Enchantment and Disenchantment in Taylor’s Essay “Western Secularity”

Here’s the outline for my presentation on Charles Taylor in my TEDS course, Religion in the Modern World taught my Dr. Harold Netland.

A Brief Overview and engagement with Charles Taylor’s chapter, “Western Secularity” in Rethinking Secularism by Calhoun, Juergensmeyer, and VanAntwerpen, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

  • Problem of Definition
    • Taylor begins his essay by acknowledging that the word “secular” is a tricky word which might not, and most probably does not mean the same thing to different people across different cultures. With this in mind, Taylor seeks to limit himself to Western, Latinized Christian culture in order to analyze its secularization, in hopes that a clearer understanding will allow a more fruitful cross-cultural conversation in the future.
    • Though the word is tricky, Taylor gives us a Stipulative Definition:

“There are all sorts of ways of describing [Secular]: the separation of religion from public life, the decline of religious belief and practice. But while one cannot avoid touching on these, my main interest here lies in another facet of our age: belief in God, or in the transcendent in any form, is contested; it is an option among many; it is therefore fragile; for some people in some milieus, it is very difficult, even “weird.” Five hundred years ago in Western civilization, this wasn’t so.” (49)

  • He then argues for Two Preconditions of Secularization
    • The first precondition is the Sacred/Secular dyad
    • there needs to be a bifurcation between the sacred and the secular if the secular is to have a chance at domination
      • Taylor traces this bifurcation back to the Christian distinction between Spiritual/Temporal realms concerning time (pg. 34)
      • From the Spiritual/temporal distinction arose the hard and fast Transcendence/Immanence dyad.
      • Taylor argues that this is unique to Latinized Christendom. (33)
  • The Second precondition of Secularization is the Possibility of viewing reality from the secular realm alone – four causes led to the actualization of this precondition
    • Postaxial[1] high religion’s eradication of low/early religious practices, in this case Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity’s iconoclasm accidentally led to a disembedding process.
      • 3 crucial ways of embeddedness in early religion (Archaic religion) (partly a matter of identity)
        • Social – “in early religion, we primarily relate to God as a society.” (43)
        • Cosmological – “Certain places are sacred.” (44)
        • Human good (flourishing) – “What the people ask for when they invoke or placate divinities and powers is prosperity, health, long life, and fertility; what they ask to be preserved from is disease, death, sterility, and premature death.” (44)
  • The second cause was the turn to the ‘individual’ emphasized by ‘personal religion’ which led to a society of individuals who could believe as so they wished.
  • The possibility of morality apart from God
    • Made possible thanks to autonomous thinkers like Immanuel Kant
  • The public/private dyad which sought to protect personal religion but gave rise to the separation of church and state, which when pressed relegates religion more and more into the private sphere
  • Now, this brings us to the interesting through line in Taylor’s argument that I want to discuss for the rest of my time – The Through line of Enchantment and Disenchantment
    • the Enchanted world
      1. A major difference between us and those who came 500 years or more before us is that they thought they lived in an enchanted world, and we think we live in a disenchanted or unenchanted world.
      2. According to Taylor, “the “enchanted” world was one in which spirits and forces defined by their meanings (the kind of forces possessed by love potions or relics) played a big role. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could shape our lives, both psychical and physical.” (39)
    • Included in the Enchanted world was the notion of The Porous Self
      1. Taylor argues that the pre-modern view of the self was “porous” in that the self was much more open to influence than the modern view. The porous self received its identify and boundaries from its social life. It could be influenced by spirts and even from inanimate sacred objects like relics, talismans, or from proximity to things like a sacred mountain.
      2. Taylor says “for the porous self, the source of its most powerful and important emotions are outside the “mind”, or, better put, the very notion that there is a clear boundary, allowing us to define an inner base area, grounded in which we can disengage from everything else, has no sense.” (41).
  • If the porous self is feeling melancholy it’s because melancholy itself has a grip on the self in some sense.
  • Taylor juxtaposes this view with The Buffered Self
    • The buffered self, on the other hand, is the modern view that the self is closed off, self-contained, self-determinative- if has a buffer that closes off outside influence.
    • For the buffered modern self, there’s always the possibility of taking a step back from your surroundings; the option to disengage from everything outside the mind is an ability open to the buffered self.
  • If the buffered self was feeling melancholy, it could take a step back, consider its situation, take a pill, or each a banana.
  • In contradistinction to the porous self, the ultimate purposes for the buffeted self arise from within. In this view the individual is much more isolated.
  • The Truth of the Matter, does it matter?
    1. Taylor describes two modern views of disenchantment that we may find ourselves holding today
      • Subtraction story: this view says through a process disenchantment, we’ve shed a false view of reality and thus “there can be no epistemic loss” in moving from enchantment to disenchantment because those former beliefs were false. No harm no fowl in ditching false beliefs. [Primarily focused on beliefs]
      • Real change view: we have lost an “important way in which people used to experience the world.” (39)
        1. Taylor identifies himself with this second view.
        2. Not just what you believe but how you experience the world.
      • Critical Engagement
        1. Taylor does a masterful job of traversing the broad and bumpy terrain of Western, Latinized Christendom. Although I mostly agree with his conclusions, there are several areas where I would like to offer some disagreement:
        2. Throughout this essay Taylor takes a descriptive tone, “this is what happened, then that, and that was because of this Western doctrine.” But he doesn’t deal with the justification of said doctrines.
        3. For instance, he blames the Latinized Christian doctrine of transcendence/immanence for giving rise to secularism without discussing whether or not that distinction is a warranted Christian doctrine. If this doctrine naturally arises out of Christian theology then one could hardly blame Latinized Christians for propagating it. However, if it was imposed on Christian theology unnaturally then we might rightly chastise them for its ruinous effects.
        4. Likewise, Taylor often reminds the reader that the emphasis on “personal religion” led to the separation of church and state, the erosion of cosmological and social embeddedness, the rise of the buffeted self and ultimately to Secularism, but he doesn’t consider whether or not Christianity itself actually emphasizes personal religion or not. If so, then perhaps Christians were just being faithful to Christianity itself.
        5. Similarly, Taylor laments the passing of the social imaginary from premodern to modern, and the view of the self from porous to buffeted, assigning blame along the way, mostly to Protestants, but rarely does he bring the truth into the matter.
        6. For instance, he describes a young woman’s experience with the Akan spirit Sowlui and almost immediately he rebuffs the reader’s inclination to give a psychological explanation of the encounter. He describes this encounter as a “fact” in her world, but the truth question is an important one and it’s overlooked. Was there really a spirit or not? The answer to this question might actually come from our theological pre-commitments rather than our place on the enchantment-disenchantment spectrum.
        7. Though Taylor describes the modern self as buffeted and protected from outside influence, his depiction of the change from Enchantment to disenchantment would appear to be the result of a society that’s actually too porous, a people who are subject to the inevitable conclusions of their apparently wrong-headed doctrines. If this is the case then ironically, the new buffeted self is actually the inevitable consequence of the porous self.
      • So, how does a biblical depiction of the self compare with this dichotomy?
        1. Though I’m slightly critical of Taylor’s view, I do empathize with his “real change view”, i.e. that the loss of the enchanted world is a real loss. But my reasons are different than his. I don’t lament the loss of a false enchanted way in which people experienced the world, I lament the fact that there is real truth in the discarded image of the enchanted world. There truly are cosmic powers of darkness active in our world, there are spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places with whom we do battle.
        2. I think that Reenchantment is a worthy goal, but its only hope is the Bible.
  • From my reading of Scripture, we are living in at least a “semi-enchanted” world. God has established a natural order in which we can study and do science and make medicine. And yet He is a personal sovereign God who answers our prayers for healing, sometimes miraculously! Sometimes I’m tempted by demonic forces and sometimes the temptation is more powerful because I’m hungry, tired, lonely, or sad. Ours is a world of psycho-somatic interplay. Though there might not be a love potion, I can ask God to strengthen the bond of love between my wife and I- and I can also eat a Snickers when I’m mad at her and feel my orneriness subside.
  • So rather than a return to a former outdated and false sense of enchantment, which Taylor agrees is impossible, and rather than a complete iconoclastic disenchantment, I think the Christian ought to awaken through a transformed, renewed mind and through the use of a discipled imagination to a biblical view of enchantment.
  • Questions
    1. Taylor describes two views on disenchantment, the “subtraction view” where we are able to shuck off the false beliefs of the enchanted world, and the “real change” view which sees the loss of the enchanted world as a real impoverishment. Which view do you take and why?
    2. Taylor gives two descriptions of the self, the Porous (premodern, enchanted) and the Buffered (modern, disenchanted). How do these views compare with the biblical depiction[s] of the human self? Is one more accurate?
    3. From a religious perspective, secularization- and in this conversation, disenchantment- is often depicted as a negative. Are these phenomena inherently bad? Defend your answer.

photo cred: pulled from here

[1] Taylor picks up this description from Karl Jaspers “The age when the “higher” forms of religion appeared, Confucius, Gautama, Socrates, and the Hebrew prophets.” (45)


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