Do we really need another essay about Charles Taylor?
I think so.
What I am interested in briefly exploring here is how Taylor’s work, specifically in A Secular Age, can help us understand the draw people feel towards pop psychology (broadly understood) in contemporary times. My desire for this exploration is brought about in large part by Matthew Loftus’s recent Mere Orthodoxy essay “Trauma, Attachment, and Self-Care: What Everyone Should Know.” As a medical professional and thoughtful Christian (would that there were more of them), Loftus defines some terms as they are meant to be employed in the medical field and shows how terms like “trauma,” “trigger,” and “attachment” are often misused and sometimes abused in popular society. Early in his essay, Loftus says that:
Trauma discourse is being used to reconceive our entire psychological, religious, social, and political milieus in a therapeutic manner—a manner which, of course, can then only be cared for by professionals. This is just the latest iteration in a process going back over a century which has used psychology to make sense of the modern world and (at best) aid religion in the care for the soul or (at worst) supplant religion’s care for individual souls entirely.
The point I want to zoom in on presently, due in large part to my own work as a licensed mental health counselor, is Loftus’s point about psychology being used to “make sense of the modern world” in ways that have sometimes been for our wellbeing and other times for our woe.
What I want to argue here is that, oftentimes, we feel drawn towards visions of reality and the good life not because we find them intellectually convincing but because we find them existentially compelling. Many visions of the good life are so compelling because of ways they attempt to fill voids that, ultimately and teleologically speaking, only Christ can fill. These “(Psycho)social Imaginaries”–to combine Taylor’s words with James K. A. Smith’s affinity for wordplay–have staying power in pop psychology even long after psychology proper has moved on or modified these theories because they offer us a social imaginary that nourishes our thirst for fulfillment. These psychosocial imaginaries, however, nourish humanity in a way that saltwater would nourish someone stricken with dehydration: an immediate sense of relief but eventual exhaustion and death.
So how did we get here? If you are familiar with Taylor’s A Secular Age at all, the following will be a refresher that is also more narrowly focused on the possibly emotional/psychological toll our Age can involve. If you are not familiar, this will be a quick crash course into a 700+ page book.
Our Secular, Psychological, and Therapeutic Age
In A Secular Age, Taylor argues that our understanding of what it means for contemporary society to be secular is, at best, incomplete, or, at worst, just plain wrong. Taylor breaks down the movements–intellectual, ecclesial, political, and artistic–made in society from the time of the Enlightenment, through Modernity, and into Postmodernity. In this work, he approaches the subject of secularism as a complex movement that cannot be simply understood as a separation of Church and State or as a triumph of science over faith. The situation, Taylor argues, is far more complex and Occam has no razor to apply to the subject. If Christians are going to grapple with and live out their faith and convictions within a secular context, they need to know precisely what this means–cheap definitions will lead to cheapened engagement with rival theories of human nature and human flourishing.
Taylor’s argument includes sources from history, the arts, science, theology, and philosophy. His arguments are complex and summary is difficult. However, James K. A. Smith has given readers a practical introduction into the complexities of what it means to live in a secular age as described by Taylor. Smith summarizes Taylor’s task as being an attempt to demonstrate that:
Our ‘secular’ age is messier that many would lead us to believe; that transcendence and immanence bleed into one another; that faith is pretty much unthinkable, but abandonment to the abyss is even more so; and that they need to forge meaning and significance in this ‘secular’ space rather than embracing modes of resentful escape from it. (p. x.)
This offers the first glimpse into one of the existential and emotional concerns brought about by the transition into a largely secular age: tension.
People today who are trying to grapple with and live out their faith and convictions within a secular context may feel a pull between faith and unbelief; between a transcendent God and an immanent natural world; between hope and despair. These are not just intellectual doubts that people squabble over in the Ivory Towers of academia. These are emotional concerns that individuals deal with on a daily basis and Christians must be aware of this if they are to play a part in helping alleviate the tension people feel living in a secular age. The marketplace of ideas has emotional impacts on humans individually and on humanity as a whole.
Medieval Ministry : Secular One
According to Taylor, understanding what secular meant in the past helps clarify its meaning today. When examining history–the Medieval Era in particular–Taylor notes:
You come to archaic societies in which the whole set of distinctions we make between the religious, political, economic, social, etc. aspects of our society ceases to make sense. In these earlier societies, religion was ‘everywhere,’ was interwoven with everything else, and in no sense constituted a separate ‘sphere’ of its own. (Taylor, 2007, p. 2)
In Medieval life, the secular was not something that was inherently against the sacred. Rather, the secular referred to more earthly, material concerns whereas sacred dealt more with religious devotion and obligation. The terms were not (and currently are not) mutually exclusive, however, as one can still find “secular priests” in the Catholic Church.
Subtraction Stories: Secular Two
The next understanding of secularism is what drives the often hostile divide between sacred belief and secular doubt. Smith again is helpful in unpacking Taylor’s argument by saying that secular now “begins to refer to a nonsectarian, neutral, and areligious space or standpoint” that comes about because “as cultures experience modernization and technological advancement, the (divisive) forces of religious belief and participation wither in the face of modernity’s disenchantment of the world” (Smith, p. 21). This is likely the most common understanding of secularism because this is what is what people mean when they say “are secular”–they mean they are areligious and are carving out religious belief and practice from public spaces.
Taylor argues that this version of secularism relies on “subtraction stories,” which tell a tale of “human beings having lost, or sloughed off, of liberated themselves, from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge.” This understanding of secularization is less about the addition of new thoughts or new beliefs and more about the uncovering of “underlying features of human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what is now set aside” (p. 22). In this view, the movement towards a secular society is more about an uncovering of preexisting “facts” about the world that religious belief has suppressed.
Changes in Conditions of Belief: Secular Three
While the transition into a secular society is marked by some subtraction it is not exclusively or exhaustively so; there is also addition and multiplication. Smith notes that religious belief is not really removed from a secular society, it is better understood as being one option among many others and, as such, it is contestable. Taylor calls this “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace” (p. 3). This contestability of religion comes from changes in what Taylor calls “the conditions of belief.”
Most pertinent for present purposes are what Taylor calls the the shifts from a porous self to a buffered self, the transition into individualism in most of the West, and losing a view of human flourishing that has teleological aspects. When Taylor speaks of society becoming “disenchanted” he suggests that this is not the simple paring down of the supernatural from the world. Rather, the shift from a porous self to a buffered self involves a shift in the location of meaning from the external world and into the mind.
New Social Imaginaries: Secular Three
When meaning and purpose are derived from the mind of individuals, then human flourishing can be described in and prescribed from the mind of individuals as well without any need for reference to anything, or anyone, outside of themselves. Recalling Medieval life discussed above, there was a structure to society wherein the clergy devoted their lives to the sacred for the sake of the society. This allowed for ordinary, secular people to tend to the material and tangible needs of the community. When this structure falls apart, each individual must tend to both their sacred and secular needs; inevitably leaving people feeling overwhelmed by both their duties to the transcendent and to the immanent. With the disenchanting and dismantling of the sacred from the secular, ordinary people are left with two options: (1) be unable to tend to both the demands of the sacred and the secular and be pulled apart by the tension or (2) lower the bar for what is expected for human flourishing.
Of these two options, lowering the bar for what constitutes human flourishing seems more pragmatic than being existentially torn apart.
Because of this loss of transcendent teleological human flourishing, humanity–heeding the call of Nietzche–has needed to become gods unto themselves further driving a wedge between “the sacred” and “the secular” that ought not be there. This wedge eventually leads to the loss of the “idea that God was planning a transformation of human beings which would take them beyond the limitations which inhere in their present condition” (Taylor, p. 224). Once transcendence is lost and collapses into the immanent frame, humanity becomes alone in the world and must devise and execute their own way out of the despair of their current state of being and, if they are unable to do so, it is due to their own fault and failures alone.
A Variety of (Psycho)Social Imaginaries in a Secular Age
The rise of a secular age is bound up with the production of new social imaginaries and does not just entail the mere reduction of the spiritual lives of society. Some of the social imaginaries that have taken root into the social imaginaries of many people come from psychological perspectives on humanity and human flourishing. These have included and, in some ways, still include: the quasi-religion Beyondism of Raymond Cattell, the “utopia” of Walden II by B. F. Skinner, the Eupsychia envisioned by Abraham Maslow, and the various other cults of self-worship that grew out of the works of the Carls, Jung and Rogers, that Paul Vitz systematically addresses and critiques in Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship. Each of these movements were more than mere ideas about humanity; they were social movements that had human consequences when applied and lived out.
The pseudo-religion of Beyondism and the imagined cities of Eupsychia and Walden II are just two examples of what takes place when humanity attempts, to use Smith’s language again, to fill the craters left behind after the removal of the moral landscape previously paved by religious belief. In short, each of these movements can be read as psychosocial imaginaries that are an attempt to “fill in the sacred and eschatological void left in Christianity and Judaism’s absence by constructing, embracing, and proselytizing the world with a secular salvation gospel of its own making” (Smith, C., 2014). For the sake of space, let’s just look more deeply into one of these modern psychosocial imaginaries but one that is perhaps one of the most important because it comes from someone whose work has been utilized in popular psychology second perhaps only to Freud.
Eupsychia or Malpsychia?
Abraham Maslow (think: hierarchy of needs and self-actualization) was seeking to replace churches and synagogues with a “religion surrogate” with his concept of a city of Eupsychia based on the dual concepts of self-actualization and the hierarchy of needs he proposed and evangelically advocated for (Milton, p. 139). The issues with this Eupsychia are myriad and range from epistemological to practical. As Vitz (1994) notes, most empirical studies have shown that Maslow’s theories are not found to be true when investigated and that, in some cases, his theories were fundamentally wrong. One example of this is the over prioritization of physiological needs and comfort at the expense of psychological and emotional needs, which is demonstrated in the fact that infants die when they do not receive emotional connection and comfort from caregivers (p. 38). For this reason and others “the empirical support for self-actualization is tiny compared to the widespread enthusiasm with which it has been embraced” (p. 39). People clung to the tenets of self-actualization not because the claims were correct but because they were compelling.
There are also philosophical issues that Maslow encounters when he quickly, and without substantiation, moves from describing what self actualization is to arguing that self actualization is good and then “makes the same jump from the description of self-actualization to the prescription of it as a universal principle and guide for moral behavior” (Vitz, p. 54,). This a big leap from an “is” (that is not empirically validated) to an “ought” (that is not philosophically convincing). In The Road to Malpsychia: Humanistic Psychology and our Discontents, Joyce Milton highlights that when the ideals of Eupsychia were introduced to the Immaculate Heart of Mary schools, it effectively replaced the Christian Gospel and a desire to serve humanity with worship of self and of sex (Milton, 2002).
Psychological Distress in a Secular Age
The veritable explosion of views of human flourishing is what Taylor calls the “Nova Effect.” The Nova Effect is meant to conjure up images of a star going supernova and “spawning an ever-widening variety of moral/spiritual options, across the span of the thinkable and perhaps even beyond” (Taylor, 2007, p. 299). When situated in the middle of this supernova, people feel pulled between the poles of faith and doubt, transcendence and immanence, and despair and hope. Living in a secular age involves more than intellectual doubts, it involves emotional distress; distress that Christians can help alleviate with Gospel informed care and concern.
The natural end of exclusive humanism is worship of humanity in any number of ways, not just Beyondism and Eupsychia. This is the answer to Nietzche’s prophetic inquiry that, once God has died, “must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it?” The psychosocial imaginaries briefly addressed above miss the mark of fully accounting for human significance and the diversity of human experience. The reason many people are drawn to pop psychology is not so much about how correct people find these views to be but about how compelling they are.
People are still drawn into Maslow’s concept of self-actualization not because they find it intellectually valid but because it offers a compelling vision of humanity that allows people to place themselves before all others and shed all sense of altruism or self-sacrifice. People are drawn into the idea of pursuing humanity beyond their current constraints because it tells a story that people do not need to be stuck where they are; rather, they can become something more, something that surpasses everyone else–become Nietczhe’s Übermensch–if they think the right thoughts or do the right things.
Obscuring our Vision of the Good Life
The psychosocial imaginaries addressed above can be understood as having worldview shaping power over individuals in the sense that they are particular visions of the good life that explicitly seek to drive out other views in both intellectual and affective ways. Christians need to be mindful of the adverse effects that feeling pulled between competing worldviews and social imaginaries can have on individuals. These are not just debates in scholastic, Ivory towers; these can be dangerous narratives that can threaten not just human flourishing but fundamental human dignity as well.
In his commencement speech to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace delivered a speech that called the graduates to step outside themselves and consider the conflicts of others. The speech takes a surprising turn when Wallace, an atheist, says that,
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. Look, the insidious thing about these forms [love, sex, money, power, etc] of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. There are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing…. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.
Wallace concludes this portion of his speech by saying that real freedom involves actually caring for others, “over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” Freedom, then, for Wallace involves an embracing of another person, not the exclusion of all others on our path to self-fulfillment. Given his atheistic leanings, Wallace does gloss over the concept of sin and our human propensity to seek our own good not just over someone else’s but sometimes at the expense of someone else.
There are many concepts embedded within our modern social imaginaries that involve concepts from (psycho)social imaginaries trafficked in via pop psychology that can obscure our vision of humanity and the good life. Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of The Modern Self is a fine example of how our contemporary understandings of human nature (specifically sexuality and gender) are often more driven by popular psychology than anything else.
God & the Good Life
In the end, this is not to be anti-psychology, only pro-humanity. When we feel the tension brought about by the pulls of transcendence and immanence we need to recognize that our human limitations are from God and a gift of God and that God provides for us by giving us Himself. We cannot let the quest for individuality obscure what it means to be human beings who are designed and destined for relationships to others and, immanently and ultimately, to God in our search for significance and human goods.
Milton, Joyce (2003). The Road to Malpsychia
Smith, James K. A. (2014). How (not) To Be Secular
Smith, James K. A. (2017). Awaiting the King
Taylor, Charles (2007). A Secular Age