Chapter 7: The Impersonal Order

In this chapter, Taylor wants to explore the background conditions that motivated the shift to Providential Diesm. He is here, reacting against a common “subtraction story” that wants to claim that it was “Science” and “Reason” that made people reject orthodox forms of Christianity, and adopt Deism and later, materialist atheism, in its place. Taylor doesn’t think this subtraction story is completely wrong, but he doesn’t think it can carry all the weight its proponents want to place on it. Taylor points out some of the ways that traditional religion and popular spirituality come under fire in this age. The disenchantment of the universe and the notion that the universe is governed by rational laws leads to a critique of popular spirituality as “superstition.” With this disenchantment comes the homogenization of time—the breakdown of “higher time”—and increasingly, “people began to demand an account of remote, “legendary” events of the same kind as one would offer of what happened around here yesterday.” With this, comes the growth of historical biblical criticism and the subjugation of the biblical text to historical critique. Now the subtraction story would have us believe that with the development of science and reason, religion starts to wither away and the purer, truer, conception of things starts to emerge, first through the intermediary of Diesm, and then, culminating in materialist atheism. Taylor wants to contest this, he finds it curious that there is such a broad leap being made from genuine criticism of incredulous popular superstition or popular miracle claims, to the view that God does not intervene at all in His creation, performs no miracles and works no providence. Surely there are plausible middle positions in between. Taylor uses the analogy of atheists rejection modern day fundamentalism to show whats going on here:

“We have a phenomenon analogous to that in our day, whereby “secular” Americans judge the influence of religion on the basis of their (justifiably) negative views of Jerry Fallwal and Pat Robertson. That their paradigm of “religion” is a negative one is not the result of empirical discovery but of their pre-existing moral framework.” 

So its not so much careful, deductive reasoning that leads the New Atheist to reject all religion as superstitious nonsense, but instead, they are operating from a “pre-existing moral framework” that dismisses religion out of hand. Something similar, Taylor thinks, is going on with the shift to Deism, the move is being motivated by “a deep-seated moral distaste for the old religion that sees God as an agent in history.” As in the fundamentalist case, this “moral distaste” is understandable, but this seems to go far beyond what is warrented, to dismissing all religious experience, all miracles, all interventions, all providences, all acts of God, and so on: 

But of course, what doesn’t figure into this kind of indictment is the (alleged) interventions spoken of in the autobiography of Santa Teresa… or John Weasly, nor a foriori the myriad of unknown, less awe-inspiring acts and experiences of people have understood as related to God. Presumably the people who nod in agreement with Spinoza’s analysis either don’t believe those accounts or reinterpret them in a derogatory light. But that’s just the point: their stance is not forced on them by the “facts,” but flows from a certain interpretative grid.”  

Taylor’s next question is this: “What generates and motivates this grid?” From whence comes this pre-rational interpretative framework, hermetical lens, this “moral distaste”, that makes Deism such an attractive option? Taylor doesn’t think we can give “the ultimate answer”, but:

“we can identify certain features of the situation in the eighteenth century, at least among elites (many of which continue today fo a much broader segment of the population), which made the idea of God as a personal agent unattractive or threatening, and pushed people along the continuum in the direction of Deism, or even further.”

The first feature that Taylor identifies is the growth of “impersonal orders,” which he sees as increasingly replacing the earlier, personal orders, in a variety of domains; cosmic, social, ethical. A few words of summery about each of these. With the breakdown of the world as cosmos, suffused with spirits and hierarchically arranged in the “great chain of being,” we see the breakdown of the personal order. In its place is an “impersonal order,” the universe as a rationally functions machine, ordered by laws and tolerant of no intervening agents. Society also undergoes an impersonal shift. From the feudal hierarchy of peasants, knights, lords and priests, we move to the conception of the order of mutual benefit, with autonomous individuals engaged in mutual exchange. Taylor sees another impersonal shift taking place in the realm of ethics. Christianity is not a “code” but communion with God through Christ, and then, a free, agape reaching beyond, to communion with the other: “The life blood of this relation is agape, which can’t ever be understood simply in terms of a set of rules, but rather as the extension of a certain kind of relation, spreading outward in a network.” Taylor sees Christianity, and ethics more generally, increasingly get reduced to an impersonal moral code. Modern ethics are: “rather hostile to an ethics of virtue or the good, such as that of Aristotle. And a Christian conception, where the highest way of life can’t simply be explained in terms of rules, but rather is rooted in a certain relation to God, is entirely off the screen.” So the rise of these impersonal orders—cosmic, social, ethical—all contribute to a cultural sense or a social imaginary in which an impersonal, designer and lawgiving God, who does not intervene or enter into communion with His creatures, is much more at home. Taylor explains: 

“I am not reverting to the idea I rejected above, that the prevalence of impersonal law in nature refutes the orthodox idea of God as person and agent. My point is the…weaker…one that the predominance of impersonal, unrespondant order in the universe, which was known to follow an age in which people believed in a meaningful cosmos, can be felt to accredit the idea that we have entered a new age in which the older religion is no more at home.” 

Another factor contributing to this “slide towards the impersonal” is what Taylor calls “disengagement” and “objectification.” The epistemological stance of the autonomous agent, standing dispassionately apart from a mechanistic universe starts to pick up steam, via thinkers like Descartes, around this time. Taylor points out how Descartes promotes a sort of disengagement not only from the body (I think, therefor I am) but also a distancing, disengaging from the emotions. The “sensations” are seen as “secondary qualities” that our mind projects onto the world, rather than “redness” or “sweetness” being inherent in the objects. There is this distancing from the meanings of things being inherent in things—as the medieval world picture held—and an “objectifying” stance is taken towards the world: “To objectify a given domain is to deprive it of normative force for us, or at least to bracket the meanings it has for us in our lives…If…we now take a new stance towards it as neutral, without meaning or normative force, we can speak of objectifying it.” Along with this disengagement from the body and the emotions, comes also a disengagement from tradition, social authority, religious authority, custom, and so on. The construct of the autonomous individual, forging his own path, finding the truth for himself, gains steam. 

This disengaged, objective stance, while it is essential for the development of the Natural Sciences, also has a shadow side, which Taylor describes as a “spill-over effect.” The overreach of this stance, in which everything that cannot be described by its objective gaze, is dismissed as hocus pocus, leads to a scientistic, reductionistic outlook on the world. This stance, as we see in our own day, rather than opening us up to the mysteries of the universe, can rather tightly clap down into a narrow lens that forces reality to conform to its model, rather than remaining open to mystery: “Reality is summoned, as it were, to conform to what this stance can pick up. A powerful homogenizing a priori is at work here…, perverse in its effect…unwittingly reality is being arranged before the bar of Method; what doesn’t shape up is condemned to a shadow zone of the unreal.” Taylor’s comments here remind me of Ian Mcgillchrist’s work on the left and right hemisphere and the different ways of attending that both hemispheres bring to reality. The right hemisphere brings a stance of openness to newness, while the left hemisphere remains trapped within its supposedly exhaustive model of reality. A stance of disengagement that leads to reductionism is trapped in a left hemisphere mode. It claims to see the world exhaustively, but forgets that the disengaged stance is just one stance, one way of approaching the mystery of being: 

“Yet this highly objective stance, this ‘view from nowhere,’ to use Nagel’s phrase, it itself value-laden. It is just one particular way of looking at things, a way which privileges detachment, a lack of commitment of the viewer to the object viewed. For some purposes this can be undeniably useful. But its use in such causes does not make it truer or more real, closer to the nature of things.”  

Along with the growth in impersonal orders and the disengaged stance, the increasing sense of progress of the age also helped bring about the shift to Deism. There was a widespread belief among elites (as discussed in the previous chapter) that society was moving out of the dark middle ages, and into a new, polite, civilized, “commercial society.” Older forms of thought have no place in this new civilized age, and our religious notions must evolve along with our society: 

“It was easy to take on board the idea that along with different cultural features and practises that belonged to different eras… modes of religion too must change. From here it would be easy to take the step that orthodox, communion-defined Christianity really belongs to an earlier age; that it makes little sense, is hard to sustain today.” 

We see these tendencies exemplified in the rise of Unitarianism and the quest for a “pure”, religion, free from accretions and the supernatural. (Think here of Jefferson’s bible) Taylor calls this movement towards a de-contextual, pure, universal religion of Deism, a movement of “excarnation” (the inverse of “incarnation). All objectionable particularity is pulled away, and dismissed as “accretion.” This is a “…purified religion, where God reveals himself through His Creation, making demands on us which this creation itself reveals to our rational scrutiny, also making otiose all the forms of personal relation between Creator and creatures.” Jesus is reduced to a moral teacher and revelation comes only via the created order and the deliverances of reason. There is little room here for Barth’s apocalyptic, “Pure Other” God, who comes crashing into history to disrupt the status quo. No, such a God would come in the way of the modern moral order: 

“Jesus role in this is that of a teacher, by precept and example. His importance is as an inspiring trailblazer of what we will later call Enlightenment. For this he doesn’t need to be divine; indeed he had better not be, if we want to maintain the notion of a self contained-impersonal order which God in his wisdom set up, both in nature and for human society. Incarnation would blur the edges of this.” 

The shift to Deism, Taylor argues, is “more than just a change in belief,” but “really reflects a major shift in our background understanding of the human epistemic predicament.” There has been a shift in the stance people take to the world, indeed, this is precisely the shift Taylor is hoping to outline in this book as he thinks about what it means to move from a world in which belief in God was assumed, to one in which it is one option among many. In the period leading up to the Enlightenment, a new framework is starting to emerge, one radically different to the one that defined earlier ages:

“What is the new framework? It is the one I have been striving to define here. Human beings, forming societies under the normative provisions of the Modern Moral Order, and fulfilling their purposes by using what Nature provides, through the aid of accurate knowledge of this Nature, and the contrivences which we will later call Technology. Morever, these agents aquire knowledge by exploring impersonal orders with the aid of disengaged reason. This now defines the human epistemic predicament.” 

Taylor makes the fascinating point that the apologetics of this age, trying to ward off the tide of unbelief, actually conceded too much. The arguments put forward for the existence of God by William Paley and co. were not doing the same work that Thomas Aquinas had done before them with his five proofs for God. While Aquinus was arguing from within the Christian tradition as it were, the apologists of this age were arguing from the outside, from within the new, emerging, disengaged stance. As Taylor puts it, the “subject had changed,” Paley and Aquinas simply weren’t talking about the same thing: 

“We tend to think, for instance, that moderns differ from Aquinas on the validity of the proofs for God’s existence (that is, we see how wrong he was in thinking them convincing), but cannot grasp that these arguments were doing something rather different in the earlier horizon. Hence the importance of studies which show how the subject was changed through a series of steps involving late Scholasticism, Dons Scotus, nominalism, “possibilism”, Occam, Cajetan and Suarez, Descartes, where each stage appeared to be addressing the same issues as the predecessors it criticized, while in fact the whole framework slid away and came to be replaced by another.” 

So we see that the shift the Diesm and then atheist materialism, is not motivated, as the subtraction story would have us believe, but people suddenly becoming “reasonable” and “scientific,” but rather by a fundamental shift in the framework, the stance, people bring a priori. This is a key part of what Taylor wants to argue for in his book, that secularism is contingent and not inevitable. That it is not more “rational” than belief, but is a stance with roots in history. It emerges from contingent historical factors and forces, rather than being the “rational”conclusion, arrived at by impartial observation of reality.

6 thoughts on “Chapter 7: The Impersonal Order

  1. It is interesting to that ‘reason’ itself can become quasi religious\ ideological. For instance, the ‘church of reason’ which was intended to replace Catholicism during the time of the French Revolution.

    On a similar note, I am reading Jonathan Haidt’s Righteous Mind, and he makes an argument that we are evolutionary religious beings. Religions provided a social\moral order which acted to enforce social cohesion and provide a competitive advantage to certain rleigious groups over others. This moral order essentially solves the ‘free rider’ problem which is notoriously difficult to do so.

    Further, he criticisizes the New Atheists arguing that you can’t look at one person’s beliefs in isolation, you have to look at religion as a social fact. One person performing a religious ritual on their own has a different effect than a group performing the ritual as a collective.

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  2. Thanks Julian.
    It seems to me that Taylor, in this chapter at least is characterizing the shift from the “enchanted” medieval world view as one to a “disenchanted” world view based on Science and its Method of discovery. This may be the correct description, but I always thought of the shift to Science and the values associated with the Enlightenment as a sort of re-enchantment . A shift from a world inhabited by sprits and demons with a comprehensive system of hierarchy defined the the Church to the elegant beauty of the natural order of nature. Those theologians like Paley with their arguments based on teleology felt challenged by this attractive new vision. A vision that had power, relevance, and applicability to the possibilities of understanding the world and how to improve people’s lives. The aesthetic of Nature was not lost on those who could understand Newton’s “Principia”, The physical universe was suddenly becoming a big place. ( The enchantment of Nature sure wasn’t lost on George Washington Carver ). I can’t imagine that even those first attempts with Science was viewed as such a solitary endeavor, but a building, a collaboration, a sense of “Teamwork”. I always thought that is what the discovery of Nature and the Scientific Method always implied, no matter how isolated or separated certain geniuses were from each other in those days

    Even b4 Kant’s death the shift of the paradigm of a mechanical Newtonian worldview to one of a biological frame was being entertained. And I know Taylor knows this. This don’t cover the psychology, epistemology, political or ideological baggage that went along with all in the chapter, but I feel that the strong aesthetic of Science at this time was underrated by Taylor.. There is a “There” there in Nature that has promise, hope, and beauty.

    Thanks again, Julian, for jumping on this great book. I won’t have the time or energy to cover it for myself, but I trust your synopsis and commentary ( no purple smoke intended. 🙂 )

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    1. Thanks Richard,

      Good comment! That’s undoubtedly true. I think Taylor does (in a sense) address your critique that there is this aesthetic draw of the mechanical world picture. One of the big points he stresses is that what motivated the (especially 19th century) shift to Athiesm, (this goes also for the shift to Diesm) was not so much that people were drawn by the good arguments; as it was that people were drawn by the attractiveness of the new objective, dispassionate stance, the power, the progress, the leaving behind of old ways that this affords. I think many religious people feel this same draw today; in a hyper technelogical, scientific society, religion can seem antiquated, out of step with the times, and people feel attracted to this great narrative of progress. Does that sort of get at your question?
      One thing about Taylor, he is INCREADIBLY charitable and nuanced, when you read his descriptions of the new objective, scientific stance, you can really feel the draw, just as you feel the draw when he articulates his own Christian vision. He always goes back and fourth in such a nuanced way, that no summery (focused as it is, on the “main points”) can ever capture the subtlety of his position. Besides that, we all have own subconcious or concious axe to grind, and in summerizing Taylor’s argument, my “salience landscape” is making certain things pop out, and others fade into the backround. So I would just say, if you feel like Taylor is “undertatting” the “strong aestetheic of Science”, you can pin that on me, instead of him. 🙂 Taylor is not interested in going back to the middle ages, but niether is he interested in painting this as some clean, story of progress with nothing lost along the way.

      In any event, stick around for chapter 8, and maybe you’ll see me articulte the “aestetic appeal” of the new stance.

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  3. Does that get at my question? Absolutely. It wasn’t my intention to make a critique, only an impression for better understanding. You did that .I might have more questions like that in the future, or on past chapters. Historical context is an important element in what Taylor’s describing. I may have to retrieve my history books in my rat infested attic. 🤣 I will be interested to learn what Taylor thinks we have lost or forgotten in this long story. The fact that you know “we all have our own subconscious or conscious axe to grind” makes me even more confident in what I’m reading here.

    Im just afraid you’re going to end up Making me read this book.

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