Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is an inspired yet rigorously argued Wagnerian effort to analyze the distinctive anxieties of modern intellectual and social life, by one of the most important and interesting philosophers of the last five decades.
I will pick up one strand that illustrates Taylor’s central themes of religion and secularity and the conceptual and historical continuities and discontinuities between them: the process of so-called ‘disenchantment’ that is supposed to mark our modernity. And I will stress in particular the identification of a fault-line (that may seem like a tendentious expression but I believe it captures Taylor’s own view of things) in some of the intellectual and theological and social alliances that emerged in the Early Modern period in the West.
If, as Taylor thinks, our modern life is beset with distinctive anxieties, then the Early Modern period of history (and intellectual history) provides a good focus for a genealogical diagnosis of the conditions in which we find ourselves today. It is a focus that can get lost—partly because Weber’s term “disenchantment,” which in the past had so dominated our description of the distinctiveness of modernity on these matters, though not false, is too omnibus to be useful, and partly because the hectoring tomes written by our up-to-the-minute atheist bully-boys like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, pick up the thread of contemporary secularism in a much later period than Early Modernity.
By “later period,” I mean, but don’t just mean, the Darwinian concentration of some of these works (Dawkins or Dennett, for instance) in order to present their insistent secularity. One way to describe the irrationality that they are all so keen (and one need hardly say, perfectly right) to find in the belief that the world was created in six days a few thousand years ago, is in terms of one’s continuing immaturity, one’s persistence in an infantile reliance on a father whose demise was registered by philosophers (Nietzsche, but Hegel before him) a century and a half ago, and one’s abdication of responsibility in the humbling of oneself to an authority that is not intelligible to human concepts and scientific explanations. What goes entirely missing in this simplistic picture is the intellectual as well as cultural and political pre-history of the demise of such an authority figure.
Well before his demise, brought about I suppose by the scientific outlook that we all now rightly admire and that is recommended by the authors of these tedious tomes, it was science itself and nothing less than science, which proposed instead in the late seventeenth century a quite different kind of fate for the father: a form of migration, an exile into inaccessibility from the visions of ordinary people to a place outside the universe, from where, almost as if a divine form of Archimedes’s lever, or in the more familiar image of the clockwinder, he first set and then kept an inert universe in motion. It is worth expounding in some detail on this deist deracination of God from the world of matter and nature and human community and perception so as to understand its large and abiding effects for the modern world we now inhabit, on its theology and politics and political economy.
There is no Latin expression such as “Deus Deracinus” to express the thought I want to expound. The closest we have is “Deus Absconditus,” which, though it is meant to convey the inaccessibility of God, conveys to the English speaker a fugitive fleeing. Rather, I want to stress the idea that it is from the roots of nature and ordinary perceptible life that God was removed. “Racine” or roots is the right description of his immanence in a conception of a sacralized universe, from which he was torn away as a result of being exiled by the metaphysical outlook of early modern science (aligned with thoroughly mundane interests).
But, although my (somewhat grotesque) neologism “Deus Deracinus” in some respects better captures what I want to express, in another respect the word we have, “Deus Absconditus” suggests something of what I want to investigate. The phrase, quite apart from standing for the inaccessibility of God that was insisted upon by the late seventeenth century ideologues of the Royal Society, conveys a certain anxiety that I think lay behind their insistence. “Conditus” means “put away for safeguarding,” with the “abs-” in some uses reinforcing the “awayness,” and separateness or inaccessibility of where God is safely placed. What I want to ask is, why should the authority figure need safeguarding in an inaccessibility, what dangers lay in his immanence, in his availability to the visionary temperaments and capacities of all those who inhabit his world? And why should the scientific establishment of Early Modernity seek this safekeeping in exile, for a father whom its successor in late, more mature, modernity would properly describe as “dead”?
This, I believe, is the diagnostic focus that the notion of disenchantment should be seen as most illuminatingly identifying. And there is no understanding the so-called “infantilism” of our current religious yearnings without acknowledging them to be, at least partly, a reaction to a longstanding series of effects in culture, in democratic politics, and in political economy that emerged over three centuries out of those Early Modern scientific and metaphysical conceptual shifts and the commercial and theological and (oligarchic) statist interests that they drew into alliance.