Our Haunted Age

What happened five centuries ago to change us from communal creatures to lonely individuals?

Charles Taylor looms as a giant on Canada’s intellectual landscape, having stood at the nexus of explosive conversations about multiculturalism and religious freedom (as co-author of Quebec’s 2007 report on cultural and religious accommodation), run for federal office (unsuccessfully) on several occasions and written one of the most celebrated contemporary works of political and social philosophy, A Secular Age. Yet to those outside the niche of political theory, A Secular Age is best known for its dense narrative and inscrutable abstractions. Even among political theorists the book is rarely read, which at nearly 900 pages may give it a place of honour on the “Hawking Index,” a mathematician’s tongue-in-cheek list of famous, notoriously unread books.

So in writing How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, James K.A. Smith, a professor of philosophy at Michigan’s Calvin College, set out to provide a readable roadmap for Taylor’s most important arguments. Smith urges the reader to keep his introduction alongside A Secular Age as a guide to Taylor’s work, rather than a replacement for it. Even this slimmer volume may be tough reading for those who have never encountered Charles Taylor: while it avoids some of Taylor’s more obscure turns of phrase (“time purged consciousness,” “anthropocentric disenchantment”), it still depends on the reader for a certain sympathy and interest in the religious and the secular. Smith writes for a religious, largely Christian, audience, which means he can say quite a lot in a short span. But those who are not versed in the vocabulary of religion and philosophy may find the guide itself a major challenge.

And yet Taylor’s argument is well worth understanding, if only because it puts words to a key incongruity of our time that most have felt, but not been able to articulate—one that begins to help us make sense of the cultural landscape we find ourselves in, from politics and religion to art and popular culture. Taylor, when asked, summarized his book’s key insights this way:

Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.

Consider it this way: prior to this “shift” about 500 years ago, persons and societies understood themselves more organically and hierarchically—we were part of what medieval theologians called the “great chain of being.” Not only did everything and everyone have a (pre)determined place in the cosmos, but the whole world was charged with meaning, and that meaning was not simply derived from what people made of it—instead, it was imbued with a greater power, something beyond humans, transcendence of some form. So, people attended closely to their place in this hierarchy, because transcendence exerted pressure and power over us, whether or not you wanted it to or even acknowledged its existence.

By contrast, in the present day—what Taylor calls “the immanent frame”—the world is disenchanted. Water, wood, earth, sky, sun and so forth are emptied of intrinsic meaning, because we consider them to be essentially inert, inanimate material. Modern persons (generally) do not read their future in the stars or the tides, and experiences such as depression are part of a correctable chemical imbalance, not a spiritual affliction. We operate as discrete agents within this world, able to choose both how we interact with it and what it means to us. This is what Taylor means by saying we are buffered. Where meaning exists in the world, it is because persons make it.

Consider the difference between “buffered” and “porous” selves as it relates to the environment. The porous self might argue for a kind of progressive environmental stewardship because humans have a responsibility, given by God, the universe, or whomever, to take care of creation. We are only a link in the great chain. And this responsibility is communal—it binds us together, the meaning of the Latin root of religion—because this mandate is given to “us” as a society.

The buffered self, on the other hand, would be more rationalistic and individual. It might argue for progressive environmental stewardship too, but on the basis of long-term self-interest: we breathe the same air and work the same ground, so we should make sure it can sustain human life in the future. But the environment itself is not owed anything by humans—we have no a priori obligation to the tree, the ocean or the air. Buffered persons primarily use raw material to their own benefit.

Although our “secular age” is characterized by this buffered disenchantment, Taylor notes, there remains a desperate search not for religion, but for a deeper magic, a spiritual or organic reality hidden from and denied by the buffered self. It seeks a meaning and a power beyond the “immanent frame,” the mundane techno-rationale powers of human making.

This is what Taylor means when he describes the secular age as haunted. Modernity has gifted us technological and scientific achievement, but disturbed our organic sense of place, troubled our sense of mystery and transcendence. It is not that we cannot experience mystery or transcendence—but we are not required to anymore. It is optional. You can have it, if you want to—you can go to church or temple or yoga or a music festival—but it is a hobby, or a coping mechanism, or an eccentricity. (Witness the boggling popularity of pseudo-religious self-rehabilitation memoirs like Eat, Pray, Love.) Religion in our time is to serious secular philosophy what alchemy is to chemistry: mostly harmless, possibly therapeutic, but hardly productive.

This is the cross-pressure, the haunting: the unshakable human feeling that something more persists beyond our acuity, and maybe that what we call rationality itself depends on a kind of fantasy. That feeling is the hinge of A Secular Age. And naming that feeling is what Taylor, and Smith, think is so essential for our “secular selves” to come to terms with.

Taylor does not offer set answers. The nearest he comes is in arguing for more openness in dealing with this feeling. Not surprisingly, given Smith’s own Christian beliefs, he views this as the pivotal point in Taylor’s argument:

Taylor invites us to consider exemplars who, having inhabited the immanent frame with a “closed” take, feel the cross-pressure of transcendence in such a way, and to such an extent, that they convert: to an “open” take, and usually to Christianity in particular. They don’t thereby get a free pass out of the immanent frame, but they come to inhabit it differently.

But there are other ways that A Secular Age can be read. In particular, it reveals much about the complex web of constructed meanings that underlie an ostensibly unbelieving perspective. More than anything else, this gives Taylor’s perspective—and Smith’s artful gloss—potential significance for all of us.