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I’m really enjoying Templeton Prize winner
Charles Taylor’s massive tome, “A Secular Age.” Unlike most philosophers, Taylor is a crystal-clear writer, and has the gift of being able to discuss profound and complex thoughts without giving himself over to impenetrable jargon.
In the passage I read last night, Taylor discusses the fundamental psychological shift that occurred with modernity, and how it orients us toward questions of religion (remember that the mission Taylor sets for himself in the book is to discuss how and why secularism rose in the West, and its implications for us today). In the pre-modern world, he writes, people saw the material world as charged with spiritual energy, and personality. Pagans saw spirits, and spiritual power, inhering in Nature, and in particular places. Christians retained many of those beliefs, though transferring much of that way of seeing the world to saints and relics, while still believing in evil spirits as actual entities which could bring harm to one. For the individual, Taylor writes, the boundary between a person and this spiritualized world was porous; absent God, the self had little protection from the spiritual forces in the world that threatened the self’s integrity and well-being. For pre-moderns, says Taylor, to reject God would not mean to reject the reality of these spiritual forces; rather, it would mean rejecting the only hope one had that Good would ultimately triumph over the forces of chaos and evil.
Human consciousness became modern, he writes, when the natural world became “disenchanted” — that is, when man began to think of the world outside his own mind as spiritually inert, and having only the meaning we impute to it with our own minds. This, says Taylor, “buffers” the mind, putting a layer of protection between the individual and the outside world. It becomes less terrifying. It’s the equivalent of saying, “There’s no such thing as ghosts” — and believing it as the truth. The disenchantment of the world ushered in Protestantism, and in turn secularism. You can see the logic. Closing the Taylor book and turning my lamp off last night, I thought that there really is no way to reconcile the African Anglicans with their UK and American counterparts; both live on completely opposite sides of the divide between modernity and pre-modernity.
The thing is, all of us in the West, believers included, live on one side of that divide, whether we want to or not. What I mean to say is that even though I, as an Orthodox Christian, plainly espouse a pre-modern belief system, the psychological and cultural environment that shaped me, and in which I live and breathe is modern and secular. As Taylor points out, this comes so natural to all us Westerners that it’s hard to grasp how unusual this is in human experience, and how constructed it is.
We are so accustomed to thinking of our history in this regard as progressive, as one of gradual enlightenment from the forces of intellectual darkness, of priestcraft and sorcery preventing the mind from perceiving the world as it really is. It is impossible to deny that there is a lot of truth to this. Illness is caused by germs, for example, not evil spirits. This is a huge advance. Nobody can deny the immense intellectual and material progress that has been made by mankind learning to see the world a different way — a way that is more accurate.
But — and you knew there would be a but — it is at least possible that in learning how to see the material world more clearly, we blinded ourselves to spiritual realities. That is, we abandoned, or turned off, the faculties of perception that allowed our pre-modern ancestors to see an aspect of reality that eludes us today, and that we are thus endarkened in some sense by our enlightenment. Let me give a couple of examples of what I mean, past the jump…
I wear bifocal lenses in my glasses. This is the second pair of bifocals I’ve had. They don’t work. Both optometrists I’ve consulted put me through the usual round, and came up with the same prescription. And yet, I have to take my glasses off to read, or to see things up close clearly. But if I didn’t have them on, things in the distance are quite blurry. Drives me crazy, this on-and-off routine I have to follow. My eyes are so weak that I can’t see a clear picture of reality at all times with my glasses on, or off. The flaw here is one of perception.
Along those lines, an Orthodox priest I know who is also a physicist by training recently passed on to me a text he’s translating that was written by an Orthodox priest in Stalin’s gulag. It’s an imagined dialogue between an unbeliever and an elder monk, about the existence of God. In it, I encounted a striking metaphor. The unbeliever said that he didn’t believe in God because he could not discern God’s presence. The monk said to consider a light bulb that works properly. Energy runs through it, and can be discerned by everyone, because the filament works properly. But when the filament is broken, the bulb cannot make a connection to the energy available to it. A dim bulb does not disprove the existence of electricity; it only shows that there is something wrong with the bulb’s ability to tap into the energy source.
Now, that is not proof for the existence of God, of course, but it does offer an interesting way to think about spiritual realities and the human person as an instrument of perception. To recap what I was saying earlier, isn’t it possible that the psychological shift brought about my modernity, which made it possible for us to see aspects of the material world more clearly, also damaged our ability to perceive spiritual realities? And furthermore, isn’t it at least possible that as arrogant as the Church once was to tell Galileo and early scientists that what they were seeing couldn’t be true because it violated dogma, we are being similarly arrogant today by denying all possibility of spiritual realities — that is, by insisting that the world is completely disenchanted?
As longtime readers know, I’m fascinated by the problems of perception, and our limitations as embodied creatures. One of the most popular posts on my old Crunchy Con blog was this one, in which I wrote about the American linguist and missionary Daniel Everett who, in his book, wrote about a bizarre incident in the Amazon jungle where he was living at the time. The native people were deeply agitated, claiming that they were watching some sort of malevolent jungle deity dancing on a sandbar on the other side of the river. The whole tribe saw it. Everett and his daughter saw nothing. Though he later lost his faith and is now an atheist, Everett is still haunted by that experience. As he wrote in his book “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes”:
What had I just witnessed? Over the more than two decades since that summer morning, I have tried to come to grips with the significance of how two cultures, my European-based culture and the Pirahas culture, could see reality so differently. I could never have proved to the Pirahas that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me that there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.
As a scientist, objectivity is one of my most deeply held values. If we could just try harder, I once thought, surely we could each see the world as others see it and learn to respect one another’s views more readily. But as I learned from the Pirahas, our expectations, our culture, and our experiences can render even perceptions of the environment nearly incommensurable cross-culturally.
I encourage you to take a look at that entire post, and the comments thread, which really was one of the better ones we have here. Everett even added to it. See, this is why I find the work of Wade Davis so important, even though I strongly disagree with him about the nature of Haitian religion. Davis insists — correctly, I think — that we in the West do not have a monopoly on seeing truth, and that we have a lot to learn from premodern cultures whose way of seeing the world we think we’ve transcended. Davis is not a pure relativist; as he writes in “The Wayfinders,” if you have a broken leg, you want to see a physician, not a shaman. His main point, though, is that we ought to be humble enough to learn from these peoples, and to be open to the possibility that they might see some aspects of reality more clearly than we disenchanted moderns do. What I find most challenging about all this is the idea, raised most vividly in Everett’s anecdote, that our psychological and cultural conditioning could dramatically affect our ability to perceive the world as it is. That certain truths about the nature of reality itself only disclose themselves to those who are prepared to receive them.