Chapter 9: The Dark Abyss of Time

In this chapter, Taylor seeks to describe the emergence and the shape of the modern cosmic imaginary. By “cosmic imaginary” Taylor has in mind something analogous to what he refers to as the “social imaginary.” In the case of the “cosmic imaginary” it is that generally shared background understanding of the world and our place in it.  He summarizes: 

“So “cosmic imaginary” makes sense of the ways in which the scrounging world figures in our lives: the ways, for instance, that it figures in our religious images and practices, including explicit cosmological doctrines; in the stories we tell about other lands and other ages; in our ways of marking the seasons and the passage of time; in the place of “nature” in our moral and/or aesthetic sensibility: and in our ability to develop a “scientific” cosmology, if any.” 

We see here that Taylor’s “cosmic imaginary” is not mearly the “scientific model” of the world (earlier ages wouldn’t have had a scientific picture in the modern sense) but rather a much broader, much less clearly defined, much more generally shared, sense of the world. 

Now that we have a sense of what Taylor means by “cosmic imaginary” we can begin to describe the shift that he sees as taking place in the transition from the premodern to the modern. There are two major shifts in the cosmic imaginary, first, the transition from the premodern “cosmos” to the modern “universe.” In the premodern cosmos there was a strong sense of limit. There were limits in time, God created the world at a set time in the not too distant past. There were limits in space, the cosmos was vast, but there was a discernible end to the cosmic spheres. There were was a discernible order, a moral fabric to the cosmos that gave a strong sense of moral limit: transgress the order and there will be consequences. The cosmos was a orderly, patterned, deeply meaningful place, that imposed order and limit on its human inhabitants. The new cosmic imaginary of the modern universe on the other hand, sweeps away this sense of limit. The universe is no longer a meaningful place, filled with signs and symbols, instead it is large, cold, empty and nearly infinite. Reality extends into the infinity of empty space and into the infinity of the microscopic; entire unexplored, vast worlds up up before us and we feel small, and insignificant in the face of it all. The limits on time are exploded, and there is a sense that we have emerged from a long, deep, dark process stretching back into incomprehensibly distant past. Taylor speaks of the difference between the biblical narrative that provided a “shaft of light right to the bottom of a (in retrospect rather shallow-seeming) well” and the “darkness” of the newer conception of a deep, evolutionary past. This new sense of the universe having emerged from a “dark genesis” and life forms as having evolved, is Taylor’s second shift in the cosmic imaginary. This a shift from the “earlier cosmos idea” which “saw the world as fixed, unvarying.” 

How do these shift come about? We might be tempted to think that all it takes is the accumulation of new evidence which just overturns the old model by its sheer weight, however, this is not sufficient. Two things are required, first the emergence of a new model and second, the waning of the old model. Evidence alone is insufficient, because without a new framework it will simply be interpreted to fit the old model. Taylor points out that in some sense, the first condition was already met, the new, mechanistic, Deistic models already challenged the Christian/Platonic/Aristotelian Cosmos picture and offered a transitional stage to the modern cosmic imaginary. Indeed, the mechanistic world picture which has God the Architect stepping back from his self sufficient machine, could only arise between the Cosmos world picture and modern, evolutionary universe. The mechanistic model doesn’t fit with either, it’s disenchanted and largely self sufficient, but it still retains the static, sense of limit of the Cosmos model.

The mechanistic model also does a lot to weaken the premodern cosmic imaginary and in the process to fragilize orthodox belief. Through disenchantment and the rise of the buffered self, we no longer inhabit the platonic/Christian Cosmos of the middle ages, but live into a much more flattened, secular plane. Higher times, relics, the assault of demons, all fade from our experience and the Christian story and God, become beliefs, rather than lived realities that we cannot escape: 

“But Mechanistic theory fragilized faith not principally by refuting Plato and Aristotle. It was really because mechanism undermines enchantment, the expression-embodiment of higher reality in the things that surround us, and thus made the presence of God in the cosmos something which was no longer experience-near.” 

With this fragilization of belief, or with the turning of experienced, lived realities into mere propositional beliefs, “the imagination can easily be nudged towards other ways of accounting for the awkward facts.” We can understand in this, also the rise of Christian apologetics of the time, now trying to account for and prove the existence of God in the terms of the new mechanistic world picture. This was motivated, Taylor argues, by “a strong sense of deficit in a world where people used to feel a precede here, and were accustomed to this support; often couldn’t help but feeling that this lack of support as undermining their whole faith; and very much feeling needs to be reassured that it oughtn’t be so.” So, the fall of the Cosmos picture and the enchanted world, puts intense pressure on apologetics efforts as well as the literal authority of the bible. Christianity now stands or falls on the historical truth of say the world flood, or a creation 6,000 years ago. (I think here of Kierkegaard’s influence on my own thinking and how his focus on lived, relational faith, helped free me from the anxiety of apologetics.) This intense focus on the literal, factual, historical interpretation flows also from the new mechanistic model. The older cosmos was filled with signs and symbols, and incorporated much more than a “literal” accounting of things. The new mechanistic model, like the biblical literal biblical interpretation, did away with these signs and symbols and multi-layered meanings, sweeping them “away as so many Idols” and in its place propounded “a literal account of physical reality.” Taylor sees here a connection between the “creationists” and Ultra-Darwinists, in that both have evacuated mystery from world. The existence of contingent things is for both, self evident: either fully comprehensible without reference to God, or simply coming into being through the will of God. Both have no place for what Taylor calls “intra-cosmic mystery,” that sense of wonder that arises from the sheer strangeness and contingency of Creation. Creationists reject it by simply positing a creator who brought it all into being, it’s as simple as that. Ultra-Darwinists, so caught up in their ideological scientific outlook, also avoid the mystery by assuming that it can all be explained on purely immanent terms.  

There is a common subtraction story that sees the rise of the modern cosmic imaginary as coming from the hard fought victory of Scientists over the religious dogmatists. Anyone familiar with this history knows how oversimplified this is, in reality, the situation is much more complex: “The pure face-off between “religion” and “science” is a chimaera, or rather, an ideological construct. In reality, there is a struggle between thinkers with complex, many-levelled agendas, which is why the real story seems so confused and untidy in light of the ideal confrontation.” Taylor gives the example of two key figures in the seventeenth century, Thomas Burnet, and Giambattista Vico, both of them, in their own way, helped develop the modern cosmic imaginary from within a religious and orthodox Christian framework. Both interpreted the Christian story of creation in ways that “broke with the picture of a fixed, unchanging world” and a prefect creation issued from the mouth of God. Taylor summarizes: 

“We have found in both of these two authors three themes: that of the ruins and deep time, that of the “sublime”, and that of the dark genesis of humanity—as against the shaft of light to the very bottom of the well that Genisis 1 seemed to offer. These have become part of our cosmic imaginary today. Each conflicts with a major feature of the previous imaginary. And yet we can’t think of them as coming about simply as by-products of scientific discovery.” 

What Taylor says in the last sentence is key part of what he wants to argue here, our scientific models don’t arise, as it were, as the natural conclusion of the facts, but rather “it is just as, if not more true, that a shift in our imaginary enabled us to come up with the scientific theories which we now accept.” 

Taylor now turns to explore the rise of the “sublime” as a key driving force behind the new cosmic imaginary. The sense of the “sublime” arises from wild, untamed places, especially wilderness. There is this strange sense of awe-filled, joyful terror at the sheer majesty, splendour and raw power at what lies before you. Thoreau captures this in his description of Mount Ktaadn: 

“Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful… Here was no man’s garden… Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific,—not his Mother Earth… it was a place for heathenism and superstitious rites,—to be inhabited by men nearer to the kin to the rocks and wild animals than we.” 

We see here on one hand the sense of awesome beauty, and on the other, a raw terror at its greatness. Taylor sees this sense of the “sublime” as made possible by the buffered identity. Previously, the wilderness was a dangerous, fallen, untamed place, where one could encounter demons, but also, God. Christ goes into the desert and is tempted by satan, Saints go into the wilderness to find God and are tempted there as well. With the buffered self, the wilderness is neutralized, and we feel more safe there, and no longer need to feel the attack of demons. So the sense of terrible awe we feel, is made possible by the simultaneous sense that we are still safe:

 “How to understand this? Partly from the very success of the buffered identity. The vogue of films such as Titanic shows the pleasure we can take in contemplating terrible dangers, as long as we ourselves are in security…This is certainly part of the story. Both Burke and Kant, in their writings on the sublime, see this element of personal safety as a necessary condition of being moved by it.”

On the other hand, the sense of the “sublime” is itself a reaction against the buffered identity and its place in the modern commercial society. In our encounter with the raw wildness of nature, our buffered selves, previously content with fulfilling our desires and pursuing pleasure, suddenly encounter something that does not fit into this rational calculous. We suddenly see what really matters and our encounter with the wild, shows us the shallowness, futility, emptiness of our commercial existence. The irrational, raw, wild is a affront to the straight lines and rational order of modern society, it challenges its self contained existence: so, the sense of the “sublime” breaks open the buffered self. Now, this can be interpreted with both a “open” and “closed” take. We can think of this experience as breaking open some primordial inner depth, some lost longing and inner power, pushed underneath by commercial society. Think here of Freud’s unconscious desires that are suppressed, our primordial animal nature is what calls out to us in our encounter with raw nature. On the other hand, there can be an “open” take, in our encounter with creation and our sense of awe, we can feel the tug of transcendence, those inner depths connecting with the infinite in creation. As the Psalmist wrote: “deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfall.” So the new cosmic imaginary can lead to both a “closed” materialist take or a much richer, “open” spirituality, it accommodates both simultaneously. For Taylor, this is the “most salient feature of the modern cosmic imaginary,” that it is a sort of “no-mans land” a space “in which people can wander between and around all these options without having to land clearly and definitely in any one.” 

4 thoughts on “Chapter 9: The Dark Abyss of Time

  1. That last paragraph really leaves me on edge for the rest of Taylor’s story. It seems a necessity to me that in order to explore, to venture out into the unknown ( the wild ) it is necessary to have some kind of security a “safe space” that one can either retreat to or carry with them. Else, fear and fragmentation become the order of the day. Jesus often retreated to a private place for prayer and solitude. There, and back again, and back to There again.
    Today, we not only experience the “wildness” of nature in the form of fire, hurricanes, and floods; we experience the topsy-turvy “wildness” of the political, social, and psychological strife that seems to threaten to break out wherever. The “irrational, raw, wild”. So, like a lot of people I continue to sit at home with my mask and gloves on, my gun in a handy safe place — and watch re-runs of Captain Kangaroo.


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