January 15, 2008

It was virtually impossible not to believe in God

The central question in Taylor's A Secular Age is how human beings went from a situation just a few hundred years ago, in which naive religious belief was the "default" position and unbelief was unthinkable, to our current cultural situation in which people naively believe that unbelief is the default, or "natural" position, and that belief is somehow superimposed, so to speak, on that. To a certain extent, this simplification is true.
For example, even for contemporary believers, their belief is an option or a choice, at least in the West. For our Islamic enemies, belief is clearly not a choice, since it's difficult to believe anything when your head has been removed from your body. But for the radical left as well, unbelief might as well not be a choice. It's just a naive, unreflective, and kneejerk stance, for example, in our fully secularized academia. Therefore, it seems that only in the freely religious society is the believer able to exercise his freedom to choose God. This is clearly one of the things that makes the United States (and a few other places) so unique and valuable. Just as love isn't love if it is compelled, only if you are free to reject faith is faith truly meaningful. For this reason alone we could say that the present age (at least in the modern West) is -- at least potentially -- more spiritually "evolved" than premodern societies where faith was taken for granted and not freely chosen. Really, the main purpose of my book was to make religion relevant to modern minds who might otherwise be caught up in the cultural template of naive unbelief, and therefore miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime.
I have heard it said that both Christianity and modern rabbinical Judaism were distinct but parallel developments that grew out of the matrix of a more "primitive" Judaism. Despite doctrinal differences, what unites them under the surface is the "interior" turn they reflected in the first century AD.
For example, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70AD, Jews were forced by circumstances to go from a more exteriorized and ritualistic form of worship to a much more interior understanding, as reflected in the development of the Talmud. It was presaged in the allegorical approach of a Philo Judaeus (20 BC - 50 AD), whose style of thought is remarkably similar to early Christian fathers from Origen to Denys the Areopagite.
Likewise, I think something analogous has happened in the last few hundred years, in that both secularism and contemporary religiosity grew out of a religious matrix in response to the challenges of modernity. Just as there might be a deep "pneuma-cognitive" structure uniting Christianity and Judaism, there might be one that unites the seeming opposites of secularism and modern religiosity, which have worked dialectically to produce a deeper understanding of reality -- but only where both have been allowed to flourish, most notably, in the United States. The "culture war" -- which is very real -- does not -- or at least should not -- involve the effort of one side to vanquish the other. The religious side actually understands this much better than the angry and paranoid secular side, since there is no remotely serious movement that aims to return to a premodern mode of government, in which religious authorities control all aspects of life. Rather, the argument is over the middle area, where the two overlap.
For example, secularists want to ban religion from our schools, but no religious person wants to ban secularism. Either way, it is again totally naive to think of secularism as a sort of religion-free zone, without any distorting preconceptions of its own. In fact, if we want to stand back and take a more disinterested view, we can see that the forces of secularism and religiosity have worked dialectically over the past several centuries to produce something greater, at least in the United States. This was certainly implied in Mead's God and Gold, which I discussed in tedious detail in a series of posts a couple months back.
Religious believers may be naive in failing to realize how secularized their minds are. This was implied in a comment the other day, to the effect that Truth was revealed two thousand years ago in the person of Christ, and that it is only for us to surrender to it. Again, Taylor's book traces the remarkable journey which has taken us

"from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others."

In the past, it was quite easy and "natural" to be a believer, whereas now -- especially if you live near a big city, as I do -- it is a constant challenge, as you must run counter to all of the forces around you. Indeed, I am a Mighty, Mighty Man. Thus, even to say that we must "surrender" to "Truth" is a metaphysically loaded statement, full of preconceptions and problematics that did not exist two thousand years ago.
  • What ever happened to the human mind that allowed it to conceive of and make such a profound choice?
  • And is the freedom to do so a good thing or a bad thing?

No one thought so until quite recently, and most of the world still doesn't think so. No one in Saudi Arabia is given the freedom to be a Muslim, just as, for all practical purposes, no one in liberal academia is free to be, say, a Christian historian in the manner of Christopher Dawson (whom we also discussed in detail in a series of posts a while back), much less a Christian biologist or physicist. In my years of training to become a clinical psychologist, I never encountered a single idea from the extraordinary wellspring of Christian psychological thought from Augustine to the present day -- which is one of the reasons why the field is so off its rocker, for example, reducing man to animal impulses and desires instead of human virtues and responsibilities. The situation is positively kooky, one more reason why I could never be a therapist and instead had to invent the field of coonical pslackology. But nearly all professional organizations have been similarly hijacked by the forces of secular extremism. Well, we're already up to page 3. Only 773 more to go.

1 comment:

  1. Strange really because there is no evidence whatsoever of a god-informed consciousness on bobs blog.