These next several posts will cover chapters in Parts I-III, which comprise Taylor’s account of the western historical trajectory towards secularity, from the enchanted world of 1500 AD to the disenchanted and pluralistic one of 2000 AD. Overall, Taylor’s historical account challenges the “subtraction” stories that explain the road to modernity as one in which human beings have “lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge” . According to Taylor, this naive and selective view fails to account for the “positive” developments and changes in sensibility, meaning, and social imaginaries that made alternatives (like secular humanism) possible. The “subtraction” of God from the social and cosmic imaginary was merely one element, thought it was not linear or even, and certainly not inevitable.
Taylor begins the historical trajectory in chapter 1, the “Bulwarks of Belief,” describing the major elements of the early modern imaginary that had to be removed for exclusive humanism to emerge. One was the belief that the natural world was divinely orchestrated—part of a semiotic cosmos that pointed beyond to an order and force beyond itself (God). Secondly, society was embedded in a higher time and higher reality: collective rituals, holy days, and other practices brought society into contact with the “higher” dimension of time or existence, as well as protected them from malevolent forces. The “higher reality” —the Kingdom of God— made demands of spiritual transformation that competed with the demands of ordinary human life, generating a perpetual tension that society navigated by creating a hierarchical complementarity of classes—some dedicated to the collective work of transformation (monks praying behalf of society, for example) and the others dedicated to mundane needs and concerns (ruling class and laborers, for example)—with safety valves like Carnival to temporarily suspend some of those demands and tensions. Thirdly, people inhabited an enchanted and porous world; the existential condition of the early modern westerners was rife with vulnerability and permeability, charged with extra-human forces, moral meaning and divine messages. These elements of the early modern social imaginary made disbelief and disenchantment difficult and dangerous; the stakes were real, and surrendering the protection of the collective or power-charged “magical” objects or practices (sacramentals and sacraments, etc.), for example, would leave one at the mercy of demonic and destructive forces that continually threatened to breach.
The modern, secular social imaginary did away with these elements, though in the process generating new “construals” or backgrounds for experiencing the world. The enchanted and porous world gave way to a “bounded” self that was buffered from impersonal forces, with an inner mental world that imposed meanings on an indifferent universe; in turn, that buffered self eroded early modern sociality with its increased interiority and atomism. Notions of ‘higher” or multidimensional time gave way to unilinear, sequential, “empty” time; the semiotic cosmos shifted to a mechanistic universe, shorn of symbols and its normative “micro-order,” instead run by exceptionless laws instrumentalized by human agents. The tension between transformation and flourishing was dissolved, alternatively by trying to raise everyone up to the same level of “higher” living or transformation (i.e. the Protestant Reformation), or eventually by eradicating the “higher reality” and its demand for “transformation” altogether so that only “flourishing” (in the demands of ordinary life) remained.
Of course, none of these changes happened linearly or inevitably. The driving force behind these changes was religious reform; the eventual birth of secular humanism from theologically-driven, piety-focused changes demonstrates that more than the “shedding” of God and belief are at play. Why religious reform? Taylor argues that the tensions between the demands of spiritual transformation and the demands of ordinary human life, and the resulting hierarchical compromise, became a major fault line. Various reform movements within Christianity sought to close the gap by converting more people to “higher gear” of religious devotion (Christian humanism, pietistic movements, the rise of mendicant preachers urging more personal, interior devotion, etc.). The Protestant Reformation was a culmination of these reforming movements, but with important differences that paved the way for secular humanism.
For one, the Protestant Reformation was a central figure in the “abolition of the enchanted cosmos”; Luther and others definitively rejected the power of sacramentals, saints, and other salvific mechanisms as encroachments on God’s sovereignty and demonic distractions from recognizing mankind’s hopeless incapacity to “give satisfaction”; while some received this “incapacity, countered by God’s mercy…as good news” — a release from the enormous burden of orchestrating one’s salvation— new tensions resulted from Reformation’s broadening of the required scope of inner transformation (no longer in terms of sacramental duties, but a transformation and consecration of all parts of life) while limiting its mechanisms to God’s mercy alone. Since God’s saving mercy was supposed to be visible in one’s inner spiritual confidence and external daily life, and facilitate the creation of a pious, ordered society, the temptation to generate that confidence and way of life created new anxieties. But it also generated a greater sense of empowerment to reorder the life of individuals and, increasingly, civilization writ large, through various mechanisms of “social discipline” (sketched out in chapter two, the “Rise of the Disciplinary Society”) which resulted in a “great disembedding” (chapter three), where notions of identity and society became radically reconstituted.
To give a sense of where those chapters will take us, Taylor observes that the desire for order becomes a matter of human flourishing alone, rather than of serving God, and the power for order becomes a matter of human capacity, rather than God’s grace. In other words, people become too good at reform. They begin to feel they can do it without God’s help, and for their own self-sufficient reasons. Ironically, through Christianity’s very attempts to remake the world, “the ‘world’ won after all” .
That is the nutshell version of the key differences between the medieval/early modern social imaginary and the modern one. The next several chapters will analyze in more detail the “zigzag” nature of these historical developments and accompanying changes in core construals of identity and social imaginaries, including conceptions of the will, of virtue, of society’s function and purpose, the natural order, and so on.
My commentary on Mormonism is minimal here, since Mormonism doesn’t yet fit in the historical trajectory at this point and direct discussion may introduce anachronisms or jump the gun on later chapters. Generally, though, Mormonism fits uncomfortably in this western Christian trajectory, straddling Protestant and Catholic attitudes, enchanted and secular construals. For example, Mormons do believe in places that connect us to a “higher” time or reality (temples as sites of God’s presence) and objects with “magical” powers (the protection of garments); yet we lack a liturgical calendar that is conventionally used to do this work of connecting to higher time—indeed, our liturgical calendar primarily consists of the cycles of General Conference, which are firmly anchored in “this world” time (prophetic counsel tailored to our historically specific context, “updated” every six months). Mormon sacramentalism is also conflicted; the Book of Mormon’s explanation of the sacrament is very Protestant or symbolic (an ordinance of “remembrance,”) but the colloquial understanding that it cleanses us of the “week’s sins” gestures back towards a “magical” sacramental understanding (as does the belief in sealing ordinances that metaphysically bind family members together, willingly or not). We believe everyone should be living at or striving towards the same “high religious gear” but utilize hierarchical divisions of labor in which men obtain various ranks of priesthood offices and responsibilities (though the slow [re-]infusion of “priesthood” language into Relief Society discourse lately may be a significant direction). The emphasis on signs and tokens in temple ordinances again bespeaks a Protestant “symbolizing” mechanism, but their essentiality points more towards Catholic soteriology. I think explanations of Mormon sacramentalism have yet to be fully fleshed out , but doing so could once again complicate Taylor’s narrative–or our own– in interesting ways.
 Taylor, 22.
 Taylor, 79.
 Taylor, 158.
 Terryl Givens’s forthcoming second volume of his theological history of Mormonism deals with this topic directly; look out for it when it’s released.