Working to capture the first step of Charles Taylor’s argument within A Secular Age, James K.A. Smith summarizes five pre-modern ways of understanding (or of inhabiting life) that served for centuries as powerful obstacles to unbelief:
- Understanding of the individual person as “porous” and subject to the influence of many powerful outside realities (i.e. as vulnerable and existing within an enchanted world).
- Understanding that every life depends on every other life to maintain a healthy social fabric that sustains us all (i.e. that no one can rise or fall alone).
- Understanding shared eternal values or an aiming of all human life toward something beyond ordinary human flourishing.
- Understanding of a higher sense of time that is not merely linear or chronological.
- Understanding of a porous cosmos that is suspended within its own beyond (i.e. that we inhabit a world that is created and dependent on a reality that is greater than itself).
Here are a few excerpts from Smith. On the 3th understanding:
We miss this if we retroactively impose our “privatized” picture of faith upon abbeys and monasteries and imagine that the monks are devoting themselves to personal pursuits of salvation. The monks pray for the world in the world’s stead. So the social body loves this tension between transcendence and the mundane by a kind of division of labor.
Second, the social body in Christendom has a sense of time that allows even those daily engaged in domestic life to nonetheless pursue rhythms and rituals that inhabit this tension between the pressures of now and the hopes of eternity. Rhythms and seasons create opportunity to live the tension.
On the 4th understanding:
Higher times “introduce ‘warps’ and seeming inconsistencies in profane time-ordering. Events that were far apart in profane time could nevertheless be closely linked” (p. 55). This is somewhat akin to Kierkegaard’s account of “contemporaneity” in Philosophical Fragments: “Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Cruciﬁxion than midsummer’s day 1997” (Secular Age, p. 55). Our “encasing” in secular time has changed this, and so we take our experience of time to be “natural” (i.e., not a construal): “We have constructed an environment in which we live a uniform, univocal secular time, which we try to measure and control in order to get things done” (p. 59). So nothing “higher” impinges upon our calendars — only the tick-tock of chronos, and the self-imposed burdens of our “projects.”
On the 5th understanding:
It’s as if the universe has layers, and we are always folded into the middle. If the premodern self is “porous,” so too is the premodern cosmos.