Charles Taylor and the One Exception to the Immanent Worldview


Memories of a sunny Santa Barbara

When I was Stateside earlier this year, I seemed to end up asking anyone with whom I had any length of conversation about evangelisation whether they’d read Charles Taylor. In between interviewing people in coffee shops and writing notes on every social interaction I observed, I was poring through his mind-blowing, A Secular Age. It was as if landmines were exploding through my mind as I ferociously underlined and scribbled in margins, “this explains everything!” The whole time I was journeying through North America, I found only one other soul with whom I could share my new intellectual infatuation. (A Secular Age is a tome, but James KA Smith’s concise How (Not) To Be Secular is an amazing place to start.)

I know that Taylor will keep coming up in my thinking over the next few years, but to sum up his project for those who’ve not come across him, he poses this question:

“Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?” (p. 25)

He traces this shift historically and philosophically, asking how conditions for belief have changed so drastically that now atheism is the default option in the west.

There is so much in Taylor to comment on, but what I have been thinking about recently is what he calls “immanentisation.”

In short: The last 500 years have seen a process of “disenchantment” in our worldview, or in Taylor’s words, our “social imaginary” (how we see everything including ourselves). In pre-modern times, the natural world was seen as a cosmos that functioned semiotically – that is, everything was a sign that pointed beyond itself. The world was enchanted, charged with presences; society was embedded in the cosmos and the cosmos in the divine. Today, the way we see the world is as a closed, self-sufficient reality. A long process has shifted the location of meaning from the things themselves into our minds: it is the mind that perceives and gives meaning. Our minds are autonomous and insulated, and can safely reject God – which was close to impossible in an enchanted imaginary.

Because we no longer see meaning in things, the natural world becomes enclosed in itself. The cosmos is scaled down. Mystery disappears, and everything is understandable, including God. This process sets the stage for the total eclipse of God, and the entry of exclusive humanism. This scaling down is immanentisation.

This is basically a historical, philosophical explanation for why God’s existence is no longer immediate and obvious to us.

And yet, I can’t help thinking there is one exception to our immanent, closed, insulated worldview.

It is the worldview of the child!

I mentioned in my last post my (somewhat unsuccessful) trip to Mass with my four-year-old nephew. He maybe wasn’t as “enchanted” by the liturgy as a pre-modern four-year-old might have been. But the more time you spend with children, the more obvious it is how natural the world as a charged reality is to them. You don’t have to convince a child of God’s existence, it makes perfect sense to them. It is the reason they don’t need conversion in the same way an adult needs conversion.

The world of the child’s religion is a different world from that of the adult. The adult no longer has that open and peaceful relationship with God which is natural to the child. And above all, the adult has lost in his relationship with God the essentiality that is one of the most characteristic aspects of the religious personality of the child. (Sofia Cavalletti, The Religious Potential of the Child)

Becoming adults, our minds and way of seeing become increasingly conditioned by the insulated, immanent world around us, so that God’s existence becomes less and less plausible. But a three or four year old?! In Cavalletti’s words, “essentiality” is their area of expertise, if only we could learn from them:

The essentiality of the child is perhaps the element that imposes the severest discipline on the adult. How many superstructures have we accumulated in our inner life! If we want to help the child draw near to God we should, with patience and courage, unrelentingly strip ourselves of these superfluous elements and seek to go always closer to the vital nucleus of things. This requires study and prayer. The child himself will be our teacher of essentiality, if we know how to observe him.

In Taylor’s view, we can’t extract ourselves from an immanent worldview, even if we wanted to. It is the air we breathe and the water we swim in. But, I am sure through prayer and study, we can learn a contemplative approach to reality that sees God behind things. After all, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

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