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Breaking the Spell of the Immanent Frame: Charles

Taylors A Secular Age


Captulo 8 de Rethinking Secularization, por David Storey
In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor poses the following question: why
was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western
society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even
inescapable?1 His almost 800 page answer is an ambitious revision and
retelling of the process that we call secularization, and his intention is to
demonstrate the inadequacy of mainstream secularization theory (MST). The
MST generally states that 1) in the modern period, beginning in the 17th
century and increasingly in the 19th, the place of religion in public life
declined and religious belief and practice substantially decreased; 2) these
changes are the result of something like industrialization, urbanization, the
differentiation of value spheres, or the progress of the natural sciences; and
3) that this decline and decrease should be seen as a linear progression, was
all but inevitable, and will almost certainly continue. The MST is an example
of what Taylor calls subtraction stories, the chief culprits in Taylors
account.
By a subtraction story, Taylor means
stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which
explain them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated
themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or
limitations of knowledge. What emerges from this processmodernity
or secularityis to be understood in terms of underlying features of
human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by
what is now set aside.2

Reason dispels Myth. Science supplants Religion. Darwin refutes the Bible.
And so forth. These stories are subtractive in two senses. First, the move to
modernity is described as a skimming off of the dross of religious belief,
freeing up the underlying positum and essential kernel of human nature;
fanciful interpretations are dismissed, leaving pure, brute fact laying about
for all and sundry to see. Second, these stories are to Taylors eye far too
simple and reductive; they either unduly prioritize one factor as the major
motor of secularizatione.g., economics, science, etc.and/or drastically
distort religious belief, practice, and institutions in order to fit the bounds of
their interpretative frame.
Taylor is convinced that MST is propped up by a cluster of thoroughly modern
prejudices which he yokes under the phrase The Immanent Frame. The
gradual emergence and eventual victory of the immanent frame involves a
1

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press,
2007), 25.
2
Ibid., 22.

great many tectonic shifts in human thought, practice, and experience, such
as the disenchantment of the world, an ethic increasingly concentrated on
discipline, rules, and norms, the vision of nature as an impersonal order, and
the rise of an exclusive humanism,3 to name but a few; but the upshot of
these changes is the eclipse of any reference to a transcendent reality in
general, or God in particular. Human flourishing, moral life, and nature all
come to be understood in a self-sufficient, this-worldly, naturalistic,
immanent way.
Taylors alterative, the Reform Master Narrative (RMN), can be distilled into
three claims.4 (267-9) First, exclusive humanism and the modern moral
order, the anthropocentric shift that rejects a transcendent reality and
refuses to acknowledge a good beyond natural human flourishing, arose
mainly as a result of pressures within Latin Christendom, pressures toward
reform which collapses the long-standing complementary between the higher
spiritual vocations of the clergy and the more lax practices of the laity, a
social hierarchy anchored in a cosmic great chain of being.
Taylors second claim is that exclusive humanism could not have arisen on
any other basis. His conviction is that it was the new ethical options opened
up by exclusive humanism--not the cogency of its arguments or the
plausibility of its theories--that led (tempted?) larger segments of the
population to drift toward unbelief. A question Taylor poses well into his
narrative crystallizes his convictions about this issue: How could the
immense force of religion in human life [in pre-modern times] be countered,
except by using a modality of the most powerful ethical ideas, which this
religion itself had helped to entrench? (267)
The third claim is that the secular age bears a constitutive reference to belief
in God, albeit usually negative, as something that has been overcome. This
is the reason Taylor focuses so much on narrative and historicity in his
account of secularization. He detects a double historicity that determines
secularization and religious belief and that is quite lost on MST:
On the one hand, unbelief and exclusive humanism defined itself in
relation to earlier modes of belief, both orthodox theism and enchanted
understandings of the world; and this definition remains inseparable
from unbelief today. On the other hand, later-arising forms of unbelief,
as well as attempts to redefine and recover belief, define themselves in
relation to this first path-breaking humanism of freedom, discipline,
and order.5

Taylor thinks that our present predicament must be seen not as a black and
white tug of war between belief and unbelief, Science vs. Religion, Intelligent
3

By exclusive, Taylor means a view of human flourishing not grounded in a transcendent


source, such as God or the Tao, and without any good beyond nature or this life and world.
4
Ibid., 267-9.
5
Ibid., 269.

Design vs. Evolution, etc.but rather as a three-cornered affair involving


those who acknowledge some good beyond life, (traditional) secular
humanists, (modern) and neo-Nietzscheans, (postmodern). Taylors point
is to show not only just how schizophrenic the secular age really is, but to
suggest that it opens up new possibilities for belief and unbelief alike.
Secularization should be seen as fundamentally ambivalent with regard to
religion.
Taylors main objective, then, is to draw the immanent frame into focus, lay
bare its origin and development, and plead that an open spini.e., a strong
sense of faith in a transcendent reality and the pursuit and vision of a good
that transcends human life--is not foreclosed, and a closed spini.e., this is
all there is--is not demanded, by the frame itself; his aim is to, as it were,
rattle Weberss iron cage by giving a different account of what it is made
of. Taylors remolding of Webers powerful image as a frame, rather than a
cage, is surely intentional, and probably meant to cast our condition less as a
fateful fact, and more as a dominant frame of reference; as a social
imaginary, not a solid reality. His main quarrel with Weberand othersis
his characteristically modern tendency, set in motion most powerfully by
Nietzsche, to define religion as mans search for meaning; this is what
triggers the closed spin on the immanent frame. There are alternatives, and
merely recognizing this fact is, for Taylor, an important and necessary step
toward a rounder understanding of what it means to live in a secular age.
I will proceed as follows. First, I lay out Taylors methodology because it is it
integral to his account.
His method is not just analytical but
phenomenological and genealogical/historical. By historical, he mean that
as moderns, we understand ourselves as historical beings, as having
transcended a prior condition and undergone some process of development
or maturation; he calls this our stadial consciousness.
Taylors
methodology, in other words, reflects his third claim. Second, I sketch some
of the basic contours, pivotal concepts, and key constructions in Taylors
story. Since his retelling of the last five hundred years is far too rich and
contains too many moving parts even to summarize in such a short space,
my aim here is to zero in on and connect a handful of the major themes in
order to illuminate the basic arc of the story, and suggest that his notion of
Reform is the driving force of his narrative. Finally, I break down his
critique of MST and probe some of his conclusions about the place of religion
and the meaning of secularity in our own day.
I. Taylors Methodology
Sociologist Jose Casanova usefully describes Taylors account of
secularization as analytical, phenomenological, and genealogical. 6 Let us
examine the second and third parts of this three-pronged methodology in
6

Jose Casanova, A Secular Age: Dawn or Twilight? Varieties of Secularism in A Secular Age,
Yale University, April 3-5, 2008, 1.

order to set the stage for Taylors account and thesis.


The first is
straightforward, is obviously found in any secularization theory, and consists
of a dissection of the salient factors constituting and responsible for the
emergence and process of secularization. The second and third, however,
are unique, and shed light on the novelty of Taylors approach.
A.

Phenomenology

There are at least two reasons Taylors account can be classified as


phenomenological: his unique sense of secularity, and his notion of
fullness. First, to see why Taylor makes recourse to phenomenology, we
must look at how he defines secularity. Taylor is not just concerned to offer
another secularization theory, or a modification or synthesis of extant
theories. His Ur-question is designed to make us think about what we mean
when we claim to live in a secular world. As such, he tries to reframe the
debate by starting out from a different sense of secularity. The MST operates
with two basic definitions of secularity, which Taylor identifies as the decline
of religion in public spaces (secularity 1) and the waning of religious belief
and practice in modern populations (secularity 2). Yet Taylor thinks this
leaves out something essential. He introduces a third category, which he
calls conditions of belief (secularity 3):
I want to talk about belief and unbelief, not as rival theories, that is,
ways that people account for existence. Rather I what I want to do is
focus attention on the different kinds of lived experience involved in
understanding your life in one way or the other, on what its like to live
as a believer or an unbeliever. 7

Taylor wants to focus, in other words, on what in phenomenology is


commonly called the lifeworld, the pre-reflective, pre-theoretical, everyday
sense of the world that most people share yet rarely, if ever, explicitly
formulate. This is why he thinks we treat belief in God analytically-understood as a mere theory or proposition about reality--at our peril; belief
in God means different things in 1500 and 2000 because all beliefs are held
within a context or framework of the taken-for-granted, which usually
remains tacit, and may even be as yet unacknowledged by the agent,
because never formulated.8 And it is inattention to the background of the
secular agethat is, the immanent framethat Taylor sees as the blind spot
of MST. It results in an overly intellectualized reading of secularization that
distorts the experience of pre-modern societies by viewing them through the
immanent frame, and misidentifies its own position by failing to acknowledge
its status as a narrative, as an interpretation, as a framework of belief.
A second reason his account is phenomenological is his reliance on a general
notion of human fullness. At the outset, Taylor presents a pencil sketch of
7
8

Ibid., 4-5.
Ibid., 13.

a phenomenology of moral/spiritual experience, which serves as the


backbone for his analyses of the conditions of belief of people at various
points in history from 1500 to the present. One of Taylors crucial premises is
that, whether we are believers or unbelievers, nihilists, secular humanists, or
Franciscans, we all have some general understanding of human flourishing:
I am taking it as axiomatic that everyone, and hence all philosophical
positions, accepts some definition of greatness and fullness in human life. 9
The way we interpret this will differthe monk may view fullness as the
grace of God, the scientific materialist may see it as a brain-bath of oxytocin,
etc.but, from an experiential standpoint, Taylor claims, we all see our lives
as having a certain a moral/spiritual shape, even if we are materialists.
This basic understanding involves three points, which we can call fullness,
emptiness, and averageness. Fullness can be seen as the over-arching goal
organizing our activities and primary good for which we strive; it need not be
something we explicitly formulate. It is something that can break through in
limit experiences, or can simply be the sense that somewhere, in some
activity, or condition, lies a fullness, a richness; that is, in that place (activity
or condition), life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worth while, more admirable,
more what it should be.10 Emptiness or desolation is obviously the opposite,
while the third amounts to some stable, even routine order in life, in which
we are doing things which have some meaning for us; for instance, which
contribute to our ordinary happiness, or which are fulfilling in various ways,
or which contribute to what we conceive of as the good.11
Now, what is distinctive about the immanent frameas a theoryis that it
has no place for a robust sense of fullness, in the sense of flourishing
grounded in a transcendent source; it eschews the transformation
perspective. As such, par for the course, succeeding on one or all of the
above middle-brow endeavors, becomes fullness itself; and indeed, questing
after enlightenment, sanctity, or salvation can distract from, and be
destructive to, the sober pursuit of a human, all too human happiness. 12 In
other words, the difference in the content and interpretations of the believer
and the unbeliever may be so great as to render Taylors scheme too narrow.
Indeed, this is actually one of Taylors own critiques of the modern approach
to religion, namely, that it is watered down into a general search for
meaning; he considers this is a wet blanket prejudice, a non-starter that
forecloses any serious, substantive discussion of religion. Taylor insists,
however, that even for the secular humanist who denies the existence of
God and an afterlife, there is something he aspires to beyond where hes
at.13 Put differently, his ethical aspirations are not congruent with his
worldview. Taylor holds that the failure to appreciate the enduring tension
9

Ibid., 597.
Ibid., 5.
11
Ibid., 7.
12
Ibid., 7.
13
Ibid., 7.
10

between a transformation perspective and the more modest view of


flourishing--a tension whose roots are, Taylor thinks, quite Christianis a
great problem with MST.
It is important for Taylor to validate this phenomenology of fullness and
shore up this premise in his argument because it is the wedge he will use
later on in claiming that MST and the closed spin on the immanent frame
simply do not canvass the conditions of belief of the secular age; despite the
iron grip of the immanent frame of the present age, an aspiration for a
higher-order fullness, Taylor thinks, still flickers in even the staunchest
materialist, and this is the clue to rattling the frame. This shows why Taylor
places such a premium on the phenomenological perspective.
B.

Genealogy

Turning to the genealogical aspect, Taylor unabashedly presents his account


as a master narrative, which he defines as a broad framework [picture] of
how history unfolds.14 He considers the post-modern dismissal of the latter
as self-deceptive and disingenuous; we all need and use them, including
those who claim to repudiate them, he thinks, and the answer to a bad
master narrative is not a pox on any master narrative, but a better one.
Taylors genealogy differs from others in that it is not meant to debunk.
The subtraction stories of secularization and MST tend to treat pre-modern
peoples as nave and benighted, blind to the real motives for their beliefs in
the transcendent; only the genealogist can tell them what is actually going
on behind the back of their consciousness, e.g., economic forces, biological
drives, political ideologies, etc. Once the cumbersome yokes of belief are
fried by the sun of Enlightenmenti.e., subtractedthen we have attained
the normal, natural state. Taylors tack, however, is different, because it is
also phenomenological, in the sense that he brackets the truth and
ontological status of the world of, e.g., the 16 th century Catholic worshipper,
and simply tries to describe her world from the inside. This interpretive
charity enables Taylor to address the dizzying constellation of factors driving
the process of secularization, without settling for the soft sell of a subtraction
story that privileges one factor and marginalizes others.
The genealogical perspective is intimately tied to the third claim in Taylors
thesis: namely, that the secular age is marked by an inescapable (though
often negative) God reference, in much the way that a tattoo cleverly and
carefully hidden by an adult is the unwanted sign of a wild youth he wishes
he could divorce, but cannot quite erase. Taylor is adamant that it is a
crucial fact of our present spiritual predicament that it is historical; that is,
our understanding of ourselves and where we stand is partly defined by our
sense of having come to where we are, of having overcome a previous
condition.15 This is why a purely analytical account will not do; the narrative
14
15

Ibid., 573.
Ibid., 29.

is not an optional extra for history buffs that can be cleanly separated from
the mechanism of secularization. 16 We are studying not just factual changes
in the shape of Western societiessecularity 1 and 2but we are also the
heirs of and participants in a conflict of interpretations, and that is why
analysis and narrative must reflect one another. So long as we fail to do
justice to the variety of and connections between the narratives composing
our past and guiding our present, we will continue to misinterpret our own
position.
Taylor also describes the modern historical self-understanding as a stadial
consciousness, and he never tires of stressing just how remarkable and
unprecedented it is:
In virtually all pre-modern outlooks, the meaning of the repeated
cycles of time was found outside of time, or in higher time or eternity.
What is peculiar to the modern world is the rise of an outlook where
the single reality giving meaning to the repeatable cycles is a narrative
of human self-realization, variously understood as the story of
Progress, or Reason and Freedom, or Civilization or Decency or Human
Rights; or as the coming to maturity of a nation or culture. 17

What is peculiar, that is, is the level of confidence and certainty that the
pillars of the immanent frame are obvious, self-evident, natural, etc., the
sense that we have dispersed the childish clouds of myth-making and come
to take our stand on the sure ground of mature rationality. Once the
immanent frame is set in place, it comes to be seen as natural, as given, as
the way things are. Taylors stresses that
the narrative dimension is extremely important, because the force of
[the immanent frame] comes less from the supposed detail of the
argument (that science refutes religion, or that Christianity is
incompatible with human rights), an much more from the general form
of the narratives, to the effect that there was once a time when religion
could flourish, but that this time is past. 18

But the narrative dimension is either disavowed or whitewashed; this recalls


Nietzsches observation that democratic societies harbor a prejudice against
origins. The birth certificate is burned; the mythos masked; the origin
obscured. Taylors twist is not to escape from the stadial consciousness
indeed, this would be a very stadial thing to do!but to tell a more adequate
story and expand our frame of reference so that we can see just how close
the secular age remains to its late medieval roots in Latin Christendom, to
enrich the thin-soup conception of religion underwriting the MST and
subtraction stories, and to undermine the assumption that modernity entails

16
17
18

Ibid., 269.
Ibid., 716.
Ibid., 590.

secularity 2; this is how the shift to studying the conditions of belief


secularity 3meshes with his genealogical perspective.
Lastly, Taylor relies on a construct he calls the social imaginary. This idea
is a variation of the notion of background mentioned above. For one, it is
not a social theory, such as we might find in sociology, i.e., an explanation of
human motivation and behavior formulated in terms of laws. Second, it is
not equivalent to the idea of the social construction of reality; it is always
based on and constrained by an actual state of affairs and inflected through
a cultural inheritance. Third, it mostly concerns the way ordinary people
imagine their surroundings, and this is often not expressed in theoretical
terms, it is carried in images, stories, legends, etc.19 Fourth, its edges are
intrinsically ragged and hazy; it cannot be defined with analytical clarity
and precision. Finally, it is a shared understanding that underwrites and
legitimizes common practices.20 As examples of social imaginaries, Taylor
points to the economy, the public sphere and the sovereign people as
mainsprings of what he calls the modern moral order that, he insists, must
be seen as partly a social imaginaryan invention and constructionand not
just as a self-evident, factual, given state of affairs. With Taylors premises
and methodology laid bare, we can now turn to some of the finer points of
his story of secularization.
II. Taylors Story: Inventing the Modern Moral Order
Taylor sets out to trace how the bulwarks of belief were gradually worn
down, how a vision of the world as enchanted, in which nature bore the mark
of divine intention and agency, and in which God was omnipresent in society
and practically unavoidablein which, moreover, there was no such
distinction between cosmos, nature, and society--how such an outlook came
undone.21 He posits that five major moves had to be made in order for this
bubble to be burst. First, the cosmos had to be disenchanted: the world
must be drained of moral and spiritual forces, of demons, witches, sacred
places, etc., and reduced to brute facts, physical forces, mere matter and
organisms. Second, society had to be re-imagined as capable of being
founded and existing independently of divine agency and oversight. Taylors
favorite example here is the doctrine of the Kings two bodies and the saying,
The King is dead. Long live the King! To modern ears, this either makes no
logical sense, or has purely symbolic meaning: let us keep the king alive in
our collective memory and public rituals. For the pre-modern, however, it is
understood literally: the temporal, flesh and blood king is dead, but the
eternal, spirit body of the king will live on and inhabit another vessel.
Third, the equilibrium or hierarchical complementarity between pre-Axial
forms of religion and post-Axial forms had to be disrupted. Here, Taylor
draws deeply on Karl Jaspers construct of the Axial Age, the period
19
20
21

Ibid., 171-2.
Ibid., 172.
Ibid., 25.

beginning around 500 B.C., in which numerous visionariese.g., Buddha,


Confucius, and Socrates--proposed novel forms of human flourishing beyond
the natural, the this-worldly, the immanent, that broke with the morally
ambivalent divine-in-nature vision of magical and animistic worldviews and
recognized a transcendent and unambiguous good beyond nature. One of
the constituent features of Latin Christendom, according to Taylor, was its
synthesis of magic and myth, a laity prone to a spirituality of enchantment
what we today would call superstitionand a clergy bound by stricter
codes of devotion and celibacy. This equilibrium had to be punctuated in
order for exclusive humanism to emerge on a collectively significant scale.
Fourth, time had to be homogenized and flattened; the social timeframe
had to be modeled on a horizontal, linear, unidirectional model unimpeded
and uninterrupted by a vertical dimension of eternity or cosmic cycles, by
what Taylor terms higher times. What happens in time and history not only
mattersthat is, in addition to and only on account of its grounding in,
eternityit is all that matters. Fifth, the notion of the cosmos as a graduated
great chain of being, as a hierarchy of meanings in which all beings have
their proper place, had to be collapsed into the modern neutral universe.22
I want to focus these vectors through the prism of Reform. The purpose of
examining this facet of Taylors story is twofold. First, the collapse of the
bulwarks of belief, hastened by the spread of Reform, is for him a necessary
condition for the eventual rise of exclusive humanism. Second, this story of
Reform is where we find the basis for Taylors claim that the disenchantment
of the world, the disembedding of self from society and society cosmos, the
rise of the disciplinary society, and the process that he calls excarnation-the withdrawal of both spiritual and everyday life from the body and into the
mind--are, ironically, powered mainly by unresolved tensions within Latin
Christendom. Though Taylor gallantly resists the attempt to seize upon one
factor as the Ur-cause of secularizationindeed, this is his pet peeve about
MSTI contend that Taylors reconstruction of Reformthe rage for
order23--is the skeleton key to his story.
Reform: Circes Rod
Since disenchantment is already a familiar trope in secularization theory, and
since Taylor follows others closely here, 24 I will only refer to it as it relates to
Taylors presentation of reform. As he sees it, there are two long-term effects
of disenchantment, one negative and one positive. The first is the crusade to
banish idolatry. All magic is branded black, all spirits are concentrated into
the figure of the Devil, and Salem becomes possible. 25 The second effect
22

Ibid., 25.
Ibid., 63.
24
Taylor adverts to Gauchets work on the disenchantment of the world, noting how he too
gives a crucial important to this long drive to Reform, and adds that Im not sure if we
dont conceive it slightly differently, but does not explain his divergence in detail.
25
Ibid., 80.
23

pivots off the first. No longer assailed by invasive and unpredictable spiritual
forces, humans began to wield a new-found freedom to chart their own
course and determine their own destiny: we can rationalize the world, expel
the mystery from it (because it is all now concentrated in the will of God). A
great energy is released to re-order affairs in secular time. 26
Disenchantment makes Reform not only possible, but plausible; recall that
Taylor is trying to account for how modern modes of belief and practice
became available, acceptable, and sensible to society as a whole.
When Taylor discusses Reform, he is not merely referring to The
Reformation, but to the period roughly 1400-1650. Taylor clarifies his broad
understanding of Reform thus:
Briefly summed up, Reform demanded that everyone be a real, 100
percent Christian. Reform not only disenchants, but disciplines and reorders life and society. Along with civility, this makes for a notion of
moral order which gives a new sense to Christianity, and the demands
of the faith. This collapses the distance of faith from Christendom. It
induces an anthropocentric shift, and hence a break-out from the
monopoly of Christian faith.27

By the distance of faith, Taylor is referring to the equilibrium or


complementarity between spiritual comportments of varying devotion,
intensity, and stricture. Taylor recounts an old formula to illustrate this form
of life: the clergy pray for all, the lords defend all, the peasants labor for
all. The key, Taylor notes, is that these social functionsworshippers,
warriors, and workers--are of unequal dignity. 28 Reform levels the playing
field.
Taylor interjects an important point here about a common feature of pre-Axial
societies: rituals of reversal, the notion that order binds a primitive chaos,
which is both its enemy but also the source of all energy, including that of
order, and that the order or structure of society must be periodically
suspended and overturned in a kind of cyclical purging. In other words, all
structure needs anti-structure.29 As an example of anti-structure in
medieval Christendom, Taylor points to Carnival; the key is that such a ritual
of reversal is carried out on a public scale: the personal, public, and cosmic
are all intertwined in the body which connects us to everyone and
everything.30
The hierarchical structure entails that some are closer to God and are, in a
sense, more Christian. This stands in tension, however, with the pull of
communitas associated with the Axial aspect of Christianity, namely, its
26
27
28
29
30

Ibid.,
Ibid.,
Ibid.,
Ibid.,
Ibid.,

80.
774.
45.
47.
47.

10

recognition of a good beyond this life, beyond normal human flourishing and
the social order: the pull of communitas is potentially multi-valenced. It
can not only bring to the fore our community, but that of humankind. 31
While the late medieval balance of pre-axial and post-Axial spiritualities
repeated the rituals of reversal and the cyclical play of structure/antistructure, it was nevertheless shot through with a universalist, egalitarian
twist, a top-, or, depending on how one sees it, bottom-heavy tilt that would
enable it to tumble, first, into an inclusive humanism, in which the sources
of universal benevolence were located within human nature, with the latter
created by divine design and progressively carrying out the divine plan in
history, and later, into a full-blown exclusive humanism, in which the
universalism is retained but the God-reference and super-human goodthe
transcendent ontology and transformational morality--are jettisoned.
What happens as a result of Reform is the almost total triumph of structure.
Reform, Taylor says, was originally meant to make the spirit of communitas
which breaks out in moment of reversal or transgression, and which gives
legitimacy to the power of the weaka concrete social reality. Communitas
the vision of the church as the body of Christ on earthwas supposed to
replace the parochial and exclusive social identities of pre-Axial societies,
which were based on bloodlines, kinship, tribal affiliations, etc.with a
universal and inclusive one; Taylor calls this the Great Disembedding of
self, society, and cosmos. The goal was to maintain the carnality of the
relations, but expand their scope. But the project misfired. The order that
emerged from the spirit of reform was not a network of agape, but rather a
disciplined society in which categorial relations have primacy, and therefore
norms.32 That is, the new social identity that takes hold is based on abstract
categories drained of content and meaning; more and more layers are
padded on to the buffered self,33 to the point that the original motivations
for disenchantment, disengagement, and discipline are lost.
One of Taylors signature observations is his astonishment that the project of
Reform got off the ground at all. The creation of Webers protestant work
ethic, suffused with an inner-worldly asceticism, was to happen very
much through the active, reconstructive efforts of political authority. 34 The
goals were audacious: the eradication of violence and social anomie and the
universal inculcation of at least a modicum of the new civility, a project of
social engineering simply unprecedented in human history. Indeed, Taylor is
convinced that the modern lack of astonishment at this fact is perhaps the
greatest testament of its near total success. But the basic shift in the social
31

Ibid., 50.
Ibid., 158.
33
The buffered self is Taylors construct of the modern subject that is self-reflective, uses
instrumental reason to order about itself and the world, and is disengaged from society and
nature; this he opposes to the porous self of the enchanted world, which is subject to the
slings and arrows of magical forces, and cannot attain to full possession of itself.
34
Ibid., 119.
32

11

imaginary was the belief that, as Raeff notes, human nature was essentially
malleable, that it could be fashioned by will and external circumstances. 35
Lockes epistemology of the tabula rasa is the perfect image of the new
ethic; for Taylor, its primary significance derives from its attraction as an
ethical stance, not its plausibility as a theory of knowledge.
The other key belief that made Reform possible, or that convinced people it
was plausibleand that would set the stage for exclusive humanism--was
that we dont need to compromise, that we dont need complementarity,
that the erecting of order doesnt need to acknowledge limits in any
opposing principle of chaos.36 The exhilaration of the new freedom and zeal
for order, which was originally intended to bring the Kingdom down to earth,
would inadvertently power not just the decline of Hell, the watering down of
sin, the taming of violenceand its replacement by economic production as
the highest human activity--and so on, but eventually the exclusion of God.
The irony is that the same forces that drove the sanctification of ordinary
life would produce the view that ordinary life was all there is. Taylor yokes
these various developments under the phrase The Modern Moral Order
(MMO), which he sums up thus:
the order of mutual benefit holds (1) between individuals; the
benefits (2) crucially include life and the means of life, however
securing these relates to the practice of virtue; it is meant (3) to secure
freedom, and easily finds expressions in terms of rights. (4) these
rights, this freedom, this mutual benefit is to be secured to all
participants equally.37

But how was this MMO shorn of its constitutive reference to God? How did
the shift to exclusive humanism occur? Recall Taylors first claim: the MMO
was built on the back of Latin Christendom, which we see in its activist,
interventionist stance, both towards nature and to human society, and in its
appropriation of universalism from its Christian sources. 38 This latter is
crucial: the increasing and eventually all but universal recognition of inner
sources of benevolence, whether the powers of disengaged reason (neoStoicism), a pure, universal will (Kant), or a sense of universal sympathy
(Rousseau).39 Taylor urges that the paradox of these new views of human
nature, fruits of an inward turn, is that, on the one hand, this inward turn
is also evident in religious life; indeed, the whole turn was largely driven by
religious motives40; on the other, these immanent sources of human
goodness are the charter of modern unbelief. 41 So how did humanism
35
36
37
38
39
40
41

Ibid.,
Ibid.,
Ibid.,
Ibid.,
Ibid.,
Ibid.,
Ibid.,

121.
125.
171.
246.
150-1.
258.
257.

12

become exclusive? How was the God reference of the MMO dispatched?
What triggers the anthropocentric shift?
Taylor summarizes the movement:
Because the very attempt to express what the Christian life means in
terms of a code of action in the saeculum opens the possibility of
devising a code whose main aim is to encompass the basic goods of
life in the saeculum: life, prosperity, peace, mutual benefit. In other
words, it makes possible the anthropocentric shift. Once this happens
then the break-out is ready to occur. It just needs the step to holding
that these secular goods are the point of the whole code. Pushed by
annoyance at the ascetic demands of ultra-conformity, many will be
willing to take this step.42

Taylors second claim, recall, is that this step must be seen not as a giant,
boot-strapping leap of mankind out of myth and superstition, a heroic casting
off of the yokes of belief, but as part of a stairway partly composed of
Christian materials. It is as though we climbed so high on the stairway that
we can no longer see what the lower steps were made of.
Taylor is at pains to convince us that this new order, the immanent frame,
must be seen as an invention, not a discovery; as a social imaginary, not just
a social theory, or naturalistic reality. If notin other words, if we ignore the
conditions of belief and our stadial consciousnessthen we are apt to take it
as natural, given, obvious, self-evident, and will fail to appreciate just how
much its erection was a hard slog. It seems obvious and undeniable that
the MMO is the way things are once the bogeymen of belief have been
banished. Taylor insists, however, that
the reverse is the case. Humans have lived for most of their history in
modes of complementarity, mixed with a greater or lesser degree of
hierarchy. What is rather surprising is that it was possible to win
through to modern individualism; not just on the level of theory, but
also transforming and penetrating the social imaginary. Now that this
imagination has become linked with societies of unprecedented power
in human history, it seems impossible to try to resist. 43

This is why he finds it simply inconceivable that exclusive humanism could


have arisen on a non-religious base. The modern attachment to the
immanent frame is based on just such an inabilityor unwillingnessto
divine the origins of its own historical, stadial consciousness. This modern
mis-identification of itself, its history, and of religion is of a piece with the
MST and reductive construal of secularity in terms of beliefin terms of the
theoretical and the cognitiverather than conditions of beliefwhich also
gives gravity to the ethical and the affective.
42
43

Ibid., 267.
Ibid., 169.

13

Taylors main points in expanding the sense of Reform and retelling the story
of secularization thus, are to show, first, that disenchantment, the disequilibrium of the hierarchical society/cosmos, the disembedding of society,
cosmos, and human good, and the project of Reformin short, the invention
of the Modern Moral Order--are induced by Latin Christendom through its
post-Axial sense of flourishing, the pull of communitas, and the ardor to
enact Gods plan in the world. And second, by casting the Modern Moral
Order as a social imaginary, he means to subvert the subtraction story of
secularization which holds that the truths we moderns hold to be self-evident
are not, in fact, a-historical facts covered for centuries by superstition and
metaphysics and simply discovered by natural science and clear-eyed,
unbiased reason, but are in part social constructions based onand
unimaginable apart from--prior, religious social imaginaries. Or, as Taylor
puts it, What happened here was not that one moral outlook bowed to brute
facts. Rather we might say that one moral outlook gave way to another. 44
Viewed in this broader context, first, religion isor can be--a catalyst for the
blossoming of reform and rationalization, not always an impediment, as MST
holds, and second, the latter holds moral stances that its naturalistic
ontology cannot ground.

III.Taylors Critique of Mainstream Secularization Theory


With the broad beams of Taylors narrative in place, let us look more closely
at his analysis and critique of the MST, or strong secularization thesis. I
want to address three questions here: First, what does Taylor see as MST?
Second, on what points does he agree with it? Third, what does he think is
missing from it?
As to the first question, Taylor notes that MST is mainly concerned with the
first and second senses of secularity: religion retreats from public spaces,
and religious belief and practice dramatically decline. Taylor sees the MST as
a structure with three stories. The first floor can be seen as the factwhich
he does not disputeof secularity 2. Almost everyone seems to agree that
something like the process we call secularity 2 has indeed happened; the
differences have to do with how and why it happened, and this corresponds
to the basement of the MST, which comprises the various explanations
proposed to account for the first floor, such as disenchantment,
differentiation of social functions, rationalization, and so forth. This is usually
understood as a linear and all but inevitable process. The third, upper floor
consists of the state of belief and unbelief today; in other words, Taylors
third sense of secularity, the conditions of belief. In his view, the MSTs view
of this upper floor is constrained by two assumptions: the disappearance
thesis and the epiphenomenal thesis. (433) The first holds that the
44

Ibid., 563.

14

independent motivation to religious belief and action (if, indeed, it hasnt


always been epiphenomenal) tends to disappear in conditions of
modernity.45 The second maintains that in conditions of modernity (if not
always), religious belief and action can only be epiphenomenal, that is,
functional to some distinct goals or purposes.46
Taylor agrees with MST on the fact of secularity 2 (the ground floor). He
allows that MST is right to this extent, that most of the changes [it
identifies] (e.g., urbanization, industrialization, migration, the fracturing of
earlier communities) had a negative effect on the previously existing
religious forms. They often made some of their earlier practices impossible,
while others lost their meaning or their force. 47 Taylor concedes that these
factorsthe basement--all played an important role in bringing about
secularity 1 and 2.
So what does Taylor quibble with? For starters, he refuses to see secularity 2
as linear, the decline of one unchanging thing, over centuries, under the
steady operation of a single set of causes. 48 This is precisely why Taylor
spends the first third of his book painstakingly retelling the history of preReformation Latin Christendom, namely, to show how complex and
variegated it actually was.
Second, his third central claim about secularity leads him to reject the
disappearance thesis. He thinks that our modern consciousness is stadial, in
that it defines itself as having overcome belief, and that to move to a
condition in which religious questions and motivations disappeared
completely would be to trade a fractured identity for no identity at all. He
also feels this thesis has been dealt a serious blow by the cultural revolution
of the 60s, which saw the rise of new forms of spirituality and innovations of
religious traditions; indeed, this period plays an important role in Taylors
reconstruction of our recent history.
The schizophrenia of the social
imaginary--modernitys reflexive mis-identification of itself--is a crucial part
of the current conditions of belief. The bulk of Taylors account of the process
of secularization, which I sketched above, is concerned with tracing the roots,
emergence, and dissemination of exclusive humanism. But the latter really
only forms the first of what he sees as a three-stage process. The second
two stages, the Nova Effect and the Super-Nova are really just different
degrees of the same trend, and bear more upon the conditions of belief
today. The Nova Effector what Taylor calls the Age of Mobilization-comprises the multiple critiques leveled at orthodox religion, Deism, and the
new humanism, and their cross-polemics.
These, he says, end up
generating a number of new positions, including modes of unbelief which
45
46
47
48

Ibid.,
Ibid.,
Ibid.,
Ibid.,

443.
443.
436.
436.

15

have broken out of the humanism of freedom and mutual benefit (e.g.,
Nietzsche and his followers)and lots else besides.49 The Nova picks up
speed in the 19th century and is still in full swing. The third stage, The SuperNovawhich Taylor also dubs The Age of Authenticity, is merely the spread
of the Nova to Western popular culture, which accelerates after the second
world war, and is powered by the ethic of authenticity or expressive
individualism, in which people are encouraged to find their own way,
discover their own fulfillment, do their own thing. 50 While there is not room
to sufficiently sketch Taylors portrait of the contemporary scene, his
intention in narrating these two latter stages in the process of secularization,
roughly from the middle of the 19 th century to the present, is to underwrite
his third central claim, namely, that the secular age bears a constitutive
reference to God. His conviction is that our age is deeply cross-pressured:
The salient feature of Western societies is not so much a decline of religious
faith and practice, though there has been lots of that, more in some societies
than in others, but rather a mutual fragilization of different religious
positiosn, as well as the outlooks of both belief and unbelief. 51 This is what
he means when he says that belief in God does not mean the same thing in
2000 as it did in 1500, and why he questions whether there could be
unbelief without any sense of some religious view which is being negated. 52
The MST tends to answer this question in the affirmative, but Taylor thinks
that such a response is predicated on a profound misunderstanding of its
own condition.
Another of Taylors other main misgivings with MSTas well as modern
theories of religion of, e.g., Nietzsche, Weber, and Gauchet-- is its
generalized view of religion. He believes this elides a tension fundamental to
our modern self-understanding. As noted above, MST tends to focus on
belief, and frames religion as mainly about belief in supernatural entities.
But Taylor wants to both broaden and specify the sense of religion, all while
avoiding a universally applicable definition: I want to focus not only on
beliefs and actions predicated on the existence of supernatural entities, but
also on the perspective of transformation of human beings which takes them
beyondwhatever is normally understood as human flourishing. 53 He
thinks that as far as secularization theory goes, we fudge the facts when we
talk about religion in general, rather than the specificity of belief as
Christian, since the ethical forms handed down to us by the latter have such
a hand in shaping the very modern posture that tries to analyze it! As he
puts it, In the Christian case, this means our participating in the love
(agape) of God for human beings, which is by definition a love which goes

49
50
51
52
53

Ibid.,
Ibid.,
Ibid.,
Ibid.,
Ibid.,

299.
299.
595.
269.
430.

16

way beyond any possible mutuality, a self-giving not bounded by some


measure of fairness.54
Taylors attachment to a more specific, substantive, content-based view of
religion is the key to 1) his lament at the over-reach of Reformthe
corruption of Christianity2) his conviction about modernitys selfmisunderstanding; and 3) his claim that it is the ethical attraction of
debunking, not the theoretical plausibility or historical adequacy of the
modern alternatives, that fuels the immanent frame and MST.
In an
important passage discussing Nietzsche, Taylor writes,
I have reservations about the idea that there is a demand for meaning
as such, as it were, any meaning, against something more specific.
Thisis rather endemic to our modern humanist consciousness of
religion and gives a particular (and I think dubious) twist to the hunger
for religion in human beings. Nietzsche is followed in this, among
others, by Weber, and also Gauchet. 55

Taylor also links this to what he sees as Webers and Gauchets occasional
conflation of enchantment and religion 56; this is not consistent with their
recognition, elsewhere, that both Judaism and Christianity have themselves
at different times fostered various kinds of disenchantment. 57 Taylor seems
to think that this inconsistency may derive from the ethical reaction in the
face of the loss of meaning, the defiant attitude of digging in ones heels
and facing the void pervasive in modernity. He dubs Weber one of the most
influential proponents of the view that we must accept that this sense of
loss is inevitable; it is the price we pay for modernity and rationality, but we
must courageously accept the bargain. 58 The debunker believes this
because he is convinced that his position does not run ahead of reasons, that
it is yielding to his intellectual conscience. But Taylor holds that both open
and closed stances [on the immanent frame] involve a step beyond available
reasons into the realm of anticipatory confidence. 59 His point is that there is
belief involved here, aspiration to meet a high water mark, embody a set of
virtuescourage, intellectual honesty, living in touch with reality, etc.not a
mere recognition of and capitulation to the facts. Here, Taylor turns the
tables on the debunkers, who accuse all believers of intellectual dishonesty-the sacrifice of the intellect, in Webers words-- and charges that the
closed spin implies that ones thinking is clouded or cramped by a
54

Ibid., 430.
Ibid., 318.
56
Ibid., 553: Enchantment, [i.e., the world of spirits and meaningful causal forces, of wood
sprites and relics], is essential to some forms of religion; but other formshave been built
on its partial or total denial. We cannot just equate the two. He adds that Even Weber
seems to have fallen into this at times.
57
Ibid., 426.
58
Ibid., 307.
59
Ibid., 551.
55

17

powerful picture which prevents one seeing important aspects of reality. I


want to argue that those who think the closed reading of immanence is
natural and obvious are suffering from this kind of disability. 60 The
disabling prejudice is the watered-down, hollowed out view of religion as an
expression of mans natural hunger for meaning as such.61
This premise underwrites the disappearance and epiphenomenal theses, and
suppresses the extant tension between the two rival view of the human
good. It is this essential tension between rival versions of human flourishing
between the vertical, transformative perspective and the horizontal, MMO
of mutual benefitthat produces the preponderance of positions crowding
the secular age, i.e., the current conditions of belief.
The MST is a
subtraction story in this sense: by assuming that religion plays a purely
functional role, and ignoring the content of the specific religion that forms
the backbone of the story of secularization, it underestimates the persistence
and power of the transformative perspective in our own day. Contrary to
MST, Taylor holds that religious longing, the longing and response to a morethan-immanent transformation perspectiveremains a strong independent
source of motivation in modernity.62
IV. Opening Up the Immanent Frame
A Secular Age is not a Christian apologetic. Taylor is not making the case for
faith per se. Instead, he is using a careful re-reading of the late medieval
and modern history of Christianity in order to show the power that its
(perhaps essential) tension between this-worldly and other-worldly
ethical commitments shapes our contemporary consciousness as a whole,
traditionalists, moderns, and postmoderns, the religious, the secular, and the
spiritual but not religious. The constitutive God-reference that haunts
the secular age should to seen not as an empty vestige, but a sign that
religionreligion in Taylors strong sense, adherence to the transformation
perspective (ethically), and openness to a transcendent reality (ontological)
is not just here to stay, but destined to evolve; indeed, Taylor assiduously
avoids positing some religious faculty of the soul, some universal constant
in human nature that yearns for God but has been tamped down by
modernity; as we saw, this is in fact the form of the subtraction story he sets
out to criticize. He appears committed to the hermeneutical principle that
we cannot speak of a bare human nature existing in itself apart from a
network of historical prejudices and social imaginaries. Taylor is equally
suspicious of some golden age of religion marked by universal devotion.
60

Ibid., 551.
Ibid., 717-18: [Many modern] have seen the essence of religion in the answers it offers to
the question of meaning. I believe, as I argue above, that these theories are in an important
way off the track. They imply that the main point of religion is solving the human need for
meaning. In taking this stance, they absolutize the modern predicament. This is one of
the most important passages in the book.
62
Ibid., 531.
61

18

Taylors own spin on the return of the religious and re-enchantment of the
world is an argument for re-incarnation, which involves a more integral
approach to religion that re-instates the transformative perspective and
recovers a richer relationship to tradition and a renewal of the constitutive
power of language [language quote]
Taylors story is not meant to be a prediction, or even a prescription; it is
intended to hold up a more accurate mirror to our present, bring the regnant
narrativethe immanent frameto light, and show that the way we spin it
whether closed or openis dictated not by the frame itself, but by the
sundry sources of our secular selves. The gates of the immanent frame are
locked from the inside.

19