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.)
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Today was the 23rd anniversary of the nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine. I had been invited to give a sermon at a nearby Unitarian church connected to both this anniversary and the May Day (Beltane) that’s coming up in a few days, and my thoughts, in preparation, revolved around how both of those dates, along with Earth Day four days earlier, combine a significance in cyclical time — the ritualized time by which people shape their daily, monthly, and annual life rhythms — and in world-historical time, that is, the time of events that have redefined humanity’s relationship to the world at large.
Earth Day 1970 and the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986 both served as moments of recognition of environmental risk and hazard. Earth Day instituted the practice of large-scale political demonstrations and teach-ins on the environment. The 1970 Earth Day involved about 20 million people in the US; the 1990 Earth Day, at the peak of the ‘second wave’ of environmental activism, is thought to have involved 200 million participants in 140 different countries. Earth Day’s evolution thus offers a kind of gauge of the popular pulse of environmental awareness, and with its institutionalization into childrens culture, a gauge for the struggle over how our kids’ attitudes towards nature develop and, in turn, for how they may put pressure on us to change our ways.
Chernobyl, on the other hand, was the single most important shock to a system (the Soviet) that was eventually brought down by the events it triggered. This was especially the case in Ukraine, where it catalyzed an environmental movement that ultimately mutated into the national independence movement. More so than most environmental disasters, Chernobyl remains mired in debates over its impacts. The International Atomic Energy Association’s 2006 report (co-authored with the World Health Organization and the UN Development Program) cited data suggesting that no more than 4000 cancer deaths can be traced to the radioactive release from the Chernobyl accident. In response, Greenpeace International produced a report citing scientific data that the number is really between 100,000 and 200,000. Victims’ groups, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and even previous WHO reports appear to line up on the side of Greenpeace in this debate. Critics on both sides dispute the other side’s research methods, their use of epidemiological data, estimates for escaped nuclear fuel (which the IAEA puts at 3-4%, while others have claimed that 50% or even almost all of the reactor’s fuel escaped into the environment). See here , here, and here on the “body count” and other controversies.
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On the surface, “immanence” would appear to favor certain religiosities (paganisms, pantheisms, animisms, earth spiritualities) over others (transcendentalist monotheisms, rigid dualisms, Buddhist “extinctionism,” et al). But its resonance works within traditions as well: towards panentheistic strains of Christianity, where the Christ is seen as in-dwelling, where Easter is the rebirth of nature and life as well as of social relations after the long hard winter, where Mary is the cosmos; or toward a boddhisattvic liberationist Buddhism that cherishes life rather than seeking to flee from it.
Immanentism redirects our attention to what is going on in the moment-to-moment shaping of the world, to our experience and ability to shift things in one direction or another, to karmic conditions as open-ended rather than fixed. When we grasp something (the self, political power, the object of our desire), we lose it. Immanentism redirects us to the between: the grasping, the finding and losing, the power-to and power-with, the swelling current that pushes for change (e.g., in the build-up to the last US election) rather than the icon of change it gives rise to (Obama) though that icon be instrumental to the change.
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Jeffrey Kripal’s piece on Aldous Huxley in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education captures a piece of the tug of war (cultural war?) over spirituality since the 1960s.
It’s interesting that East Europeans are rediscovering Huxley, now that Orwell would seem less relevant. Perhaps there’s a correlation between authoritarianism (as embodied by Soviet-style socialism and portrayed in Orwell’s 1984) and dualist-transcendentalist religion (the only way one can avoid the system is by transcending it, working outside the system, liberating oneself from it altogether), versus liberal commodity capitalism (Brave New World, today’s Eastern Europe) and immanentism (Huxley, psychedelic spirituality, etc)? I’ll have to think about that… It’ll be interesting to see what Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) and Leonardo DiCaprio do with Brave New World.