Belief in the Immanent Frame

There’s a riveting scene in the film Amadeus where Salieri, deeply envious of Mozart’s talent, is so angry at God that he removes the crucifix from his wall and burns it in the fire, swearing enmity against God. I use this film when I teach music appreciation, and students often gasp at the powerful image of sacrilege. When we discuss the film I usually ask them: why didn’t he just become an atheist? Why bother declaring God an enemy rather than simply give up believing? Eventually we get around to the answer: it simply wasn’t an option in Salieri’s day (though it was emerging as one) and to write that into the script would have been egregiously anachronistic. The film takes enough liberties with history as it is (but it makes for a damn good story); at least they got that right. Salieri’s option is a lot like that presented to Job by his wife: “curse God and die.”

One of my accomplishments this year was to read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.  I call it an accomplishment because the book clocks in at almost 900 pages, which took me months of bedtime reading to get through. Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory Beyond Secular Reason, though half the length, was even more difficult — it actually took me three tries before I could finish it — owing to Milbank’s remarkably dense writing style. Taylor’s prose is lucid, though he unfolds his arguments very, very, slowly, like I imagine an Ent might (“It takes a very long time to for us to say anything, so we do not say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say”). Milbank reads like French philosophy in translation, which seems odd since he’s British. These are both important works in the literature of what is called the “postsecular turn.” Another important work is Marcel Gauchet’s The Disenchantment of the World, which also reads like French philosophy in translation, owing mostly to its being French philosophy in translation. Each of these three works narrates, in their respective idiom, the development of the idea of “the secular” as a construct, something that is contingent upon the history of Christianity in the West.

Milbank’s account is theological, and that’s part of his point; he sees the secular as parasitic upon Christendom, and social theory as a thin parody of theology. The proper account is necessarily theological for Milbank, and the secular — all of modernism, really — a tragic detour. “Once there was no secular,” he begins, and takes the reader through a tour of church history to point out just where he thinks things went wrong (with Duns Scotus and univocity of being, if you’re keeping score at home). Christian history reached a kind of apex in the medieval confluence of neoplatonism and theology (a la Pseudo-Dionysius) and tanked when we hit the Baroque. Though much more philosophically and historically nuanced, his account bears some interesting affinities to Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? in its overall structure.

Gauchet’s argument is an atheist one (Taylor writes the foreword to the English edition, and not surprisingly takes issue with Gauchet precisely at the point of the latter’s atheism).  But for Gauchet the secular is no less a construct and no less contingent upon Christianity. He pushes farther back, however, implicating both the birth of the state (the state, for Gauchet, being something much more generic, and ancient, than the modern nation-state) and the concept of a transcendent, singular God as milestones in the birth of secularity. Such a God opens a rift between creator and created that creates room for human freedom and sows the seeds of letting go of God altogether — or relegating God to the margins. The doctrine of the Incarnation, in which Christ bridges this gap, only succeeds in further inscribing it inasmuch as it is Christ who is uniquely able to do so. It also separates the religious and political functions — only Christ can be both King and Priest — opening the way for a division between the religious and secular arms of the church which eventually transmuted into the Western liberal separation of church and state.

Taylor is Catholic but his argument is not exactly a theological one. If he rejects Gauchet’s atheist posture, he doesn’t exactly come down on the side of Milbank’s theological triumphalism. We might think of Milbank and Gauchet as the angel and devil, respectively (or, if you like, the other way around), perched on each of Taylor’s shoulders as he narrates his version of what I think is roughly the same tale, hewing to more of a middle ground between the two. Taylor seeks to trace how what he calls “exclusive humanism” or “self- sufficing humanism” — “a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing”1 came to be a widespread option.

To this end, he rejects what he calls “subtractions theories,” the idea that the secular is what we have left when we’ve cleared away the bric-a-brac of superstition and religion. Secularism (or exclusive humanism, or atheism), in this way of thinking, is simply what’s left when we can finally see the world in clear light of day. Step out of Plato’s cave, and what you see is a denuded conceptual landscape, a disenchanted world. Rather, Taylor argues, secularity is, like any other way of seeing the world (and here he is in agreement with the angel and devil on his shoulders) a cultural construct, one that emerged at a particular point in history, and can be located genealogically. Ultimately, and especially in the long view of history, it must take its place as one view among many, views that are not necessarily equal (Taylor is no relativist) but are equally capable of making claims upon the human subject. It is this, I submit, that places Taylor in the “postsecular” camp even as he declares ours a secular age.

But he is also a taxonomist of the secular,2 and it might be helpful to explore exactly what he means by this term. Taylor defines three kinds of secularity: what he calls “secular 1” is the gradual decline of religious participation ostensibly predicted by modernism. This hasn’t happened — people do not, on the whole, seem to be less religious — and that non-happening is one of the facets of postsecularity. “Secular 2” is the marginalization of the religious in civil discourse.  This is the iteration of “secular” that defines a secular state. In that sense, whether the people are churchgoers is immaterial; that they must translate their concerns into non-theological language for the public square is what marks secularity. That this condition cannot escape constituting a meta-religious claim is another facet of postsecularity.

The “secular” of Taylor’s title is what he calls “secular 3.” This is the condition in which the Western religious subject (and, increasingly, the non-Western religious subject) is faced with the choice of unbelief as a live option. With the exception of some ancient Greek precursors, atheism was not on the cognitive map in the Western world until the Enlightenment, and Taylor’s massive tome is partially an intellectual history of how it got there, of how we got from Salieri to Dawkins, from “curse God and die” to The End of Faith. Taylor describes it this way:

…the change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others. I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me, whose way of living I cannot in all honesty just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith (at least not in God, or the transcendent). Belief in God is no longer axiomatic.3

But neither, Taylor will later argue, is unbelief axiomatic, at least not on a cultural level. The unbeliever may find it equally inconceivable that he or she would embrace faith, but find himself or herself likewise surrounded by others who believe differently but whose purchase on the world is not, if one is charitable, necessarily delusional. Taylor’s articulation of “secular 3” means that what we usually think of as “secular” is not obvious, objective, or neutral. It shares both religion’s task of making the world intelligible and bears the same burden of its own contingency. This is why I think Taylor’s “secular age” is actually postsecular. Moreover, Taylor goes a long way toward explaining why that particular toothpaste won’t go back in the tube (in other words, pace certain postsecular voices, we can’t just go back), even though it’s not something he addresses directly.

Toward the end of the book, Taylor invokes what he calls the “immanent frame,” a turn of phrase so felicitous the Social Science Research Council launched a collaborative blog by that name (which kicked off with a discussion of A Secular Age). By “immanent frame” he means that we have “come to understand our lives as taking place within a self-sufficient immanent order; or better, a constellation of orders, cosmic, social, and moral…understood as impersonal.”4 He continues:

The immanent order can, therefore, slough off the transcendent. But it doesn’t necessarily do so. What I have been describing as the immanent frame is common to all of us in the modern West, or at least that is what I’m trying to portray. Some of us want to live it as open to something beyond; some live it as closed. It is something which permits closure, without demanding it.5

The immanent frame, then, is the context in which we decide for or against belief, by (or in the process of ) opting for a closed or open version of the immanent frame itself. This frame neither forecloses on the transcendent nor presumes it, at least not in and of itself. But because most of us don’t have the wherewithal to stand in “that open space where you can feel the winds pulling you, now to belief, now to unbelief…,” there are “more specific pictures, the immanent frame as ‘spun’ in ways of openness and closure, which are often dominant in certain milieux.”6 Taylor goes on to clarify that immanent frame, properly understood, “allows of both readings, without compelling us to either. If you grasp our predicament without ideological distortion, and without blinders, then you see that going one way or another requires what is often called a “leap of faith.”7

This almost sounds like the old chestnut that evolution takes as much faith as creationism, or that atheism takes as much faith as religion. Taylor is not saying that; he’s certainly not saying the former, and he’s closer to saying the latter but that would still be perversely oversimplified. What Taylor is saying is that neither the closed nor the open version of the immanent frame is a forgone conclusion from anything that has gone before. I might quibble as to whether this “Jamesian open space,” as he calls it, is truly without ideological distortion or blinders (how would one know?), but I think he’s right that such a space exists (and not just because I try to inhabit it).

Taylor comes down on the side of transcendence, of an open version of the immanent frame, but he does so tentatively, and, I think, somewhat ironically (in the Rortian sense). Even if all closed versions of the immanent frame, what Taylor calls “closed world structures,” can be discarded for one reason or another, there may yet be nothing beyond the immanent frame.8 We cannot know for certain. Taylor is no more a theological realist than I am. Likewise, Milbank seems to be aware of this kind of contingency when he writes that narration “is the final mode of comprehension of human society. To understand or explain a social phenomenon is simply to narrate it, although this remains an inherently questionable activity.”9

This is unsurprising. If Taylor’s right, or even if he’s just partially right, but about the right parts, then theological realism isn’t actually possible for us. What I mean by this is that we cannot, now, believe in God without either consciously choosing to believe in God or by having that choice made for us by our cultural conditioning, and that on some level we know this, or can come to know this. If the immanent frame is not characterized by being open or closed but by an undecidability in which either choice is possible (as well as variations upon those choices), then those choices are not just a “leap of faith,” as Taylor describes it, but they also amount, effectively, to what Daniel Dennet calls “belief in belief.” We are not arguing the ontological existence or non-existence of God (or the transcendent more generally) but about the philosophical or ethical ramifications of believing one way or another. Many such arguments take place precisely on these terms. Even the person who explicitly claims theological realism does so in a milieu in which they could just as easily have made a different choice. In fact, the person explicitly claiming theological realism may well be even more aware of the contingency of their claim than others. If you consciously decide to be less ironic, you’ve already failed.

Taylor again:

We have here what Wittgenstein calls a “picture,” a background to our thinking, within whose terms it is carried on, but which is often largely unformulated and to which we can frequently, just for this reason, imagine no alternative…or we can be in better shape, capable of seeing there is another way of construing things, but still having great difficulty making sense of it…. Standing in the Jamesian open space requires that you have gone farther than this second state, and can actually feel some of the force of each opposing position. But so far apart are belief and unbelief, openness and closure, that this feat is relatively rare. Most of us are at level one or two, either unable to see how the other view makes sense at all, or else struggling to make sense of it.10

If we assume that Taylor would not be able to write what he has without, in some way, inhabiting the space he describes, then we must also assume that inhabiting this space does not preclude being part of a particular tradition, nor does it necessarily preclude leaning one way or another regarding the openness or closedness of the immanent frame. And maybe, just maybe — and here I don’t in any way pretend to speak for Taylor so much a I’m simply riffing in the same key — this space offers the greatest respect for God, who is no longer required to exist simply because we believe or cease to exist simply because we don’t.

  1. p. 18 []
  2. As opposed to Milbank, who would like to be the taxidermist of the secular. []
  3. p. 3, emphasis mine. []
  4. p. 543 []
  5. p. 544 []
  6. p. 549 []
  7. p. 550 []
  8. p. 551 []
  9. Theology and Social Theory, p. 267. Gauchet may similarly be vulnerable to the charge that his atheism is not really predicated on ontological realism, though it’s not an observation I’m prepared to make at the moment. []
  10. p. 549 []

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