Although published in 2007, Charles Taylor’s tome A Secular Age continues to generate debate. Last year David Brooks offered a summary of the work while currently Ross Douhat and Damon Linker have reflected on whether or not Taylor’s idea of the late-modern self as “buffered” describes our current predicament (Linker is unconvinced while Douhat seems open, but skeptical). Some of the recent reflection anticipates James K. A. Smith’s work on Taylor set to be released next month.

Taylor takes up the task of describing “our contemporary lived understanding” or the way persons in late modernity construe life, which is to say, their social imaginary. It is a project in unearthing the “background understandings” that inform late modern social life and shape the way humans conceptualize the world they inhabit. These understandings are what humans take for granted by virtue of being socialized into a particular imaginary. Taylor’s goal is to explain how late-modern persons approach the world without even realizing it and thus how secularity is a feature of late modernity. It is important to note that Taylor does not claim his story about the secularization of the late-modern world is the only game in town. It is one plausible account amidst others he finds plausible as his conclusion makes clear.

Taylor sets out to construct the beginnings of a story about the movement from the porous self to the buffered self. The porous self stems from the social imaginary of an enchanted world; its primary trait is an openness toward the world as a causal matrix filled with other humans, spirits, demons, and cosmic forces that produce meaning. Think of a stone like a slate tile that remains porous and thus can absorb water and other elements. For the porous self, the meanings of things unfold in a middle space in which the self “absorbs” the meanings that already exist in the external world. Meaning, then, is prior to the self.

The buffered self is a mind-centered self in which a boundary between the interior and exterior worlds is in place. Instead of a porous tile, think about a tile that has been sealed by some chemical so that it now resists water rather than absorbs it. The mind and the world remain distinct spaces and thus agency is primarily, if not exclusively, mental. The demonic becomes a manifestation of some psychological disorder and cosmic agency is reduced to internal agency. What Taylor means here is a loss of the idea that there is meaning in the external world that exists prior to the person. Humans make meaning in contact with the external world rather than receive meaning in communion with that world. This is the new secularized social imaginary of the buffered self, closed off to an enchanted world at a fundamental level.

I have often found myself in agreement with Taylor’s use of the idea of the social imaginary while harboring doubts about his historical analysis. These doubts are not about the existence of a buffered self so much as how Taylor thinks this new social imaginary came about. Even today there are many persons who operate with a porous self, as shown by the global rise of Pentecostalism. Taylor’s response would most likely be to make the move that Peter Brown does when claiming that pockets of Late Antiquity continued to flourish until at least the year 1000. The enchanted world is still part of the late-modern social imaginary in pockets here and there. The question is whether the environment is more hospitable to the porous self or the buffered self, and Taylor clearly thinks the latter.

But there is a deeper issue. Taylor’s analysis at times betrays a tendency to equate enchantment with the vertical, hierarchically-ordered world of the Middle Ages and disenchantment with the horizontal world of a modern moral order. In the vertically oriented world, the priest transmits the divine and inanimate objects like saints’ bones become conduits of the supernatural. In the horizontal world, a rational order reflects the divine through representative institutions like the public sphere and the market economy. 

Taylor sees this horizontal disenchantment as aided by a strong turn toward interiorization in the form of the modern novel and the rise of Romanticism, to name two developments. As Taylor states, “the rich symbolism of the enchanted world is located in the psyche.” When one adds a self-discipline that craves privacy (by which Taylor means controlled access to the other) one begins to move toward individualism. These various trends create an immanent order that is self-sufficient and governed by its own laws. It does not need or require outside intervention. The horizontal world of modern republics offers an immanent frame that produces buffered selves with a focus on discipline, individuality, and interiorization. This is secular time in which the social order is created and sustained by humans rather than a cosmic order that humans “absorb” and imitate in their political and social lives. Humans define the structures of family, those structures do not define them.

Yet it is Taylor’s division between horizontal disenchantment and vertical enchantment that gives me pause. I wonder if there is not an equally horizontal enchantment that sits alongside disenchantment as a social imaginary. On this third option the presence of God is not in the king nor is it in the design of the system, but it remains in the people and the objects of creation. In one respect this is the Protestant option as originally given in two forms, either the visible community of people through Anabaptism or the invisible community of the elect through the Magisterial Reformers. These options gravitate toward spiritualities and ecclesiologies that push up against institutionalization and hierarchy, but not necessarily at the expense of enchantment.

I find myself disagreeing with Taylor’s story of the rise of an impersonal order in the Nineteenth Century. Of course one can find deism and a broad move to the impersonal, but there is an equally powerful move to the personal. For example, if one begins with the group of friends in London in the 1820s and 1830s such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edward Irving, and Thomas Carlyle, one finds the makings of a theology of immanence and an organic connection of all life that eventually fractures into different movements: evangelical revivalist (Irving); high-church (Coleridge); and high culture (Carlyle). There remains a shared outlook that God is a work within the world’s processes and that symbols are necessary to understand the divine/human dynamic. One cannot understand Edward Irving’s turn to premillennialism, in my view, apart from an effort to interpret the world in light of Coleridge’s use of symbolic modes of thinking. This is no providential deism.

This horizontal enchantment sets the stage for the global Pentecostal movement and the continuation of the porous self. At the end of the day, even a figure like Thomas Carlyle, whom Taylor sees as part of the problem, retains the emphasis on divine immanence and God at work in the people, primarily through the hero who moves history forward. Carlyle was adamantly Protestant and thought that the church as an invisible reality was a critical counterpart to a natural supernaturalism that informed the body politic. He was rabidly anti-institutional in a manner similar to the anti-institutionalism one finds in Evangelical revivalism, Pentecostalism, and even someone like H. Richard Niebuhr who insisted that the true church was an organic movement, not an institution. Carlyle was not so much a prophet of the impersonal order of disenchantment as a man who sought to maintain the enchanted world by applying a Protestant spirituality of invisible unity to all of humanity. This is one of the points on which Protestants will have to grapple with Taylor’s Catholic reading of late modernity. 

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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