Wednesday, August 07, 2013

A Secular Age Part 3: Nature's God

In my last post on Charles Taylor's magnum opus A Secular Age, I described how Protestants rejected a "magical" understanding of the Church's sacraments and rituals by asserting a purer monotheistic vision of a God who is above the forces of nature. This eventually resulted in the modern mechanistic view of nature, which runs so smoothly by itself that God can seem superfluous. But it took a few more steps to get there, since, Taylor argues, the original impetus for this move wasn't debunking but devotional.

Comprehending the shift requires understanding pagan European philosophies of nature in a bit more detail. As I said earlier, pagans tend to see natural forces and objects as inhabited by consciousness; but apart from such directly experienced aspects of nature, the spirit world was inhabited by what Jung called archetypes. The gods personify certain abstract qualities of human life: love, war, beauty, wisdom, male, female, youth, old age, and so on. Of course, belief in such gods was discouraged once Christianity came along. But among the literate classes at least, a more highbrow philosophical version survived through Christians adopting the classical Greek concept of universals.

Here I admit that my lack of philosophical education will probably make me screw something up, so I cede the floor to David Opderbeck:
Philosophically, the question relates to whether “universal” substances exist apart from their particular instantiations (“universals”), or whether substances are merely names for particular instances of things (“nominalism”).

Consider an apple.  What is an apple?  Is this particular apple on my kitchen table one instantiation of the substance “apple” – a substance with some sort of universal metaphysical  (“beyond-“ or “above-“ physical) properties that are shared by all apples?  Or is “apple” simply a name I apply to this object before me as a result of some observable similarities with other objects (other things we also call “apple”) that have no metaphysical connection to the “apple” on my table?

For many who claim a modern scientific worldview, there are only particular objects called “apple,” which are more or less related to other particular objects in morphology and chemical composition, all of which are categorized as “apples” for the sake of convenience.  What is “real,” in this view, is merely chemistry and physical laws, not any substance “apple.”  In contrast, for those who believe in universal properties, “apple” implies properties that are real and transcendent of any one apple.
Opderbeck and Taylor both point to 13th-century thinker William of Occam as the prime example of the shift to the modern view, called nominalism, and it was driven by a concern for God's sovereignty. As Taylor says: "The Aristotelian notion of nature seems to define for each thing its natural perfection, its proper good. This would be independent of God's will, except that he it is who created the thing thus. But once created, it would appear that God cannot further redefine what the good is for that thing." Nominalism, on the other hand, sees things as instruments of God's will, as interlocking parts in his ongoing project.

That at first might not sound very scientific. This is the God of Intelligent Design, the God of the purpose-driven life, and (much to Opderbeck's annoyance) the God that a great many American conservative Protestants believe in. But nominalism also did something extremely necessary in the move toward modern science, in that it turned the material world into inert "stuff," whose meaning and purpose comes only from the intelligence who created it and uses it. Nature is no longer archetypal, but instrumental.

This discussion was rather difficult for me to follow, but if I understand it right it does help to clarify the difference between "purpose" as understood in, say, Thomas Aquinas and other Natural Law theorists, and "purpose" in modern scientific thinking. I mean, while it's true that some will say that purposelessness is the defining characteristic of scientific materialism, on the other hand the narrative of cause and effect does make it possible for, say, a scientist to agree that sex is "for" reproduction. What's lacking is the inherent connection between the general purpose and every particular instance, and along with it  the connection between form and function. So, for instance, conception achieved in a lab instead of in a woman's body equally well achieves the purpose of reproduction; conversely, if you cancel the reproductive purpose of sex through birth control or sodomy, and use it for your own emotional fulfillment, then that becomes the purpose of that particular sex act just as surely as reproduction is in another case. The idea of universals, by contrast, seems to say that only reproductive sex is the universal form, and while you may more or less tolerate deviance in individual instances, those deviations can never really participate in the universal.

This, I think, pretty well explains how the culture war has gone. Because if I have trouble wrapping my head around universals -- and I am both attracted to mythopoetic thinking and kind of a prude -- then it's going to be pretty well impossible for someone with more skin in the game, like a partnered gay person. Because we moderns live in a completely instrumental world. I mean, the archetypes are nice in theory, but I have no idea how to actually live as both a woman and as an instance of Woman. Without a sense of the reality of the universal, this idea simply turns into a pile of pointless restrictions: you can't do this or that because you're a girl.

Even the conservative side of the argument tends to think instrumentally: traditional marriage and family are good for society because statistically children are better off in this way and that. But as Eve pointed out a while ago, statistics can't entirely resolve our moral problems -- in part because we have to decide beforehand just what purpose we're using them for.

But anyway, long before these culture-war arguments broke out, the shift towards nominalism was changing society. The next post will look at how that began to play out.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

A Secular Age Part 2: The Revolt Against Magic

So the first post in this series brought us up to the Middle Ages, with an entrenched social division between the Christian “virtuosi” and the other folks who were still going about their worldly business, participating in the Christian life more indirectly by supporting the Church, taking the sacraments, and praying to saints, often embodied in holy relics. Taylor writes that this sort of social arrangement was common throughout Christendom, and indeed everywhere that the more otherworldly religions had become established, such as Platonism and Buddhism. But, the late medieval era in western Europe was distinguished by people being bothered by it.

Here Taylor (who is Catholic) differs somewhat from the Protestant version of history that I learned, in that he sees this concern about religious inequality coming as much from the elite as from below. He admits that he doesn’t know exactly why they were so concerned about it at that time, but offers a few plausible theories. For one, even the 1200s were beginning to see the appearance of new elites, alongside the old landed aristocrats, who would come to define modernity: the merchants, the scholars, the bureaucrats, and so on. They were, in other words, early meritocrats, so I suppose it’s not surprising they’d be bothered by a gap between standards and practice. Another point Taylor makes is that, while Christianity in its eastern Mediterranean homeland had a chance to spread as a grassroots movement before it became a state religion, those in the Germanic world adopted it much later — Sweden didn’t officially go Christian until the 1100s — and often at the fiat of a king. So Taylor suggests that the peasants in these regions were still pagan in many ways.

In Taylor’s view, the peasants basically absorbed Christianity into their worldview by seeing the Church as a source of beneficial magic. In some ways this was not hard, because of medieval Catholicism’s use of rituals, sacred objects, and pilgrimages, which fits paganism’s view that certain places and things are “charged” with magical power. However, due to the worldly concerns of paganism that I mentioned in the last post, the way people tended to interpret “beneficial” was “beneficial to me and my kin in some practical way.” So we have reports of people taking home the eucharist and trying to use it as a love charm, or saying a funeral Mass for someone who’s still alive, in the hopes it would make him die.

The reformers at the time — which included wandering freelance preachers as well as some actual church officials — tried to counter such behavior by emphasizing the transience of those worldly concerns in the face of eternity. In time, according to Taylor, this turned into a kind of obsession with death. Apparently this era sees the birth of the evangelism tactic we all love to hate: “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven?” Which was a change in practice not just because of its emphasis on fear, but because of the whole idea that when you die you’ll face immediate judgment. This was, actually, something I’ve always wondered about, because it seems to take away the whole point of the Last Judgment that the Bible spends so much time on. And indeed, Taylor writes that in the first millennium of Christianity, once the idea of an immediate apocalypse faded, the Last Judgment was basically tacked onto the end of the existing popular view of the afterlife, where the soul separates from the body and persists as a kind of shadow.

The new emphasis on instant judgment scared people not only on their own behalf, but also on behalf of loved ones already dead. Taylor writes that the conflict over the sale of indulgences for souls in purgatory, which was such a hot issue in the Reformation, was set up by the public’s rising fears about the departed’s suffering and corresponding sense of responsibility. But the people’s rising sense of their own sinfulness also scared them away from the more earthly manifestations of God. Taylor points out that another feature of the pagan view of magic is that even when it’s beneficial it can be sort of dangerous to work with, like electricity. With God’s moral judgment so at odds with their own desires, many common folk started avoiding sacraments altogether, even communion, for fear that contact between God’s magic and their own wickedness would make something bad happen.

But one lesson that Taylor draws from this — which I can always get behind — is that if you scare people too much, you’re setting yourself up for a backlash. Thus, even before the Protestant movement as such got going, some late-medieval heretic groups such as the Waldensians were challenging the idea that the sacraments and relics actually had powers at all. They did this basically by invoking the purity of monotheism, and claiming God’s power over and above all magic, unconstrained by particular places, times, and things. Martin Luther, for one, believed in sacraments, but you can see how his doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, answered the overriding concerns of the time. Essentially, it assured the fearful masses that God’s grace was not a magical energy force, but an act of forgiveness and love, and to be a Christian is simply to believe in that. In this way, God’s action moves from ‘out there’ to inside a person’s soul — a first step toward the buffered self.

But it’s not like anyone back then was going to instantly displace the enchanted world with a modern mechanical one, because such an theory of nature didn’t exist. This emerges in Taylor’s answer to a question all this raised in my mind: if one of the key features of Protestantism was demystification of magic, why did Protestants participate in the witch-hunting craze that broke out at that time? Taylor suggests that came from the developing view that since the Church was no longer a source of ‘white magic’, all magic was black — the work of Satan, whom all the reformers definitely believed in. And actually, when I think about it I can imagine how depriving the populace of white magic could in its own way lead to paranoia. In societies nowadays where witchcraft is practiced, the way to fight magic is with magic: if you think someone’s hexed you, you go to the local sorcerer to figure out how to undo it — and perhaps cook up a revenge hex of your own. If Christians now believed they couldn’t do that, but still believed they could get hexed, it’s not all that surprising they tried to violently stamp out witchcraft altogether.

The actual development of a mechanical worldview in which magic is totally ineffectual would take much longer. And that is the subject of the next post.

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.