In previous articles, we’ve taken some first steps toward answering the underlying question of Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age. He asks us to look at Europe around the year 1500, and observe that belief in God had an unproblematic, normative, even a central, character for those societies. But when we look around today, we find a very different climate. While certainly a live option for many people, belief in God no longer has this unproblematic quality. It is an embattled option. Charles Taylor wants to understand what changed, how we got from what you might call a sacral society, to a secular (or secularizing) one.
We’ve seen that part of the answer lay in the removal of what Taylor calls the "Bulwarks of Belief”—those elements of the early modern experience of life that argued, in a way at once subtle, persuasive, and extremely effective—for the existence of God. These were the self-evident nature of purpose and design in the world around them, the monarchical organization of society, and early modern conceptions of time and space. Taylor doesn’t make this point as forcefully as one might wish, but the implication is fairly clear, that as these bulwarks of belief have been removed, the beliefs they once supported have taken blows to their credibility. It’s not so easy to believe in the self-evident quality of purpose and design in nature, for instance, after Darwin.
But Taylor is also concerned to get us away from what he calls “subtraction stories”: the idea that reality is just what’s plainly available to us, on the surface, after we get rid of the god-talk. Taylor wants to show that secularity is a historical, modern, human construction, just like the beliefs it contends with. It’s not just what is left over when we stop being religious. The trouble with subtraction stories is that they obscure these positive, constructive elements, so that a secular or a naturalistic point of view can assume a taken-for-granted quality, presented as “just the way things are.”
What, then, are these positive, historically constructed elements? According to Taylor, in order to understand these we have to understand the Protestant Reformation. When we recall that the Catholic Church was woven deeply into the whole of European society at the time—that it was implicated, at least officially, in every aspect of the community—then we can see how serious a matter it was to challenge the legitimacy of the Catholic Church, as the Reformers did. It was to set oneself against the whole of the society one was living in. To be a Protestant in the early years would have been like being a communist in the 1950s, or a terrorist today. It was, eo ipso, to be a dangerous criminal. If that seems silly to us, we have to put ourselves in the mental space of the people who lived at that time. We have to take the idea of eternity really seriously—entertain, for the sake of historical reconstruction, the notion that we could still be living out the consequences of what we did, here in this life, 50 billion years from now, without even scratching the surface of the timespan involved. If true teaching can save the soul, and false teaching damn it, then there can be no higher good than true teaching, no greater evil than false teaching. So the issue between the Reformers and their Catholic opponents was not, from their point of view, any small matter. It was the most important of all possible matters.
Since, as we have said, the Catholic Church was implicated, at least officially, at every level of society, it was also closely identified with it. To advocate a different iteration of the Christian faith was also to advocate a different kind of society. Theology was both psychology and sociology, to put it anachronistically. So doctrinal changes implied personal and social changes. What, then, were the doctrinal issues, and what kind of personal and social changes did they involve?
The Reformers attacked especially the notions of time and space that we explored in the last two articles, on the “enchanted world”—those associated with the cosmos idea. Recall that the cosmos idea differs from the universe idea primarily in that the former is “lumpy,” or heterogeneous, where the latter is “flat,” or homogeneous. For instance, the cosmos idea involves several different conceptions of time. There is not just ordinary, secular time, but also the great time, the carnival time, and eternity. It also involves a different conception of space—the notion that there are “fields of influence” that attach to holy (or cursed) places, objects, and people. Further, there are sharp distinctions between the kinds of roles people are supposed to have. In the cosmos idea there are people who bear the burden of piety on behalf of the rest of the community: the nuns, monks, and priests. They are the only ones who are supposed to live up to the full, exacting standard imposed by God. Everyone else is expected to try, certainly, but they aren’t obligated in quite the same way. The holiness of the religious professionals can help cover over the deficiencies they are bound to accrue in the pursuit of their ordinary, worldly activities.
The Protestant Reformers attacked quite a lot of this. When it comes to time, they were especially hostile to the notion of carnival, or “moral holidays.” There were not going to be some times of the year when promiscuity or drunkenness or buffoonery were winked at. God’s standards are supposed to be uniform, so they don’t admit of exceptions. There aren’t some times where it’s OK to break God’s laws. If we look at space, we can see something similar. The Protestant Reformers were deeply suspicious of shrines and relics. They thought there was something impious in this idea that God’s power could be confined in a place or object, or that access to it could be controlled by a person or an institution. God doesn’t need to go through a human intermediary in order to heal someone, or to save them. God can act directly. So they thought there was something presumptuous in this idea that a person, however good and pious, or a part of whatever institution, could claim that sort of authority. Similarly, there was nothing in the object or place itself that was important. It was, rather, the power of God itself. The Protestant Reformers thought that this whole idea of relics and shrines smacked of superstition.
So time and space are both flattened. A similar effect comes into play when we look at the role of religious professionals. Now, the Protestant Reformers did have religious professionals—they had pastors. But the conception of a pastor’s role and place in the community was very different from that of a nun, a monk, or a priest. A pastor couldn’t mediate between you and God. A pastor’s prayers weren’t necessarily more effective than anyone else’s, and he wasn’t necessarily any more righteous or holy than anyone else. A pastor’s role was much more modest than that of a nun, monk, or priest. His job was to preach sound doctrine, provide spiritual advice, and to oversee the operations of his church. He was not, in short, a conduit for divine power. Your relationship to God was between you and God. He was there to assist that relationship, but at bottom he wasn’t necessary for it to take place. All this was very different from the Catholic conception of a nun, a monk, or a priest. Only a priest could absolve sin. Only a priest could administer the eucharist. The prayers of the nuns and monks were much more efficacious than those of ordinary people.
In each of these cases we can see a drive for consistency and uniformity in the Protestant Reformation—a uniformity that would become embedded in, and essential to, the universe idea we are now familiar with.
There is a sense in which the Protestant Reformation attempts to secularize the sacred. It is opposed to much of what had counted, and for Catholics still counts, as sacred—especially an authoritative church, religious orders, and relics. But there is another sense in which the Reformation attempts to sacralize the secular. Because it is equally incumbent on all people at all times to live in conformity with God’s will, no one can appeal to another person’s righteousness to get right with God. It therefore becomes possible to think in terms of a godly community, not apart from the world, as in a nunnery or a monastery, but within it, as in John Calvin’s Geneva, or the Puritan colony at Massachusetts Bay. In an important sense, the model for the ideal community shifts from that found in Acts (chapters 2–4), where a small number of believers lives under the guidance of the apostles, to the covenant model found in the Pentatuch, where the entire community is in a special relationship with God.
Taylor also argues that Protestantism was implicated in the rise of the “disciplinary society.” The disciplinary society is something we have now, and take more or less for granted. It’s one that not only sets a moral code uniformly incumbent on all people, but actually tries to realize it through a combination of persuasion and force. There is in our present society, at least in the United States, what you might call a “reforming impulse”—persistent attempts to raise the level of morality and conscientiousness (however defined) for all people. Taylor sees this reforming impulse as beginning with the Pope Hildebrand in the twelfth century, continuing with the establishment of the Dominican and Franciscan orders in the thirteenth century, the via moderna movement in the fourteenth, and the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth. There’s a growing sense that individual piety isn’t good enough; the whole community has to be reformed. This continues in our time with “awareness” campaigns aimed at changing the way people think about a disease or a social problem, as well as with efforts to stamp out racism, sexism, homophobia, and other such attitudes. There is a widespread sense that these things aren’t to be left to individual recognizance; people have to be brought around to a certain point of view, whether through persuasion or coercion.
More subtly, but also more powerfully, discipline is implicated in our entire mode of economic production. People aren’t free to just show up at work at any time, or to leave at any time. It happens according to a plan, and everyone who isn’t independently wealthy or totally destitute has to conform to that plan. It’s not up to the individual. This way of thinking has become second nature for many of us, so it can be hard to see how it really has not been the norm, historically. And although it’s been secularized in our time, and is justified in terms of economic necessity, in its origins it arose from the Protestant association of piety with an orderly, productive, peaceful life. Rulers were often happy to encourage this line of thinking, as they could see the military and economic benefits to be gained. But although they might always have liked to have ruled over such subjects, it wasn’t until the huge apparatus of the churches could be brought to bear, to inculcate these values as intrinsically godly, that there was ever really any hope of effecting a mass change. Again we can see the overlay of the sacred and the secular brought about by the Protestant Reformation.
What Taylor wants to draw our attention to is that this reforming impulse doesn’t start, or end, with the Protestant Reformation, though the Reformation is an example of it. It’s still present within modern secularism. Indeed, I think it’s a fair comment (though Taylor doesn’t say this) that secularism, at least in the United States, has taken over quite a lot of the Protestant point of view without quite acknowledging it. Many of the polemical attacks one witnesses today, aimed at “religion,” got their start as polemics aimed by Protestants at Catholics. For example, the charge that religion is superstitious, or authoritarian, or injurious to a person’s moral development. All of these lines of attack go right back to the sixteenth century, only they were aimed at Catholicism rather than “religion” just as such.
So the Protestant Reformation is the first move in a long process of secularization, according to Taylor. In the next article, we’ll examine a second major transition point: the Enlightenment notion of Providential Deism.
This essay is part of a series; the previous essay can be found here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.
If you’re just beginning to follow this series, or would like a handy reference, here are links to the previous articles: