Chapter 16: Cross Pressures

In this chapter, Taylor describes the cross pressures between unbelieving and believing positions in modernity. Taylor begins by restating his resistance to the standard secularization thesis; that religion cannot but decline in the conditions of modernity. Taylor thinks that this kind of account of the place of religion in modern society presupposes unbelief, and is blind to the CWSs that hold it captive: “At its foundation is the assumption that the world is proceeding towards an overcoming or relegation of religion. This master narrative enframes the particular theoretical claims which constitute the theory.” Instead of a decline of religion as such, we see, in modernity, the dissolution of certain religious forms—previously we discussed the Paleo giving way to the Neo-Durkheim forms, until even those are undermined—and the emergence of new ones. These older religious forms, because of the tight link between group identity and belief, make it harder to feel the cross pressure of the other position. If you are say, an American Christian in the Neo-Durkheimian mode, giving up belief is not only an abandonment of you faith, but also a betrayal of your comrades in the culture wars. And so, group belonging can be the decisive motive against changing your beliefs. Taylor notes that this could be just as much a unbelieving as a believing phenomenon, as in say, the case of a “French Jacobin.” And so, as Neo-Durkheiminan positions give way, and the link between religious identity and group belonging starts to fade in the Age of Authenticity: “more and more people are in a space where they can be induced to reconsider whatever their positions has been, in relative freedom from alien considerations.” And so, we have cross pressures between belief and unbelief:

…the most salient feature of Western societies is no so much the decline of religious faith and practice, though there has been lots of that… but rather, a mutual fragilization of different religious positions, as well as of the outlooks of both belief and unbelief. The whole culture experiences cross pressures, between the draw of the narratives of closed immanence on one side, and the sense of their inadequacy on the other, strengthened by encounter with existing milieu of religious practice, or just by some intimations of the transcendent. The cross pressures are experienced more acutely by some people and in some milieux than others, but over the whole culture, we can see them reflected in a number of middle positions, which have drawn from both sides.

Taylor points to three key features of materialism that generate cross pressure. First, the notion that we are determined and that we are not “free agents.” Second, the reduction of human motivates to lower drives, for example in Marx or Freud, and the denial of higher moral or spiritual aspirations. Third, the question of whether materialism can make sense of our aesthetic experiences. Can this really be reduced to say, a biochemical flare, without trivializing those experiences? Revulsion at these positions can push people towards Christianity, but many are also simultaneously pushed away from Christianity, leading to the creation of new positions. This dynamic illustrates the way in the tension between belief and unbelief occupies a fundamental place in our society. Many people choose some “middle way,” between Christianity and atheism, but the tension between belief and unbelief remain “crucial reference points” against which new positions define themselves.

The key tension between belief and unbelief is the question of fullness: what does real fullness consist in? This is by no means only a ‘religious’ question, any position has to have some account of what it mean to live the good life, or how one is to attain one’s full humanity. As well as an account of the means by which one can arrive at the good life: “for any livable understanding of human life, there must be some way in which this life looks good, whole, proper, really being lived as it should.” For Christianity, true fullness is found and achieved in Agape. Various unbelieving accounts answer differently. Taylor gives the example of the Utilitarians and Nietzsche. The former finds fullness in satisfying needs and desires, the latter in some heroic venture of the will:

“…a standard Utilitarian position; beings have certain needs and desires:” for instance, prosperity, a a family; and against this, we have one of those heroic positions which in our culture often owe a great deal to Friedrich Nietzsche: for instance, that ordinary happiness is a “pitiable comfort,”…there is something much higher in life.”

And so we see the cross pressure between various positions. On the one hand a critique could run that the sense of fullness one finds in say Utilitarianism, may be genuine, but there is a deeper fullness to be found, either in a Nietzschian will to power or in Christian Agape. On the other hand, the charge could run that the sense of fullness that you claim to find, is in fact illusory, or tainted by your bad motives. The Nietzschian heroic drama is just a fantasy you tell yourself to hide a meaningless universe; or Christian self sacrifice is motivated by resentment and wish fulfillment. A key, ongoing tension between Christianity and modes of unbelieving notions of “fullness” is the question of desire. This is tied in with the post-axial shift, in which we see “higher” modes of spiritual aspiration; there is a way of living beyond human flourishing, in which “lower” drives such as violence or sexual desire have to be overcome, or transformed. The tension between the pre and post axial, or between human flourishing and beyond human flourishing, exists in an uneasy synthesis in the medieval society. This is undone by the process of Reform, which pushed to have all of society re-made according to the norms of civility and Christian morality. This, combined with the new modes of disengaged reason, led to a “excoriation”, an alienation from the body. The modern counter reaction is a sort of return to paganism, in that it sees desire as a good in itself that should be pursued and fulfilled and which cannot be suppressed. This vision of desire exists in tension with the Christian view that base desire can be destructive and should be transformed in a higher, beyond flourishing, mode of existence.

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