Seeking enchantment in a secular age

taylorA friend recently lent me James K.A. Smith’s book How (Not) To Be Secular. This short book (140 pages) is a summary and introduction to A Secular Age, a monumental 776-page analysis of secularism by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor – of whose existence I must shamefacedly admit to having previously been ignorant.

Taylor’s analysis of secularism identifies three senses in which the word “secular” can be used. What Taylor calls “secular₁” refers to the classical and medieval understanding of “the temporal”, as opposed to the “spiritual”: the realm of “the butcher, baker and candlestick maker”. “Secular₂” refers to the post-Enlightenment notion of the nonsectarian, religiously “neutral” public square. Both of these meanings are ones with which most of us will be familiar.

“Secular₃”, by contrast, is Taylor’s own distinctive contribution. Secular₃ refers not so much to what a society believes (or doesn’t believe), but to what is believable within that society; to what Taylor calls the “conditions of belief”. A secular₃ society is one in which:

religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested). (How (Not) To Be Secular, pp.21f.)

It is a society in which an “exclusive humanism” becomes a viable option, indeed the default option for many. This is a new development in human history, asserts Taylor:

For the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true. (A Secular Age, p.18, quoted in HNTBS, p.23).

It’s important to note that (in contrast to the “secular₂” understanding of secularism) “secular₃” is not merely the “neutral” residue left by the removal of religious belief:

The “secular” is not just the neutral, rational, areligious world that is left over once we throw off superstition, ritual, and belief in the gods. […] The emergence of the secular is also bound up with the production of a new option — the possibility of exclusive humanism as a viable social imaginary — a way of constructing meaning and significance without any reference to the divine or transcendence. (HNTBS, p.26)

In other words, the “exclusive humanism” of secular₃, with its “purely immanent sense of universal solidarity,” is an achievement; “a milestone in human history,” in Taylor’s words, providing a way for people to find “fullness and meaning” without reference to any divine or transcendent reality.

As Smith observes, an age dominated by secular₃ thinking is one in which not only non-belief, but also belief, will be significantly different from that of previous eras:

A secular₃ society could undergo religious revival where vast swaths of the populace embrace religious belief. But that could never turn back the clock on secularization₃; we would always know we used to believe something else, that there are plausible visions of meaning and significance on offer. (HNTBS, p.23)

This reminds me a lot of Peter Berger’s argument as to why (in sociological terms) we are all now “heretics”, as I discussed in a blog post back in 2004. Berger observes that the word “heresy” has its roots in the Greek for “choose”: a heretic is one who chooses what they believe, rather than just accepting the received beliefs of their society. But in a pluralistic society, Berger continues:

individuals now must pick and choose. Having done so, it is very difficult to forget the fact. There remains the memory of the deliberate construction of a community of consent, and with this a haunting sense of the constructedness of that which the community affirms. Inevitably, the affirmations will be fragile and this fragility will not be very far from consciousness.

Hence there is no escape for us from secular₃. Much has been written of how Christians today are exploring earlier models of piety and worship, whether that’s the “ancient-future” movement among US evangelicals, or the growth of interest in the traditional Latin Mass among some younger Catholics. All these things may be good and valid, but they do not get us out of the secular₃ conundrum:

[B]elief is contested and contestable in our secular age. There’s no going back. Even seeking enchantment will always and only be reenchantment after disenchantment. […] Elsewhere Taylor emphasizes that “the process of disenchantment is irreversible. The aspiration to reenchant … points to a different process, which may indeed reproduce features analogous to the enchanted world, but does not in any simple sense restore it.” (HNTBS, p.61 (and footnote))

Our instinctive response may be one of dismay at this idea of the inescapability of secular thinking. But there is also something liberating to it.

To explain this in personal terms: I am an adult convert to Lutheranism, becoming (in 2004) a member of a church body that is small and fragile, whose active membership (in the UK) numbers perhaps only in the hundreds. Since then, I’ve been repeatedly haunted, tempted, distracted by church traditions that (in the UK context at least) seem to offer a “wholer” vision of (and framework for) the Christian life than a small and poor collection of small and poor congregations can provide.

To put it in Taylor’s terms, I’ve been seeking “enchantment”, but have often found only “disenchantment” in my own tradition. To realise, though, that even these “wholer” traditions would only be (at least for me) another form of “reenchantment”, haunted by the awareness that other options are available, is an encouragement to find more contentment with where I am. It’s not that some true form of “enchantment” – of an uncontested, whole way of life that is “given” rather than “constructed” – still survives which I have somehow missed and must wander about attempting to find. Which means that maybe, just maybe, I’ll stop trying to do so.


2 thoughts on “Seeking enchantment in a secular age”

  1. “For the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true.”
    I am skeptical. Here’s a question: are ancestral spirits human? If they are, then a purely self-sufficient humanism has a long, long history–peoples whose religious beliefs and practices center entirely on “pigs for the ancestors” (a book on New Guinea, but would describe on the ground Chinese religion quite well). It’s not universal, but in just about any continent or any millennium you can find good examples.

    But what if ancestor spirits aren’t human? Well, how can you say that? You might deny they exist, but if they exist they’re human. And to the extent that people are sacrificing to them, presenting report cards to them, fearing them, hoping in them, then they are interacting with beings who are, in their own belief system, also human. So that’s also a kind of humanism.

    1. An even better example (because more similar to modern humanism) would be the spread of philosophies like Epicurianism in ancient Greece and Rome. The fact that, compared to the heyday of classical civilisation, late antiquity and the middle ages were pervasively religious would seem to suggest that “re-enchantment” is sometimes possible after all.

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