Chapter 14: Religion Today

In this chapter Taylor explores the place of religion in the age of Authenticity. As we discussed in the previous chapter, the Age of Authenticity disrupted the older forms of religion that saw a close link between civilizational order and religious belief. In the American case, in the period immediately after the second world war, there was a strong link between patriotism, religion and family values. There was a mutual complementarity between these different spheres; In the family, good citizens and church goers were raised. The Church instilled morals for productive family and civic life and the State defended and embodied those values: 

“If this kind of prosperity was central to the American way of life, so was religion. For it could be seen as following God’s design, and America as a nation was especially founded to realize this design. The three sides of the triangle supported each other: the family was the matrix in which the young were brought up to be good citizens and believing worshippers; religion was the source of the values that animated both family and society; and the state was the realization and bulwark of the values central to both family and churches.” 

This entire matrix was undermined by various forces in the next few decades: the civil rights movement, feminism, the Vietnam war, and of course, the revolution of the 1960s. All of these forces served to undermine and problematize this vision of the place of religion. In the aftermath of the “expressionist revolution” we see the decline of these older forms of religion, as well as the emergence of new forms of spirituality. It’s this landscape that Taylor wants to explore. In the age of authenticity, spirituality becomes unhooked from religious traditions and institutions. The primary metaphor is that of a “quest” or “search;” as the individual embarks on a spiritual journey, seeking to find a connection with Transcendence, deeper meaning/significance, some sort of a way out of the malaise of modernity or immanence. The quest is for some kind of wholeness of self, a fullness, an integration of life, a sense of the spiritual that pervades all of existence, and so on. Taylor writes:

“Many young people are following their own spiritual instincts, as it were, but what are they looking for? Many are “looking for more direct experience of the sacred, for greater immediacy, spontaneity, and spiritual depth,” in the words of an astute observer of the American scene. This often springs from a profound dissatisfaction with a life encased entirely in the immanent order. The sense that this life is empty, flat, devoid of higher purpose.”

There can be an aversion towards established, institutionalized forms of religion, as these seem to impose certain religious forms, limits and dogmas, on the seeker. At the same time, as “expressive individualism” continues to gain a kind of homogeneity across society, and there is an increasing sense of the lack of depth; rootedness; the emptiness of pure choice. Some can be attracted to forms of established, traditional religion, especially those of the “high church” veriaty, such as Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. In these ‘quest’ modes of spirituality, there is a great emphasis on “authenticity”, finding your own, genuine path, or being true to your convictions, following one’s intuitions/inner promptings. Tara Issibella Burton speaks of “intuitional religion” and notes the tendency towards “mixing and matching”, borrowing practices, ideas, etc. from different traditions to form a “remixed religion”:

“We’re seeing a reimagining of religion as a more individualized, more intuitional religion of the self, where people want to mix and match and play around with different traditions, belief systems, and practices. “Re-mixed” as a cultural phenomenon is intended to capture all of these groups: people who are explicitly spiritual but not religious; who belong to some tradition or no tradition.There are people who say that they are religiously unaffiliated but also say they believe in a higher power; and people who say “Yes, I’m Christian,” but also read tarot cards or practise Zen Buddhist meditation, and have a spiritual life that isn’t limited — I call them religious hybrids — to one set of doctrines and practices.” 

This “intuitional” or quest centred spirituality is not without its critics. Taylor points to two different points of tension between some established forms of religion and the new intuitional religion. (This is not a tension between established religion per se, and intuitional spirituality, but rather, between some forms of established religion and intuitional religion.) In the first place, Taylor points to what he sees as a perennial tension between two stances: “dwelling” and “seeking.” There is a basic tension in stance, between relying on external authority and trusting ones inner intuitions/promptings:

 “There is undoubtedly a tension in our time, which is the site of a battle between neo- and post- Durkheimian construals of our condition, between different forms of religion or spirituality, those which place authority first, and hence are suspicious and hostile of contemporary modes of quest; and those which are embarked on these, and may or may not in the course of searching come to recognize one or another form of authority.” 

Now, of course, Taylor recognizes that this is a drastically over-simplified dichotomy, there is overlap between the two, and you will find Christians who lean more towards “Authority” or more towards “Quest.” Indeed, it would be best to combine the two: “One might even argue that the valid position was to recognize a complimentary here, and to combine some features of each: within a basic stance of self trust, to be aware of the multiple possibilities of complacency and self deception.” That said, its obvious that the basic dichotomy that Taylor sets up, is a helpful one. Those who lean more towards the “Authority” side, might have a hard time seeing in quest/intuitional modes of spirituality, anything more than self centred, superficial spirituality. They might react with a “bunker” mentality, hunkering down, to defend their institutions form the “new paganism.” Those Christians who lean more to the “Quest” side, could be open to dialogue with these spiritual seekers, finding common experience, common critiques of the modern condition, and will be able to reach out, and perhaps be able to draw people in.

A second point of tension is the continued strength of what Taylor calls “Neo-Durkheimian religious forms: as we discussed above, these are those religious forms that see a tight link between civilizational order and Christian faith, between patriotism and Christianity. This has started to decline in the Age of Authenticity: “A tight connection between national identity, a certain ecclesial tradition, strong common beliefs, and a sense of civilizational order, which was standard for the age of mobilization, has given way.” We are now moving more and more towards a “post-Durkenheimian” age in which, “our relation to the sacred is more and more unhooked from our relation to our political societies.” To put it in other terms, we could distinguish between “Christendom” (analogous to Neo-Durkheimian) and “Post-Christendom” (analagous to “Post-Durkheimian”): our time is one in which the homogeneity of a certain form of “civil religion,” nominally Christian, has started to give way. For many Christians, this loss of cultural power is unsettling, and these Christians will be involved in fighting the “culture war” to restore Christendom. These new modes of quest/intuitional spiritualities, are a threat to those still invested in the project of Christendom. For other Christians, who see the connection between political power and Christianity as detrimental for authentic Christianity, this can be seen as a positive development. One wonders if part of the the Traditionalist unease with Pope Francis is motivated by both of these tensions. On the one hand, his Jesuit emphasis on Discernment, cultivating a relationship with God, his delegitimating of authority, emphasis on the “weak church” and his reaching out to the peripheries/spiritual seekers with a message of mercy and humility. On the other hand, his message is obviously situated within a post-Christendom dispensation; he is uninterested in fighting the culture wars, or restoring a “Christian civilization” but instead seeks to present an authentic spirituality and Christianity. In many ways, you could see Francis as responding to precisely the trends Taylor is outlining in this chapter. Taylor has said as much in a public event

“I think the church had gotten into the stance of defending itself against its critics and trying to convince them, but that’s not a stance of dialogue. Pope Francis is going out and reaching out”…Rather than whining about how “we in the church have been misunderstood and people don’t like us and why don’t they like us…” Pope Francis is living the Gospel and reaching out.” 

Despite the steady decline of Christendom/Neo-Durkehimian forms, they do remain a powerful force in our time, especially in America. (As the heat generated by the recent election demonstrates) Taylor distinguishes between “Hot” and “Cold” forms of Neo-Durkehimian religiosity. The United States would be an obvious example of a “Hot” form of Neo-Durkehimian/Christendom religosity, while the same forms are much more “Cold” in Europe. Many people retain some sort of connection to their faith, perhaps for cultural, sentimental, familial, reasons, without expressing this in regular Church attendance or explicit practice. The stance is a somewhat apathetic one: “we all have important things to get on with in our lives, and we feel we can’t give our full attention and effort to spiritual or moral demands that we hold in some sense valid, that we may admire others for going themselves to more fully.” This kind of “cold,” latent, Neo-Durkehimian spirituality comes to the fore in National tragedies, say a terrorist attack (as with 9-11) or in a national event (such as the Funeral of Princes Diana) and so on, when people are suddenly drawn back into public expression of Religiosity. 

What Taylor, along with other secularization theorists finds strange, is the “American Exception:” “We are faced with a strong even if not uniform pattern of decline in European Societies, and virtually nothing of the sort in the USA. How can this difference be explained?” Taylor gives a few stabs at some answers. European society is more hierarchal than American, and while pervasive secularity and unbelief is about equal among American and European elites; American elites don’t “set the tone” for the rest of society in the way European elites do. Perhaps the pervasive secularity in European society is a function of the difference in the ability of elites to shape society. Another factor might be that America has been a Neo-Durkehimian society from the beginning; the individualistic, denominational context, along with the lack of a State church, would have made the shift to Post-Durkheimian society much less disruptive than in European countries. There could be no analogous reaction against an established state church, or the sort of easy equation of Church and authority, as you saw in say, France. A closely connected point is that from it’s founding, America has been a fertile ground for diverse religious experimentation and entrepreneurship; various, cults, sects and new spiritualities flourished and emerged in this context: “Their whole religious culture was in some way prepared for the Age of Authenticity.” In Europe, with the established State Church, this just wasn’t the case, in Germany and France, “new “cults” deeply disturb people.” Some of these answers are illuminating, but Taylor admits that he doesn’t think this is the whole story: “A fully satisfactory account of this difference, which is in a sense the crucial question facing secularization theory, escapes me.” 

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