So far in this series, I have outlined two very important ideas, both of which are at least indirectly related to what Taylor is up to. First, I talked about Taylor’s intellectual context, i.e. the problem he’s trying to uncover and respond to in his book on Secularization. The problem is found in the question of religious belief, i.e. why was it impossible not to believe in God at one point in the West’s history, whereas now, not only is it possible to abstain from belief in God, but it is often times easier. What social conditions changed to create this modern and postmodern possibility for unbelief? Secondly, I tried to outline the “classical” social structure, especially as related to Christian Europe. I tried to uncover, more precisely, the etymological and cultural context of the notion of secularization and how that effects what secularization means. My answer was that it refers to the breakdown of the sacred/secular distinction in society: that it is possible to think of secular times as sacred in their own right. However, I may have jumped ahead of myself. Before moving onto the breakdown this secular/sacred split, I need to add a few comments more to the previous blog that are more directly pertinent to Taylor.
According to Taylor, there are what might be called three main “experiential conditions” that allow a social order to understand itself in terms of the sacred/secular divide. In other words, the breakdown of the sacred/secular distinction was formulated in a breakdown of the way Europeans experienced the world (Taylor’s descriptions of which form some of the most interesting content of Taylor’s book). I think this point about experience is extremely important to emphasize. In order to truly understand it, one must be willing to commit him or herself to some strenuous self-appropriation. This “experience” is a pre-cognitive experience. It is the experience that forms cultural values, pre-apprehensions, and worldviews.
Since I already brought up the issue of affirmative action as an example, one of the best instances that I can think of to elucidate such an insight in our own times is that of political correctness. If one looks up some sitcoms on Youtube, for instance, from the 1970s, one will see that there’s an entirely different set of social mores within which these shows worked. I’m not talking here about the funny music, or even the vocabulary per se, but the ends to which jokes were directed. For instance, it was O.K. to engage in racial humor and make fun of homosexuality, to a degree that these sitcoms would probably make Rush Limbaugh blush today. We have now been extremely sensitized to these issues. Certain words create in us a “gut-level” reaction, often for better, sometimes for worse. To even read the term “negro” (much less it’s more aberrant counter-part) written from the hand of an obviously white (mustachioed) man makes one cringe at sort of a pre-intellectual level. It provokes in one the immediate reaction of “did you really have to say that?” Such ideas form the contemporary American “experience,” at least at the level of race. We have an experience of the world that dissuades most of us from talking in these ways. Taylor, too, outlines the pre-cognitive experiences that broke down the sacred/secular divide.
As said, it used to be the case that one couldn’t not believe in God. Now it is one choice among many “spiritual” options. According to Taylor, there were three main experiences that once helped to undergird God as a necessary belief. These experiences are constituted by (1) an experience of the natural world not as impersonal and mechanical, but as “testifying to divine purpose and action (25).” (2) That social structures devoted to intermingling with divinity retained a place of eminence in the societies (the structure and breakdown this experience is really what I spoke about in the previous blog). (3) That the world was itself experienced “enchanted.”
As mentioned, I have already commented at length about the basic structure and breakdown of the second above condition. More will have to be said, especially in terms of what Taylor calls the “disciplinary society.” But I believe it pertinent to focus at this point on these other two experiential conditions, at least in terms of their positive definitions.
For the remainder of this blog, I can focus on the first, since it’s relatively easy to understand (I’ll take up the second in the next). The world was experienced by Medievals as directed by a divine hand (as exemplified by this sweet image). God was found in, around, and through everything, efficiently causing and effectively pulling the world in the direction of God’s will. So the growth of crops were seen as a hymn of praise, the blessing of God upon the land. But we westerners became tired of depending on the whimsical will of God. We focused ourselves instead on grasping at an empirical level the orderly and unchanging laws that truly undergird the universe. In this way, we could control the movements and outcomes of our earthly endeavors much more efficiently.Such an order, though, is no longer the relation of personal beings…God and humanity…but the relationship of humanity to a cold and impersonal universe, even if understood still as a “creation.”
The first of the experiences that change in the western experience of the world, then, is that of the personal order. For the sake of efficiency, we adduced an order not devoid of divinity, but certainly not directly dependent upon it.