Sunday, May 25, 2014

When Excarnational Immanentists Doubt

Dandelions across the street from my house

When Charles Taylor's A Secular Age came out I purchased a hard copy of it. I not only knew it was important, but knew it would remain important for a long time. I ended up reading the first few hundred pages, but then stopped. I was reading too fast, missing too many things, and falling short of understanding it well.

I just picked up James K.A. Smith's shorter, still weighty, explanation of Taylor's massive book. I'm half way through. Smith is one of my favorite philosophical-theological writers. He's brilliant, and writes extremely well. (See Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.)

One reason for returning to Taylor's work is that I'm going to speak on "Christianity and Culture Wars" at our June HSRM conference in Green Lake, Wisconsin. I won't be teaching on Taylor explicitly because it would be over everyone's heads, and maybe even my own (a very bad place to teach from). But Taylor's work forms an important background to my own Niebuhrian-type understanding of Christ and culture. (See Niebuhr's famous five types of Christian responses to culture in his ridiculously influential Christ and Culture.) 

One of Taylor's points is that we don't live in "Christendom" any longer. We are secularists of the third order, which means "incarnation" has been replaced with "excarnation"; i.e., immanence overrules transcendence, culturally. (Herein lies, among other things, the importance of pentecostal theology, and why this is my theological preference.)

OK. But Taylor rebuts a utopian secularism that purports to live in a seamless, beautiful, fully excarnated and immanent environment (e.g. the supremely confident atheist, a la Richard Dawkins). Neither Taylor nor Smith nor myself buy the hype of "those confident secularists who would lead us to believe that a “secular” world is a cool, monolithic, “rational” age where everyone who’s anyone (i.e., smart people who are not religious) lives in quiet confidence." (Smith, Kindle Locations 1408-1410) Correct. Even funny if you think about it.

On Taylor's account "our secular age is haunted, and always has been. Certainly belief is contested and contestable in our secular age. There’s no going back. Even seeking enchantment will always and only be reenchantment after disenchantment. But almost as soon as unbelief becomes an option, unbelievers begin to have doubts — which is to say , they begin to wonder if there isn’t something “more.” They worry about the shape of a world so flattened by disenchantment. In part 3 [of Taylor's Secular Age] Taylor paints a picture of the fraught dynamics of a secular age that have enduring significance for understanding our present." (Ib., Kindle Locations 1415-1420)

Oh, how this resonates in my experience teaching philosophy in a secular context! My classes are filled with doubting unbelievers; i.e., God-doubters (incarnation-doubters) who are plagued by doubts about their God-doubting. 

They are excarnational immanentists who have transcendent incarnational challenges to their secular faith.