Chapter 6: Providential Deism

In this chapter Taylor is trying to give an account of how “an exclusive humanism became a life option for large numbers of people, first among the elites, and then more generally.” As we discussed in previous chapters, exclusive humanism is an account of the good life with no recourse to Transcendence. The motivation and ability to do good is found entirely within ourselves, and human flourishing is our only moral goal or allegiance. There is no concern with a possible afterlife or moral goals or allegiances that go beyond human flourishing. 

In describing the shift that takes place from Christianity to exclusive humanism, Taylor notes an important transitional stage: Providential Deism. Providential Deism still retains the notion of a God who created the world and established a rational order of things. However, in comparison to the traditional Christian conception of God, the God of Deism is a very scaled down, far removed, “buffered” God. The Diest God does not intervene in nature through miracles, but instead lets the rational universe, governed by rational laws run according to his preordained plan and order. His purposes for creation are much narrower than in the traditional conception and already come close to exclusive humanism; though of course there is still a sense of the Transcendent: 

“God’s goals for us shrink to the single end of our encompassing this order of mutual benefit he has designed for us…[By Contrast] in the Judaeo Christian tradition… it had always been thought that God had further purposes as well in his creation; that these were largely inscrutable, but they included our love and worship of him. So that a recognition of God and our dependence of him places immediately on us a demand which goes beyond human flourishing.” 

More on all of this in just a minute, but first, its important to notice how Providential Deism is a transitional stage between Christendom and Exclusive Humanism. The Diest God is “buffered”, separated from his creation and does not intervene in any way. He did create a rational order of things, an “order of mutual benefit” which we can rationally discern, read off of his creation, and then follow to achieve human flourishing. But effectively, God’s creation is running on its own steam and Transcendence has essentially been bracketed out; it wouldn’t take much to just remove it completely. This leads us to directly to what Taylor calls a fourfold “Anthropocentric shift” that takes place “around the turn of the seventeenth/eighteenth century.” These four shifts Taylor outlines each reduce “the role and place of the transcendent” and shift concern to the purely immanent. 

We have already touched on the first anthropocentric shift, which is the reduction of God’s purposes to only our own flourishing: “…the plan of God for human beings was reduced to [our] coming to realize the order in their lives which he had planned [our] their happiness and wellbeing. Essentially, the carrying out of the order of mutual benefit was was God had created us for.” While this shift was only realized in its most extreme version by a handful of radicals, Taylor notes that even orthodox Christians were affected and “the transcendent aspect of their faith became less central.” 

The second anthropocentric shift was the eclipse of Grace. With the reduction of God’s purposes to the “shrunken goal” of the Order of Mutual Benefit, it seemed that with reason and discipline, one could find the inner resources to live up to these moral demands. There was less of a sense that God’s grace was needed to help us move beyond our sinful human limitations. Taylor points out that an increasingly disciplined and orderly society would also have made people more optimistic about the intrinsic goodness of human nature. It would have been much easier for Calvin and “his colleges” in the sixteenth century to formulate a doctrine of total depravity as: “they contemplated the disorder, violence, vice, debauchery and danger endemic in their society, and know that only a strong spiritual medicine could bring order.” With the second anthropocentric shift, there was more of a sense that we could find the resources to motivate moral action within us. Of course, since God is the creator, it was he that endowed us with reason and created the rational order of things for us to follow, and in that distant sense, he is still involved. God also remained a motivating force through the threat of hell and the rewards of heaven. 

The third anthropocentric shift was the eclipse of mystery.  With the fading of the medieval cosmology with its hierarchies, inscrutable spheres and grounding in the Transcendent—And its replacement with the clockwork universe of Deism—there was a greater optimism about our ability to comprehend the rational structure of the universe and less of a sense of its permanent inscrutability. Taylor notes that it is around this time that concern with theodicy kicks into high gear: 

“the certainty that we have all the elements we need to carry out a trial of God (and triumphantly acquit him by our apologetics) can only come in the Age of the World-picture. Earlier, in dire straits in the world he made, we can more easily be inclined to appeal to him as helper and saviour, while accepting that we can’t understand how his creation got into this fix, and whose fault it is (permissibly ours). Now that we think we see how it all works, the argument gets displaced.” 

The reduction of God’s providence to the establishment of the Order of Mutual Benefit, also removes the mystery of God’s involvement in particular providences or his performance of miracles. We can grasp the rational structure of the universe and read God’s purposes off it. God’s purposes for us become entirely comprehensible, rational, and the sense of mystery and inscrutability in God’s purposes fades. 

The fourth anthropocentric shift,  is the eclipse of “the idea that God was planning a transformation of human beings, which would take them beyond the limitations of their present condition.” As Taylor notes, this idea of transformation is connected with the idea of living beyond human flourishing in the present life, in which we strain beyond our fallen condition and long for the day in which we will be transformed to fully manifest the love of God. With our shrunken ethical goals, and the sense that we can follow the rational order of things by our own lights, there is less of sense of a need for transformation in this life, or the next. Taylor points out that a shrunken conception of the afterlife persists, but the idea that God is working to transform us, beginning here, and then completed in the afterlife, fades: “Already in this period there is a tendency to conceive of life after death in terms of peace, repose, the reunion with loved ones. The horizon of transformation, in particular to our life here, recedes.” 

What made the shift to Providential Deism, and the subsequent Anthropocentric shift, possible? Taylor doesn’t have one slam dunk explanation, but as usual, he points to a variety of factors. One obvious factor was the rise of science and the mechanistic world picture that was prominent in that time. This, along with the increased frustration with religious ideology and strife, made a more rational, scaled down, less sectarian, less fanatical religion very attractive to people. There was an increased dissatisfaction with traditional Christian doctrines such as original sin and penal substitutionary atonement, which, especially when combined with predestination and a small, saved elect, turned Christianity into a horrifying religion. There was also a dislike of the seemingly otherworldly, beyond human flourishing ethic of Christianity, which chaffed with the modern moral order. At the same time, the Theology and Apologetics of the time, roused to drive back the tide of rising ‘unbelief’, did little to work against these trends: 

“…the great apologetic effort called fourth by this dissatisfaction itself narrowed its focus… drastically. It barely invoked the saving action of Christ, nor did it dwell on the life of devotion and prayer, although the seventeenth century was rich in this. The arguments turned exclusively on demonstrating God as Creator, and showing his Providence.” 

This was a religion reduced to moralism and the content of the moral life was reduced to the Order of Mutual Benefit. Religion was essentially about producing fine, upstanding citizens who would uphold the moral order and live fruitful and prosperous lives: “this morality in turn was cast in terms of the modern notion of order, one in which our purposes mesh to our mutual benefit…That this harmony had been wrought by God in his providence was a key part of apologetics.”

So this anthropocentric shift starts to make exclusive humanism a genuine option. After all, in the Providential Diest conception, God is distant from his creation, and doesn’t interfere in the form of miracles, local providences or through the infusion of grace. God’s only role is as Creator, as the rational ground for the moral order and as a motivator—heaven or hell—for our moral action. All this is indirect, God essentially becomes a regulative idea. With a disenchanted universe (emptied both of spirits and of God’s action), along with a purely immanent moral order, the two conditions needed for exclusive humanism to arise are met: 

“There needed two conditions for its appearance: the negative one, that the enchanted world fade; and also the positive one, that a viable conception of our highest moral and spiritual aspirations arise such that we could conceive of doing without God in acknowledging and perusing them. This came about in the ethic of imposed order (which also played an essential role in disenchantment), and in an experience with this ethic which made it seem possible to carry it through. The points at which God had seemed an indispensable source for this ordering power were the ones which began to fade and become invisible. The hitherto unthinkable became thinkable.”

And yet, in order for exclusive humanism to become not just thinkable but thought, some further shifts must take place to make it a live option, first for the elites, and then for the masses. To examine how this could take place, Taylor turns his attention to the development of “Polite society” (discussed in previous chapter) in the eighteenth century. Polite society was an elite phenomenon and did not extend to the lower classes. There was a self conception of societal, moral, economic progress: “Polite society was civilized, and this meant that it had reached a higher level of refinement than its immediate predecessor.” For that reason, there was a great emphasis placed on cultivating the fine arts, philosophy, literature, conversation, painting etc. Great value was also placed on the “economic dimensions of society” because the growth in prosperity was seen as a driving force for progress and civilization. Polite society also prided itself in its cultivation of good manners, defined as: “a certain kind of sociability, a way we relate to each other, approach each other, converse with each other.” This mode of sociability emphasized a sort of ‘economic’  exchange of ideas, goods etc.. between independent, autonomous individuals: 

“The polite style or manner was to approach the other as an independent agent, with his (and now also her) own legitimate views and interests, and enter into courteous exchange for mutual benefit; be it on one level economic exchange for mutual enrichment; or conversational exchange for mutual enlightenment or amusement.”

Thus, polite society emerges as a new mode of interacting, a new moral framework, not so much an explicit set of rules or new institutions as a “new spirit” of interaction: “What changed at this time was not so much the explicitly valid rules of society, but the spirit, the unofficial and largely implicit norms of elite exchange.” There was a new emphasis on free thought and exchange of ideas, autonomy, mutual benefit, commerce, and so on. What Taylor is keen to emphasize is that this new moral order of polite society stands outside both the church and the state, and judges both by its moires.  There is an increasing sense that there are limits to what the church can do, or the state can do, and when their actions chaff against the moral order, this is unjustified: 

“To follow through the logic of this position is to come to hold that the normative force of this sociability cannot be over-ruled by the deliverances of any church, which is why the reaction of polite society to an act like the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes was negative…such brutal enforcement of difference in doctrine, irreverent to the general truths about God as the designer of the moral order is itself a breach of the order—unless of course, it was necessary to assure public tranquility and obedience…” 

We see with the emergence of polite society and the modern moral order, a near analogue to exclusive humanism. A self sufficient framework “within with to find the standards of our social, moral and political life; the only Transcendent references admitted being those which underpin the order and do not justify infringing it.” Religion, especially ‘superstitious,’ ‘fanatical,’ ‘enthusiastic’ religion, comes to be seen by some thinkers, as a threat to the integrity and well functioning of the order of mutual benefit. For other, less radical thinkers, religion remains a useful tool for keeping the masses, who will never rise to the heights of polite society, docile and well behaved. 

Taylor sees the drive to Reform as another key piece to the development of exclusive humanism. There starts to be this push to reform all of society according to Christian principles, to bring everyone up to the same ‘speed’ and abolish the gap between the laity and the religious orders, the secular and the sacred. There seems to be a belief, as Taylor puts it that “the promise of the Parousia….can be realized here,”that, to use Christ’s parable, the weeds can be rooted out and the grain can grow unhindered.  These attempted reforms begin in 1215 with the Fourth Lateran Council, which prescribed “one on one confession for the entire laity.” Over the successive centuries, various attempts were made to raise the general standards through imposed rules and mass preaching. Taylor sees a key shift taking place around 1500, when religious reform is combined with the push to “civilize”: 

“Around 1500, this drive begins to take a slightly different direction. It begins to take up a more ambitious goal, to change the habits and life practices, not only religious but civil; to instill orderly, sober, disciplined, productive ways of living in everyone. This is the point where the religious drive to reform begins to become interwoven into the attempts to introduce civility, thus to “civilize”, as the key term came to be.” 

It is this attempt to codify and establish by the force of the law a “Christian code”, that ironically makes the first anthropocentric shift possible. This intertwining of Christianity and “civility” can very easily give way to an ethic of purely human flourishing: why bother with Christianity when norms of civility work just as well, even better, for running a prosperous society? Taylor explains: 

“…The very attempt to express what the Christian life means in terms of a code of action in the saeculum opens the possibility of devising a code whose main aim is the encompass the basic goods of life in the saeculum: life, prosperity, peace, mutual benefit. In other words, it makes possible what I called the anthropocentric shift. Once this happens then the break-out is ready to occur. It just needs the step to holding that these “secular goods” are the point of the whole code. Pushed by annoyance and resentment at the ascetic demands of ultra-conformity, many will be willing to take this step.” 

As we discussed above, the second anthropocentric shift follows at the heels of the first, if our goals are purely this worldly, concerned only with the order of mutual benefit, there is also less need for Grace and we can live by our own lights. However, Taylor points out that exclusive humanism needs not only the eclipse of the Transcendent, but also a positive account of how “to experience moral fullness, to identify the locus of our highest moral capacity and inspiration, without reference to God, but within the range of purely intra-human powers.” In other words, Taylor wants to trace the development of exclusive humanism, as a replacement for “Christian agape” which can give an account of both our ability and our motivation to do good, without reference to Transcendence. Exclusive humanism, Taylor is keen to point out, has to be discovered or invented and cannot simply be retrieved from ancient pagan sources. Exclusive humanism emerges partly from, in reaction to, and inopposition with, Christianity: 

“I have been stressing the way in which modern humanisms innovated in relation to the ancients, drawing on the forms of Christian faith they emerged from: active reordering, instrumental rationality, universalism; benevolence. But of course their aim was also to reject the Christian aspiration to transcend flourishing. Hence only the self-giving which conduced to general flourishing as new defined was allowed as rational and natural, and even that within reasonable bounds. The rest was condemned as extravagance or “enthusiasm.”

For this reason, there are key differences between exclusive humanism and pagan or Christian moral sources. On the one hand, in contrast to all pagan sources with the exception of Epicureanism, Exclusive Humanism does not make reference to Transcendence. Furthermore, in contrast to all pagan systems, it does not follow some cosmic order, but rather takes an activist, reordering stance: “the modern image of human flourishing incorporates an activist, interventionist stance, both towards nature and to human society, both are to be reordered, in light of instrumental reason, to suit human purposes.” Finally, it is universalist in scope, in principle, all should be included in the order of mutual benefit and the active reordering must serve all. This universalism is a twist on Christian agape. In a sense it immanantizes, makes present now, what Christian agape slowly builds in its free, reaching beyond, clan and tribe.  

Taylor describes Exclusive Humanism as “active, community transcendent, beneficence.” In other words it is characterized by active reordering of society to to create an order of mutual benefit for all, motivated by benevolence. This drive to Benevolence or altruism is essential for Exclusive Humanism, which: “supposes we are motivated to act for the good of our fellow human beings. We are endowed with a specific bent in this direction. In this way the moral psychology of modern humanism is strikingly different from the ancients.” Exclusive humanism had to find moral sources within which could motivate and make possible this drive to benevolence without reference to Transcendence. Taylor describes three different theories, locating the inner source of benevolence either in disengaged reason, universal will, or universal sympathy. First, through disengaged reason, one could achieve a universal vision. Thus freed from the narrowness of one’s particular perspective, one could be motivated to give “love to all” rather than “only to those who further the purposes of the self.” Second, by that “inner power” of “a pure universal will” we are “awed” and moved to “rise to the full demands of justice and benevolence.” Finally, “through a sense of universal sympathy, which only need the right conditions to flourish” we can be moved to act for the good of others. This is not just a new ‘theory’ about our moral sources, but a new moral mode, a new moral experience. Each of the three moral modes above, give expression to a distinct moral experience and a distinct inner moral source. The ‘universal perspective’ afforded by disengaged reason is a very different moral mode from that of universal sympathy, and both are different from the moral experience of a believer: “What we have here in this discovery of new moral motivations is a composite, experience and reality claim together, amounting to new modes of moral life, which in placing the moral sources within us constitute forms of exclusive humanism.” In outlining this development of exclusive humanism, Taylor wants to repudiate the common “subtraction story” that sees secularism and exclusive humanism a merely what remains ‘underneath’ when we move beyond myth or religion. By giving a genealogical account, in which exclusive humanism emerges from Christendom, we see how it both depends on earlier sources, but also moves beyond them to bring new moral modes into being. For the first time we have “an opening to the universal which is not based in some way on a connection to the transcendent:”  

“…exclusive humanism wasn’t something we fell into, once old myths dissolved, or the “infamous” ancien régime church was crushed. It opened up new human potentialities, vis., to live in those modes of moral life in which the sources are radically immanentized. The subtraction story doesn’t allow us to be as surprised as we ought to be by this achievement—or as admiring of it; because it is after all one of the great realizations in the history of human development, whatever our ultimate views about its scope or limitations.” 

2 thoughts on “Chapter 6: Providential Deism

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