Christianity Culture and Society deconstruct-reconstruct Faith Philosophy Uncategorized

Its melancholy withdrawing roar?

This blog post is part of a series (starting here) exploring what Charles Taylor can teach us about how faith and secularity interact in his (enormous) work A Secular Age. One of Taylor’s main points seems to be that there is a big story in our culture that Science inevitably replaces Faith. Matthew Arnold’s poem On Dover Beach describes the way in which the faith which seemed so completely obvious, such a default part of how we saw the world, is being inexorably swept away by the rise of science, with a “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”.

One question which arises from this is this: is this a good or bad thing? Are we, like Arnold, sorry to see the old story of faith vanishing? In my previous post I thought about how we can use rival archetypes of the good life to see what we think about it. The summary version: do you find yourself profoundly moved by Jesus’ giving of himself to the most degrading death in order to the will of the Father? Or do you secretly (or not so secretly) think that, while he had some beautiful ideas, he would have been better off keeping his head down and sticking to carpentry? That there is something a little off-putting, even inhuman, about his readiness to accept death?

Taylor argues that one of the key distinctions in our culture is between those who see life as having a further “fullness”  beyond ordinary human flourishing (and hence resonate to Jesus’ story), and those for whom ordinary human flourishing (e.g. Wellness) is the highest good (and hence find Jesus’ story less resonant.)

So, having decided whether one thinks the decline of faith is, on the whole, a good or bad thing, a second, perhaps more fundamental, question is whether this decline is, in fact, inexorable. My way into how Taylor addresses this is through his use of the idea of the Modern Moral Order (MMO). This, more than just a collection of rules, is an example of what Taylor calls a “social imaginary.” This, rather like a worldview, is the sum of, not only the beliefs one holds, but all the various preconceptions, emotional and moral stakes in the world one has. In short, as they so memorably put it in The Castle: it’s the vibe of the thing.

And, like many things with their accompanying vibes, there is a story attached. This is a very powerful story in our culture, which could be summed up in one word: Adulting.

Or, to put it more clearly, it is a story of growing up. It goes something like this: When I was young, I used to go to church, but, as I got older, I realised that what they were teaching me was a bunch of comforting mumbo jumbo about a personal God, but now I have become an adult and set childish things behind me, I have come to realise that we are alone in an impersonal universe. As Stephen Gould put it:

I think that the notion that we are all in the bosom of Abraham or are in God’s embracing love is – look, it’s a tough life and if you can delude yourself into thinking that there’s all some warm fuzzy meaning to it all, it’s enormously comforting. But I do think that it’s just a story we tell ourselves.
(Quoted in A Secular Age p.561)

The story goes, essentially, that, once we have outgrown our childish reliance on our “imaginary friend in the sky”, we will see that the only viable answer is some version of the MMO. That is why the MMO likes to go by the name “Reason”, because it believes itself to be universal, not merely one possible system among others. Which is why it must really annoy thoughtful atheists when they see books like The God Delusion in the Religion section of bookshops. “It isn’t a religion,” they must fume. “It is Truth, and should really be with the Science books.”

However is it the case that the MMO is inescapable? It claims to be based on Science. But is it? What set of empirical experiments precisely are we talking about ? If I wanted to prove the acceleration due to gravity on Earth is 9.8 m/s/s, I could lay out the way I would prove it. But what exactly are the set of experiments that prove the universe is impersonal? There, of course, aren’t any. And couldn’t be any.

Laptop or screen – which is more important?

Let me take the idea that the universe is so vast and people are so small that therefore God, should such a hypothetical being exist, couldn’t possibly have any interest in us. This presents itself as a scientific truth. And it is true that the universe is unimaginably vast. But why does bigness mean more important? My laptop is small, the screen it is plugged into is large – does that mean the screen is “more important” than the laptop? Of course not. As C.S. Lewis put it, we are inveterate mythmakers. Beyond a certain point size stops being a mere quantity and becomes a sort of quality all of its own – the sublime. What you are experiencing is awe. You are looking into the nearest thing we have to the face of God. And, rightly, you’re struck dumb with it.

But there is no logically compelling reason to think that the size and apparent emptiness of the universe means that it is hostile to humanity, nor that a creator wouldn’t be interested in people. After all, I can spend all day making a slow-cooked beef casserole. And I can spend a couple of minutes making toast. That doesn’t mean that I am some how less interested in the casserole than the toast. In fact, quite the contrary. No-one has ever made another universe, and we have absolutely no idea whether the universe is excessively big to create humanity, or whether it is the absolute minimum size and age it needs to be to achieve that outcome. Just because God took a long time to create us, if anything that would surely mean that God cares even more than if it only took seven days? If we are tiny and fragile couldn’t that just make us all the more precious?

This isn’t a scientific argument. But neither is the observation that the universe is large and therefore people don’t matter. In both cases it depends how you look at it – which, in turn, depends on what prior belief you bring to the problem.

From my collection of terrible theology cartoons

The maturity story is not entirely untrue, of course. People can have childish and theologically unsophisticated beliefs that are capable of scientific, or indeed straightforwardly empirical, disproof. For instance: only good things will happen to people of faith. But anyone involved in a serious spiritual walk has outgrown those childish images already. So the question then becomes: why is Christianity identified with these particular, non-essential (or even non- or sub-Christian) beliefs? As Taylor says “Why were they so deaf to the meanings of the new cosmic imaginary which might have led them back to God?” (Taylor p.365)

So once people are motivated to leave their childhood faith for a faith that seems more courageous and mature, they then tend to cite “scientific” reasons for doing so. And in a sense that is true. Taylor again:

…people are convinced that there is something more mature, more courageous, readier to face unvarnished reality in the scientific stance. The superiority is an ethical one, and of course, is heavily influenced by the person’s own sense of his/her own childhood faith, which may well have remained a childish one. (Taylor p.365)

Taylor’s uses “ethical” here in a particular way. I think he’s getting at something like a sense that inhabitants of the MMO have that to not face the clear implications of Science is cowardice. When I became an adult, I put away childish things (as they probably wouldn’t say, under the circs.) The non-personal universe revealed by science just doesn’t seem to have space for a personal power behind it. It doesn’t feel fit for purpose. And so the attempt to cling onto something from the past that just can’t be true is an example of bad faith – a sort of make-believe.

But if, as I argued above, the claim that the universe is not personal is not in fact scientifically provable as such, then how do we move from “what is happening” to “what is really going on”?

Taylor argues that whatever is going on with the Sea of Faith, it is not in fact the case that faith is inevitably vanishing because of the rise of Science. Rather it is because of what he calls a “parti pris, a prior commitment. It’s the way in which we already inhabit the MMO as a social imaginary, that leaves us with a sort of impression that Faith and Science are at war, and that Science is winning. But the lack of any properly scientific reason why we should abandon faith suggest that there is something else going on. So, whatever is happening, the Subtraction Story, the story that the Modern Moral Order is the only viable picture and everything else is mere superstition, seems to be false.

So, why does Taylor think it is happening? More on that, I hope, in my next.

I started my Taylor series here.

If you’re interested in how this could possibly be a Cafechurch session, you might like to go here.

If you’re interested in more on how science and religion can interact fruitfully, you might enjoy a post I wrote a few years back called Critical Realism and the Life of Faith It is from before I started reading Taylor, so it’s not a related approach. But I think it’s a fruitful way to think about things.

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

4 replies on “Its melancholy withdrawing roar?”

Hi, I’ve really enjoyed the first two parts of this – am I right that there should be a third? If so, I’d be very grateful for a link! Thanks for writing!

Hi, is there a third part to the series? I’ve really enjoyed reading the previous two, very thought provoking. If you could share a link to the third that would be great. Thanks for writing!

Hi Edward! Thanks for your encouraging words. I got a bit distracted from this series by life happening, as is so often the case. I will try to get back onto it soon – perhaps as soon as next week, depending on what else is happening.

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