A first look at Charles Taylor

Some friends and I have begun a series of conversations about Charles Taylors’ enormous book, A Secular Age.  Taylor first defines “secularity” in terms of the “conditions of belief,” that is, what made it hard not to believe in God 400 years ago as compared to what makes it hard to believe in God today.  He begins by describing the pre-modern consciousness and contrasting it with the modern consciousness, and then spends about 600 pages (practically a page per year) narrating the change from one to the other.

I am still working through the narrative.  In many ways, I lack the historical chops to engage it critically, so I’ll be reaching out for help there.  But his opening move, the description of modern and pre-modern consciousnesses, has already been helpful to me.  He has a knack for describing the well-nigh indescribable in memorable terms. Most importantly, he coins the terms “buffered self” and “charged object” to capture and explain the shift from what many have called the “enchanted cosmos” to our modern state of “disenchantment”.

Taylor’s Analysis

Broadly, the idea is this.  The “buffered self” is one that sees all “meaning” as occurring inside the human mind, where “meaning” refers to “our responses, the significance, importance, meaning, we find in things.” (p. 31)  For the buffered self, things outside of the mind “only have the meaning they do in that they awaken a certain response in us….” (p. 31) Because of this, we can isolate ourselves inside the mind, take refuge there, and nothing outside the mind will be able to impose a “meaning” on us because nothing outside the mind has a “meaning” independently of our reaction to it.  The “buffered self” is not a theory or a conclusion of any kind, but what Taylor calls a “naive” understanding: the modern just takes things as being this way prior to any effort at explaining things. (p. 30)  It is accepted as a primal experience in the “disenchanted world”.

By way of contrast, the pre-modern “naive” understanding was one of a “porous self” in an “enchanted cosmos”.  The porous self sees the world as full of “charged objects,” i.e., objects that already have meaning in themselves apart from our reaction to them.  Some of these “charged objects” are non-human minds, like angels and demons and God (p. 32). But other “charged objects” are physical objects imbued with inherent meaning, rather like the evil ring in Tolkien’s famous trilogy, “and this means that the object / agent can communicate this meaning to us, impose it on us, in a third way, by bringing us as it were into its field of force.” (p. 33)  Like a grumpy person whose mere presence somehow imposes grumpiness on us (p. 34), a good or evil “charged object” can somehow impose a good or evil fate or even a good or evil morality on us. When the world is full of “charged objects,” Taylor says,

The meaning can no longer be placed simply within; but nor can it be located exclusively without. Rather it is in a kind of interspace which straddles what for us is a clear boundary. Or the boundary is, in an image I want to use, porous.” (p. 35)

Throughout his contrast between modernity and pre-modernity, between “buffered” and “porous” selves, he reminds his reader that he is talking about a consciousness, a mode of experience, not a thought process or a faith leap:   “this has to be seen as a fact of experience, not a matter of ‘theory’, or ‘belief’.”  He does not mean that a modern, buffered self cannot believe that God exists or hold to a theory of angelic influence on human behavior, but that the modern, buffered self cannot encounter these things “naively,” in the manner of immediate experience.  The buffered self can only encounter the transcendent through an interpretation of his experience, and he is always aware that there are other, rival interpretations.

While Taylor describes both the porous and the buffered selves as “naive” understandings, the shift from one to the other involves what he sees as an important shift from naivete to reflective awareness.  The porous self, he says, encountered transcendent realities like God and angels and the afterlife and so on in a naive way: people had experiences and automatically interpreted them as experiences of the transcendent, but did not notice that they were interpreting the experience.  They thought of the experience + the interpretation as being simply an experience.  But the modern encounter with transcendence is one in which people have an experience and then consciously interpret the experience as one of transcendence or not, choosing their interpretation for various reasons and yet aware that their interpretation is one among several. (p. 11)  On Taylor’s account, neither theism nor atheism, neither the acceptance of transcendence nor the rejection of it, can be naive any longer.

Gaps in Taylor’s Account

As I said above, I think Taylor’s description of the difference between pre-modern and modern consciousness is excellent.  He has managed to put words around the experience behind the individualism so characteristic of our times, and he opens a window onto what it would have been like to be reflexively communal and pious.

However, he tends to a kind of pessimism about the whole process:  the enchanted realm is gone forever, and the buffering process cannot be undone.  While I agree that we cannot go back and become medieval, with all the particularities and eccentricities of that age, I think we can move forward past “disenchantment” to inhabit a newly enchanted cosmos.  I would like to use Taylor’s excellent framework to help me explore this new “enchantment” and this new “self”.

As a way in, I would like to point out some ways in which Taylor’s analysis of modern and pre-modern consciousness or experience are not entirely compelling.  As cracks emerge in the buffered self, a path may open to a renewed porousness, so to speak.

(1) One can re-achieve naive

To begin with, Taylor stacks the deck by using the terms “naive” and “reflective”.  Even though he intends the terms in a neutral way, still “reflective” is unavoidably better than “naive”.  Taylor argues that the modern self cannot unsee what he has seen, cannot go back from “reflective” to “naive”, so that the journey from enchanted to disenchanted worlds is a one-way trip.  Apart from a violent and dishonest act of will, one cannot give up a reflective state for an unreflective state, right?

There are possibilities that Taylor has not considered.  For example, one can have an immediate experience of something and then later become persuaded to interpret the experience in a way that is untrue to the experience itself.  For example, we are told on all sides these days that gender is a social construct, that is, an interpretation of our experience rather than a primal experience. That’s not true:  to be masculine or to be feminine is an immediate experience, not an overlay of interpretation on top of an experience. But nonetheless we find myriad teenagers these days persuaded by fashion and perhaps by doctors to take their (predictably) turbulent experience of sexuality as a sign that their gender is in question.  In such a case, it will eventually be possible to return to the original experience, accept it for the primal experience it was, and so to encounter masculinity or femininity in a “naive” way once again. It will be a matter of dropping unnecessary, complicating layers of pseudo-reflection.

Or to take another example, there is the category of knowledge that Aquinas describes as “self-evident to the wise”.  That is to say, some things are in fact self-evident, but it takes a great deal of labor and thought to put oneself in a position to see them for what they are.  One can work with, say, the concepts of “potency” and “act” for years, and the mind’s eye gradually grows accustomed to the light of immaterial reality, and at length one begins to realize that some things (e.g., “act is absolutely prior to potency”) are just self-evident.  They are obvious to anyone who grasps the meaning of the terms, but the terms take years to grasp. In other words, it is not always true that the end of a chain of reasoning is an interpretation of experience: sometimes, the end of the chain is the opening of a new, primal experience.  

In other words, one can outgrow a “reflective” grasp of a given situation and mature into a “naive” grasp.

(2) The buffer is not perfect

Another gap in Taylor’s account is his handling of emotion.  Taylor identifies emotions as part of the mind’s life, along with meaning, intention, and so on.  In keeping with his general analysis of the difference between buffered and porous selves, he says that the porous self had emotions imposed on it from outside by love charms or gods or suchlike:  “That is, emotions which are in the very depths of human life exist in a space which takes us beyond ourselves, which is porous to some outside power, a person-like power.” (p. 36) In another place, he describes the enchanted world as one in which “things and agencies which are clearly extra-human could alter or shape our spiritual and emotional condition, and not just our physical state (and hence mediately our spiritual or emotional condition), but both together in one act.” (p. 40)  At one point, he makes the emotion of melancholy a prime example of the difference between porous and buffered selves:

Consider melancholy: black bile is not the cause of melancholy, it embodies, it is melancholy. The emotional life is porous here again; it doesn’t simply exist in an inner, mental space. (p. 37)

He comments on how we moderns may be relieved to be told that our depression is merely a result of low dopamine or some other chemical imbalance.  But, he says,

a pre-modern may not be helped by learning that his mood comes from black bile. Because this doesn’t permit a distancing. Black bile is melancholy. Now he just knows that he’s in the grips of the real thing.  Here is the contrast between the modern, bounded self–I want to say “buffered” self–and the “porous” self of the earlier enchanted world.

Now, this way of handling emotion lands Taylor in a quandary.  An emotion is something charged with meaning, with intention: anger is not merely a “boiling of the blood about the heart” or whatever, but is directed at someone.  Having a “crush” on someone is not just feeling fluttery but a kind of wanting to do something with or for someone.  This is why Taylor puts emotion inside the boundaries of mind.  But in regards to the example of chemically caused depression, Taylor puts the “feeling” of depression outside the mind:  the buffered self can retreat into itself from the “feeling” that it identifies as not me.

This inconsistency tracks our experience, really.  On the one hand, our emotions are definitely a component of our interior life, to the point that we readily say “I feel that” in place of “I think that”.  On the other hand, we frequently feel the pull of emotions against our deeper aspirations, and so we see them as opposed to the “real me” of the mind. It is the classic conflict between the spirit and the flesh outlined by St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans.

Most of us are not trying to construct an analytical theory around the boundaries between inside-the-mind and outside-the-mind.  Taylor’s whole account depends on this boundary, so for him emotions are a problem. If he puts them squarely inside the modern self’s buffer, then he has to admit that certain physical states (low dopamine, whatever) are directly determinative of mind, blurring the clear boundary between mind and body.  But if he puts them decidedly outside the buffer, then we have a kind of “charged” thing outside the mind, a non-mental thing that is full of intentionality and meaning–something that, as experience shows, can impose its meaning on our wills if we are not careful.  So in the end, Taylor puts emotion inside the mind when it suits his case and outside the mind when it doesn’t. I can’t blame him.

But it does bring up the possibility that the buffered self is not an entirely coherent experience.  In other words, Taylor’s description is bang on here, but the experience he is describing has internal inconsistencies usually glossed over.

(3) Intentionality altogether outside the human mind

The denial of any meaning or intentionality outside the human mind is more radical than it might seem at first.  For example, it would be strange in the extreme to say that animals do not experience emotions.  Such a view might once have been held even by a large minority of theorists, but my impression is that today one would be hard pressed to find even a small group that seriously think animals have no feelings.  Those who live in close quarters with animals learn to recognize moods, desires, aversions, and so on, and absolutely nothing in our experience suggests the contrary. So in at least one case, we have an experience of “meaning” or “intentionality” outside of human minds that is not open to various interpretations.

Of course, animal emotions and desires do not impose their meaning on us in the manner of the “charged objects” Taylor describes.  My point here is that Taylor’s description is incomplete or inaccurate: animal emotions fit neither into the category of neutral object nor into the category of charged object as he divides them.  He is leaving some obvious things out of account in order to keep his divisions neat.

What other quasi-charged-objects is Taylor leaving out of account–and how do those things affect his argument?

(4) Historical inadequacy

Lastly, Taylor’s descriptions do not seem to fit all levels of medieval society.  For example, his account of “charged objects” as possessing within themselves a power to change others physically represents a view explicitly rejected by Aquinas and Augustine and other Church Fathers (thinking for for example of Theodore the Studite’s treatment of icons).  They hold that any evil “magic” power in physical objects is to be explained by demonic activity and not by a power inherent in the things.  Good power in physical things is to be explained by the activity of saints and angels.  The reverence due to an icon is most definitely not due to the physical object in its materiality, but only in as much as it has a relation to Christ or a saint.

In every age, people have a tendency to slouch toward a matter-bound way of thinking and forget that mind is the true center of all.  Aristotle commented that Anaxagoras among the pre-Socratics seemed like the one sober man among a bunch of drunks, because the rest were all trying to explain everything only by material principles and Anaxagoras saw that mind must be the true key to everything.  And in the Christian era, the fathers were trying to get people to rise above a matter-fascinated, physical-obsessed way of seeing to a spiritual, mind-centered way of encountering the world.

I am inclined to see superstition in this light: the matter-bound person sees the object itself as having a kind of power, where the spirit-centered person sees the object has having power only in virtue of some mind at work.  So the battle against superstition was just one facet of a broader, constant fight the clergy were waging, a battle that must be waged in every age.

Seen from that point of view, the person who saw “charged objects” as having in themselves a power to effect physical change is actually closer to the modern, disenchanted view than Augustine of Aquinas. Both the ancient peasant and the modern pedant are unable to rise above the material object as the locus of power.  The difference between them is that the ancient peasant had at least an inkling of what Augustine and Aquinas saw clearly, namely that mind or some kind of intention is at play, while the modern pedant has lost the spiritual altogether and sees only inert, physical stuff. On this account, Aquinas’s understanding of “charged objects” is not moving away from the medieval peasant and toward the modern consciousness; rather, both the medieval peasant and the modern consciousness are steps away from the perennial Christian view held by Aquinas.

In other words, for some educated medievals, the essence of “enchantment” was the centrality of logos to all things. It was not about witches and spells.


In upcoming posts, I hope to explore each of these four gaps in a more positive way.  I’d like to talk about my own experience of re-achieving a kind of naivete in a central area, about the possibility of a more coherent “naive” experience of self, about the “charge” in even inanimate objects all around us, and about replacing the term “enchanted cosmos” with a description more centered on the transcendentals (being, one, good, true, etc.).

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Basic Catholicism in a Crisis

As the crisis surrounding Cardinal McCarrick and the Vigano letters unfolds, I have not said much.  For the most part, my thoughts have already been put out there by others, and to be honest, I’m too tired most of the time to write something fresh. But as I see more evidence that Catholics in the trenches are feeling their faith shudder under the impact of cascading revelations of corruption among Church officials, I think it might be good to review just a couple of basic points of Catholic belief.

Now, let’s be clear: I think the crisis is big. In fact, I am personally inclined to think that a tremendous punishment is looming over the Church, and I am inclined to think that the current crisis is the tip of that punishment.  Preparation for next week’s classes required that I re-read the account of Sodom and Gomorrah, and I felt chills run up and down my spine.  But still and all, we have to keep our heads.  So, two basic points:

1. The validity of a sacrament does not depend on the personal holiness of the priest. 

This was hammered out in the Donatist crisis way back in the time of St. Augustine.  Jesus has given us the sacraments as channels of grace, and he was not so stupid as to make the efficacy of the sacrament depend on whether the priest is in a state of grace or not.  If the sacrament of Baptism depended on the priest’s personal state of grace, for example, then no one could be sure of being baptized.  You just can’t know from outward appearances whether a priest is in a state of grace–as we are re-discovering in a rather dramatic fashion.

So even when Cardinal McCarrick was abusing seminarians and doing whatever horrid things he did, the sacraments he celebrated were real sacraments.  He himself increased his own guilt by celebrating them, but the people who received the Eucharist from him really did receive the body and blood of Jesus.  (I received the Eucharist from McCarrick, so this is not an abstract statement for me.)

2. The pope’s teaching authority does not depend on his personal holiness. 

Whatever you think of Pope Francis, to the degree that he engages his papal office, to that degree his teachings have authority.  There have been some truly stinky popes in history who nonetheless left us authoritative teachings.  Jesus was not so stupid as to make the authority of the Magisterium depend on the state of grace of the bishops.

So yes, Pope Francis has taught some things with real authority.  As annoying as it is that Cupich seemed to rank environmental concerns over care for abuse victims, still and all, Pope Francis’s statements about the environment mostly continue and confirm statements made by the two previous popes.  The fact that Pope Francis devoted an encyclical to the issue gives real magisterial clout to the Church’s position on the environment.

Surprisingly, Pope Francis has not engaged his authority to any great degree on a lot of divisive issues.  Amoris Laetitia has a low rank among magisterial documents, and is easily overshadowed by previous documents.  Even the change to the Catechism on the death penalty is a low-level intervention, technically speaking.  In theory, Pope Francis could have issued a papal bull with “I define, declare, and decree” and so on and so forth on any issue he wanted, so it is remarkable how little he has actually engaged his authority in this stormy pontificate.

Amidst the real calamity, let’s keep our heads.  The crisis does not trace back to Pope Francis: Our Lady of Fatima was warning people to do penance for sexual impurity way back in the nineteen teens.  And Jesus knew these kinds of times were coming.  Worse times are probably still to come.  But let’s keep on frequenting the sacraments and reverencing the authority of the Magisterium.  Just because the world has gone crazy doesn’t mean you have to.

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Holy Saturday and the End of All Things

Holy Saturday has always been for me a day of subdued joy. It is not yet the day of resurrection, but we are past the time of agony; the contest has been decided, but the victor not yet announced.

The Christian’s life is one of following Christ’s pattern. Even though he was the Son of God in person, he took on himself weakness and weariness, a life of loneliness and wandering; even though we are baptized into the Trinity and have become adopted children of God, freed from the sin of our parents, we live this life in frailty and sorrow. Christ died as a sacrifice for the world’s sins, and then rose in triumph over death; we will all die in union with him, offering ourselves to God, and on the last day we will rise in the likeness of his risen glory.

But between our bodily death and the day of judgment, we will live in Holy Saturday. The world will be unaware of our victory in Christ. Our agony will be over, the time of weakness and loneliness gone, but our triumph will not yet be apparent.

Easter is when we pre-live the end of the all things. This may be one reason why so many people feel more emotion at Christmas time, which has become wrapped up with family and gifts and wreathes and trees and on and on: Christmas is more in this world, because recalls the entering of God into this our vail of tears, and it brings us the solace of Christ here with us now. Easter is more glorious in itself, and of course it commemorates something that has already happened, but Easter is more about the future. Right now we are alive in the spirit, but still dead in the flesh, as Christ was during his earthly life. Of course the risen Christ is brings the resurrection of our souls, but the fact is that our ultimate conformity to the risen Christ will come on a day whose glory we cannot yet comprehend, with a joy we cannot yet comprehend.

Today, we contemplate the end of everything familiar to us and the expectation of unimaginable glory. It is not quite sad, but not yet the exhilaration that awaits us—a few hours from now.

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Christ on the moral eye

As I prepared for my PEAK classes earlier this month, I was struck by how rich a fare the Sermon on the Mount offers in comparison with the homilies I have heard about it.  One good example is the saying about the speck in a brother’s eye (Matt 7:3-5):

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Every homily I have ever heard on this saying reduces it to one simple point:  we tend to notice others’ faults and not our own, so we should pay attention to our own faults instead of the faults of others.

True to the point of truism.  But the Lord’s words are denser than that.  I can spot at least three amazing truths tucked away in this short saying that go beyond the standard homily. Continue reading “Christ on the moral eye”

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The Structural Demands of Subsidiarity

One of the pleasures of teaching in a comprehensive theology program is that I often have to teach outside of my zones of specialization.  This spring I taught a senior-level course with lots of Catholic Social Teaching, a topic that somehow never came up in all my years of theological training.  It was only my second time to teach the course, so in many ways I was learning along with my students.

This time around, I saw more clearly the many implications of the famous “principle of subsidiarity,” classically defined in Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno:

Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.

Continue reading “The Structural Demands of Subsidiarity”

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A sensational account of heaven

In politics and other news, the world seems beleaguered and bleary.  It’s a great time to talk about heaven!

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The truth about elephants

We’ve all heard the story about the blind men who investigate an elephant.  But the story doesn’t mean what people think it does….

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How the Mass is a Sacrifice

This semester, students at WCC set their theology teachers a theme:  the liturgy.  Teachers chose topics within the theme, and students arranged the topics into a semester-long series.  Just like that, the students gained for themselves a full “practicum” on the liturgy, while each teacher has only to give two or three talks.  It’s a great arrangement!

Recently, I was tapped for a talk on “the theology of the Mass” or “how the Mass is a sacrifice.”  You can download it here, or listen online:

Students loved the talk, but they seemed especially excited about the explanation of transubstantiation in the Q&A.

By the way, I’m wondering whether I should post more of these recordings or even start a podcast.  Your feedback would be helpful.

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Whether teachers in a liberal arts college are employees

[This is the third in a three-part series on liberal education: (1) Whether the purpose of a liberal arts college is to teach; (2) whether teachers at a liberal arts college teach for the sake of their students; (3) whether teachers at a liberal arts college are employees.  For background on the subject, see my post on Pieper’s book.  For a glimpse into the kind of enjoyment I hope this post offers, see my comments on the scholastic question format.]

Article 3: Whether Teachers at a Liberal Arts College Are Employees

Objection 1. It seems that teachers at a liberal arts college are employees, because an employee is someone who does something for pay.  But teachers are paid for teaching.  Therefore, teachers are employees. Continue reading “Whether teachers in a liberal arts college are employees”

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My father’s book made the news

The Arkansas Catholic, a diocesan newspaper, ran an article about my father’s book The Cross My Only Hope.  It’s a nice piece and a fitting venue because, as the article notes, the title of the book was taken from a homily by the former bishop of Little Rock, Andrew J. McDonald. Continue reading “My father’s book made the news”

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