Chapter 1: The Bulwarks of Belief

In chapter one, Taylor sets out to show how the social imaginary of medieval society reinforced belief in God. He then describes the shifts that had to take place to make exclusive humanism a genuine option. Taylor points to three features of the medieval imaginary: The cosmos, the society and the enchanted world.

First, the natural world was conceived of as a cosmos, an ordered whole which testified to God’s purpose and action. Great events like floods, plagues and so on, were seen as acts of God. The Cosmos was structured in a “humanly meaningful way”, that is, bringing all levels of existence into a hierarchical harmony, culminating in God. Taylor writes: “In the cosmos the order of things was a humanly meaningful one. That is, the principle of order in the cosmos was closely related to, often identical to that which gave shape to our lives.” This Cosmos, gave way to the impersonal “universe” in the early modern period, which conceived a natural order governed by exception-less laws. We move from the “music of the spheres”,  the “eternal silence of infinite spaces”.

Second, society itself was grounded in God. There was much more of a sense in medieval times, than in our own individualistic era, that we are in this together. This was not least because society was seen as a bulwark against dangerous anti-social forces, sprits, demons, those casting “black magic”. The Church was essential for warding off bad spirits with “white magic.” Communal rites and festivals, such as those preformed before the harvest season were also important for warding off bad sprits. There was great power in the collective. Taylor points out that this goes some way towards helping us understand the medieval intolerance towards heretics and such. To be a heretic was no mere personal matter, heresy was dangerous for the social order. Taylor quotes a medieval figure who speaks of exacting “vigorous vengeance to stay the anger of God.” God was essential to the functioning of society, without his protective power, social order would collapse and forces of chaos would breach the bulwark. Taylor helpfully describes the social function of God and how the social dynamics reinforced belief:

“When such crucial social action involves deploying together this kind of “magic” or spiritual power, then society itself is seen, is experienced as a locus of this power. How can you be fully “into” a collective rite like beating the bounds, and yet skeptical of the power of God and the Sacrament? It would be like fixing a socket today while doubting the power of electricity. God’s power was there for you in the micro functioning of society.”  

Third “people lived in an enchanted world.” As we have already discussed, medieval people lived in a world filled with spirits, and demons, good forces and evil forces. These forces, the saints, demons, spirits, etc. Impacted events, emotions, thoughts—that is, they were seen as forces in the world who needed to be appeased or warded off. There were also objects such as relics, the Holy host and so on, which were also filled with power. The Holy Host was seen as filled with great supernatural power, people would sneak it out of the Church to feed to their animals or use on their crops, believing that it had great power. The cosmos of the medievals, was not governed by “exception-less laws” but instead, was much more malleable to human or cosmic forces influencing events. People saw the natural order in a similar we that we do the human world, it can be altered by pleading, moral effort, prayer or cursing, displeasing God or some spirit, and so on: “Events were not instances of exception-less laws, but actions; sometimes of evil agents, sometimes of saints, and sometimes of God. The term “act of God” had real meaning then.”

Taylor distinguishes between the “porous” medieval self and the modern “buffered” self. The medieval self was always vulnerable to forces and objects acting upon it, altering moods, impacting thoughts and motivation, imposing meanings, or even possessing it. The line between the self and the world was much hazier than the clear boundary we draw today. Meaning was not internal to the mind, but rather also external, imposing itself upon a person. Similarly, ones emotions, motivations, etc. could be influenced or driven by external forces, by the influence of a demon, or a saint: “Then the inside is no longer just inside; it is also outside. That is, emotions which are in the very depths of human life exist in a space which takes us beyond ourselves, which is porous to some outside power, a person like power.” The modern mind is very different in this regard. We think of ourselves as imposing meaning upon a meaningless universe: “Thoughts, [emotions, motivations] ect., occur in minds, minds are only human; and they are bounded, they are inward spaces.” The porous self is yet another barrier to unbelief, in a world where you are constantly vulnerable to external forces, and are genuinely afraid of evil beings, God, “white magic”, the power of the Church, or the Saints, can’t be abandoned lightly. 

Taylor discusses the difference between how medievals and moderns experience time. Taylor distinguishes between ordinary time and higher time. In the medieval world, ordinary time was interrupted occasionally by “higher time”, the interruption of eternity into secular time. Taylor uses the image of horizontal time being interrupted by vertical time which introduces “warps and inconsistencies.” A feast day, Good Friday, for example, is closer to the original day when Christ was crucified, than a day a few months earlier, despite the second day being “closer” to the original good Friday on ordinary time. “They are drawn close in eternity, even though they are centuries (that is, “aeons” or “saecula”) apart.” Our modern conception of time is shaped by the secular order we have constructed:

“…the disciplines of our modern civilized order have led us to measure and organize time as never before… The result has been the creation of a tight, ordered, time environment. This has enveloped us, until it comes to seem like nature. We have constructed an environment in which we live in a uniform, univocal secular time, which we try to measure and control in order to get things done… It occludes all higher times, making them even hard to conceive.”

Our conception of time in our secular age is that it is indifferent to the events that fill it, it is either seen as a container which is filled with events, or alternatively as merely equivalent to cosmic processes.  In the medieval conception, a tract of time is identified by what fills it, its is constituted by the events that happen within ordinary time or by the interruptions of higher time: “a time which has fallen away from the eternal paradigms of order will exhibit more disorder. A time-place which is closer to God’s eternity will be more gathered.”

Taylor describes medieval society as a difficult balancing act and equilibrium between “two speeds” of religion. On one hand, the ordinary people who were concerned with “human flourishing”, on the other, those who live lives “beyond human flourishing.” The clearest example is the difference between the peasant class and the monastic orders. Taylor also describes this as a difference between “structure”—human flourishing—and “anti-structure”—beyond human flourishing. Taylor emphasizes that there is great tension between the two, and that the medievals system held them in a precarious equilibrium. Once a year, there was the Carnival, in which the entire structure was inverted for the day. Anti-structure became Structure, paupers became kings and immoral acts abounded. Taylor describes this a sort of “safety pressure valve” to let off the great strain of virtue that was expected of people. 

Taylor describes the phenomenon of “Reform”, the attempt to remake society to meet the demands of the gospel, which gained traction as a movement in the three centuries leading up to the Reformation. By its very nature “Reform” was opposed to the two speed equilibrium of medieval society and sought to bring all of society to “one speed.” There were popular movements seeking to raise the piety the population, emphasizing the suffering Christ and personal devotion to Him. Elite movements were more inward focused and tried to cultivate prayer and meditation. There were also elite and Church initiatives to improve the piety of the common people. A major feature of the piety of the times emphasized being ready for death, the last judgement and being ready to face God. This lead to great anxiety about personal salvation and fear of the judgement and death. The boom in indulgences capitalized on this fear. Enter the Reformation. Luther’s doctrine of salvation by grace, especially in his own biography, was motivated by this great fear of damnation. The Reformation was, according to Taylor, driven by “Reform,” in its attempt to bring all of Christendom to one speed, to raise the general standards. This had two effects. First, a great drive towards disenchantment. All magic, even “white magic” was seen as evil and had to be driven out. What really mattered was ones inner motivations and personal piety, and obsession with sacraments and relics was at best a distraction and at worst, idolatrous. Second, the drive to “Reform” led to a drive to remake all of society according to God’s will and to raise the general standard. Calvin’s Geneva is the prime example. Taylor lists the characteristics of these Reforms: activist, uniformizing, homogenizing, rationalizing. The attempt was to root our vestiges of paganism such as the carnivals and to remake society according to a single code. Taylor sees this as leading inexorably to the totalitarianism and utopianism of modernity. Exclusive humanism is also closer to becoming a thinkable option. One Transcendence is eclipsed, and we assume that we can be moral on our own lights and define the goal of the moral life merely in terms of human flourishing, exclusive humanism can be a genuine option.


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