Tuesday, August 06, 2013

A Secular Age: Part 1

Yes, I’m still alive! After a stretch of physical therapy and a regime of regular exercise, I feel ready to at least try the blogging thing again. Because it still seems like the best medium for discussing Serious Books. And I’ve been reading a doozy.

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is one of those books to which it seems apt to apply the aphorism created for A Brief History Of Time: “Millions bought it, and thousands finished it.” Only in this case, I expect that both numbers are a lot smaller. But anyway, way back in April 2008 I mentioned to Russell Arben Fox that I was in the first chapter of the book. And so I remained, for quite a while. But now, after my third attempt, I’m in the fourth chapter! And so I blog.

So yeah, Taylor isn’t the world’s most page-turning writer. But I keep going because his subject is so interesting, and so huge: why did the modern West, of all places and times, bring the birth of secularism? And a sub-question, of particular interest to me: how did the world become disenchanted? I mean, we all know that at some point in the last few hundred years a whole lot of people stopped believing in fairies, witches, demons and so on, and this made it a whole lot more difficult to believe in God. But how and why did that happen? Obviously scientific discovery was a factor, but you have to be in a certain frame of mind to be looking for those discoveries and interpreting them in that way. And this is what Taylor attempts to explain.

To set things up, however, Taylor does a remarkable job of describing the “enchanted world” of ancient pagans and how it was different from ours — both on the societal level and on the level of individual consciousness. As he puts it, to live in the enchanted world is to live with a “porous self,” in which experiences that we attribute entirely to the brain could originate elsewhere in the body or come from outside the body entirely. This does not just refer to the experiences that we would now call hallucinations or mental illness, but emotions, meanings, and morals. So if you fall in love, for instance, that is a personal experience of yours, but it also means you’ve come under the aegis of Aphrodite, or some similar being.

In contrast to this, Taylor defines the modern self as a “buffered” self, a relatively detached consciousness in a world of inert matter. Even with the advent of modern neurology, there’s still a notion that the “self” is in some private untouchable place; as Taylor points out, someone who’s told that they’re depressed because of a neurochemical imbalance can distance themselves from the experience, and say “it’s not really me.” By contrast, an ancient person might have been told that he has an excess of black bile, but that doesn’t somehow separate it from his consciousness; black bile was not just seen as a cause of melancholy but melancholy itself, unmediated.

In one way, this is all very weird; but in another way most of us know it if we remember back far enough. Children naturally tend toward the enchanted world, a fact which adults regard with a mixture of nostalgia and contempt. So parents read fairy tales to their children and tell them about Santa Claus, but then tell them that these things are make-believe and make-believe things don’t count in this world. More subtly, those experiences that might seem to come from spirits — dreams, artistic inspiration, flashes of insights, sudden uncontrollable emotions — are rounded up and put into the domain of the mind, and thus become the responsibility of the conscious will. The dismissal of the enchanted world as juvenile is, according to Taylor, a large part of how we enforce modern thinking.

But in the days when people grew to adulthood and elderhood in the enchanted world, this way of thinking had profound effects on how they viewed society and nature. One important thing to realize here is that all these spirits and gods, which we call supernatural, actually were considered nature by pagans. Spirits were just what made nature run, and they had their own interests and desires that could be in conflict with human beings or with each other. And for the ancient pagan, nature was the all in all and couldn’t be escaped from, merely adapted to. By the same token, a person’s goals were very natural and worldly: health, prosperity, honor, sex and so on.

It’s when this is translated to the social and political realm that the modern brain really needs to stretch itself — or at least mine did. Because in the modern way of thinking, any time people come together — whether as a family, a social clique, a business, a church, a political unit, or whatever — it seems to require some purpose. It may be a purpose as frivolous as having a good time on a Saturday night, but it may be as grave as ensuring the well-being of millions of people. Either way, though, there is this assumption that the structure and roles within the group are geared toward some purpose — and if something else works better for that purpose, feel free to rearrange.

However, the ancients mostly saw human community not as instrumental, but natural. Of course, nowadays when someone talks about a “natural order of society” it usually prefaces some dubious theory about evolutionary psychology and genes. But the ancients didn’t think in biology either. The analogy Taylor makes is that society was thought of as a kind of organism unto itself, which like other organisms, has a state of being “healthy” from which deviation is “sick.” And thus it is evaluated not by looking forwards towards a goal, but by comparing the state of things to an archetypal “form.” Yet to say that keeping to the forms is entirely a matter of human will would also be thinking too much like a buffered self; according to Taylor, forms were thought of as growing into maturity just like organisms. Thus humans defied them at their own peril.

The basic shape of pagan society is what Taylor calls “hierarchical complementarity.” And here some might object that he’s painting with an overly broad brush. After all, there was, and is, a great range in the amount of hierarchy found in pagan societies — from the god-kings of Egypt to the democracy of Athens to a great many independent clans that had no government at all. But I would say, in my capacity as an amateur student of anthropology, that even the most egalitarian pagan societies don’t think of equality in terms of modern Western legal and moral equality, which is ultimately about interchangeability — everyone has the same rights regardless of their particulars. Think about how many discussions of fairness involve counterfactual swaps, e.g., “Would you say the same if that happened to your daughter? If you switched the races/genders? If you’d been born in the time/place that that person was?” Instead, everyone in every kind of ancient society was embedded in a family, a clan, and thus their identities and moral duties were defined by their particular relationships with those particular people. And this itself made them vulnerable to some particular forms of hierarchy, which some ancient societies took to the nth degree.

One primordial source of authority was age. Even if you’re living in a simple hunter-gatherer clan, you know that state of dependence on your parents and other older relations. And even when you grow up, the elders have wisdom and knowledge and experience over you (and are also “libraries” in non-literate societies). And — here is where the enchanted world comes in again — that respect for your elders doesn’t have to end just because they die. Shamans the world over have made it their business to communicate with ancestors, and regular folks frequently have rituals to honor, placate, or care for them. It’s not uncommon for dead ancestors, especially if they distinguished themselves in life, to be thought of as gaining supernatural powers in the next world, and thus becoming godlike. Officially, this was what the Roman imperial cult was about: and emperor could only be deified after his death, though some regarded this as a license to act like gods while they were alive.

However, if we can’t understand pagan relationships by limiting them to the living, we also can’t understand them by limiting them to the human. As I said earlier, the ancients saw nature as a realm of sentient spirits, some of them very very powerful. So some ancient rulers clothed themselves in the authority of these nature gods. The most obvious example of this is the pharaohs of Egypt, who associated themselves with the sun god, and participated daily in rituals that were believed to ensure the annual flooding of the Nile and other natural events that Egyptians depended on.

In the first millennium B.C., however, religions and philosophies started to spring up that challenged this view of the natural/social order. For our purposes, let’s just focus on the obvious one. The strict monotheism of the Jews challenged the powers of god-kings, as we see in Yahweh’s showdowns with Pharaoh and Baal. But this isn’t just a case of two tribal gods duking it out. Yahweh wasn’t a god representing a natural phenomenon, a god “of” something or other. He was a god above all those things, who used nature as his instrument. This would turn out to be very important in the secular age, as we shall see.

Christianity, when it came along, questioned the natural order even more radically, by saying that the apparently eternal order of nature isn’t actually God’s ultimate plan. Jesus talked on and on about how this order was going to be turned upside down, and what looked like human flourishing was actually the opposite. So love your enemies, lose your life so you might gain it, the humble shall be exalted, don’t worry about tomorrow, don’t save money. After Jesus rose from the dead, Paul concluded that death was not, in fact, an integral part of nature but an evil that had been conquered.

Needless to say, the near-term apocalypse that a lot of early Christians seemed to be expecting didn’t happen. Instead they found themselves in the place where Christians still live today, in an age when the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God coexist. And even more needless to say, the amount of faith required to live in the kingdom of God when the kingdom of the world is so real and immediate is beyond the grasp of a lot of people, a lot of the time. Thus a bifurcation formed between what Taylor calls the religious “virtuosi” — the saints, monastics, hermits and others who gave everything up for Christ — and the ordinary folks who were in it because it seemed like the way to get along or get ahead. And so the church eventually was absorbed into the very hierarchical complementarity that it challenged. “From the beginning, mankind has been divided into three parts,  among men of prayer, farmers, and men of war,” wrote Gerard of Cambrai in the 11th century, describing the three-part harmony of medieval society.

However, it wasn’t long after he wrote those words that it all started to unravel. That will be the subject of the next post.

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