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Charles Taylor's "A Secular Age"

This serial ran from August 28th to October 30th 2008, in ten parts, serving as an abridgement to Charles Taylor's recent philosophy book exploring the change in beliefs that took place in the Western world between 1500 and 2000. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on part one, below, and then follow the "next" links to read on.

Here are the ten parts:

  1. Charles Taylor
  2. Social Imaginaries
  3. Exclusive Humanism
  4. "Religion" versus "Science"
  5. The Nova Effect
  6. Religion Today
  7. The Immanent Frame
  8. Subtraction Stories
  9. Cross Pressures
  10. Taylor on Christianity

A Secular Age is published by Belknap Press (2007), ISBN 978-0674026766.

This serial is dedicated to Jack Monahan, for reminding me of something wonderful I had forgotten.


A Secular Age (10): Taylor on Christianity

Ivan-illich-1-sized In the final chapters of the book, Taylor explores where he believes Christianity is heading by painting his broad impressions as to what modern Christians believe, and thus the nature of what he terms 'the new Christian consciousness'. By this phrase, Taylor seeks to explore something like the following question: ignoring those Christians who are practicing some earlier version of Christianity (such as the Young Earth Creationists, whose beliefs lie somewhen between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries), what do modern Christians now believe?

Firstly, Taylor makes it clear that those Christians who are not bound by an earlier form of practice have as great a commitment to humanist ideals as those representatives of unbelief who practice an exclusive form of humanism. Both Christians and exclusive humanists have similar ethical goals, even though their underlying beliefs are radically different. Taylor notes that this is “not an accident” since secular humanists and modern Christians “both emerge from the same long process of Reform in Latin Christendom. We are brothers under the skin.” He is keen to note that in terms of the key dilemmas we explored last week:

Christians don’t really ‘have the solution’… in the sense that we usually take this, and that for two reasons: first, the direction they point to cannot be demonstrated as right; it must be taken on faith; and second, related to this, we can’t exhibit fully what it means, lay it out in a code or a fully-specified life form, but only point to the exemplary lives of certain trail blazing people and communities.

But this understates the difficulties… The Gospel message doesn’t fit into the categories that have come down to us through ages of human history, and is recurrently being twisted, even by its own adherents, to make sense in these terms. This means that there are clearly wrong versions of Christian faith. But it doesn’t mean that we can give a single right version to replace them.

So modern Christianity finds itself problematically positioned, keen to develop a new expression – the aforementioned 'new Christian consciousness' – but still inevitably rooted in its past:

This modern Christian consciousness thus lives in a tension… between what it draws from the development of modern humanism, and its attachment to the central mysteries of Christian faith. It endorses the decline of Hell, the rejection of the juridical-penal model of the atonement, and any hermeneutic of divine violence, as well as affirming the full value of human flourishing. But it cannot accept the self-enclosure in immanence, and is aware that God has given a new transformative meaning to suffering and death in the life and death of Christ.

Taylor even goes so far as to suggest that Hell may be empty, saying “Hell, the ultimate separation from God, must remain a possibility for human freedom, but all the presumptuous certainty that it is inhabited must be abandoned.” It is not entirely clear from where this conclusion is drawn, but it may rest in part upon the ancient theological idea of the Parousia – that there will be another existence at the end of time, and that the full demands of Christian life might be met only then. This emphasises the fact that Taylor operates his own beliefs within conventional Catholic doctrine – albeit in a highly unorthodox fashion.

However, this is not to say that he is without criticism of the Vatican. For instance, on the subject of sexual ethics, he emphasizes an urgent need for reform, highlighting both contraception and homosexuality as issues requiring new theological sense (without expressing any opinion as to the nature of the resulting reforms). He accuses the Vatican of serious inconsistency in the context of enforcing sexual codes:

…the present position of the Vatican seems to want to retain the most rigid moralism in the sexual field, relaxing nothing of the rules, with the result that people with “irregular” sexual lives are (supposed to be) automatically denied the sacraments, while as-yet-unconvicted Mafiosi, not to speak of unrepentant latifundistas in the Third World, and Roman aristocrats with enough clout to wangle an “annulment”, find no bar.

He frequently makes the point that Vatican dogma and Catholic Christianity are two entirely different matters, noting in particular that “what Vatican rule-makers and secularist ideologies unite in not being able to see, is that there are more ways of being a Catholic Christian than either have yet imagined.”

This leads into a central part of Taylor’s criticism of Christianity, which draws heavily upon the arguments of Ivan Illich (pictured above), the visionary thinker whose philosophy produced many radical critiques of modern society in the 1970s and 80s. Illich has been called the intellectual father of the Web 2.0 revolution – that is, collaborative internet phenomena such as YouTube, Facebook and the Wikipedia. Taylor says of Illich that he “learned a lot from him”, and advances an Illich-inspired position that Christianity cannot be codified and that “…something is lost when we take the way of living together that the Gospel points us to and make of it a code of rules enforced by organizations erected for this purpose.”

Illich frequently cited the old Latin proverb “Corruptio optimi pessimum est”, which translates as “the corruption of the best is the worst”. He applied this criticism to all the institutions of the modern world – including (perhaps especially) to the institutionalised Church, from which Illich withdrew in 1960 when he resigned his priesthood. Taylor recapitulates Illich’s key arguments in respect of the Church in full, in order to lead to the following conclusion:

We can’t live without codes, legal ones which are essential to the rule of law, moral ones which we have to inculcate in each new generation. But even if we can’t fully escape the nomocratic-judicialized-objectified world, it is terribly important to see that that is not all there is, that it is in many ways dehumanizing, alienating; that it often generates dilemmas that it cannot see, and in driving forward, acts with great ruthlessness and cruelty. The various modes of political correctness, from Left and Right, illustrate this every day…

Codes, even the best codes, can become idolatrous traps, which tempt us to complicity in violence. Illich can remind us not to become totally invested in the code, even the best code of a peace-loving, egalitarian, liberalism. We should find the centre of our spiritual lives beyond the code, deeper than the code, in networks of living concern, which are not to be sacrificed to the code, which must even from time to time subvert it. This message comes out of a certain theology, but it could be heard with profit by everybody.

But rejecting codes as a means of implementing the goals of Christianity “leaves us with an immense set of messy, hermeneutical issues”. Rejecting a static code means that there cannot be one single, correct version of Christianity, and that there will always be irresolvable issues. Attempting to set these issues aside by appealing to “some secure instance of authority, whether the Bible or the Pope, is a dangerous and damaging illusion.” Furthermore, in a move that parallels my discussion of the ethics of metaphysics, Taylor suggest that:

…the Church, as a communion of different peoples and ages, in mutual understanding and enrichment, is damaged, limited, and divided by an unfounded total belief in one’s own truth, which really better deserves the name heresy… Many believers (the fanatics, but also more than these) rest in the certainty that they have got God right (as against all those heretics and pagans in the outer darkness). They are clutching onto an idol, to use a term familiar in the traditions of the God of Abraham.

Thus the final position that Taylor advances is critical of both of the polar positions that we saw earlier as defining the scope of the nova effect. The entire book has been advanced primarily as a rebuttal of the popularity of subtraction stories, but it is equally exigent as a critique of the failure of Christianity to live up to its own central ideals. In the context of the former, Taylor summarises his position in respect of imminently-focused zealotry as follows:

In societies where the general equilibrium point is firmly within immanence, where many people even have trouble understanding how a sane person could believe in God, the dominant secularization narrative, which tends to blame our religious past for many of the woes of our world, will become less plausible over time. This will happen in part because it will be clear that other societies are not following suit, and thus that this master narrative isn’t about universal humanity; and also because many of the ills for which “religion” was supposedly responsible aren’t going away. Of course, the plausibility of the narrative can be sustained by stigmatizing the religious societies as hostile to modern values, as many Europeans tend to do today with the United States; and even more with “Islam”. But unless we sink to a real “clash of civilizations”, this way of lending plausibility to the secularization narrative will give out sooner or later.

But in the context of the latter, the failure of Christianity to meet its own goals, he is equally critical of all attempts to enforce a single codified interpretation of Christian ideals, since the “Gospel message” (as Taylor likes to refer to it) runs entirely counter to this approach:

The point is… that our Christian life itself has suffered a mutilation to the extent that it imposes this kind of homogenization. The Church was rather meant to be the place in which human beings, in all their difference and disparate itineraries, come together; and in this regard, we are obviously falling far short.

A Secular Age is the first major work in philosophy of religion in the twenty first century, studiously researched, brilliantly reasoned, and marred only by its excessive length and sprawling structure. Taylor’s theistic bias may mean that many proponents of the subtraction stories he refutes will never read his criticisms, which is unfortunate, but this also means that philosophers wishing to advance this kind of anti-religious argument will lack credibility until they grapple honestly with the issues that Taylor raises.

Even if the book were read only by Christians, it could have a profoundly transformative effect. By meticulously laying out the history of Christianity, and concluding by showing why modern Christian institutions fail to live up to the promise of its origins, Taylor offers in this work a framework for radically re-imagining the Church into something far closer to Jesus’ ministry. The possibility of a third Ecumenical Council (“Vatican III”) drawing from Taylor’s philosophy in the way Vatican II drew upon the theology of Karl Rahner and John Courtney Murray (which inspired Taylor to become Catholic in the first place) holds out the prospect of a profound renovation of Christian institutions. Even if this step is too much to hope for, modern Christianity can only be enriched by the influence of this book.

Charles Taylor offers us an account of the history of the West that “has no place for unproblematic breaks with a past which is simply left behind us.” The entire work is structured around the principle that “the story of how we got here is inextricably bound up with our account of where we are”, and in so doing A Secular Age combines the past, present, and perhaps even the future, in an epic tale of history, philosophy and religion. This serial has only been able to paint a vague impression of the wealth of ideas that the book contains, and has struggled with attaining succinctness throughout, but if it somehow manages to bring Taylor’s philosophy to a wider awareness it will have been thoroughly worthwhile.

A new serial begins next year.


Buy Unlock All Levels?

Could game developers sell the option to unlock everything in a game for a small fee? The ever widening gulf between the centre and fringes of the market (between hardcore and casual players) makes balancing games harder than ever, so why not allow players to pay to overcome their skill gap?

What objections might be raised?

Is it fair to charge mass market players extra? We already do - they are the principle purchasers of strategy guides. (Game literate players prefer Gamefaqs). Would the challenge of ultimate completion be undercut? Well if you want this challenge why would you pay to bypass it?

I think this is worth considering, especially for downloadable games that already utilise micro-transactions.


Obama vs McCain

Obama_mccain Next week, the people of the United States, who I have lived among for some of my life and love as dearly as my own fellow citizens, will make a decision that will profoundly affect the future of our planet. We cannot see the future, but politics asks us to at least try to do so.

I feel it would be monstrously impolite of me, as The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland inadvertently gave the impression of doing the other week, to suggest that I should decide how you vote – your vote is yours to execute according to your conscience – but it is fair and equitable participation in the democratic process for me to talk about how I think and feel about this election, and in the process invite you to discuss it further with me.

For the record, if I had a vote I would be voting for Obama, for reasons that will come clear, but unlike many other people who live in Europe this is not because I haven’t weighed the merits of John McCain, since I consider him to be the best Republican candidate to run in my lifetime and I’m not one of these liberally-minded people who doesn’t understand how anyone could possibly vote for a Republican. (Although I do sometimes wonder how anyone can take either of these parties too seriously).

The Democrats have liberal values that arguably overvalue personal freedoms, as do about half of their compatriots, and believe in investing vast sums of money in institutions intended to help social welfare and health care, but which (as Ivan Illich savagely critiqued) end up making these problems worse. The Republicans have a more traditional view of society which they also share with about half their compatriots and quite justifiably don’t believe that money should be taken from the people for these purposes, but then become equally absurd when they instead decide to invest the same large sums of money in military and police institutions intended to help national security and domestic safety, but which (once again) end up making these problems worse.

Most voters in the coming election will cast their vote along partisan lines, largely because our brains are wired to cleave to this kind of divisive thinking. These votes (in a sense) “don’t count” because no voting decision has actually been made, but in another (perhaps more relevant) sense they count with great significance since they show that people have a commitment to certain values and are willing to vote to protect these values. Both parties are absurd if you try to examine them on the merits, which makes voting for either of them legitimate on any number of grounds too diverse to discuss here.

This means to a great extent the outcome of this election depends upon independently-minded people who haven’t made a voting decision in advance. For them, some of which visit this site as players of this peculiar game of mine, weighing the merits of this decision will help them make the decision that is right for them, and I hope in this piece to offer some assistance (albeit not without my own already declared bias).

It is important not to get held up in the issue of whether Obama or McCain (or their vice presidential sidekicks) are weasels, or which is the bigger weasel. They will both be weasels, because all politicians must learn to be weasels in order to function in politics, an idea neatly satirised by Matt Stone and Trey Parker in their South Park episode which observed “nearly every election since the beginning of time has been between some douche and some turd. They're the only people who suck up enough to make it that far in politics.”

So what are the major issues to be considered?

The principle issues around which a decision is likely to be formed are the following, although which issues matter to you will of course vary from individual to individual: the economy, energy independence, the environment, health care, the war in Iraq (and “against Terror”), human rights, the role of the US in the international community, and abortion. Yes, sorry liberal-minded people, abortion is a major issue in this election and in every US election until we learn to get beyond the partisanship and enter into the open and honest debate on this subject that is badly needed.

Let us look at abortion first since this is irresolvable at this time. There is a temptation, perhaps, for individuals who support a “pro-life” (more fairly, pro-fetus) position to vote for a Republican candidate because all Republican candidates reflect more traditional worldviews which oppose abortion because they are (justifiably) horrified by the specifics of this action when viewed in isolation from the other related ethical issues. However, one does not stop or reduce the incidence of abortions by making them illegal – which is essentially the only move currently being offered – and this issue will ultimately need to be resolved by intelligent communication between people, not from within the wider political system. Both sides of this debate have voices that need to be heard, because the conflict between the rights of the mother and the rights of the unborn is irreducible and far more complex than most people seem to acknowledge.

On the subject of the economy, both the Democrats and the Republicans bear a share of culpability for the current debacle. The Democrats encouraged banks to lend to the poor without checking that this was done in a responsible manner, the Republicans continued to let it happen even when it was clear this was a growing crisis. It’s far from clear either candidate is better positioned to resolve an issue which rests upon the greed of bankers, although I’m sure many people feel differently.

On the subject of energy independence, really, this one can't be left to the politicians. The citizens of the United States have inadvertently allowed the free market to train them into a nation of energy gluttons, and serious public debate is needed to fix this cultural addiction. McCain's plans to drill for more oil at best defers this problem to the near future. Is it really worth gambling Alaska's natural beauty, given that oil will continue to rise in value over time, this reserve isn't going anywhere, and future extraction technologies will certainly have less environmental impact than modern technologies?

Speaking of the environment, I would assess the biggest problem in this regard as unfettered freedom for corporations to value profit over environmental or human impact. No Republican candidate wants to restrict business, so if the environment is an issue for you voting Democrat becomes almost inevitable. Of course, this doesn’t mean Obama has a sensible plan to rescue the environment, just that McCain will never be in a position to offer one.

On the subject of the health care, Obama wants to fund a fairly poor attempt at universal health care that might not be worth its cost (although it is still, in my opinion, better than Hillary Clinton’s proposal which seemed to favour the medical sector over the people). McCain doesn’t want to get involved. If universal health care is important to you – and as anyone who has lived any part of their life in a country which has substantially addressed this issue (such as France) knows, there are excellent reasons to do so – you have to prefer Obama on this issue, even if his proposal is very weak indeed.

On the subject of the war in Iraq, McCain – as a lifelong soldier – has seen what is being fought for in Iraq, and believes it is worth fighting for. Truly, I understand this – like McCain (and, for that matter , Obama) I want what’s best for the Iraqi people. But what is being fought for right now is a US-conceived notion of a “free country”, and since the US itself is far from a model nation right now it has no business trying to infect this grossly faulty model of democracy elsewhere. (None of this reflects poorly on the incredible service the men and women of the US armed forces have selflessly given to their country, although some considerable shame does accrue to the Pentagon for failing in its duty to protect both US national security and its brave troops by the most appropriate means).

Resolving Iraq peacefully means entering into partnership with its neighbour, Iran, which is happening naturally at the moment because the men and women of Iraq and Iran still know on some deep level that they are brothers and sisters. Obama has proposed diplomatic discourse with Iran, and this is absolutely required right now, so for this reason I contend that on the subject of Iraq it is Obama whose position is more viable.

A few feminists will object – the situation of women in Iran is very poor. Very true. But we will not improve it by deploying military forces to “spread feminist values”. This, in fact, would be a total betrayal of the ideals of the original Feminist movement. One of the charities I support is Amnesty International, and I thus fully support the women of Iraq in their battle to claim what is due to them, and what Islam promises to them: fair and equitable partnership with their different-yet-equal menfolk. The way to help the women of Iran is not to increase tensions between it and the West by occupying its neighbouring country.

While we're considering human rights, it must be said that Guantanamo Bay is an insult to the integrity and high moral values of the American people, and a gross betrayal of the Universal Human Rights envisaged and enacted under President Roosevelt. Both candidates know this. McCain’s position attempts to preserve some advantage for US intelligence services, while Obama’s position is more absolute in its rejection of the horror that has been allowed to be conducted there. Both positions are reasonable, but McCain seems to leave the door open for it to happen again by voting against preservation of habeus corpus for detainees, effectively saying that human rights do not extend to people about whom the people of the US are suspicious. In this regard, McCain has rather disappointed me.

Finally, on the role of the US in the international community, well, it’s easy for those of us outside of the US to want a president who reflects our values, but we do not live in the United States and we have no business enforcing our values upon it. Yes, as Jonathan Freedland observed, we Europeans would on the whole prefer Obama, but it’s not up to us to decide how this election will resolve. It is up to the American voters. I hope they will look deep into their conscience and vote for the weasel they believe will have the greatest chance of moving towards their idea of a better world.

Discussion in the comments is welcome, but please be respectful of the diversity of political beliefs. Bloggers are also invited to trackback or otherwise extend this discussion to their own blogs. Remember that disrespectful partisans dishonour the parties and candidates they support, so please play friendly.


A Secular Age (9): Cross Pressures

180px-John_Calvin_-_best_likeness In describing the nature of the modern cultural experience in the West, Taylor talks at great length about our being cross pressured between the polar positions that triggered the nova effect we explored last month. This does not mean that the majority of individuals feel on a personal level the tension between orthodox religion and its materialist mirror image, but rather that our whole culture is caught between the two extremes:

…the debate in our society has to be understood as suspended between the extreme positions, of orthodox religion and (in contemporary terms) materialist atheism. It is not that middle positions don’t abound; not even that the number of people in such positions are not very considerable. It is rather that these positions define themselves (as we always do) by what they reject, and in our case, this almost invariably includes the extreme positions. Our culture would have to have evolved out of all recognition, were either of these to drop so far out of sight that this would no longer be true. In this sense, the cross pressure defines the whole culture.

Evidence of this can be found in many places far beyond the flagship struggles over Intelligent Design in the United States. In Germany, for instance, the government collects a voluntary “church tax” on behalf of various confessions. Taylor notes that there are a great many people with secular outlooks who “continue to pay the confessional tax which they could easily relieve themselves of by declaring themselves konfessionslos.” When people ask why, they reply that “they want the church to give moral guidance for their children” or that “they see the church as important for the moral fabric of society.” The relationship between individuals and religion is never as clear cut as the fanatics from either polar extreme would like to present it.

In so much as there is a debate surrounding these cross pressures, it involves the interpretation of the immanent frame that we examined two weeks ago:

In these cross-pressured fields, what is the debate ultimately about? One crucial choice which the immanent frame offers us is whether or not to believe in some transcendent source or power; for many people in our Western culture, the choice is whether to believe in God. To many it may not seem like a choice, because it has been foreclosed by their milieu, or their affinities, or their deep moral orientations; but the culture of immanence itself leaves the choice open; it is not foreclosed by undeniable arguments. Many however, end up taking a stand one way or another.

This leads to the first of a set of dilemmas that Taylor explores against the background of the cross pressures, the issue of the relationship between humanism and transcendence. His position is unusual, in that he recognises that the key issues which face both religion and secular humanism are actually shared problems – things that both must tackle in their own peculiar ways.

One aspect of this first dilemma that is particularly interesting to explore is the struggle between a “spiritual” and a therapeutic reading of people’s suffering, which opposes religion to unbelief. The position of people from the unbelieving stance is that the modern medical paradigm is vastly superior to the solutions to human problems provided by the church in the past – but is this faith in medical institutions well founded?

From another angle: casting off religion was meant to free us, give us our full dignity of agents; throwing off the tutelage of religion, hence of the church, hence of the clergy. But now we are forced to go to new experts, therapists, doctors, who exercise the kind of control that is appropriate over blind and compulsive mechanisms; who may even be administering drugs to us. Our sick selves are even more being talked down to, just treated as things, than were the faithful of yore in churches.

Taylor claims the move away “from a hermeneutic of sin, evil, or spiritual redirection, to one of sickness, has at best ambiguous results for human dignity.” The person themselves is often obscured in a medical practice which has learned to see anguish, melancholy or emptiness “simply as pathologies”. The therapeutic paradigm that has emerged in the last few centuries struggles to make a robust claim to superiority at a time when certain medical and psychiatric practices have been shown to make matters worse.

As Taylor present it, two particular criticisms form the centre of the struggle between humanism and belief in transcendence. The first, which Taylor terms the Romantic criticism (as a nod to the movement which originated the complaint), concerns the idea that religion, actuated by pride or fear, sets impossibly high goals for humanity and then in attempting to enforce those goals ends up mutilating what is valuable about being human. The second, which Taylor terms the Tragic criticism, is that religion tends to “bowdlerize” reality (that is, to sanitize by removing what is vulgar or unpleasant), making things seem far nicer than they really are under the surface.

These two criticisms are not quite contradictory, but there is “a strain between these two lines of attack”. The Tragic criticism, for instance, holds against more “liberal” or Deist forms of Christianity (which, as we have seen were the ante-chamber for the birth of exclusive humanism) but they don’t work at all against, say, Calvin (pictured above), who paints a picture of most of humanity being condemned to hell – far from bowdlerizing, Calvin’s picture offers an even more horrific predicament that what can be assumed from observation on the ground! Similarly, the Romantic criticism may work against this kind of savage “old time religion”, but it is rather less apposite when compared to more liberal-minded Christianity. 

And this considers only the nature of this dilemma from the religious extreme:

Not only that, but the bowdlerizing charge holds as well against unbelieving humanisms which have too rosy a view of the harmony of interests, or the power of human sympathy; while the mutilating attack holds in spades against certain forms of atheist humanism which have driven the destructive attempts at total reform which litter the history of the twentieth century. 

Rather than saying that Christianity falls under both criticisms, Taylor suggests that “it is the scene of an internal struggle of interpretations, whereby some seek to avoid one, but thereby fall more directly under the other, and others do the reverse.” And not only Christianity! “Unbelieving views may sell human beings short, in underestimating their ability to reform, but they may also put the bar too high, and justify some very destructive attempts at change.” Everyone – religious or non-religious – struggles to find a place to stand between these two errors.

In exploring the dilemmas that relate to these cross pressures, Taylor goes into far more depth than we can explore here. Of particular interest, however, may be his examination of the relationship between religion and violence, for which he draws upon discussions of what René Girard termed the scapegoat mechanism, in which a group of culturally-allied people will “turn on, kill or expel an outsider”. In a brief exploration of the forces behind the Crusades, Taylor notes that the church at the time was almost glad to have an external enemy to turn upon, as they had been trying for some time to make peace between bellicose noblemen to no avail. The scapegoat mechanism was a backdoor to violence that was not actually permitted in Christian doctrine. He parodies the Crusades quite neatly:

Do these people oppose the Prince of Peace? Let’s go and smash them! We have the self-given assurance of being that Prince’s most faithful followers, even while we violate his teaching.

But then, the problems of violence do not end with rejection of religion:

...all this can easily survive the rejection of religion, and recurs in ideological-political forms which are resolutely lay, even atheist. Moreover, it recurs in them with a kind of false good conscience, an unawareness of repeating an old and execrable pattern, just because of the easy assumption that all that belonged to the old days of religion, and therefore can’t be happening in our Enlightened age.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Taylor’s account of the cross pressures is his observation that “the camp of unbelief is deeply divided – about the nature of humanism, and more radically, about its value.” Thinking in terms of a two-sided conflict misses out something vital: it can instead be seen as a three-cornered struggle, as a result of “the immanent counter-Enlightenment”, for which Nietzsche is the standard bearer:  

There are secular humanists, there are neo-Nietzscheans, and there are those who acknowledge some good beyond life. Any pair can gang up against the third on some important issue. Neo-Nietzscheans and secular humanists together condemn religion and reject any good beyond life. But neo-Nietzscheans and acknowledgers of transcendence are together in their absence of surprise at the continued disappointments of secular humanism, together also in the sense that its vision of life lacks a dimension. In a third line-up, secular humanists and believers come together in defending an idea of the human good, against the anti-humanism of Nietzsche’s heirs.

Taylor notes that you could also claim a fourth corner, if you consider those representatives of orthodox religion who believe that secular humanism “was just a mistake, which needs to be undone”.  Taylor rejects this view personally, claiming that “the practical primacy of life has been a great gain for human kind, and… this gain was in fact unlikely to come about without some breach with established religion.” He opposes “the metaphysical primacy of life espoused by exclusive humanism” as “stifling”, yet sees the emergence of that philosophy as essentially providential.

Through an exploration of the dilemmas that result from cross pressures between three different philosophical corners, Taylor identifies demands which both religion and exclusive humanism must deal with, including:

…finding the moral sources which can enable us to live up to our very strong universal commitments to human rights and well-being; and finding how to avoid the turn to violence which returns uncannily and often unnoticed in the “higher” forms of life which have supposedly set it aside definitively. Rather than one side clearly possessing the answers that the other one lacks, we find rather that both face the same issues, and each with some difficulty. The more one reflects, the more the easy certainties of either “spin”, transcendental or immanentist, are undermined.

Thus we find ourselves amidst the nova effect, searching for the way of life that will be authentic for us as individuals, recognising that where we find ourselves resting may well lie in an intermediate position between polar extremes that are equally subject to the cross pressures they outline in our modern culture.

Next week, the final part: Taylor on Christianity


Art vs Entertainment

Despite the insistence of a distinction, art and entertainment are fundamentally the same domain - stimulation for it's own sake.

Yes, art claims loftier goals (culture versus commerce), but if you examine the history it is usually entertainment that has met those goals more effectively - Shakespeare, Dickens, Ella Fitzgerald... all entertainers who achieved artistic and cultural significance from within a commercial medium. Perhaps the paradigm case would be to note that The Beatles had more influence than Yoko Ono, although this is open to various objections, of course.

People who work in entertainment, such as commercial videogames, fool  themselves into believing what they do is art and thus sometimes  forget their role as entertainers. People who work in the art world deny what they do is entertainment,  yet still hope to collect gigantic fees for the sale of their work in  auctions, thus undermining the commercial distinction between the two spaces.

Art and entertainment are fundamentally the same: money is charged for stimulation. The key points of contrast are a claimed difference of intent (that often vanishes on closer inspection), radically different audiences, and a distinction in the role of prestige within their respective business models. (An artist uses their prestige to increase the value of single sales, while an entertainer also tries to leverage greater volume of sales).

Honestly, I suspect entertainment might be the more honest of the two.


A Secular Age (8): Subtraction Stories

Nietzsche Perhaps the most common way that the state of modern religion is presented to us in the West is via some kind of subtraction story, an account of our circumstances up to this point which sees religion as a passing stage for humanity, something we no longer need – exclusive humanism can supplant religion as our source of an ethical life:

On this “subtraction” view of modernity, as what arises from the washing away of old horizons, modern humanism can only have arisen through the fading of earlier forms. It can only be conceived as coming to be through a “death of God”. It just follows that you can’t be fully into contemporary humanist concerns if you haven’t sloughed off the old beliefs. You can’t be fully with the modern age and still believe in God. Or alternatively, if you still believe, then you have reservations, you are at last partly, and perhaps covertly, some kind of adversary.

As Taylor’s account of the transformation of the social and cosmic imaginaries in the West has shown, these subtraction stories don’t match the history of the development of humanism at all: they are a post hoc construction and they fail to adequately account for the nature of modern humanism. The subtraction story eliminates “the possibility that Western modernity might be sustained by its own original spiritual vision” – something unique and distinct – and not simply the vision generated from the transition to disenchantment and exclusive humanism. The subtraction account is in fact inadequate as an explanation:

The logic of the subtraction story is something like this: once we slough off our concern with serving God, or attending to any other transcendent reality, what we’re left with is human good, and that is what modern societies are concerned with. But this radically under-describes what I’m calling modern humanism. That I am left with only human concerns doesn’t tell me to take universal human welfare as my goal; nor does it tell me that freedom is important, or fulfillment, or equality. Just being confined to human goods could just as well find expression in my concerning myself exclusively with my own material welfare, or that of my family or immediate milieu. The in fact very exigent demands of universal justice and benevolence which characterize modern humanism can’t be explained just by the subtraction of earlier goals and allegiances.

Part of the force behind the subtraction story is an appeal to the idea that we used to be in the grip of what has been termed a “master narrative”, that is, “broad framework pictures of how history unfolds”, such as a traditional Christian salvation history which presents history as unfolding according to the guidance of Providence. The modern view alleges that these kind of stories are a thing of the past, but Taylor denies this claim: “far from being passé, these master narratives are essential to our thinking. We all wield them, including those who claim to repudiate them. We need to be lucid about what we are doing, and ready to debate the ones we’re relying on. Attempting to repudiate them just obfuscates matters.” He even shows how the idea that the time of master narratives is passed is itself a master narrative:

It is the claim of a certain trendy “post-modernism” that the age of Grand Narratives is over, that we cannot believe in these any more. But their demise is the more obviously exaggerated in that the post-modern writers themselves are making use of the same trope in declaring the reign of narrative ended: ONCE we were into grand stories, but NOW we have realized their emptiness and we proceed to the next stage. This is a familiar refrain.

We saw last week that the closed interpretations of the immanent frame offer a seductive account which seems to many people to render the denial of the possibility of transcendence inevitable. This leads us into a space where the universe can only be seen as meaningless. Many people experience this abandonment of any foundation of meaning as a sense of loss – but this is not the only way this can play. Nietzsche (pictured above) has an utterly different response:

The dawning sense in modern times that we are in a meaningless universe, that our most cherished meanings find no endorsement in the cosmos, or in the will of God, has often been described as a traumatic loss, a second and definitive expulsion from paradise. But in Nietzsche’s portrayal, virtually a hymn of praise, we sense another reaction: exhilaration. It is partly the very spectacle of immensity and power, but there is also the almost giddy sense that in this massive turbulence, all meaning is up to us. This can appear as the ultimate emancipation, freeing us from all exogenous significance.

This is the narrative of self-authorization that was mentioned last week – mankind seen as “legislators of meaning”, empowered for “the creation of meaning and value in the face of the void”. Taylor questions how coherent this viewpoint can be, and certainly eliminates from serious consideration any narrative that paints this as the thrust of the development of exclusive humanism (“If you had tried to explain to Locke or Grotius that this is what they were doing, they would have stared at you in incomprehension.”). Challenging the validity of this claim, Taylor asks:

Can the values we take as binding really be invented? …Of course, I see that my standard for a good human life has no application before or after there are humans. I also can recognize that the ethic of authenticity I endorse made no sense to people in other cultures and times. But that doesn’t prevent me from thinking that these standards are rooted in what we are, even in human nature, to use the traditional expression, and that they need to be sought after, discovered, better defined, rather than being endorsed.

Moreover, what are we to make of the aura surrounding these standards, the fact that they command my admiration and allegiance? That is, after all, what the references to God and the cosmos were attempting to make sense of. It is not at all clear that Humeans, Kantians, let alone Nietzscheans, can offer a more convincing account of this than the traditional ones. And finally, who has decreed that the transformations we can hope and strive for in human life are restricted to those which can be carried out in a meaningless universe without a transcendent source?

Thus these narratives of self-authorization, once examined more closely, are “far from self-evident” and furthermore “their assuming axiomatic status in the thinking of many people is one facet of a powerful and widespread [belief system], imposing a closed spin on the immanent frame we all share.” What is often presented by proponents of a closed interpretation of the immanent frame as “unchallenged axioms” in fact “rely on very shaky assumptions” and “in general survive largely because they end up escaping examination in the climate in which they are taken as the undeniable framework for any argument.” Taylor does not deny the force of these narratives, noting “how lively and powerful” they can be. He notes: “It is easy to see how, if no other considerations impinge, they could generate anticipatory confidence in a take of closure within the immanent frame. But as supposed conclusive proofs, they don’t make the grade.”

Pursuing his criticism of the subtraction story accounts of modernity further, Taylor challenges the idea of the validity of atheism replacing religion. He suggests that the very nature of the atheist stance requires religion for its meaning:

…the very self-understanding of unbelief, that whereby it can present itself as mature, courageous, as a conquest over the temptations of childishness, dependency or lesser fortitude, requires that we remain aware of the vanquished enemy, of the obstacles which have to be climbed over, of the dangers which still await those whose brave self-responsibility falters. Faith has to remain a possibility, or else the self-valorizing understanding of atheism founders. Imagining that faith might just disappear is imagining a fundamentally different form of non-faith, one quite unconnected to identity. It would be one in which it would be as indifferent and unconnected to my sense of my ethical predicament that I have no faith, as it is today that I don’t believe, for instance, in phlogiston, or natural places.

Indeed, isn’t this part of the reason that people who identify as atheists find themselves quite often compelled into a position of opposition with people who hold religious beliefs? The narrative that underpins this kind of atheist identity draws its strength from painting religion as the enemy. It is yet another way that the closed interpretation of the immanent frame acquires artificial weight.

Thus, Taylor claims that “the force of these narratives of closed immanence helps explain why mainstream theory so often operates with… the assumption that the world is proceeding towards an overcoming or relegation of religion. This master narrative enframes the particular theoretical claims that constitute the theory.” Against this, Taylor offers a particular historical vector for the development of Western society (which this book is constrained to examine for pragmatic reasons) which is far more complicated than the simplistic versions found in the subtraction stories:

We have undergone a change in our condition, involving both an alteration of the structures we live within, and our way of imagining those structures. This is something we all share, regardless of our differences in outlook. But this cannot be captured in terms of a decline and marginalization of religion. What we share is what I have been calling “the immanent frame”; the different structures we live in: scientific, social, technological, and so on, constitute such a frame in that they are part of a “natural” or “this-worldly” order which can be understood in its own terms, without reference to the “supernatural” or “transcendent”. But this order of itself leaves the issue open whether, for purposes of ultimate explanation, or spiritual transformation, or final sense-making, we might have to invoke something transcendent. It is only when the order is “spun” in a certain way that it seems to dictate a “closed” interpretation.

Yet still, there is pervasive sense of materialism being an inevitable position – a fear, perhaps, that we cannot be taken seriously if we do not bow to the closed spin on immanence. It is from this that the subtraction stories draw a certain strength, since we are all faced with a constant exposure to reductionst views in which “thought, intentions, desires and aspirations are supposed to be reductively explained either in terms of mechanism, or in terms of more basic motivations.”

What is going for this? On one level, “Science”, that is, the success of post-Galilean explanations. But also there is the bias introduced by taking the external view, the view from nowhere, where we can take in the whole universe in panorama. This is by its very nature a view which is experience-far. From way out there, we all seem like ants, destined to come and go without trace; like other species. This preference for the universal, impersonal order now seems to us a preference for materialism, because that is how we have come to see the universal order. But this reading has developed and grown in the last centuries; it becomes strong only in the nineteenth century. Before we had an earlier variant, visible in the growth of Deism, or even of Spinozism.

There is also a moral stance. Religion and metaphysics supposedly turn us away from a concrete concern for human desire, suffering and happiness. There seems to be a strange inference here, caricatured by Solovyov: “Man descends from the apes, therefore we must love each other.” But the inference can seem to go through if one brings in the modern morality of mutual benefit: people ought to relate in such a way as to mutually enhance their several projects of life, and as we saw above, religion can be painted as the enemy of this principle, overriding or upsetting the order of benefit by its otherworldly demands.

The subtraction stories seem to indict religion by drawing on the idea of a meaningless universe inevitably emerging from disenchantment. But this hypothesis that denies meaning enters treacherous ground when it attempts to interpret all religious phenomena by projecting this stance back into history:

The “disenchanted” world does indeed seem a world without meaning. But this doesn’t mean that through all the ages of religious life in all its variety, this was the driving factor in the constitution and preservation of religious forms. There is a fallacious inference behind the untroubled adoption of this theory of religious motivation. Just because this looms as big issue for us in a secular age, it is all too easy to project it on all times and places. But there is in the end something incoherent in this move. It will certainly not help us at all to understand why, for instance, certain kinds of shamanism arose in Paleolithic times, nor why Europe was torn apart over the issue of salvation by faith in the sixteenth century.

In other words, because we seem to be faced with the question of whether we live in a meaningless universe – or, under the influence of the closed world structure that denies transcendence, the unchallengeable “fact” of a meaningless universe – it is tempting to dismiss religion as simply an attempt to address this problem of meaning. But this master narrative does not explain religion adequately at all – it is simply an interpretation of religion born of our modern perspective, and cannot be gainfully deployed in any historical context prior to (say) the nineteenth century. The historical facts of religious practice are more complex than the subtraction stories allow.

Exploring the immanent frame, and the subtraction stories that seem to lead to an inevitable interpretation of this frame as being closed to anything beyond – transcendence of any kind, whether God or higher reality – defines one of the two poles between which the nova effect has established a rich tapestry of beliefs. The other pole, orthodox religion, also offers a closed world system - one in which it is transcendence that cannot be denied, and immanence that is suspect. The entire landscape of modern belief can be seen as lying between these two poles, and the presence of two polar extremes creates a set of cross pressures which define our culture.

Next week: Cross Pressures


The Twittering of Sparrows

This post forms part of the October Round Table.

Tiles1a My earliest memories of playing games with my family were not videogames, but board and card games. We played many things, but none stands out in a nostalgic glow quite as dazzling as Mah Jong. Originating in China, this game is similar in many respects to rummy (in that it involves collecting sets) but both the play and the aesthetics of the pieces are vastly different.  The game remains popular among Chinese people around the world, as well as (oddly) Jewish women in New York, and the rules vary somewhat according to where you play, but the appeal of the game to those who have fallen under its spell is undeniable.

(I should explain, before we proceed, that the game most people associate with the name ‘Mah Jong’ is a solitaire game more properly called Mah Jong solitaire or Shanghai. Although it uses the same tiles, it is otherwise utterly different from the game the tiles belong to).

My earliest memories of playing are in my Nan’s bungalow, which my father had built for her by converting the garage next to the house we lived in on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of the British Isles. I don’t know how old I was when I first joined in the games, but I suspect I was less than ten. The Maj Jong tiles and the wooden racks (for organising the tiles – unlike most Chinese players who somehow keep the tiles in their hand) lived on the top of a cupboard at one end of the lounge, and so had to be gently brought down and ceremoniously laid upon the table before we could begin.

We emptied the tiles out of the box. I think we used to play with an old ivory and bamboo set – not exactly politically correct these days, but impressively luxurious all the same. The tiles, each about half the size of a match box, were laid out on the table upside down in order to be “washed” before each hand. The players sweep the tiles around on the table, and as they collide they produce a gentle clattering – the Chinese call it “the twittering of sparrows”, and indeed the name “mah jong” means “the game of Sparrows”.

Once the tiles were suitably shuffled, we built the walls. Each player would line up two tiers of tiles against their rack, like stones being laid upon one another. Once the four walls were built, the players manoeuvred each into position creating a perfectly square set of walls. Traditionally, the walls had to be secure as when the dice are rolled a gap in the wall might cause some spirit or dragon to interfere with the destiny of the game (or at least, so Maj Jong folklore says – the game is actually only one hundred and fifty years old, although it has antecedent games that are far older).

One player, East wind, who had been selected at random before the wall is built, rolled dice to determine where the wall was to be broken, after which the tiles were dealt to each player. At first, Mah Jong tiles seem impossibly exotic when you are used to the standard deck of cards. Even the three minor suits – circles, bamboo and “characters” (which are marked with Chinese kanji characters showing numbers in increments of ten thousand) – have an esoteric quality, but this is dwarfed by the charm of the major tiles – the four winds, red, green and white dragon, and the seasons and flowers which provide additional bonuses. A high quality Mah Jong set is a work of art.

For a long time, I really didn’t know what I was doing in the game, but I enjoyed playing with my family all the same. Gradually, I began to appreciate that the key to the basic game is the value of the different combinations of tiles – a pung (three of a kind) in dragons, for instance, doubles your final score. There are many such sets which produce a double, and accumulating these creates a very great range of differences in your final score. In fact, Mah Jong players traditionally play with a limit (1,000 points in the official British rules) so the challenge becomes trying to achieve a limit hand.

At University, when I rediscovered my love of the game, I also opened the door to the ultimate challenge in the game. Most versions of the Mah Jong rules include a number of special hands with romantic names like Imperial Jade, The Wriggling Snake and the 13 Unique Treasures, most of which are worth a limit score. Not every player uses these rules – my family never did – but once you start playing with the special hands the landscape of the game is transformed. Not only can you aim for a high score through conventional means, you can be tempted to shoot for a rare special hand – you don’t get them often, but the score benefit is so high that even the attempt becomes worthwhile. The excitement one feels when you are ‘fishing’ (waiting for your last tile) in order to complete a special hand is comparable only to that moment in Poker when the turn of the next card could give you the nuts (the best possible hand). Utterly intoxicating.

Mah Jong remains one of my favourite games. The beauty of a well-made set of tiles; the formal ritualism of the washing of the tiles and the construction of the wall; the progression of East wind around the table (which has serious effects, as East wind pays and receives double – making it a potential benefit, but also a giant liability); the excitement of fishing for a limit hand, and the joyous fiero of achieving a special hand – all combine to make this game not only a cherished part of my memories of childhood, but also a continuing source of pleasure throughout my life.

A videogame can be a marvellous thing, but few electronic games have given me the wealth and longevity of enjoyment as Mah Jong. It was one of many gifts that my family gave me that I continue to treasure to this day.

Interested in trying Mah Jong? I heartily recommend the book "Mah Jong" published by A & C Black of London (1994), ISBN 0 7136 3742 0, which describes the British Mah Jong Association’s rules for the game, which are my personal favourite. You’ll also need a set of tiles, which you can find at any good boardgame store.