A Secular Age, Chapter 1, Section 4

Secular Age

numbers indicate paras

  1. The buffered self makes it possible to conceive of life atomistically and see oneself as an individual. It makes it possible to disengage community.
  2. The porous self had existed within a community of enemies who attack, and friends who help defend against spiritual forces.
  3. The good magic that protected was social, mostly being found in the church.
  4. Because society was so important, there was a strong premium placed on consensus. Heresy is a social threat and not just a personal belief.
  5. We tend to disparage earlier dogmatism because we don’t understand how much of life was communally oriented, and therefore how breaking ranks was a social threat and not just a personal choice.
  6. This made it so the entire community was responsible for orthodoxy. The deviancy of some could bring down divine punishment on all.
  7. It took a long time to get over this social imagination that says we all get punished for the presence of even one heretic.
  8. This meant there was great pressure to keep orthodoxy, but this also meant there was real spiritual power bound up in society.
  9. This applied not just to the parish, but to the universal church.
  10. At all levels of society, “the social bond… was intertwined in the sacred” (pg. 43).
  11. Society becomes an argument for God.
  12. Taylor moves to the third phase of his argument for how things changed from 1500 to the present.
  13. This deals with the “equilibrium in tension” between medieval society’s self-transcendence of human flourishing and society’s fostering of human flourishing.
  14. We see this tension between self-transcendence and human flourishing in the Christian ideal of a celibate life focused on God and also the value of procreation which enables the human raise to continue in the world.
  15. Some have tried to overcome this tension by calling all to celibacy (i.e. the Shakers), or by abolishing the celibate vocations (i.e. the Reformers), but the tension between self-transcendence and human flourishing jumps out in other areas, then.
  16. But in Catholic and Orthodox traditions, these two vocations (celibate and married) serve each other, and thereby maintain the proper order of society.
  17. This does not do away with the tensions between self-transcendence and flourishing, because some of the ‘best’ modes of flourishing are at odds with the Gospel and the ethic it produces.
  18. Further, the role of the sacraments is complicated. On the one hand, they point to God, on the other hand they help protect human flourishing against evil spirits and forces.
  19. Technically these tensions are found in Jesus’ healing miracles too. But the question is raised at what point does this “white magic” cross the line in to purely worldly purpose?
  20. Erasmus argued that sacramentals could be used for purely earthly ends, and this was idolatry.
  21. In medieval society, the equilibrium between hierarchical structures could be described this way: “the clergy prayer for all, the lord defends all, the peasants labour for all” (pg. 45).
  22. So, there was a place in medieval society for people who did not have the highest aspirations.
  23. Another example of this equilibrium in tension was seen in Carnival and similar festivals, as these inverted the order of society for a brief time.
  24. These festivals were fascinating and enigmatic. They were not attempts to subvert the hierarchy and order, because all knew that better charisma and virtue should rule than what the festivals themselves taught.
  25. Natalie Davis says these feasts originated in villages, where there was recognized license for mockery without the assumption that it was an intended subversion of the social order.
  26. And yet the festivals clearly embodied some deeper longings that were at variance with the normal social order.
  27. The feasts were a safety value. Virtue and good order are heavy burdens. There had to be periods for people to let loose, or else the whole thing would ‘explode.’
  28. You find these sorts of celebrations in different any cultures, and across time, suggesting that there is some underlying reality at play. Taylor says its this: “order binds a primitive chaos, which is both its enemy but also the source of all energy, including that of order. But the years of routine crush this force and drain it; so that order itself can only survive through periodic renewal, in which the forces of chaos are first unleashed anew, and then brought into a new founding of order” (pg. 47).
  29. Bakhtin and Carnival are examples of this.
  30. Victor Turner has a different theory, that the order that is mocked is not ultimate, but the community which it serves is.
  31. The idea is the mutual necessity of opposites are necessary but cannot be lived at the same time.
  32. Turner argues, “all structures need anti-structure.”
  33. These “rituals of reversal” are found throughout society.
  34. first full para, pg. 48

Shall We Continue in Sin that Grace May Abound?

“A man in a small village once visited a priest. He asked him if he could confess his sin and if he could have absolution. “I stole three sacks of potatoes,” he said. The priest listened and talked about repentance and forgiveness. When the conversation was finished, the priest said, “I heard about the theft of those bags of potatoes, but I heard that it concerned only two, and you mentioned three.” “Yes,” said the man, “but tomorrow I will steal the third.” -Corrie Ten Boom, I Stand at the Door and Knock