I recently worked my way through Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which, since its publication in 2007, has become one of the most widely reviewed and critically lauded books on religion and secularism — and which, in a tangential way, was one of the provocations that led me to start this blog in the first place. What follows are some thoughts on Taylor’s notions of immanence and transcendence, and on the “third way” of radical immanence, or immanent naturalism, that has become an important conversation partner in the debate that has arisen in the wake of Taylor’s book. (See The Immanent Frame for some of this debate, especially the contributions by William Connolly, Elizabeth Hurd, Lars Tonder, Patrick Lee Miller, and Taylor himself.) These thoughts are taken from a longer argument that I presented at last week’s ISSRNC conference in Amsterdam.

It’s rare that a nearly 900-page tome of dense and circuitous philosophical and historical prose gets the kind of attention A Secular Age has gotten, and the fact that Taylor is as brilliant, respectful, and nuanced a thinker as he is makes it a book well worth celebrating. Conferences have been held in its honor, and the Social Science Research Institute-supported blog The Immanent Frame, on “secularism, religion, and the public sphere” and named after one of the book’s central concepts, has attracted the contributions of dozens of high-profile thinkers to weigh in on the themes raised by Taylor. (The list includes Talal Asad, Arjun Appadurai, Robert Bellah, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Martin Marty, Wendy Brown, Craig Calhoun, Jose Casanova, William Connolly, Saba Mahmoud, Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Roger Gottlieb, Timothy Fitzgerald, Todd Gitlin, Christina Lafont, and Taylor himself.)


The main strength Taylor brings to this broad topic is a careful and nuanced understanding of the mutually shaping dynamic between ideas, tacit understandings and practices, and changing cultural and (to some extent) techno-economic relations. Building on his much referenced Sources of the Self, Taylor proposes to probe into the changes that have occurred within the pre-ontological “background of human understanding” — i.e. the framework of tacit assumptions and understandings within which people’s “moral, spiritual or religious experience and search takes place” — that have taken us in the west from a world in which belief in God, along with angels, spirits, and all manner of religious conceptions, was taken for granted, to a world today in which such belief is one among many options, and not a particularly captivating one at that.

I won’t summarize his arguments — that’s been done by others in print media and on-line (Only a Game’s ten-part summary is particularly helpful) — except to say that, in Taylor’s account, the process has involved a “great disembedding,” a shift from a “porous” pre-modern self, one that experienced a much greater continuity with a cosmos of other beings, to a “buffered” and disengaged, or at least easily disengageable, modern self, and a tremendous proliferation and diversification of religious and spiritual options that have arisen in the wake of the emergence of “exclusive humanism” as a viable alternative to a Christian worldview. Today’s world, according to Taylor, is characterized by an opposition between traditional, authority-based ‘neo-Durkheimian’ forms of religion and a proliferation of ‘post-Durkheimian’ forms of quest-based ‘expressive spirituality.’ While traditionalists bemoan the growth of the latter, Taylor tries to view the situation positively, concluding that “we are just at the beginning of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no one can foresee.” What’s shared by all of these options, however, is an underlying set of background assumptions that Taylor calls the ‘immanent frame,’ in which “the buffered identity of the disciplined individual moves in a constructed social space, where instrumental rationality is a key value, and time is pervasively secular”, and all of this is understood as “natural” (542). This immanent frame allows for an openness to ‘something beyond,’ but does not demand nor particularly encourage it. Rather, we live in specific contexts within which that frame is ‘spun’ in one direction or another – for instance, in academe it is spun in the direction of closure (i.e., immanence), but in other cultural contexts it may be spun in the direction of openness (to transcendence).

This duality of immanence and transcendence underlies the entire argument of the book, and it’s where Taylor’s argument comes up against its most serious limitation. As a series of critics have pointed out, this duality is premised on a baseline Christian understanding of faith and transcendence, according to which ‘believers’ are those who hold to a faith in a ‘fullness’ that is “beyond human life” and beyond the living world itself, while ‘unbelievers’ are those whose beliefs, say, in nature, the power of art and sensual beauty, human generosity, and so on, fall short of genuine transcendence. In the end, Taylor’s account of the West is too internally driven, too focused on developments within western history, with little reference to the many ‘constitutive outsides’ in relationship to which the Christian West evolved the way it did. And yet, as a series of scholars and historians have pointed out (for instance, Talal Asad, Edward Said, Walter Mignolo, Tomoko Masuzawa, Peter Van der Veer, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Enrique Dussel, and others), the last 500 years of western history are inconceivable without reference to the expansion of European economies to other continents, the ‘discovery’ and colonization of the Americas, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the encounters (direct or indirect) with the otherness of China, India, the Ottoman Muslim world, Orthodox Christianity, and Judaism (Christendom’s main internal ‘other’). There is also — as yet uncommented on by critics, most of whom have yet to take on board the lessons of environmental history — the persistent presence of a dynamic natural world that interacts with human society in complex and mysterious ways, including through plagues, diseases, natural disasters, apparent ‘acts of god,’ and so on. All of these get intertwined with internal eco-social dynamics such as changing class relations (e.g., the ascent of an international merchant class), the enclosure of common lands, intensification of private property relations, and subsequent migrations from rural to urban areas; encounters with new ‘natures’ around the world, from the tropics of Africa and South America to newly opened up colonial territories of what become Canada, Australia, the United States, and so on; and development of new relations with old ‘natures’ through technological change, intensification of forestry and farming practices, the transformation of ecosystems, and the like.

Once these things are added to the picture, the account becomes one in which various forms of otherness — both cultural/anthropological and ecological or eco-social otherness — are perpetually bubbling to the surface, encountered either as background or as foreground, and are having to be made sense of ideologically as well as practically. These forms of otherness become opportunities for new projections or imaginaries of transcendence, such as Rousseuian ideals of the ‘noble savage’ (which Taylor fails to recognize as ‘transcendent otherness’ at all) and for reaction formations, where the effort to gain or retain cultural superiority is made through a ‘vertical’ projection of identity towards a distant God and affirmed through hierarchic ideologies, technologies of discipline and control, and so on. Discourses of ‘religion,’ ‘barbarism,’ ‘civilization,’ ‘primitivity,’ and so on, arise in the midst of such intra-societal shifts and extra-societal encounters.

So while Taylor begins with a historical ontology, one that understands ideas and beliefs to be shaped within the dialogue between rival discourses supplemented by everyday practices and tacit understandings, with the very understanding of self, society, and universe changing radically over time, he is unwilling to apply that same historical ontology to the main underpinning of his argument — the difference between ‘immanence’ and ‘transcendence.’ That difference apparently doesn’t change over time, and it provides him with a steady object of belief (a transcendent God), against which alternative beliefs are judged to be somehow lacking. In retreating to transhistoricist assumptions about what the sacred or transcendent is and about its historical constancy/invariability, Taylor wants, in effect, to have his historicist cake and to eat it too (as Peter Gordon points out in his excellent review in the Journal of the History of Ideas).

Now it may sound as if I’m arguing that the sacred or transcendent — God in effect — is a “social construct.” And while that case has obviously been made, it’s precisely not the case I’m making. In order to triangulate the conversation, we have to recognize, as Bruno Latour and others have argued, that “the social” itself is a construction — and that therefore “construction” is not something that people do (through their ideas, discourses, practices, ideologies, or whatever), but that the world is perpetually being co-constructed by all its active, agential forces and relations. (“Forces” is not an adequate word here, but let’s stick with it for now.) So, the idea of “transcendence”, like the idea of “immanence” that Taylor opposes it with, is an idea that has emerged out of the encounters between specifically situated agents interacting and dynamically constituting the world through their actions, in a world in which such action take place socially, communicatively, technologically, ecologically, and so on. Latour, John Law, and others have argued that (as Gordon puts it) any “transformation in the background means a transformation in the sorts of entities that can show up” (2008:669), so if the background that Taylor is describing has changed so dramatically, then there is no reason to assume that God himself (the transcendent) cannot also change. In other words, “transcendence itself is but one phase in the social history of the sacred” (Gordon 2008:673). It’s only within a modern worldview that sets out the “religious” to refer to the invisible, unmeasurable, and empirically unverifiable, that “transcendence” has to take on the form of that which is outside the measurable and verifiable world. In other contexts the religious is not that; in fact, it may not be anything at all (since the term may not exist), or it may be everything — which, in fact, is what Taylor ascribes to the “archaic” view of embedded self/society/cosmos, but doesn’t see as possible today.

The alternative to Taylor’s view, fortunately, has been expressed in the debate elicited by the book — among the comments at the Immanent Frame by William Connolly, Lars Tonder, Elizabeth Hurd, and others (and by Hurd and Peter Gordon in other venues). Some of them have been explicitly portraying this as a three-way conversation between Taylorite transcenders, secular humanists, and a third group variously characterized as “radical immantists,” “immanent naturalists,” “the immanent counter-Enlightenment” (Taylor’s not quite adequate term), and by other terms. Anyone familiar with this blog knows that I fit myself into this third category. This perspective would see “embeddedness” as more variable, made up of elements that continue in various forms and modalities, both in western history (such as the “post-Axial compromise” of a Christianity in which some pursue individual salvation while others practice the same old pagan rites under new names) and in the non-western, sub-western, and alter-western cultural formations against and in relation to which the West has shaped itself all along. These include the efforts of philosophers such as Connolly’s “immanent naturalists” (Lucretius, Epicurus, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Deleuze, Foucault) as well as counter-cultural groups that have sought relations to the sacred in nature, in the body, and in the expressive arts — all of which Taylor casts as secondary and ultimately inadequate forms of transcendence. But if the universe is perceived to be fundamentally open, a universe of becoming, in which differences and novelty emerge out of the interaction of the constitutive fabric of things themselves, then the ‘transcendent/immanent frame’ should be seen as a historical construct of the kind that Taylor posits the ‘immanent frame’ to be, and it is this larger frame that needs to be subjected to the kind of interrogation that Taylor so deftly applies only to one half of it.

The second part of my argument presented at the ISSRNC engages in a more detailed comparison of two of Taylor’s and Connolly’s framing metaphors — respectively, “fullness”/”emptiness” and “love of this world”/”existential resentment.” The third and final part stages a dialogue between Taylor and Connolly and raises some questions, from a Taylorite perspective, to those who would call for a “re-enchanted immanentism.” (I include myself in that category, but I think it’s easier said than done; there are some issues that need to be thought through, and Taylor’s schema, despite its limitations, helps us identify those.) I’ll share the rest of the argument in some form here in the coming weeks. I’m traveling until late August and will be blogging very sporadically, if at all.

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