In my previous blog, I tried to give some sort of picture of what Taylor is generally up to in his book on secularization. As said, he is trying to give an historical analysis of how the social conditions that once socially bound persons to a belief in God shifted in such a way that belief became one option among many. Today, however, I would like to briefly explain how and why the social conditions for belief were ultimately and firstly on the side of religiosity. I will break away from Taylor to some degree in order to help make some sense of this idea.
In order to understand the development of these social conditions, one must have an insight into the worldviews of ancient Greece, Rome, and Medieval Europe (and aside from the specifically Christian twist of the latter, the basic worldview remains much the same).
In this regard, and starting from the Medieval European understanding, it is helpful to first put the term “secular” into a linguistic context. Etymologically speaking, the term “secular” (saeculum) refers to what might be called lower times, normal times, mundane times. These “times” consisted in the activities of everyday life, which I suppose in those days referred mostly to the ploughing of fields that were knee-high in mud mixed with ox crap. The term secular, then, was used in opposition to what might be referred to as sacred times, ecclesial times, times wherein persons found themselves closer to the divine order. For the medieval person, such times were often celebrated during Church festivals commemorating either Christ or his saints; or, more regularly, Communion. Hold onto this distinction for the time being as I move briefly in a different direction.
Secondly, it can be fairly widely stated that most “classical” societies, since at least Plato in the West, ordered themselves analogous to their perception of the cosmic order. The cosmic order is reflected in what many philosophers today call the “Great Chain of Being.” That is, there are higher and lower forms of life relative to the orderliness of the being itself. These beings ranged from the (quite alive) heavenly bodies…the sun, nighttime luminaries, and all things the superstitious still love to believe destiny is based on…to lower beings, such as animals. I will not take this opportunity to account for why these ancients believed in the orders that they did other than to say that the more inherently orderly a life form…the more inherent intelligibility and intelligence a being had…the more divine the being was perceived to be. Most classical societies held this insight into order to such a degree that the God of gods was interpreted as the base and ground of all order, namely something like thought thinking itself (see Aristotle’s Metaphysics).
With these insights in mind, the classical societies split the cosmos into two “dualities” (to use an overly scholarly word for which I could think of no other). The first duality was that between spiritual and sensible beings…beings made of pure intelligence (luminaries and angels) and beings that were mixed with bodies. I have just given some examples of these. The spiritual substances formed one realm of the cosmos, one that existed in perfect harmony with itself; the sensible substances were reflections of this better and more intelligible realm, imitating the more intelligible realm the best it could. In the same way a book review imitates an original book (like what I’m writing), so did the sensible part of the cosmos emulate the intelligible.
However, within the sensible realm, there is a second duality. A duality between the purely material beings…such as rocks…and mixed beings, partially material and partially spiritual…such as humans. And at least the human side of this distinction, due to it being a mix of spiritual and material substance, could to some degree emulate the more perfect spiritual substances. It did so by ordering the society along those lines (see Plato’s Republic.)
All this said, society in general was broken down along these lines, analogous to the cosmic order. So, there were higher and sacred times wherein communities would interact with the purely intelligible realms. And there were lower and secular times wherein the aforementioned peasants waded in their own feces. Moreover, these sacred times formed the life-giving bridge between heavenly and earthly life, the latter depending on the former for its invigoration. As such, these sacred times in many ways constituted the most important aspect of the classical society, especially later Christianized societies, as they were the earthly link with the life-giving power of the divine.
Finally, consider this point in the context that Jesus was interpreted as a mediator between the purely intelligible and the sensible by the Church Fathers, that the Incarnation was God’s reinvigoration of the sensible cosmos with divinity (so too was the notion of salvation interpreted as humanity being gracefully made God-like), and it is easy to understand why the Church became so essential to Medieval Europe. The Church itself became the mediator and distributor of divinity, if not directly through communion (which signified the real body and real blood of Christ), then indirectly in prayer and a general understanding of spiritual participation. The sacred and the Church’s guardianship over it was central to Medieval Europe.
While especially long, I think this particular part of the story is very important to the overall understanding of the nature of secularization and Taylor’s unfolding of its history. At the end of the day, secularization simply means the breakdown of the sacred/secular distinction as the focal point of society; that is, the elevation of mundane times at least to the level of where the sacred stood in Medieval society, if not beyond it in its degree of importance. This process begins to happen in what Taylor calls the Reformation, which is broader than, albeit heavily dependent on, the Protestant Reformation.