Philosopher Charles Taylor is insistent that we are all “secular,” by which he means, denied of the “naive” experience of religion as encountered in the pre-modern world. See how much you agree or disagree with Dr. Taylor by taking this quiz…
As many of The Imaginative Conservative’s readers already know, the students at the college where I teach, Wyoming Catholic College, participate in week-long outdoor events (climbing, hiking, kayaking, caving, etc). These weeks are, needless to say, intense experiences that invite, or even force, our students to draw upon their inner resources: their strength, prudence, wit, fortitude, and daring. It’s an immersion into a situation where the character is tried and rendered, so we hope, pure gold with dross burned off.
But WCC also offers high-intensity, special intellectual events, in which our students are, as it were, dropped into the barren landscape of a contemporary intellectual conversation. This summer, for instance, I and a WCC alumnus are leading a group of eleven students to Oxford, for a two-week, academic seminar: “Returning to the Land of Faerie: How Oxford Authors Recovered the Christian Imagination.” To set up our seminar, we’ve spent Sunday evenings at our house reading through Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, to understand first what it means to live in a “disenchanted” world. As most of the readers of The Imaginative Conservative will know, Dr. Taylor asks a grand question (and answers it in an epic manner, over the course of 800 pages): “One way to put the question that I want to answer here is this: 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?” (25). Dr. Taylor suggests in Chapter 1, “The Bulwarks of Belief,” that there were four pillars, or bulwarks, that made it difficult not to believe in God in the pre-modern world: 1) the enchantment of the world; 2) that the world was imagined as a “cosmos” and not, as for us, as a “universe”; 3) that religious practice was woven into the fabric of the social world; and 4) that pre-modern man even experienced time differently, as a rhythmic unfolding of “sacred” time (or “higher” time) with ordinary, or secular time.
Dr. Taylor is insistent that we are all “secular,” by which he means, denied of the “naive” experience of religion as encountered in the pre-modern world. To illustrate this point to my students, I came up with a quiz, which I call, “How Much of a Modernist Are You? A Quiz for Conservatives.” Take the quiz, and then I’ll tell you how to score it:
Answer the following questions according to what captures best your first reaction, not the reaction you wish you had had, or thought you ought to have had; not the “conservative” answer or the “Catholic” answer; just the natural, spontaneous, first reaction.
1) On what day was the world created?
a) What? This is the weirdest question I’ve ever heard.
b) Well, God worked through vast periods of time to form and shape our world, so, strictly speaking the “day” God created was en epoch, as Augustine tells us.
c) March 25, the very same day he fittingly re-created the world through the Annunciation.
2) Do you believe that ghosts and goblins are less likely to prowl about the world on Christmas Eve?
a) This question was so strange that I’m not sure how to answer it.
b) I do believe in demons, but I don’t believe they are less likely to work mischief on particular days, nor do I believe that souls from purgatory temporarily escape to visit our world.
c) Yes, of course. Sacred time creates a “space” in which our world is inimical to unclean spiritual beings.
3) Do you believe that if you go to a bar on a Friday night, and hoot it up with your friends, then it is more likely that evil things will occur on that day?
a) Are you serious?
b) We should always be mindful of holy things, especially on Fridays.
c) In general more bad things do take place on Friday, of course, and I also try to refrain from laughter and mirth on those days, like King Louis the Pious.
4) Why does an apple fall to the ground when it detaches from the stem?
a) The laws of physics teach us that all objects fall to the ground according to gravity.
b) Gravity, of course, but behind the working of nature we can perceive the “hand” of God, which I mean metaphorically.
c) The apple longs to return its native place, because the whole universe is infused with desire. Ultimately, the world longs to imitate, to the extent it can, Eternity.
5) Where is hell located?
a) I wouldn’t say that it is “located” anywhere. It’s real, but it’s more of a spiritual condition.
b) Hell is a physical place, but not in this world.
c) Under the ground, but there are various portals that lead down into it. You find these in sacred caves.
6) Is it ok to get drunk and eat until you vomit on Fat Tuesday?
a) Of course not. Sin is always sin, no matter the day.
b) Well, no, but, to tell you truth, I let off a bit of steam on days like St. Patty’s.
c) The fact is in moments of carnivalesque, riotous behavior the political society is reduced to chaos which allows it to be reformed in a more glorious cosmic order (see Taylor, p. 46, and following).
7) If your toddler says to you, “Mommy, I’m afraid of the monster in my closet,” you will say to him:
a) It’s ok, honey. There’s nothing to be afraid of it. It’s only your imagination.
b) We always need to understand that evil is a constant threat.
c) Yes, you should be, and I am, too. I will light a holy candle with the hope that its spiritual force will keep him away from you, at least until dawn.
8) When I am in the country at night, all alone, and I look up at the nighttime sky, I feel:
a) A sense of the profound abyss of silence somewhere out there, a peculiar but delicious sense of melancholy.
b) I see that God’s order pervades the universe and governs those vast, burning balls of gas, so far away.
c) I feel like I am looking at the most perfect Euclidean proof: a bunch of nesting circles, all neatly ordered, and spaced out in harmonic intervals.
9) All Christians believe in the Devil, but how do you think he tempts you?
a) The Devil always tempts us. He is the principle of disunity and divisiveness. Anytime we prefer a creature over God we are succumbing to his temptations.
b) Sometimes the Devil’s temptations can affect us so deeply that it causes us pain, even in our minds (anxiety, deep guilt, fear).
c) He distributes sickness, illness, and casts spells over us, in which we have an inner hunger to do evil, the exact opposite as to how we feel when we listen to, say, Palestrina, and want to be angelic. He also distributes these plagues and injurious states by means of his ministers, who have airy bodies and dwell in the region above the earth but within our atmosphere.
10) If you commit a sin, what’s you next thought?
a) I’ll try harder in the future. At least it wasn’t illegal.
b) Ugh. I shouldn’t have done this. I’ll try to get to a priest, and until then I feel a heaviness in my chest.
c) The weight of this is so heavy, that the priest will probably give me a penance that will take at least six months to undertake, but in the mean time, I will probably contract an illness which will sap all my physical strength.
11) If one of your friends at a conservative Catholic college tells you over the phone that he’s been receiving uncomfortable pressure from zealous professors because he expressed his doubts in class about whether or not the soul is immortal, you will:
a) Comfort him, tell him to hang in there, and that you trust he’ll come to the right answer in the end, and joke, “hey, this is a free country. Free speech, and all that…”
b) Tell him, “I’m gravely concerned about this. I hope we can remain friends, but I want you to know how dangerous this is.”
c) Call the authorities in the college’s administration to tell them about the threat your friend poses. He is a dangerous dark spot on the face of the community, and he could potentially be the downfall of the community, an entry point of evil (see Taylor, p. 42).
Now, for every “a,” give yourself ten points. For every “b,” give yourself five points. For every “c,” give yourself zero points (or, maybe, subtract ten points?). If you score over eighty, you’re a modernist. If you score between twenty and eighty, you are a modern with a case of pre-modern nostalgia. If you score between zero and twenty, you are perhaps Hugh of Saint Victor or Dante, or perhaps you have spent the past four decades reading medieval literature so that, like C.S. Lewis, you have become a “dinosaur” (as Lewis said of himself) and should become the specimen of study.
I have made my point. Here’s the difficulty: For Dr. Taylor you can’t just go back to the pre-modern world, even if you’re nostalgic for it. We are cut off from it. And so, my students and I have parachuted into this desolate landscape. We plan to study the writings of a series of great authors (Newman, Hopkins, Tolkien, Lewis, and Eliot), all of who felt a deep sense of nostalgia and tried to recover the “enchanted” world in one way or another. I’ll let you know what we find.
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