“We’re on a Mission from God” (Jake and Elwood, the notorious Blues Brothers)
As the story goes, Jake (recently released from prison) and his brother, Elwood need to raise a lot of money in a short amount of time to save the Catholic school they grew up in. They are in dire need and are looking for some hope. It is out of a charismatic religious experience where they ‘see the light’ and find their mission from God. For them, the revealed truth is to get the band back together.
What about you? What’s it going to take for you to believe? What does it take to move from the epistemological position of not-believing to the assuredness of belief? What exactly is the discernable space and varied location between belief and not-belief?
These seem to be just a few of the questions that Charles Taylor sets out to explain in his masterful and astonishingly complete volume of work in “A Secular Age“. I am not sure I have ever picked up a book with such a vast proposal as this one has, to explain the true macro shifts in ideas, beliefs and thinking within the secular and religious milieu. In this way, as challenging as it is, Taylor’s work deserves not only to be read, but increasingly re-read.
Being a lover of history and its connection to our present day context, I found his treatment of the Protestant Reformation as a major influence in the evolution of belief and knowledge that eventually led to the age of secularism we have today to be profoundly interesting. Notably the inherent privatization of faith within the new Protestantism as it dramatically changed the ‘center of gravity of religious life’, no longer needing the church magic from the hierarchy, the sacred now became a matter of more inward and personal faith. It is at least in this way that the Reformation layed the very groundwork neccessary for the present Secular age. Taylor calls this shift the “Great Disembedding”, away from the transcendent commonwealth and to the immanence of the individual. The pre-modern world previous to 1500 A.D. lived within the construct of the ‘porous’ self where there wasn’t a clear boundary between the spiritual and physical worlds. With a clear disenchantment of this pre-modern world, the modern secular age was birthed within the ‘buffered’ self, a distinct disengagement from everything outside of the physical world.
However, one of the main theses of Taylor’s work that captured my attention was his assertion that there is not an entirely opposite location between belief and not-belief, the religious and the secular. He refers to the sides as ‘brothers under the skin’.
But it’s not an accident that “Christians” fall into similar deviations to those of “secular humanists”. As I have tried to show throughout this book, we both emerge from the same long process of Reform in Latin Christendom. We are brothers udner the skin. (p. 675)
These brothers form a kind of step-family that Taylor calls “Secularity 3″; a middle way where belief and unbelief co-exist somewhat uneasily. Whether from a place of belief or unbelief, Taylor asserts that humans are self-interpreting animals looking for meaning through the interpretation of their world. These interpretations are where we get our sense of self and we often find it in one another. The ultimate experience of our interpretations is what Taylor calls ‘fullness‘. Fullness is where our answers are found and truth is self-evident and experienced. Whether it be belief or unbelief, both brothers are seeking fullness through the interpretation of their world. In this way, belief and unbelief are not competing theories, but are rather different means of understanding and searching for meaning (eventually leading to fullness). Belief seeks its ultimate interpretation in the Transcendent (the realm beyond human life) and unbelief seeks its interpretive meaning in the immanent (within human life).
So do either of the brothers ultimately lead to the ‘fullness’ that they set out to achieve? Do they see the light? Does their mission from God or not God get revealed? Is one brother clearly preferred over the other? Taylor finds several dilemmas in asserting any sense of clear distinction here in his conclusions. He establishes that either brother requires at least an ‘anticipatory confidence’ (leap of faith) regardless of how one proclaims truth within the Transcendent and the other from it’s Immanent world. He states:
We see from all this how life in a secular age (i.e. Secularity 3) is uneasy and cross-pressured, and doesn’t lend itself easily to a comfortable resting place. This is what we see in the polemic, but it emerges also if we look at a range of concerns that are endemic to this age, those which touch on the issue of meaning in life. (p. 676)
‘Uneasy and cross-pressured’, does this at times describe your belief or not-belief? It does mine and that’s coming from a guy who believes he’s on a mission from God. 😉