Chapter 20: Conversions

In this chapter Taylor looks at the phenomenon of conversion in a Secular age, those people who “broke out of the immanent frame” into a larger perspective of Transcendence. These are people who come to recognize—perhaps through a conversion experience or via some other path—that there is more, that the immanent frame is insufficient. Taylor makes an observation about how our age characterizes these conversion “experiences.” We talk of them as a “subjective experience,” a “feeling” the individual has and so on. This is a cheapening of what is meant by conversion:

“We need to enlarge our palette of such points of contact with fullness, because we are too prone in our age to think of this contact in terms of “experience”; and to think of experience as something subjective, distinct from the object experienced; and as something to do with our feelings, distinct from changes in our being: dispositions, orientations, the bent of our lives, etc… This notion of experience already distorts in the case of the events that Bede and Havel recount; because what they experienced (in one ordinary sense of this word) was defined for them in terms, on one hand of the deeper reality they were now open to, and on the other, this reality was understood as life-changing. The very nature of this experience is distorted, if we try to see it as an entity distinct from object or agent.” 

Now because conversion in a secular age involves the breaking out of the immanent frame, this involves a fundamental shifts in the convert’s mode of being. We need to dwell on this for just a moment to grasp this point. The convert in say the middle ages, say Francis of Assisi, does break him out the spiritual status quo of his contemporaries, but for the modern convert, something more radical has occurred: “By contrast, these moderns are all breaking beyond systems which their opponents see as totalities in a new sense; they are systems of immanent order which can be explained and accounted for in their own terms.” (A similar contrast could be drawn for Hutterite converts who go from the status quo to being seriously invested in their faith; this is more analogous to the medieval convert than the modern, secular convert.) Part of Taylor’s ongoing argument has been that our secular age has constructed a self-sufficient immanent frame that closes itself off from transcendence and has secular notions of time, moral motivation etc. The convert who breaks out of this mold and comes to open himself/herself to transcendence, may come to challenge this whole framework. Taylor gives the example of moving from the therapeutic to the spiritual perspective.  We no longer speak only in terms of “pathology” and psychology, but: “ God, good and evil are now taken as serious realities” that need to be taken into account: “The internal economy of the immanent theory… in which the various forces which count are purely intra-psychic, and are rooted in the patient’s desires and fears, is now disrupted. The genesis of guilt, alienation, internal division is now found at least in part in the aspiration to something transcendent.” So one interesting feature of modern conversions is that they sometimes involve the breaking out of precisely those various modes—political, linguistic, moral—that our secular age has developed through the long history Taylor has been outlining: 

The convert’s insights break beyond the limits of the regnant versions of immanent order, either in terms of accepted theories, or of moral and political practice (and you need to go beyond both at once in order to raise the issues about the roots of violence I raised in the preceding chapter). And this may require her to invent a new language or literary style. She breaks from the immanent order to a larger, more encompassing one, which includes it while disrupting it. 

But because the convert is still ‘rooted’ and formed from the immanent frame, the Christian path he/she embarks on will often be a unique one. (While still in continuity with the past) However, there can also be a temptation to return to earlier forms of Christianity, to see some kind of an ideal or “golden age” in the political, linguistic forms of Christendom of the middle ages, or pre-60s America. Returning to this earlier form solves the dilemma that modern converts feel about being Christians in a secular age: “this earlier civilization gives us both our paradigm language, which we are seeking, and perhaps also the model of a society and culture which is not in tension with, but fully expresses the faith.” The attraction can also be motivated by the sense of the flatness, hollowness of modernity; or the conviction that western society can only be replenished by returning to its Christian sources; or the view that Christianity is essential for civilizational order. 

It’s precisely this notion that there is some “golden age,” of Christian cultural, political or linguistic forms that Taylor wants to challenge. There is this ongoing tension in Christianity between the “earthly city” and the “heavenly city,” the kingdom of God and the earthly politics. The question of how these two relate is not one that has ever been satisfactorily resolved in any age. This was certainly true, as we have seen, of the Christendom of the middle ages. As we saw, there was this ongoing tension between the two speeds, those who lived the maximal demands of the gospel such as the monks, and those who lived ordinary lives. These two orders existed in a strained relationship until the Reformation, when the process of Reform sought to obliterate the gap and “demanded that everyone be a real, 100 percent Christian.” This process of Reform led ultimately to the modern moral order and Deism, in which being a Christian was indistinguishable from being a fine, upstanding citizen. This was part of what Kierkegaard railed against in his own Danish context. 

To futher critique this notion of a “golden age” or a return to “Christendom,” Taylor summerizes the views of Ivan Illich in Rivers North of the Future, noting that “his story is quite close” to the one Taylor has been “trying to tell in these pages.” Illich’s basic thesis is that “the actual development of the Christian churches and of Christian civilization (what we used to call “Christendom”) [is] a “corruption” of Christianity.” Illich gives central importance to the story of “the good Samaritan” in which the Samaritan is moved by compassion to reach beyond the tribal and cultural boundaries to help the wounded Jew. We tend to read this story as calling us to a ethic of universality: everyone, not just those within our tribe, is our “neighbor” and we should help all. For Illich this is precisely the inverse of what the story is calling us to. The story is not calling us to a “universal ethic,” but rather, to a new mode of being. We are moved in our guts with compassion by the man on the road and freely reach beyond our tribal “we”, and into a new, free, agape, relationship that reaches beyond the tribal devisions:

The Samaritan is moved by the wounded man; he moves to act, and in doing so inaugurates (potentially) a new relation of friendship/love/charity with this person. But this cuts across the boundaries of the permitted “we’s” in his world. It is a free act of his “I”. Illich’s talk of freedom here might mislead a modern. It is not something he generates just out of himself; it is that he responds to this person. He feels called to respond, however, not by some principle of “ought”, but by this wounded person himself. And in so responding, he frees himself from the bounds of the “we”. He also acts outside of the carefully constructed sense of the sacred, of the demons of darkness, and various modes of prophylaxis against them which have been erected in “our” culture, society, religion (often evident in views of the outsider as “un-clean”). 

The church then, is a network of particular people—across tribal, cultural, national lines—brought into relation by “such new links as the Samaritan makes with the Jew.” The key here is that the church is a “ network” and not “a categorical grouping.” It is a “skein of relations which link particular, unique, enfleshed people to each other,” rather than a “grouping of people together on the grounds of their sharing some important property (as in modern nations, we are all Canadians, Americans, French people; or universally, we are all rights-bearers, etc.). What draws these people together, what connects them in their network is “the kind of love which God has for us, which we call agape.” This network has encountered the love of God and now reaches out to each other and to the fallen neighbor with that same agape love. 

But Illich sees within the Church, the seeds of its own corruption. When this free, agape love becomes something that is institutionalized, reproduced in rules, rendered efficient and bureaucratic, there lies the corruption. The “mode of being” of the good Samaritan is replaced with the law of universal benevolence:

 “…we are led to shore up these relations; we institutionalize them, introduce rules, divide responsibilities. In this way, we keep the hungry fed, the homeless housed, the naked clothed; but we are now living caricatures of the network life. We have lost some of the communion, the “conspiratio”, which is at the heart of the Eucharist (chapter 20). The spirit is strangled.”  

From this institutionalization of agape love, we see the emergence of Christendom, the “judicialization of sin,” and the increasing bureaucratization of the Church. Rather than joining humans together in free, local, networks of agape, we have attempted to enforce goodwill and solidarity through rules and coercion. We attempt to make humans do the right thing by an ever more elaborate system of rules, institutions and laws. Illich points to the establishment of hospitals which he sees as the institutionalization of free acts of Christian charity. We see in this growth of the ‘system,’ increasingly efficient institutions and systems of rules to ensure right behavior, health, education. With this comes the steady “growth of the objectifying standpoint,” the alienation of ourselves from our bodies and the process of “excarnation.” In our own day, these systems have even started to work against the purpose they were created to serve; hospitals that make people sicker, schools that make people less educated, prisons that make people criminal. Taylor sees modern society as having pushed this alienation from the human, this corruption of the networks of agape to its limits: “This civilization has pushed to its farthest limits the move which Illich describes as the corrupting of Christianity: that is, in response to the failure and inadequacy of a motivation grounded in a sense of mutual belonging, it erects a system.”  Taylor calls this modern obsession with rules, “code fetishism:” find the right system of rules, follow them and all will be good. For this universal system of codes, contingency is a threat, and yet, it is precisely contingency which is essential to the agape networks: 

In this perspective, something crucial in the Samaritan story gets lost. A world ordered by this system of rules, disciplines, organizations can only see contingency as an obstacle, even an enemy and a threat. The ideal is to master it, to extend the web of control so that contingency is reduced to a minimum. By contrast, contingency is an essential feature of the story as an answer to the question that prompted it. Who is my neighbour? The one you happen across, stumble across, who is wounded there in the road. Sheer accident also has a hand in shaping the proportionate, the appropriate response. It is telling us something, answering our deepest questions: this is your neighbor. But to hear this, we have to escape from the monomaniacal perspective in which contingency can only be an adversary requiring control. 

In this way, Illich would see secularity itself as a “corruption of Christianity.”(Taylor’s own view seems a bit different: Secularity is a tradeoff, important possibilities are gained, others are lost. As he says on the last page: “The indispensable step forward can in its concrete form impose unacceptable sacrifices. This is a reason to be wary of these main-line narratives of simple, cost-free supersession, whether narrated by Christians, or by protagonists of the Enlightenment.”) 

So, asks Taylor, “what is Illich telling us?” “Is he telling us to “dismantle our code-driven, disciplined, objectified world?” Taylor doesn’t think this is possible: “We can’t live without codes, legal ones, which are essential for the rule of law, moral ones which we have to inculcate in each new generation.” And yet, even as we recognize this, it is “terribly important to see that that is not all there is, that it is in many ways dehumanizing, alienating.” Perhaps we could echo John Howard Yoder’s formula here, we can’t live with them, but we can’t live without them either. These codes can be a powerful source of violence, moral superiority, a form of idolatry: “Codes, even the best of codes, can become idolatrous traps which tempt us to complicity in violence. Illich reminds us not to totally become invested in the code, even the best code of peace-loving, egalitarian liberalism.” The danger for Christians is to “slide towards an identification of Christianity with civilizational order,” in other words, to confuse Christendom (a system of rules, institutions) with Christianity (networks of agape). The two must always exist in tension, and once Christians slide into too close identification with Christendom there are dangers of falling into violence, tunnel vision, moral superiority: “The belief that God is on our side, that He blesses our order, is one of the most powerful sources of chauvinism. It can be a fertile inspiration to violence. For our enemies must be His enemies, and these surely must be fought with every means at our disposal.” 

So, for Taylor, there can be no “golden age,” either in the present peek of progress, or in some “Christian past,” rather: “…each mode of Christian life has to climb out of, to achieve a certain distance from its own embedding in its time (in the “saeculum”, one might want to say.) But far from allowing these modes to be neatly ranked, this is the difference which enables them to give something to each other.” We in our modern age have a unique (but not privileged) vantage, that other ages did not enjoy, from which certain truths of the faith are more apparent. By the same token, other ages have a different vantage and perspective from which we can learn, and overcome our own limitations. Taylor’s vision of the Church is of a communion of saints stretching through time into eternity, engaged in an ongoing dialogue. No age can have the corner on truth, and the “Church as a communion of different peoples and ages” is “damaged, limited, and divided by an unfounded belief in ones own total truth.” Our modern Faith is not “the acme of Christianity, but nor is it a degenerate version; it should rather be open to a conversation that ranges over the whole of the last 20 centuries.” 

Having rejected this notion that there are some eternal, “golden age” forms of Christian life to which all should conform, Taylor puts forward two examples of unique “itineraries of the Faith.” His first example is Charles Péguy, a Christian convert whom Taylor sees as a “paradigm example of a modern who has found his own path, a new path.” Taylor notes that a key concern for Péguy is “excarnation,” the way in which the modern disembedding, objectifying approach alienates us from lived reality. Péguy saw this with particular clarity in the political debates of his time, poised between the clerical traditionalists and the left wing Socialists. Both of these sides were attempting to impose reforms and “engineer” change on the people from above; either by re-imposing old forms or by remaking society in the image of modern ideals of progress. Instead, Péguy sought to be embedded in the living tradition of the people of France, to be faithful to the spirit of the tradition (mystique) as it moved into modernity. There could be no re-imposition of monarchy, because the French Revolution was part of the tradition: “Going back was a betrayal, because it replaced a creative continuation of the past with a mechanical reproduction of it.” Similarly, the left wing stance attempted to “treat society as an intert object to be shaped,” again, imposing from without, rather than moving the tradition forward according to the mystique of the Tradition, from within. For Péguy, freedom consisted in being embedded in the past and moved by the mystique: “It is the highest freedom to be moved by one’s mystique, as against being organized and mobilized, and constrained by political authority to follow the rules.” Taylor notes that many of Péguy’s insights—rehabilitation of freedom, of the church as people of God, the openness to other faiths, among others—shaped some of the key French thinkers at Vatican II such as Congar, Daniélou, de Lubac. 

It might be helpful to connect Péguy’s insights with the Hutterite experience. We see similar tensions within the Hutterite tradition as it moves into modernity. The dynamic mystique of the Hutterite tradition has in many cases hardened into reflexive habits. The distinctive lifestyle of communal living, pacifism, etc., has lost its reason for being and become what Péguy would call a “politique:” a hardening of habits that has buried the mystique. We see in the Hutterite world, multiple modes of false reform, vying for control.On the one hand, the traditionalists, seeking to reimpose old forms as a way of clamping down, restoring order, getting authoritarian control. On the other hand, Hutterite evangelicals and progressives also try to push the church in a direction that alienates it from its historical roots. The true path of reform can only come through an embedding in the roots of the tradition, a re-connection with the true mystique of the tradition and then a path forward into the modern world that is new, while maintaining historical continuity. 

Taylor’s second example is the poet, Gerald Manly Hopkins. Hopkins was concerned with the “narrowing and reduction of human life in a culture centered on disciplined instrumental reason.” He was motivated by the sense that we have lost contact with the “natural world” and the “higher dimensions in our lives.” Language plays a key role, both in the reduction and in a potential path forward. The instrumental use of language, merely as a way of designating things, reduces its potential to open up new worlds, modes of being, to put us in contact with higher realities, or Transcendence:

“That is, the ordinary use of language in our age operates with it as though its only function were the instrumental one of designating already recognized elements. The constitutive, revelatory power of language is totally sidelined and ignored, or even denied. This understanding of language-use is correlative with a stance in which we treat things, and even each other, in purely instrumental terms. This is often spoken of as a flattening, or impoverishment of language, and not simply as an inadequate understanding of language on the part of (some of) its users. This also follows from the understanding of language I’m describing here. Through language in its constitutive use (let’s call it Poetry), we open up contact with something higher or deeper (be it God, or the depths of human nature, desire, the Will to Power, or whatever) through language. Poetry can be seen as an event with performative force, words which open up contact, make something manifest for the first time.” 

Through his poetry, Hopkins sought to “articulate experience,” emphasizing especially the particularity of creation, the own way in which forms of life (birds, animals, plants) are: “A given thing partakes not only of the form of its kind, as a tree, or bird; it also has its own particular inscape its “haecceitas,” its “thisness” to us Scotus’ expression.” This particularity is then seen as pointing to God: “…a thing can have its particular being only in relation to God.” And so, through the poetry of Hopkins, we get a sense of God active in creation. As some of his famous lines go: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God/ It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” The poetry of Hopkins then, opens us up to see, to make “the action of God” once again “experientially real,” and to breath new life into stale theological categories. 

“Rejecting any doctrinal compromise with the spirit of his age, Hopkins returns decisively to the central Christian focus on communion as the goal of God’s action in Creation. God didn’t just make us so that we could live according to the laws of his creation, but to participate in his love. What is striking is the way Hopkins brings to the fore once again the deep connection between this telos of communion and a recognition of the particular in all its specificity. Something like this connection was already palpable in the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi; and of course, it was brought out explicitly by the great Franciscan thinker Duns Scotus, who inspired Hopkins. But the Jesuit poet renews it in the wholly different context of the nineteenth century, where the universe, vast in time and space, has already quite broken out of the dimensions, as well as the Platonic-Aristotelian conceptuality of the mediaeval cosmos. So that Hopkins’ vision of God at work in the particular inscape, as well as in the overwhelming and often destructive action of a measureless universe, is quite unprecedented. It could only happen in our time; but it certainly didn’t have to happen. There is nothing inevitable in this response to the universe as we now understand it. Hopkins was graced with a rare insight. He paced out an itinerary which is in more than one sense ground-breaking.” 

We see in these figures Taylor’s contention that there can be no single paradigm of the Christian life, rather, we see, in the communion of Saints multiple “itineraries” of Christian lives. Different modes of political engagement, modes of life, language-use and so on. This is the path Taylor wants to see the Church chart as it goes into the future: maintaining rootedness and continuity with the past, while opening up new possibilities: “I hope I have contributed a little in this discussion to making clear…the rich variety of paths to God. But this full variety can only come to light if we…see the unity of the church as stretching into eternity across all time, such that the paradigm itineraries that it gathers can’t be identified with those of any one age.” 

Taylor concludes with some predictions. The mainstream secularization thesis, because it assumes religious beliefs are “erroneous,” holds that religion will decline as the growth of science and secularism expands: “we will get to a point, as formulated by Steve Bruce, where the number of people who go for some form of religious faith will be what you might expect if we started from scratch, and everybody invented their own explanation for things.” Taylor rejects this. Because he believes that “in our religious lives we are responding to a transcendent reality,” he does not think that religion or spirituality can ever be eradicated from the human condition. Rather, he thinks it more likely that as the predictions of the Mainstream Secularization Thesis fail to pan out and as the hollowness of the immanent frame continues to haunt; people will be moved towards the boundaries of the immanent frame and seek to break out: “At the same time, this heavy concentration of the atmosphere of immanence will intensify a sense of living in a “waste land” for subsequent generations, and many young people will begin again to explore beyond the boundaries.” 

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