Dale, you’ve identified some critically important issues regarding Charles Taylor’s narrative of secularization and modernity. I would particularly support your desire to build (or rather renew) a model of what you call “horizontal enchantment.” To my mind this is simply another way of talking about the conscience (on the natural level) and the work of the Spirit in regeneration and spiritual gifts (on the supernatural level). I would not dampen your enthusiasm to see “horizontal enchantment” among Pentecostals, but those of us who do not believe in continuing charismata must also make sure we are living lives of horizontal enchantment—a lively and experiential sense of our consciences and actions being dependent upon the Spirit.

As you suggest, where Taylor needs to be challenged is in the assumption that the only kind of world that can be enchanted is a “vertical world” in which people have their identities and roles mostly assigned to them by social elites rather than choosing for themselves. MacIntyre falls into the same error. Michael Zuckert has a brilliant chapter on this topic in his book Launching Liberalism, entitled “A MacIntryrade.” Moral and religious claims cannot be made meaningful and plausible to the individual if he understands them to be merely the result of socialization; he can simply ask—and in fact he often does ask—“what makes the beliefs of our group superior to those of other groups?” The individual must be capable of internalizing moral and religious truth, at least to a large extent, through his own ability to understand the universe. Whatever qualifications we may add about how individuals only gain the ability to understand moral and religious truth through socialization, at the same time the ability of the individual to know right from wrong for himself is necessary if the very concepts of “right” and “wrong” are to be meaningful. And once we have said that, the claims MacIntyre and (to a lesser but still significant extent) Taylor make about the need for a return to vertical culture are in serious jeopardy.

This is not unrelated to the exchange you and I are having about ecumenism. As Taylor himself says forthrightly, the key issue is not the Reformation but the late medieval spirit of Reform (he capitalizes it) of which the Reformation was the culmination. Catholic movements that embrace the spirit of Reform create the same problem for him that the Reformation does; Protestant movements that challenge the spirit of Reform (such paradoxical things do exist) do not raise it. Nonetheless, Taylor sees that the Reformation was the primary engine that made the modern world; I agree with him there, I just disagree that the “horizontality” of modernity is necessarily secularizing.

I think it is very shrewd of Taylor to remark that if justification by faith alone had been the sole issue, it would have been possible for Protestants and Catholics to live together in relative peace. The real wedge, he argues, was the spirit of Reform—the spirit that claimed (these are my words, not Taylor’s) that all social institutions should be subject to revisions that would bring them into conformity to the consciences of the people who had to live within them. Just read the 95 Theses and I think you can see the truth of this. The 95 Theses are not about justification or the authority of the Bible, they are about liberating the oppressed. The rigidity of social institutions in a “vertical culture” creates numerous opportunities for corruption and injustice, because it creates strongholds of power that the oppressor can colonize and exploit. The spirit of Reform says, in essence, that no such strongholds should be placed beyond the possibility of revision should justice require it. Standing behind that claim is the claim that we, the people, have an ability to know what justice requires that is not so completely dependent upon any social institution as to place that institution beyond the possibility of our reforming it.

The challenge to “horizontal enchantment” from people like Taylor and MacIntyre, if I may audaciously attempt to boil it down to one paragraph, is this: At the root of horizontal culture (the modern world of democratic republics and entrepreneurial economies) is the claim that people can and should Reform the world. But this claim teaches people to view the world as something that is under their power, something that is plastic to their choices—and that kind of world can never remain enchanted for long. The supernatural is something under whose power we are, something to which we are plastic, rather than the other way around. If nature is plastic to our will, it cannot be an expression of the supernatural.

We must admit from the start that the world cannot be viewed as absolutely plastic—plastic without any limits whatsoever. But I do not think the spirit of Reform or horizontal culture require this. Yes, if we view the world as merely raw material that can be arbitrarily reshaped without limit, we have excluded the possibility that the world is a place where moral and religious transcendence matter. However, the claim that no social institutions should ever be put beyond the limits of Reform does not entail the idea that there are no such limits; it only implies that the limits on Reform are not of such a kind as to create insuperable protections for particular institutions.

Horizontal enchantment begins with an understanding of the relationship between nature and supernature that is different from the one presupposed in Taylor and MacIntyre. The supernatural element in human life, whether it comes to us through conscience as human beings or through the Spirit as believers, is not to be located externally in the world of nature and social institutions (as for Taylor and MacIntyre), nor internally (as for the Romantics), but in the interaction of the individual with his world. The supernatural is neither something simply imposed on us from without nor emerging from within us. Morally, we are aware of ourselves as agents living in a natural world who are responsible for what they choose to do with that world, and this is neither objective nor subjective; it must be both if it is to be meaningful at all. Religiously, we are aware of ourselves as created by and in relationship with God (even if this relationship is one of alienation), and this too is neither objective nor subjective, but must be both.

If we are responsible for what we do with nature, and are in relationship with God, something like the spirit of Reform and horizontal culture seems to me to be an unavoidable result. If we find ourselves as members of a culture that practices slavery or the sale of indulgences, as responsible creatures of God how can we not seek Reform? You don’t have to press this too far before you get the whole modern world out of it—democratic republics, entrepreneurial economics and all the rest.

This need not involve disenchantment. It obviously creates temptations to disenchantment, but what good thing does not create temptations? The logic of it does not require or encourage disenchantment—to the contrary, its starting point is a moral and religious responsibility that we do not make for ourselves, but discover ourselves already under.

Articles by Greg Forster


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