Chapter 10 - The Expanding Universe of Unbelief

Charles Taylor - A Secular Age [352]

Chapter 10 Sections: 1, 2, 3, 4; Notes, Glossary.

     The creation of this free space has been made possible in large part by the shift in the place and understanding of art that came in the Romantic period. This is related to the shift from an understanding of art as mimesis to one that stresses creation. It concerns what one could call the languages of art, that is, the publicly available reference points that, say, poets and painters draw on. As Shakespeare could draw on the correspondences to make us feel the full horror of the act of regicide, to recur to the case I cited above. He has a servant report the "unnatural" events that have been evoked in sympathy with this terrible deed: the night in which Duncan is murdered is an unruly one, with "lamentings heard i' the air; strange screams of death", and it remains dark even though the day should have started. On the previous Tuesday a falcon had been killed by a mousing owl, and Duncans horses turned wild in the night, "Contending 'gainst obedience, as they would / Make war with mankind." In a similar way, painting could draw on the publicly understood objects of divine and secular history, events and personages which had heightened mean¬ing, as it were, built into them, like the Madonna and Child or the oath of the Horatii.

     But for a couple of centuries now we have been living in a world in which these points of reference no longer hold for us. Few now believe the doctrine of the correspondences, as this was accepted in the Renaissance, and neither divine or secular history has a generally accepted significance. It is not that one cannot write a poem about the correspondences. Precisely, Baudelaire did.1 It is rather that this can't draw on the simple acceptance of the formerly public doctrines. The poet himself didn't subscribe to them in their canonical form. He is getting at something different, some personal vision he is trying to triangulate to through this historical reference, the "forest of symbols" that he sees in the world around him. But to grasp this forest, we need to understand not so much the erstwhile public doctrine (about which no one remembers any details anyway) but, as we might put it, the way it resonaies in the poet's sensibility. [353]

     To take another example, Rilke speaks of angels. But his angels are not to be understood by their place in the traditionally defined order. Rather, we have to triangulate to the meaning of the term through the whole range of images with which Rilke articulates his sense of things. "Wer, wenn Ich schrie, horte mich, aus der Engel Ordnungen?", begin the Duino Elegies. Their being beyond these cries partly defines these angels. We cannot get at them through a mediaeval treatise on the ranks of cherubim and seraphim, but we have to pass through this articulation of Rilke's sensibility.

     We could describe the change in this way: where formerly poetic language could rely on certain publicly available orders of meaning, it now has to consist in a language of articulated sensibility. Earl Wasserman has shown how the decline of the old order with its established background of meanings made necessary the development of new poetic languages in the Romantic period. Pope, for instance, in his Windsor Forest, could draw on age-old views of the order of nature as a commonly available source of poetic images. For Shelley, this resource is no longer available; the poet must articulate his own world of references, and make them believable. As Wasserman explains it, "Until the end of the eighteenth century there was sufficient intellectual homogeneity for men to share certain assumptions ... In varying degrees, ... men accepted ... the Christian interpretation of history, the sacramentalism of nature, the Great Chain of Being, the analogy of the various planes of creation, the conception of man as microcosm.... These were cosmic syntaxes in the public domain; and the poet could afford to think of his art as imitative of 'nature' since these patterns were what he meant by 'nature'.

     "By the nineteenth century these world-pictures had passed from consciousness. The change from a mimetic to a creative conception of poetry is not merely a critical philosophical phenomenon ... Now ... an additional formulative act was required of the poet. ... Within itself the modern poem must both formulate its cosmic syntax and shape the autonomous poetic reality that the cosmic syntax permits; 'nature', which was once prior to the poem and available for imitation, now shares with the poem a common origin in the poet's creativity."2

     The Romantic poets and their successors have to articulate an original vision of the cosmos. When Wordsworth and Hölderlin describe the natural world around us, in The Prelude, The Rhine, or Homecoming, they no longer play on an established gamut of references, as Pope could still do in Windsor Forest. They make us aware of something in nature for which there are as yet no established words.3 The poems are finding words for us. In this "subtler language" — the term is borrowed from Shelley — something is defined and created as well as manifested. A watershed has been passed in the history of literature.

     Something similar happens in painting in the early nineteenth eenmry. Caspar David Freidrich for instance, distances himself from the traditional iconography. [354]

     He is searching for a symbolism in nature that is not based on the accepted conventions. The ambition is to let "the forms of nature speak directly, their power released by the ordering within the work of art".4 Friedrich too is seeking a subtler language; he is trying to say something for which no adequate terms exist and whose meaning has to be sought in his works rather than in a pre-existing lexicon of references.5 He builds on the late eighteenth-century sense of the affinity between our feelings and natural scenes, but in an attempt to articulate more than a subjective reaction. "Feeling can never be contrary to nature, is always consistent with nature."6

     And of course, music too. But here we can see another facet of the development of subtler languages. This comes partly, as we saw, from the fading of metaphysical beliefs, about the Great Chain of Being, the order of things, and the like; partly from the end of consensus on metaphysics and religion. But first in the realm of music, and then also later elsewhere, we can see a move towards more "absolute" forms. These arise in a kind of further development out of the process by which poetry and music becomes "art" in the first place.

     When we think of chanted prayer in a liturgical setting, or bardic recitation praising heroes at a banquet, we think of poetry and music as in the category "art". But as is well known, in the original societies, there may have been no such category, or if so, these activities may not have belonged to it. We think of them as "art", not only because of their resemblance (and sometimes ancestral relation) to our poetry and music, but also because we think of art as surrounded by an aura, and these too had their aura.

     But this is not to say that we could explain their aura in the terms that we do that of our art, that is, in what we have come to call "aesthetic" categories. The liturgy is indeed, something special; it is singing in a special register. But this is because it is a privileged way of speaking to God, or being in communion with him. The bardic song is a uniquely solemn way of remembering and honouring our heroes.

     In other words, what is special here is not to be understood aesthetically, in terms of the way in which the listener is (or ought to be) moved, but ontically: a specially important kind of action is being carried out (worshipping God, praising heroes).

     In the original context, even telling a story within certain canonical forms, singing a love song, can be understood in this earlier "ontic" way. It lifts the events to a higher plane; there is now something archetypical, something close to the universal human grain, in this love, or this story. It places them in a higher register.

     Then with song and story, we sooner or later come to a shift. In chant and bardic recitation, we have well understood social action. We don't yet have "art" in the modern sense, as a separate activity from religion, praising heroes, etc. The separate activity arises when we come to value creations because they allow us to contemplate, that is, to hold before ourselves so that we can appreciate whatever it is [355] (greatness of God, or of the sense of the divine; greatness of heroes, or their admiration; the archetypes of love and suffering, etc.), without participating in the actions they were originally embedded in, e.g., praying or publicly praising our heroes at the feast.

     So a first disembedding takes place. This is theorized, for instance, in Aristotle's Poetics. Art, as allowing this kind of contemplation, holding things up before us, can be described as mimetic. This is how Aristotle is understanding tragedy, rather than as a species of liturgy, as it was earlier. We are now entering the domain of (what will later be classified as) "art", as with, in more recent centuries, opera, the practice of playing Masses in concerts; nineteenth-century musical performances; and the like.

     But there is a second disembedding, which arises with the subtler languages. We see this clearest in the case of music. Music develops over the history of its use in heightened action, and later in mimesis — love song, prayer, opera, etc. — a kind of "semanticisation". This is partly motivated; clearly the tones chosen for the love song and the chant felt right. But they weren't the only possibilities, and there is a great deal of historic association and accretion here.

     The first, contemplative disembedding left the music with a clear context of human action: prayer, love declarations, dance, the plot of the opera, etc. These actions were not being done, but contemplated, but still they formed the context. The second disembedding is the step to "absolute" music. This creeps up in the instrumental music of the baroque and classical ages, before being theorized in the Romantic period.

     There is a kind of desemanticisation and resemanticisation. The Mozart G Minor Quintet gives us a powerful sense of being moved by something profound ami archetypical, not trivial and passing, which is both immensely sad, but also beautiful, moving, and arresting. We could imagine being moved in some analogous kind of way by some beautiful story of star-crossed love, of loss or parting. But the story isn't there. We have something like the essence of the response, without the story.

     To put it another way: A love song evokes our being moved profoundly by some love story which seems to express a human archetype: Romeo and Juliet, .say. 'The love song, play, opera gives us both the response expressed, and the intentional object of this response. Now with the new absolute music, we have the response in some way captured, made real, there unfolding before us; but the object isn't there. The music moves us very strongly, because it is moved, as it were; it captures, expresses, incarnates being profoundly moved. (Think of Beethoven quartets.) But what at? What is the object? Is there an object?

     Or to come at this resemanticisation from another direction, we might think of the attempts to describe the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as the- call [356] of fate. Here the music is not capturing our being moved, but rather the meaning of intentional object itself. What people are saying is that this is the kind of music you might want to write for an opera for the moment in which fate calls. Only this is "absolute", not "programme" music; unlike in the opera, the object is left unportrayed.

     Nevertheless we feel that there must be an object, an adequate object; or else this would be deception, play-acting. But we don't necessarily have any (other) language for it. Certainly not an assertoric language. This opens the way for Schopenhauer's theory of music. And then the practice of Wagner, which brings "absolute" music back into the story context of opera, but now enriched.

     Semanticisation works thus at least in part, by capturing modes of being moved. But also perhaps by trying to express what is chthonic, cosmic. Here it trades on resonances of the cosmic in us.

     This is a new kind of semantic freedom of exploration. Other arts imitate this. Mallarmé is a paradigm example in poetry. Then non-representational painting moves into a new space.

     Subtler languages which have taken this "absolute" turn, unhooked themselves from intentional objects (music), or the assertoric (poetry), or the object represented (painting), are moving in a new field. The ontic commitments are very unclear. This means that such art can serve to disclose very deep truths which in the nature of things can never be obvious, nor available to everyone, regardless of spiritual condition. Thus Beethoven; and certainly Hopkins. But it can also combine with a denial of deep ontic realities out there. There is only le Néant. This leaves a residual mystery: why are we so moved? But this mystery is now replaced within us. It is the mystery of anthropological depth. This is what we have with Mallarmé. But the explorations here can then be re-used by those who see a reality outside, like Eliot; and those who want to point to one: Celan?

     We can thus see how subtler languages operating in the "absolute" mode can offer a place to go for modern unbelief. In particular, for those who are moved by critiques on the "Romantic" axes: the modern identity and outlook flattens the world, leaves no place for the spiritual, the higher, for mystery. This doesn't need to send us back to religious belief. There is another direction.

     The idea is: the mystery, the depth, the profoundly moving, can be, for all we know, entirely anthropological. Atheists, humanists cling on to this, as they go to concerts, operas, read great literature. So one can complement an ethic and a scientific anthropology which remain very reductive and flat.

     All this shows how the new recourse to "subtler languages" reflects the predicament of the buffered identity, First, in an obvious negative way: the increasing [357] unavailability of the earlier languages of objective reference, connected to sacred history, the correspondences, the Great Chain, is the ineluctable consequence of disenchantment, the recession of the cosmos before a universe to be understood in mechanistic terms. But the aspiration to create new languages shows the unwillingness to leave matters there. It reflects the force, in part, of the new cosmic imaginary, the struggle to articulate the new moral meanings in nature. This is plain in the work of Friedrich just mentioned, as well as in the poems of Wordsworth and Hölderlin, and in a host of other places. In more general terms, the struggle is to recover a kind of vision of something deeper, fuller, in the recognition that this cannot be easy, that it requires insight and creative power.

     The enframing understanding is that our epistemic predicament is different. Where before the languages of theology and metaphysics confidently mapped out the domain of the deeper, the "invisible", now the thought is that these domains can only be made indirectly accessible through a language of "symbols". This polysemic word took on a special sense for the generation of German Romantics of the 1790s, which was later reflected in Goethe's writings. The "symbol" in this sense reveals something which can't be made accessible in any other way; unlike the "allegory", whose images refer us to a domain which we could also describe directly, in literal language.

     The symbol is in fact constitutive of what Wasserman calls a "subtler language". It first and only gives access to what it refers to. It cannot simply rely on established languages. And that is why making/finding a symbol is so difficult; why it needs creative power, even genius. But this also means that what has been revealed is also partly concealed; it cannot be simply detached from the symbol, and be open to scrutiny as the ordinary referents are in our everyday world.

     Now there is a close connection between the modern cosmic imaginary and the subtler languages of the last two centuries, particularly the poetry. The earlier imaginary was articulated and given shape by the cosmos ideas which animated it. There is nothing analogous for the new imaginary, save science; and important as this is, it cannot suffice to articulate the moral meanings of things. At the moment when the hermeneutic of nature as the embodiment of the forms and the Great Chain begins to falter, probing its half-hidden meanings becomes one of the major themes of subtler languages, as in this passage from Tintern Abbey, where Wordsworth speaks of
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air, [358]

And the blue sky, and the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. (11. 94-102)
     The idea that nature has something to say to us hovers there in our culture, too far out for the buffered identity to be uncomfortable with it, but powerful enough to be evoked in a number of indirect ways — in art, in our feelings of renewal as we enter countryside or forest, in some of our responses of alarm at its destruction.

     As I argued above, this sense of the need to open to nature is a counterpart to the- feeling that there is something inadequate in our way of life, that we live by an order which represses what is really important. One of the paradigm places in which this sense of inadequacy was articulated was in Schiller's Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man.7 This was a critique of the dominant form of Enlightenment anthropocentrism, mainly on the second axis discussed in Chapter 8, section 2. It was a critique of this outlook as a moralism. The imposition of morality by the will on our refractory desires (Schiller plainly has Kant in mind here) divides reason and sensibility, and in effect enslaves one side of our nature to the other. But the simple affirmation of desire against morality divides us no less, and simply reverses the relation of master and slave. What we need to seek is a spontaneous unity, a harmony of all our faculties, and this we find in beauty. In beauty, form and content, will and desire, come of themselves together, indeed they merge inseparably.

     At first, it seems that Schiller is talking about beauty as an aid to being moral; it enables one more effectively to live up to the moral law, because one goes along willingly, so to speak. But as the work proceeds, it more and more appears that Schiller sees the stage of aesthetic unity as a higher stage, beyond moralism. It is an integral fulfillment, in which all sides of our nature come together harmoniously, in which we achieve full freedom, since one side of us is no longer forced to submit to the demands of the other, and in which we experience the fullness of joy. This is the fulfillment, going beyond morality, which is really the point of our existence.

     This is what Schiller seems to be saying. He introduces his new term 'play', which was to be taken up by so many writers after him in the last two centuries. It designates the activities by which we create and respond to beauty, and it is chosen to carry the sense of gratuitous, spontaneous freedom which is lacking in the imposition of law by the will. Schiller asserts that human beings "are only human insofar is they play".8 This is the apex of human self-realization.

     Schiller thus gave a wonderfully clear, convincing and influential formulation to a central idea of the Romantic period, that the answer to the felt inadequacy of moralism, the- important defining goal or fulfillment which it leaves out and [359] represses, was to be found in the aesthetic realm. This went beyond the moral, but in Schiller's case wasn't seen as contradicting it. Rather it complements morality in completing human fulfillment. Later, a doctrine which derives a great deal from Schiller's theory, one which also makes crucial use of the notion of 'play', will set the aesthetic against the moral. It finds its most important spokesman in Nietzsche.

     So the aesthetic was established as an ethical category, as a source of answers to the question, how should we live? what is our greatest goal or fulfillment? This gives a crucial place to art. Beauty is what will save us, complete us. This can be found outside us, in nature, or in the grandeur of the cosmos (especially if we also incorporate the sublime in this regenerating power). But in order to open ourselves fully to this, we need to be fully aware of it, and for this we need to articulate it in the languages of art. So created beauty, works of art, are not only important loci of that beauty which can transform us, they are also essential ways of acceding to the beauty which we don't create. In the Romantic period, artistic creation comes to be the highest domain of human activity.

     If we reach our highest goal through art and the aesthetic, then this goal, it would appear, must be immanent. It would represent an alternative to the love of God as a way of transcending moralism. But things are not so simple. God is not excluded. Nothing has ruled out an understanding of beauty as reflecting God's work in creating and redeeming the world. A theological aesthetic in von Balthasar's terms9 is still an open possibility after Schiller.

     The important change is rather that this issue now must remain open. This is what marks us off from earlier times. In pre-modern times, the beauty of art was understood in terms of mimesis: the imitation of reality which was set in an ordered cosmos, with its levels of being, which was further understood as God's creation; or the imitation of a divine history, in portrayals, say, of Mary and her Son, or of the Crucifixion. It went without saying that great art refers us to the correspondences, to the order of being, to sacred history. With the fading of these backgrounds, with the coming of a buffered self, for whom this larger spiritual environment was no longer a matter of untheorized experience, though it might still be an object of reasoned belief, we have the growth of what I have been calling, following Wasserman, "subtler languages". This was the second important creation of the Romantic period, complementing the identification of beauty as the key to restoring our lost unity.

     Now as I argued above, these languages function, have power, move us, but without having to identify their ontic commitments. "Absolute" music expresses being moved by what is powerful and deep, but does not need to identify where this is to be found, whether in heaven, or on earth, or in the depths of our own being — or even whether these alternatives are exclusive. The consummation of subtler [360] languages is when, in Pater's words, all arts strive to approach the condition of music. Now to enter in this medium does not mean to deny God. On the contrary, many great modern artists — Eliot, Messiaen — have tried to make their medium a locus of epiphany. This is perfectly possible. But it is not necessary. The ontic commitments can be other, or they can remain largely unidentified.

     And this is what offers a place to go for modern unbelief. As a response to the inadequacies of moralism, the missing goal can be identified with the experience of beauty, in the realm of the aesthetic. But this is now unhooked from the ordered cosmos and/or the divine. It can be grounded anew in some purely immanent outlook, such as that offered by Freud, for instance. But it can also be left unspecified, and that is in fact the option most frequently taken.

     It is largely thanks to the languages of art that our relation to nature can so often remain in this middle realm, this free and neutral space, between religious commitment and materialism. Something similar can perhaps be said of our relation to music. 1 am thinking of the way in which publicly performed music, in concert hall and opera house, becomes an especially important and serious activity in nineteenth century bourgeois Europe and America. People begin to listen to concerts with an almost religious intensity. The analogy is not out of place. The performance has taken on something of a rite, and has kept it to this day. There is a sense that something great is being said in this music. This too has helped create a kind of middle space, neither explicitly believing, but not atheistic either, a kind of undefined spirituality.10

     Other features of our world seem to exist in the same ambiguous space. For instance, tourism, an activity involving masses of people in the late twentieth century; people travel for all sorts of reasons, but one is to see the important "sights" of our and other civilizations. Now these are overwhelmingly churches, temples, sites in which the strong transcendent meanings of the past are embedded. Perhaps one might reply that this proves nothing, except that the civilizations of the past invested heavily in the transcendent; those who want to see the monuments of the past, admire its art, etc., don't have the choice; they have to find these in cathedrals, mosques, temples. But I don't believe that this is all there is to it, but that there is also a certain admiration, wonder, mixed with some nostalgia, at these sites where the contact with the transcendent was/is so much firmer, surer.

     The existence of this middle space is a reflection of what I called above, in Chapter 8, section 1, the cross-pressure felt by the modern buffered identity, on the one hand drawn towards unbelief, while on the other, feeling the solicitations of the spiritual — be they in nature, in art, in some contact with religious faith, or in a .sense of God which may break through the membrane.

     The continued search for what can be revealed by "symbols" (however this [361] notion is phrased) in the art of the last two centuries, the very prominence of this understanding of art, even as something to rebel against, through a denial of "meaning", says something about our predicament. The loss of pre-modern languages shows how embedded we are in the buffered identity, but the continued attempt to devise subtler languages shows how difficult it is just to leave things there, not to try to compensate for, to replace those earlier vehicles of now problematic insight. This is another cultural fact about modernity, which testifies in the same sense as the concern for lost meaning. It bespeaks the malaise, the uncertainties, which inhabit the buffered identity.

     The shift from cosmos to universe did two important things. It allowed for the development of deeper and more solid forms of materialism and unbelief, and it also gave a new shape to the cross-pressure felt by the buffered identity between belief and unbelief. Along with the development of post-Romantic art, it helps to create a neutral space between these.

     I have been discussing this second development in the last pages. I now want to connect up to the beginning of this section by examining the maturing of unbelief in this period.

     Of course, if we're looking for the reasons which made people renounce their religious belief in the nineteenth century, the gamut is very wide. Some of them are similar to these we have already rehearsed in the discussion of the rise of an option of unbelief in the eighteenth century. It is clear, for instance, that people who felt strongly the satisfactions of the buffered identity — power, invulnerability — and were not very sensitive to its narrowing effect, tended to opt more easily for the materialist side. Then there are all the reasons which made people reject Christianity: its counter-Enlightenment doctrines of human evil, and of divine punishment; the Church's practices of exclusion, its siding with obscurantism.

     To take up this point from the other side, it could easily appear that the values of the modern moral order could only be carried out fully and radically by the step into unbelief. In the nineteenth century, one of the key values was understood to be altruism. And in this regard exclusive humanism could claim to be superior to Christianity. First, Christianity offers extrinsic rewards for altruism in the hereafter, where humanism makes benevolence its own reward; and secondly it sometimes can be tempted to exclude heretics and unbelievers from its purview whereas humanism can be truly universal. Mill, for instance, put forward these arguments.11

     In other ways too, materialism seemed to complete a movement implicit in the modern order. The rehabilitation of ordinary, sensuous nature against the [362] calumnies laid on it by those outlooks which aspire to some "higher" or "spiritual" level of existence, seems to take its most radical, thoroughgoing form in a doctrine which denies flatly all such higher levels. The defense of ordinary human desire against the demands of the supposedly superior renunciative vocations, which was undertaken by the Reformers, seems to reach its final end and logical conclusion in materialism. It is a declaration of the innocence of sensuous nature, of solidarity with it against the tortured demands of an illusory inhuman perfection.

     All these factors had already been operative in the eighteenth century, although perhaps not focussed in quite the same way in the case of altruism. But now there entered two new factors, which both shifted the argument somewhat, and also contributed to the new depth and solidity of materialist positions. They are obviously linked. I am thinking of the impact of science and scholarship, on one hand, and the new cosmic imaginary, on the other.

     Both science and scholarship had considerably developed. The latter was principally relevant in the form of Biblical criticism, which called into question the sources of the Bible. But far more important was the support which science was purported to offer to a materialist view of the universe, principally in connection with Darwin's work on evolution.

     I don't mean by this that the "scientific" argument from evolutionary theory to atheism is convincing, or even that just as a scientific argument it convinced. My view, as I shall argue below (Chapter 15), is that the shift in world views turned rather on ethical considerations. I don't just mean ethical considerations extraneous to the "scientific" argument, such as those concerning altruism just mentioned. I mean that what began to look more plausible was the whole stance underlying the epistemology of materialism, over against that underlying the epistemology of Christian faith.

     It is not hard to see why this was (and still is) so. Even where the conclusions of science seem to be doing the work of conversion, it is very often not the detailed findings so much as the form. Modern science offers us a view of the universe framed in general laws. The ultimate is an impersonal order of regularities in which all particular things exist, over-arching all space and time. This seems in conflict with Christian faith, which relates us to a personal Creator-God, and which explains our predicament in terms of a developing exchange of divine action and human reaction to his interventions in history, culminating in the Incarnation and Atonement.

     Now there is a deep conflict in Western intellectual sensibility, going way back, between those who respond to this personal-historical faith, and those whose sense of what is plausible leads them to seek as ultimate framework an impersonal order. Many "philosophical" minds, even in the great religions which descend from [363] Abraham, have been drawn in this direction. The attraction in the Middle Ages of the Aristotelian idea of an eternal universe, even though (seemingly) incombinable with the belief in the creation, on thinkers like Maimonides and Ibn Rushd, is a case in point.

     The draw to the impersonal framework also helped to promote Deism and eventually unbelief, as I described in Chapter 7. We saw how for Providential Deism the principal claim to God's benevolence is precisely the nature of his unchanging order in creation. Lessing speaks of the "broad ditch" that separates the general truths of morality and religion from any particular facts of history.12

     For those who take this view, the noblest, highest truths must have this general form. Personal interventions, even those of a God, would introduce something arbitrary, some element of subjective desire, into the picture, and the highest truths about reality must be beyond this element. From this standpoint, a faith in a personal God belongs to a less mature standpoint, where one still needs the sense of a personal relation to things; one is not yet ready to face the ultimate truth. A line of thinking of this nature, steadily gathering strength, runs through modern thought and culture, from Spinoza, through Goethe, to our present time.

     Now I think that an important part of the force which drove many people to see science and religion as incompatible, and to opt for the former, comes from this crucial difference in form. In other words, the success of science built on and helped to entrench in them the sense that the Christian religion they were familiar with belonged to an earlier, more primitive or less mature form of understanding.

     Now this bent to impersonality was greatly reinforced by the new cosmic imaginary. The vast universe, in which one could easily feel no sense of a personal God or a benign purpose, seemed to be impersonal in the most forbidding sense, blind and indifferent to our fate. An account in terms of impersonal causal law seemed called for by the new depth sense of reality in the universe.

     This inference was all the stronger in that the stance of disengaged reason, construing the world as it does as devoid of human meaning, fits better with the impersonal picture. But this stance is part of the modern identity of the buffered self, which thus finds a natural affinity for the impersonal order.

     But the affinity was not just epistemic. In a sense the moral outlook of modernity — the modern social imaginary with its stranger sociability, the great centrality of the moral code which articulates the modern moral order — calls on us to rise to a universal standpoint. The new morality comes to be identified with the standpoint of the "impartial spectator", as Hutcheson phrased it. We have to rise above and beyond our particular, narrow, biased view on things, to a view from everywhere, or for everyman, the analogue of the "view from nowhere" which natural science strives to occupy. [364]

     Seen from this perspective, the real telos implicit in the earlier forward steps of humanity — the Axial period, the end of paganism and polytheism, the Reformation — was the bringing of disenchantment, the end of a cosmos of spirits respondent to humans, and the coming of the impersonal order defined by the moral code. Straight line orthodox monotheism was not yet at the goal of this development. It turned the many gods into one, but is still seen as posing the moral issue too much in terms of the favour or disfavour of a capricious tyrant. We are now beyond this.

     We shall see later that one of the crucial issues today is precisely whether this relegation of the personal relation in favour of the supremacy of an unchallengeable moral code is really as unproblematic as so many moderns, utilitarians and neo-Kantians, but not only they, seem to think.

     In any case, this general parti pris for the impersonal may then spill over onto materialism, as the outlook which "science" has developed. But it is interesting that this is not always so. Some people who opted for science over religion were later influenced by the sense of spiritual flatness which I mentioned above. They felt both sides of the cross-pressure. Indeed, this malaise seems to grow among educated elites in the late nineteenth century. They turned to various forms of spiritualism, para-scientific researches, para-psychology and the like. In one case, that of Frederick Myers, the two moves were successive; first a loss of Christian faith owing to Darwinism, then a return to the spiritual, but within the bounds of an impersonal framework. He spoke of himself as "re-entering through the scullery the heavenly mansion out of which I had been kicked through the front door."13 A spiritual-but-not-Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) position, adopted on something like these grounds, has remained a very widespread option in our culture.

     But other things too, tend to make us align materialism with adulthood. A religious outlook may easily be painted as one which offers greater comfort, which shields us from the truth of an indifferent universe, which is now felt as a strong possibility within the modern cosmic imaginary. Religion is afraid to face the fact that we are alone in the universe, and without cosmic support. As children, we do indeed, find this hard to face, but growing up is becoming ready to look reality in the face.

     Of course, this story will probably make little sense to someone who is deeply engaged in a life of prayer or meditation, or other serious spiritual discipline, because this involves in its own way growing beyond and letting go of more childish images of God. But if our faith has remained at the stage of the immature images, then the story that materialism equals maturity can seem plausible. And if in addition, one has been convinced that manliness is the key virtue, then the appeal to go over can appear irresistible. The appeal of science for Mill was precisely that of "good [365] downright hard logic, with a minimum of sentimentalism"; it enables you to "look facts in the face".14

     We can see from all this how much the appeal of scientific materialism is not so much the cogency of its detailed findings as that of the underlying epistemological stance, and that for ethical reasons. It is seen as the stance of maturity, of courage, of manliness, over against childish fears and sentimentality.

     We can say in general terms that, where there was a conversion from faith to "science" which was undertaken reluctantly, and with a sense of loss, the kind of faith involved played an important role. On one hand, there were those who were very deeply wedded to certain particular beliefs, and couldn't conceive their faith without them. Thus, to the extent to which Christian faith was totally identified with certain dogmas or cosmic theories — e.g., the literal belief that Creation occurred in 4004 B.C., or the neat intermeshing of Deist Providential order — the new depth reality could appear as a decisive refutation. Or to the extent that the drama of Fall, Incarnation, Redemption was understood as incompatible with the slow evolution of human culture, refutation threatened.

     And then there were those who felt the accusations of childishness levelled against faith as hitting a target in their own religious life. The presumption of immaturity deeply shook them because of this inner insecurity, and they ended up resolving the tension by abandoning their religion, even if with sadness and a sense of irreparable loss.

     In the first case, we can really speak of a conversion brought about by certain scientific conclusions. But then the question must remain: why did they need to identify their faith with these particular doctrines? Why were they so deaf to the moral meanings of the new cosmic imaginary which might have led them back to God?

     This fits, of course, with my general position here, that conversions from religion under the influence of "science" turn not on the alleged scientific proofs of materialism or the impossibility of God (which turn out on examination not to go through anyway), but rather on other factors which in this case consist in attachment to inessential doctrines which can be refuted.

     In the second case, what happens is that 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 persons own sense of his/her own childhood faith, which may well have remained a childish one.

     However, we can easily understand that, having gone though this conversion, the way it will appear to the convert will fit the standard story which makes scientific truth the decisive agency. If I become convinced that the ancient faith reflects a more immature ondook on things, in comparison to modern science, then I will [366] indeed see myself as abandoning the first to cleave to the second. The fact that I have not made the move following some rigorously demonstrated scientific conclusion will escape me, either because, having already taken my side, I am easily convinced by its "arguments", or because, also owing to this parti pris, I am ready to have faith in sciences ability to come up one day with the conclusive proofs of God's inexistence.

     To put the point in another way, the story that a convert to unbelief may tell, about being convinced to abandon religion by science, is in a sense really true. This person does see himself as abandoning one world view ("religion") because another incompatible one ("science") seemed more believable. But what made it in fact more believable was not "scientific" proofs; it is rather that one whole package: science, plus a picture of our epistemic-moral predicament in which science represents a mature facing of hard reality, beats out another package: religion, plus a rival picture of our epistemic-moral predicament in which religion, say, represents true humility, and many of the claims of science unwarranted arrogance. But the decisive consideration here was the reading of the moral predicament proposed by "science", which struck home as true to the convert's experience (of a faith which was still childish — and whose faith is not, to one or another degree?), rather than the actual findings of science. This is the sense in which what I've been calling moral considerations played a crucial role; not that the convert necessarily found the morality of "science" of itself more attractive — one can assume that in a sense the opposite was the case, where he bemoaned loss of faith — but that it offered a more convincing story about his moral/spiritual life.

     As I stated above, in commenting on the long evolution of the universe idea out of the cosmos, there are no important scientific moves which are not also motivated by a strongly held vision, which in turn has spiritual implications. When "science" beats out "religion", it is one such vision which expels another, and in this victory the moral/spiritual implications are probably playing a role. But once this happens, then the very ethic of "science" requires that the move be justified retrospectively in terms of "proofs". The official story takes over.

     This whole way of seeing things, which comes about through the joint effect of science and the new cosmic imaginary, helped along by a notion of maturity which they generate along with the buffered identity, has brought about modes of unbelief which are much more solid. They are more firmly anchored, both in our sense of our world, and in the scientific and technological practices by which we know it and deal with it. This is why for whole milieux today materialism has become the obvious, the default position. It is no longer a wild, far-out theory, but creeps close to what is seen as common sense.

     But materialism has not only solidified, it has also deepened. As we saw in the above discussion, the new cosmic imaginary carried further what the mechanistic [367] view of the universe had already started. This world-picture had dissipated totally the earlier view of a meaning in things captured in the Platonic-Aristotelian idea that the world around us was the realization of Forms, the theory of ontic logos. But there was still room for other kinds of meaning: for instance, the purposes which God furthers in creating the mechanistic universe, or those which we have in virtue of having souls. Thoroughgoing materialism wipes these away as well.

     Now an utter absence of purpose can be experienced as a terrible loss, as the most dire threat levelled at us by the disenchanted world. But it can also be seen in the other positive perspective, that of invulnerability. In such a universe, nothing is demanded of us; we have no destiny which we are called on to achieve, on pain of damnation, or divine retribution, or some terminal discord with ourselves. Already the Epicureans had made this point in one form. To know that all comes from atoms and their swervings, that the Gods are utterly unconcerned with us, is to liberate us from fear of the beyond, and thus allow us to achieve ataraxia. Modern materialism takes up this legacy, but gives it the characteristically modern activist twist: in this purposeless universe, we decide what goals to pursue. Or else we find them in the depths, our depths, that is, something we can recognize as coming from deep within us. In either case, it is we who determine the order of human things — and who can thus discover in ourselves the motivation, and the capacity, to build the order of freedom and mutual benefit, in the teeth of an indifferent and even hostile universe.

     We are alone in the universe, and this is frightening; but it can also be exhilarating. There is a certain joy in solitude, particularly for the buffered identity. The thrill at being alone is part sense of freedom, part the intense poignancy of this fragile moment, the "dies" (day) that you must "carpere" (seize). All meaning is here, in this small speck. Pascal got at some of this with his image of the human being as a thinking reed.

     The new cosmic imaginary adds a further dimension to this. Having come to sense how vast the universe is in time and space, how deep its micro-constitution goes into the infinitesimal, and feeling thus both our insignificance and fragility, we also see what a remarkable thing it is that out of this immense, purposeless machine, life, and then feeling, imagination and thought emerge.

     Here is where a religious person will easily confess a sense of mystery. Materialists usually want to repudiate this; science in its progress recognizes no mysteries, only temporary puzzles. But nevertheless, the sense that our thinking, feeling life plunges its roots into a system of such unimaginable depths, that consciousness can emerge out of this, fills them too with awe.

     Our wonder at our dark genesis, and the conflict we can feel around it, is well captured by a writer of our day. Douglas Hofstadter recognizes that certain people[368]
have an instinctive horror of any "explaining away" of the soul. I don't know why some people have this horror while others, like me, find in reductionism the ultimate religion. Perhaps my lifelong training in physics and science in general has given me a deep awe at seeing how the most substantial and familiar of objects or experiences fades away, as one approaches the infinitesimal scale, into an eerily insubstantial ether, a myriad of ephemeral swirling vortices of nearly incomprehensible mathematical activity. This in me evokes a cosmic awe. To me, reductionism doesn't "explain away"; rather, it adds mystery.15
But this awe is modulated, and intensified, by a sense of kinship, of belonging integrally to these depths. And this allows us to recapture the sense of connection and solidarity with all existence which arose in the eighteenth century out of our sense of dark genesis, but now with an incomparably greater sense of the width and profundity of its reach.16

     And so materialism has become deeper, richer, but also more varied in its forms, as protagonists take different stands to the complex facets I have just been trying to lay out. The reasons to opt for unbelief go beyond our judgments about religion, and the supposed deliverances of "science". They include also the moral meanings which we now find in the universe and our genesis out of it. Materialism is now nourished by certain ways of living in, and further developing, our cosmic imaginary; certain ways of inflecting our sense of the purposelessness of this vast universe, our awe at, and sense of kinship with it.

     This was one way, through science and the cosmic imaginary, in which unbelief deepened and solidified in the nineteenth century. Another, which I will just mention here, is that the forms of social imaginary built around simultaneity and action in purely secular time — the market economy, the public sphere, the polity of popular sovereignty — were becoming more and more dominant. Once again, we have a sense of social reality, parallel to the cosmic imaginary's sense of natural reality, which by no means must command an unbelieving outlook; but it certainly can consort with one, and on certain readings of the issue can be made to seem alone compatible with such an outlook. Certainly Pius IX thought so.

     But whatever we think of nineteenth-century Papal politics (and they certainly don't convince anyone today), there is a deeper point here, which is analogous to our discussion of the cosmic imaginary. Modern societies are impersonal in an important sense; that is, they are based on stranger sociability, and involve the creation of collective agency among equals; they privilege categorical identities, in which people are linked through shared properties (being Americans, Frenchmen, Muslims, Catholics), rather than through a network of personal relations, as in kinship, [369] or the relations of fealty central to pre-modern European societies ("feudal", as they were called.) People whose religious life was bound up with the forms of life of a network society — for instance peasants living in the hierarchical world of a country parish — once transferred to an industrializing city in the nineteenth century, would be profoundly disoriented, and unable to live their traditional religion. They may easily fall away from churches altogether, or else invent quite new forms of religious life. I shall explore this in a later chapter.

     The deeper, more anchored forms of unbelief arising in the nineteenth century are basically the same as those which are held today. We can see the Victorians as our contemporaries in a way which we cannot easily extend to the men of the Enlightenment. Foucault and others have noticed the watershed that the Romantic age made in European thought, accrediting a sense of reality as deep, systematic, as finding its mainsprings well below an immediately available surface, whether it be in the economic theories of a Marx, the "depth psychology" of a Freud, or the genealogies of a Nietzsche.17 We are still living in the aftermath of this shift to depth, even though we may contest these particular theories. In this respect, we might be tempted to say that modern unbelief starts then, and not really in the Age of the Enlightenment. The nineteenth century would be the moment when "the Modern Schism" occurred.18

     The mention of Nietzsche in the preceding paragraph brings us to an extremely important turn in the moral imagination of unbelief in the nineteenth century. I talked of the "post-Schopenhauerian" visions earlier, which give a positive significance to the irrational, amoral, even violent forces within us. The idea is, in various forms, that these cannot simply be condemned and uprooted, because our existence, and/or vitality, creativity, strength, ability to create beauty depend on them. This turn finds a new moral meaning in our dark genesis out of the wild and prehuman. It comes of a rebellion against the standard form of modern anthropocentrism, along the "tragic" axis, rejecting the too-harmonized picture of life, in which suffering, evil and violence have been painted out.

     This is a turn against the values of the Enlightenment. But unlike what we usually call the counter-Enlightenment — thinkers like Bonald and de Maistre — it is not in any sense a return to religion or the transcendent. It remains resolutely naturalist. That's why I will refer to it as the "immanent counter-Enlightenment".

     What it is rebelling against is a crucial strand of modern exclusive humanism, which in turn draws on the religious tradition which preceded it. This is, in fact, a powerful constitutive strand of modern western spirituality as a whole: an [370] affirmation of the value of life, of succouring life and sustaining it, healing and feeding. This was intensified by the anthropocentric turn, where the purposes of God were narrowed to this one goal of sustaining human life. The continuing power of this idea is perhaps evident in the contemporary concern to preserve life, to bring prosperity, to reduce suffering, world-wide, which is I believe without precedent in history.

     This concern reflects, on one hand, the modern idea of moral order; while on the other, it arises historically out of what I have called elsewhere "the affirmation of ordinary life".19 What I was trying to gesture at with this term is the cultural revolution of the early modern period, which dethroned the supposedly higher activities of contemplation and the citizen life, and put the centre of gravity of goodness in ordinary living, production and the family. It belongs to this spiritual outlook that our first concern ought to be to increase life, relieve suffering, foster prosperity. Concern above all for the "good life" smacked of pride, of self-absorption. And beyond that, it was inherently inegalitarian, since the alleged "higher" activities could only be carried out by an elite minority, whereas leading rightly ones ordinary life was open to everyone. This is a moral temper to which it seems obvious that our major concern must be our dealings with others, in justice and benevolence; and these dealings must be on a level of equality.

     This affirmation, which constitutes a major component of our modern ethical outlook, was originally inspired by a mode of Christian piety. It exalted practical agape, and was polemically directed against the pride, élitism, one might say, self-absorption of those who believed in "higher" activities or spiritualities.

     Consider the Reformers' attack on the supposedly "higher" vocations of the monastic life. These were meant to mark out elite paths of superior dedication, but were in fact deviations into pride and self-delusion. The really holy life for the Christian was within ordinary life itself, living in work and household in a Christian and worshipful manner.

     There was an earthly, one might say, earthy critique of the allegedly "higher" here which was then transposed, and used as a secular critique of Christianity, and indeed, religion in general. Something of the same rhetorical stance adopted by Reformers against monks and nuns is taken up by secularists and unbelievers against Christian faith itself. This allegedly scorns the real, sensual, earthly human good for some purely imaginary higher end, the pursuit of which can only lead to the frustration of the real, earthly good, to suffering, mortification, repression, etc. The motivations of those who espouse this "higher" path are thus, indeed, suspect. Pride, elitism, the desire to dominate play a part in this story too, along with fear and timidity (also present in the earlier Reformers' story, but less prominent).

     Exclusive humanism has inherited both the allegiance to the moral order, and the affirmation of ordinary life. And this has provoked, as it were', a revolt from within. [371] The revolt has been against what one could call a secular religion of life, which is one of the most striking features of the modern world.

     We live in an extraordinary moral culture, measured against the norm of human history, in which suffering and death, through famine, flood, earthquake, pestilence or war, can awaken world-wide movements of sympathy and practical solidarity. Granted, of course, that this is made possible by modern media and modes of transportation, not to speak of surpluses. These shouldn't blind us to the importance of the cultural-moral change. The same media and means of transport don't awaken the same response everywhere; it is disproportionately strong in ex-Latin Christendom.

     Let us grant also the distortions produced by media hype and the media-gazer's short attention span, the way dramatic pictures produce the strongest response, often relegating even more needy cases to a zone of neglect from which only the cameras of CNN can rescue them. Nevertheless, the phenomenon is remarkable. The age of Hiroshima and Auschwitz has also produced Amnesty International and Medecins Sans Frontieres.

     Of course, the Christian roots of all this run deep. First, there is the extraordinary missionary effort of the Counter-Reformation Church, taken up later by the Protestant denominations. Then there were the mass-mobilization campaigns of the early nineteenth century — the anti-slavery movement in England, largely inspired and led by Evangelicals; the parallel abolitionist movement in the United States, also largely Christian-inspired. Then this habit of mobilizing for the redress of injustice and the relief of suffering world-wide becomes part of our political culture. Somewhere along the road, this culture ceases to be simply Christian-inspired — although people of deep Christian faith continue to be important in today's movements. Moreover, it probably needed this breach with the culture of Christendom for the impulse of solidarity to transcend the frontier of Christendom itself.

     This is the complex legacy of the Enlightenment which I am trying to describe here. It incorporates a powerful humanism, affirming the importance of preserving and enhancing life, of avoiding death and suffering, an eclipse/denial of transcendence which tends to make this humanism an exclusive one, and a dim historical sense that the first of these came about through and depends on the second.

     From its beginnings two and a half centuries ago, this developing ethos encountered resistance. In its very influential Utilitarian variant, it was seen as a kind of flattening of human life, rendering it "one-dimensional", to use an expression which gained wide currency later. Life in the "Crystal Palace", to quote Dostoyevsky's protagonist in Notes from Underground, was felt as stifling, as diminishing, as deadening, or as levelling. There were clearly at least two important sources of this reaction, though they could sometimes be (uneasily) combined.

     One was the continuing spiritual concern with the transcendent, which could [372] never accept that flourishing human life was all there is, and bridled at the reduction. The other sprang from the older aristocratic ethos, and protested against the levelling effects of the culture of equality and benevolence. It apprehended a loss of the heroic dimension of human life, and a consequent levelling down of human beings to the bourgeois, utilitarian mean. That this concern went well beyond reactionary circles, we can see from the case of Tocqueville, who was very worried by this kind of reduction of humanity which threatens us in a democratic age. He feared a world in which people would end up being occupied exclusively with their "petits et vulgaires plaisirs", and would lose the love of freedom.20

     Now these resistances were nourished by long-standing traditions, those of the transcendent on one hand, and certain long-existing standards of honour and excellence on the other. What I am calling the immanent revolt is a resistance against the primacy of life, but which has abandoned these traditional sources. It is neither grounded in transcendence, nor based on the historically received understandings of social hierarchy — though it may be inspired by earlier versions of the warrior ethic, as we see with Nietzsche.

     It is the revolt from within unbelief, as it were, against the primacy of life. Not now in the name of something beyond, but really more just from a sense of being confined, diminished by the acknowledgment of this primacy.

     So as well as an external counter-Enlightenment, nourished by the traditions that the Enlightenment relegated to the zone of illusion, there has grown an immanent counter-Enlightenment, which shares in, even sometimes intensifies this rejection of the past. But just as the secular Enlightenment humanism grew out of the earlier Christian, agape-inspired affirmation of ordinary life, so the immanent counter-Enlightenment grew out of its transcendent-inspired predecessor.

     Where this primarily happened was in the literary and artistic domains that grew out of Romanticism and its successors. The Romantic movement was one of the important loci of the Counter-Enlightenment, even if it was also always much more than this. Protest against a flattened world, one which had been denuded of meaning, was a recurring theme of Romantic writers and artists, and this could go together with counter-Enlightenment commitments, although it didn't have to. At least it made it impossible to align oneself with the crasser variants of Enlightenment secularism, such as Utilitarianism.

     The immanent counter-Enlightenment comes to existence within this domain of Western culture. From the beginning, it has been linked with a primacy of the aesthetic. Even where it rejects the category, and speaks of an "aesthetic illusion" (as with Paul de Man), it remains centrally concerned with art, and especially modem, post-Romantic art. Its big battalions within the modern academy are found in literature departments. [373]

     One of its major themes is a new understanding of the centrality of death, a kind of answer to the inability of mainstream exclusive humanism to cope with mortality. This finds some of its sources in the religious tradition. I will discuss this in Chapter 19.

     Alongside that, and interwoven with it, is another kind of revolt against the primacy of life, inspired mainly by the other source of resistance in the external counter-Enlightenment, the resistance against levelling, in the name of the great, the exceptional, the heroic.

     The most influential proponent of this kind of view has undoubtedly been Nietzsche. And it is significant that the most important anti-humanist thinkers of our time: e.g., Foucault, Derrida, behind them, Bataille, all draw heavily on Nietzsche.

     Nietzsche, of course, rebelled against the idea that our highest goal is to preserve and increase life, to prevent suffering. He rejects this both metaphysically and practically. He rejects the egalitarianism underlying this whole affirmation of ordinary life. But his rebellion is in a sense also internal. Life itself can push to cruelty, to domination, to exclusion, and indeed does so in its moments of most exuberant affirmation.

     So this move remains within the modern affirmation of life in a sense. There is nothing higher than the movement of life itself (the Will to Power). But it chafes at the benevolence, the universalism, the harmony, the order. It wants to rehabilitate destruction and chaos, the infliction of suffering and exploitation, as part of the life to be affirmed. Life properly understood also affirms death and destruction. To pretend otherwise is to try to restrict it, tame it, hem it in, deprive it of its highest manifestations, what makes it something you can say "yes" to.

     A religion of life which would proscribe death-dealing, and the infliction of suffering, is confining and demeaning. Nietzsche thinks of himself as having taken up some of the legacy of pre-Platonic and pre-Christian warrior ethics, their exaltation of courage, greatness, elite excellence. And central to that has always been a paradigm place for death. The willingness to face death, the ability to set life lower than honour and reputation, has always been the mark of the warrior, his claim to superiority.21 Modern life-affirming humanism breeds pusillanimity. This accusation frequently recurs in the culture of counter-Enlightenment.

     Of course, one of the fruits of this counter-culture was Fascism — to which Neitzsche's influence was not entirely foreign, however true and valid is Walter Kaufman's refutation of the simple myth of Nietzsche as a proto-Nazi. But in spite of this, the fascination with death and violence recurs, e.g., in the interest in Bataille, shared by Derrida and Foucault. James Miller's book on Foucault shows the depths of this rebellion against "humanism", as a stifling, confining space one has to break out of.22

     My point here is not to score off neo-Nietzscheanism, as some kimd of [374] antechamber to Fascism. As though any of the main spiritual tendencies of our civilization was totally free of responsibility for Fascism. The point is to allow us to recognize that there is an anti-humanism which rebels precisely against the unrelenting concern with life, the proscription of violence, the imposition of equality.

     The Nietzschean understanding of enhanced life, which can fully affirm itself, also in a sense takes us beyond life; and in this it is analogous with other, religious notions of enhanced life (like the New Testament's "eternal life"). But it takes us beyond by incorporating a fascination with the negation of life, with death and suffering. It doesn't acknowledge some supreme good beyond life, and in that sense sees itself rightly as utterly antithetical to religion. The "transcendence" is, once again in an important sense and paradoxically, immanent.

     What I have been calling the immanent counter-Enlightenment thus involves a new valorization of, even fascination with death and sometimes violence. It rebels against the exclusive humanism that dominates modern culture. But it also rejects all previous, ontically-grounded understandings of transcendence. If we took account of this, we might perhaps change our picture of modern culture. Instead of seeing it as the scene of a two-sided battle, between "tradition", especially religious tradition, and secular humanism, we might rather see it as a kind of free-for-all, the scene of a three-cornered — perhaps ultimately, a four-cornered — battle.

     This would allow us to see how greatly what I've called the nova has expanded; positions have multiplied. Their affinities and oppositions become ever more complex. We have just seen this with materialism and unbelief. But a similar multiplication is taking place in other basic positions, and so the debate swirls on among a wider and wider range of participants, between whom a multiplicity of lateral, cross-cutting affinities arises — such as we sensed above between Pascal (of all people) and one strand of modern materialism, as the nova expands.

     In the nineteenth century, one might say, unbelief comes of age. It develops a solidity, and a depth, but also and perhaps above all, a variety, a complex of internal differences. So that for many people in many milieux in our day, it can become a world unto itself. That is, for them it circumscribes the horizon of the potentially believable. There are exclusive humanists who are unsure of their position; but the direction from which they feel vulnerable is neo-Nietzschean anti-humanism. Or these "post-modernists" themselves have occasional pangs of doubt when they read John Smart Mill or Karl Marx. The transcendent is off their map.

     This is perhaps a moment, then, to recur to my original question: what has changed between 1500, when unbelief was virtually impossible, and (just about) [375] 2000, when there are not only lots of happy atheists, but in certain milieux faith is bucking a powerful current?

     Our discussion of the modern cosmic imaginary has helped us to understand this further. At our starting point in 1500, the enchanted world, in which nature and social life were interwoven with higher times, left little room for unbelief. Theologians distinguished between the natural and the supernatural level, but it was not possible to live experientially with one's awareness confined to the first. Spirits, forces, powers, higher times were always obtruding.

     With the disenchantment of the world, and the marginalization of higher times, this kind of extrusion of the higher became in principle possible. But it was held off by the sense that the inspiration, strength and discipline we needed to re-order this world as disenchanted and moral came to us from God. It came as grace in individual lives, and it came as divinely ordained disciplines and structures in public life. And central to both individual morality and public order was a sense of a cosmic disposition of things which was providentially established by God for our good.

     God was in our conscience, in our social order, in our cosmos; not in the obtrusive fashion of the immediate experience of certain things, places and times, as in the enchanted world; but rather as the ordering power which made sense of the shape of things in morality, society and world.

     So the immediate encounter with spirits and forces gives way, but this opens space for that much more powerful a sense of God's ordering will. And indeed, it is partly our sense of this ordering will which has driven enchantment to the margins.

     With the anthropocentric turn, this sense of God's ordering presence begins to fade. The sense begins to arise that we can sustain the order on our own. For some, God retreats to a distance, in the beginning or the end (Deists); for others, he fades altogether. Others again aggressively deny him.

     The shift in cosmic imaginaries intensifies and completes this undermining of our sense of ordering presence. It is not just that this presence was over-heavily identified with the early modern apologetics of design. It is also that the vast, unfathomable universe in its dark abyss of time makes it all too possible to lose sight of this ordering presence altogether. Indeed, it can make it hard to hang on to this idea.

     Our sense of the universe is not unequivocal, as I tried to explain earlier. It can occlude all sense of order and meaning, but it also can be the locus of powerful spiritual meanings. When these are denied, the result is often a narrow and philistine scientism. But if we are open to them, the outcomes can be very varied: read one way, in an Epicurean-naturalist direction, they lead us towards a deep and rich materialism; taken another way, they can open us to a range of spirituality, and for some people, to God. [376]

     But if one goes one of the first two ways — either refusing the meanings, or taking them in the Epicurean-naturalist sense — then one can indeed live in a world which seems to proclaim everywhere the absence of God. It is a universe whose outer limits touch nothing but absolute darkness; a universe with its corresponding human world in which we can really experience Godlessness.

     This is not the way in which our forebears in 1500 could experience spirits and powers, in an encounter with particular things and places. It is more like the way our (elite) forebears in 1700 experienced God's ordering presence, that is, as a diffuse, structuring principle, rather than an object which can be foregrounded.

     But it is different from this again, because it is the sense of an absence; it is the sense that all order, all meaning comes from us. We encounter no echo outside. In the world read this way, as so many of our contemporaries live it, the natural/supernatural distinction is no mere intellectual abstraction. A race of humans has arisen which has managed to experience its world entirely as immanent. In some respects, we may judge this achievement as a victory for darkness, but it is a remarkable achievement nonetheless.


1. Charles Baudelaire, "Correspondances", in Les Fleurs du Mal; see his Oeuvres Complètes (Paris: Gallimard, Pléiade edition, 1975), p. 11.

2. Earl Wasserman, The Subtler Language (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968), pp. 10-11.

3. Thus Wordsworth tells of how he
... would stand
If the night blackened with a coming storm,
Beneath some rock, listening to notes that are
The ghostly language of the ancient earth
Or make their dim abode in distant winds.
(The Prelude, 11. 307-311)
4. Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner, Romanticism and Realism (New York: Norton, 1984), p. 58.

5. Ibid., pp. 68 ff.

6. Ibid., p. 67.

7. F. Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, ed. and trans. Elizabeth Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967).

8. Ibid., letter 16.

9. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Herrlichkeit (The Glory of the Lord) (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1962).

10. I have found the discussion very helpful in David Martin, The Breaking of the Image: A Sociology of Christian Theory and Practice (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980), pp. 135 ff.

11. Stefan Collini, Public Moralists: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain, 1850-1930 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), p. 74.

12. G. Lessing, Werke, ed. Pedersen and von Olshausen, Volume 23, p. 49. The ditch is uncrossable, because "zufallige eschichtswahrheiten konnen der Beweis von notwendigen Vernunftwahrheiten nie werden"; ibid., p. 47.

13. Samuel Hynes, The Edwardian Turn of Mind (London: Pimlico, 1968), p. 139.

14. Collini, Public Moralists, p. 192.

15. Douglas Hofstadter, "Reductionism and Religion", in Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3 (1980), p. 434.

16. The awe, but also the sense of connection, emerges in these reflections of Charles Lindbergh: "I know myself as mortal, but this raises the question: 'What is I?' Am I an individual, or am I an evolving life stream composed of countless selves? ... As one identity, I was born in AD 1902. But as AD twentieth-century man, I am billions of years old. The life I consider as myself has existed through past eons with unbroken continuity. Individuals are custodians of the life stream—temporal manifestations of far greater being, forming from and returning to their essence like so many dreams. ... I recall standing on the edge of a deep valley in the Hawaiian island of Maui, thinking that a life stream is like a mountain river^springing from hidden sources, born out of the earth, touched by stars, merging, blending, evolving in the shape momentarily seen." He sums up: "I am form and I am formless. I am life and I am matter, mortal and immortal. I am one and I am many—myself and humanity in flux. . . . After my death, the molecules of my being will return to the earth and sky. They came from the stars. I am of the stars." Quoted in Gore Vidal, "The Eagle is Grounded", in The Times Literary Supplement, no. 4987, October 30, 1998, p. 6. We can see how Lindbergh stands fully within the modern cosmic imaginary. His experience of nature, e.g., on Maui, immediately suggests to him the depth of the universe and our dark genesis from it.

17. Michel Foucault, Les Mots etles Choses (Paris: Gallimard, 1966).

18. Martin Marty, The Modern Schism (New York: Harper, 1969).

19. See Sources of the Self (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), di.i|> ter 13.

20. Alexis de Tocqueville, La Democratic en Amerique (Paris: Gamier Flammarion, 1981), Volume II, Part 2, chapter 2, p. 385.

21. Hegel makes this feature of the traditional honour ethics central to his dialectic of ilumaster and the slave. In the original struggle for recognition between warriors, each shows that he is worthy of such recognition precisely by setting his life at hazard. The key to dignity is this "Daransetzen". Phdnomenologie des Geistes, chapter IV.

22. James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993).


ataraxia - Freedom from disturbance of mind or passion; stoical indifference. (OED)

ontic - Of or relating to entities and the facts about them; having or relating to real as opposed to phenomenal existence. (OED)

ontology - The science or study of being; that branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature or essence of being or existence. (OED)

parti pris - 1. n. A preconceived view; a bias or prejudice. 2. adj. Biased, prejudiced; favouring one particular side, faction, or party. (OED)

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