Charles Taylor, “The Great Disembedding”

[W]hat we got was not a network of agape, but rather a disciplined society in which categorial relations have primacy, and therefore forms.  But it nevertheless all started by the laudable attempt to fight back the demands of the “world”, and then make it over. – Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, p.158

First of all, for all three of you who read these, I owe an apology for the long delay.  There were numerous complicating factors, not least of them a lack of the medication that permits me to concentrate long enough to read something like Taylor’s work, then present it in my own words.  The irony here is this is by far the shortest chapter so far, a summary if you will of the results of the movements of Reform in various spheres that, quite without anyone planning it, let alone desire it, ripped human beings from the various networks – social, natural, theological – that defined their lives.  What has emerged, or is emerging far more clearly, is  what Taylor calls “the buffered self”, the individual as we understand the term in contemporary usage: no longer porous to forces outside itself such as spiritual forces (both good and ill), defining oneself in terms of selfhood rather than relationally.  Quite without anyone being aware of when or how it happened, human being no longer rested within a cosmos centered on the grand narrative of human salvation or damnation.’

Instead, we have the emergence of social and political and even theological and religious forces that are geared toward disciplining the individual in all aspects of life.  The emerging capitalist system, the growing sense of nationalism, the separation into sectarianism in religious life, the belief that what spiritual forces might interact with us are all equally bad – all of these work together to bring about what Taylor calls “disembedding”.  Not only are we now free of all those networks that define us; we are free, too, of nature precisely because it is no longer the playground of supernatural forces, but is merely a series of interlocked mechanical constructs that we human beings can and should control.  Being primarily intellectual stuff rather than matter, we human beings have the ability both to manipulate and control for our advantage the natural order, as well as reject the possibility of interference from some supernatural realm.  The world can be understood on its own terms, quite apart from Divine Providence.

We are now free.  We are also, in a sense, alone.  We are no longer a part of various webs of relations that gave previous generations meaning, strength, and sustenance.  Being free, being buffered, we are also atoms, our relations now freely chosen yet never completely penetrating the buffers that now exist around the self.  As with most historical movements, this is both good and bad.  What follows next, well, that is for us to discover as we follow Taylor on this grand narrative of the emergence of our secular age.

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