century that I think that’s where the problem of the divide really appears.

  7. P (5) Taylor uses culture in some specific ways. I didn’t quite understand what he was getting at until I finally broke down and read the book. In certain ways it’s hard to give a simple answer to how he uses it since he comes at it from many directions to flesh out the notion. An easy way that captures a part of his use is to say there were certain inherent structures that organized the world for medieval Christians (at least in the west). These included things like the chain of being but also heirarchal authority and how one fit into a certain place.

    My own view is that overall it’s a good thing that was broken down but it does lead to a kind of alienation where people don’t feel like they have a place. Romanticism is one move there but you see that feeling of alienation in many places starting in the end of the 19th century but accelerating in the early 20th century. Communism and fascism each in their own way end up being moves to replace this sense of meaning in people’s lives.

  8. Once again, a wonderful post, Rachael. I think that one of the most interesting insights from Taylor is that the modern debate is not about just different views of fullness but about different conceptions of mankind’s ethical predicament. I’ve been trying to think about this in the context of Mormonism. While I love the idea of a “God that Weeps,” I’m curious what you think the ethical implications are that come from that view. One ethical story that I really like, which is admittedly not very Mormon, if at all, is the one that comes from the Girardian view of the atonement as exposing the scapegoating nature of society. I think it requires its own sort of courage (in contrast to the courage required to accept scientific materialism) to say that the problem is no one else’s but mine. One challenge in coming up with these ethical narratives is that their perceived relative forcefulness is no doubt contingent historically and otherwise. In other words, at one point Taylor tries to explain why we are all living in a Jamesian open space even though it might seem that exclusive humanism has a more dominant hold, and he focuses on the compelling nature of the underlying ethic of courage. But it makes one wonder why people find that particular ethic to be so compelling, as opposed to one favoring a belief in transcendence.

  9. Clark (6) – thanks for your comments, as always. I’m glad you liked this part of Taylor, esp. as this was part was the haziest to me, so you can chime in with all the good things I missed. Regarding your comments on the initial privileging of reason, I’d agree it goes back much further, but I think what’s different is the immanent framing (and objectives) of reason in the Enlightenment.

    zjg (8) – Yes, I agree, the changing perception of our ethical predicament is one of the most interesting themes in Taylor’s project. Though yes, he only goes so far in explaining why certain ethical narratives or values appeal to some people as opposed to others. I do think, though, that he does do quite a lot in explaining what makes them compelling, and what catalysts are usually propelling people in one direction or another, based on their exposure to certain narratives, values, or experiences. In other words, his interests are more philosophical and cultural than (merely?) psychological, if I could put it that way, though he is certainly focused on the experiential nature of it all– but from that wider lens, I think.

    Jason B (9), thanks for reading!

  10. That’s a good point Rachel. There’s definitely a big shift in emphasis. It’s more (as Jeff as been arguing at his blog) reason without a kind of authoritarian restraint that the scholars, especially in Paris, felt in the medieval era.

    I’d say though that what the place of authority in the medieval era does is constrain both reason and romanticism. Reason is constrained both by tradition (especially the creeds) but also a distrust of Aristotle (at least until the era of the Renaissance when the earlier figures like Aquinas finally get their day). Romanticism in particular seems far more constrained than reason, perhaps precisely because by its very nature it’s harder to constrain. You have relief valves in the various festivals where Catholicism appropriated and neutered earlier pagan rites. Within the more formal medieval era it pops up in odd places like Hildegard of Bilgen (sp?) who had that passionate mysticism that was surprisingly accepted by orthodoxy. You also have the story of Peter Abelard and Heloise which becomes so important in the literature of the era. Yet both of those romantic moves are notable precisely because of the ways they are constrained by orthodoxy. The more interesting moves of various Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart demonstrate that from the other side when he’s accused of heresy showing the dangers. Many others were more than accused of heresy and often were killed.

    It’s also of note how those medieval thinkers were in many ways brought back to attention after obscurity by the 19th century Romantics.

  11. Clark (11), interesting thoughts. The history student in me is reluctant to use terms like Romanticism in this broad, archetypical way, but I think I see what you’re getting at. I’ll mull that over.

  12. Yeah any broad category is misleading about as often as it is helpful. But it can orient the discussion.

Comments are closed.