Premodern belief and modern unbelief

James K.A. Smith is teaching a seminar at Calvin College on A Secular Age by Charles Taylor, which seeks to explain the rise of secularism as a worldview in Western Europe. Smith has set up a blog for the seminar, and I’ve been following it because I’m trying to make religious and secular views of the world a theme of my Western Civ courses this semester.

Smith summarizes the “obstacles to unbelief” that, for Taylor, anchored Christian belief in the premodern West:

1) The natural world was constituted as a cosmos which functioned semiotically to point to what was more than nature;

2) Society itself was understood as something grounded in a higher reality: earthly kingdoms were grounded in a heavenly kingdom;

3) In sum, people lived in an enchanted world.

As Smith notes in a different post, these are akin to Peter Berger’s concept of “plausibility structures,” cultural supports for a worldview that make it seem more believable.

In this post, Smith discusses five obstacle-diminishing contrasts that Taylor posits:

  1. Disenchantment and the “Buffered” Modern Self
  2. Communitarianism
  3. An equilibrium b/w self-transcendence and human flourishing: I wasn’t sure what this meant
  4. Time: a different view of time, measured and with a view toward efficiency
  5. From cosmos to universe: going from a cosmos that has its meaning conferred from the divine to a universe that is governed by natural law

The first two merit a longer quote because they help me to think about ways to explain some important shifts between premodern and modern culture to my students:

On disenchantment and the self: Taylor contrasts the “porous” self in an age where “the line between personal agency and impersonal force was not at all clearly drawn” (32). Thus,

in such an enchanted, porous world of vulnerable selves, “the prospect of rejecting God does not involve retiring to the safe redoubt of the buffered self, but rather chancing ourselves in the field of forces without him. […] In general, going against God is not an option in the enchanted world. That is one way the change to the buffered self has impinged” (41). In other words, it wasn’t enough to simply divest the worlds of spirits and demons; it was also necessary that the self be buffered and protected. Not until that positive shift came about does atheism/exclusive humanism become more “thinkable.”


“[L]iving in the enchanted, porous world of our ancestors was inherently living socially” (42). The good of a common weal is a collective good, dependent upon the social rituals of the community. “So we’re all in this together.” As a result, a premium is placed on consensus and “[t]urning ‘heretic’” is “not just a personal matter.” That is, there is no room for these matters to be ones of “private” preference. “This is something we constantly tend to forget,” Taylor notes, “when we look back condescendingly on the intolerance of earlier ages. As long as the common weal is bound up in collectives rites, devotions, allegiances, it couldn’t be seen just as an individual’s own business that he break ranks, even less that he blaspheme or try to desecrate the rite. There was immense common motivation to bring him back into line” (42). As a consequence, the social bond is sacred (43).

An equilibrium b/w self-transcendence and human flourishingTime

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