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.