Individualism, Secularized Society, and the Meaning of Life: Pt. 4

Modern mass media, which celebrates certain ‘images of life’, as well as global consumer capitalism, which conduces a single-mindedness toward personal comfort, have helped to create a kind of instrumental society – where utilitarianism reigns supreme – which in turns gives way to what Charles Taylor calls the ‘affirmation of ordinary life’ (cf. Sources of the Self).

A key way to understanding this important idea from Taylor is by considering its source. One reason for rise of the ‘affirmation of ordinary life’ is found in the scientific revolution. As Taylor argues, with the advent of the scientific revolution, ‘the ideal of theōria, of grasping the order of the cosmos through contemplation’ had come to be seen as ‘vain and misguided’. What matters instead are the pragmatic discoveries of the natural sciences, what Francis Bacon describes as the ‘enablements in the course of life’, i.e., things which ‘relieve and benefit the condition of man’ (quoted in Taylor, Sources of the Self, p. 213). Pragmatics trumps the theoretic – a shift parallel with the academic move away from theoretical natural philosophy to pragmatic natural science.

Another impetus for the rise in the ‘affirmation of ordinary life’ has its roots in Protestantism, Taylor argues. As an outworking of the ‘logic of Reformed theology’, Taylor writes, there arose an understanding that ‘each person stands alone in relation to God’, and is individually and immediately responsible to God. The ‘sacred’ is no longer located in ‘special places or times or actions where the power of God’ is particularly present. To the contrary, Protestant churches did away with ‘pilgrimages, veneration of relics, … [and] special monastic vocation’ – all of which played a crucial role in the hierarchy of Roman Catholic theology. The upshot of Protestant theology is, among other things, the dismantling of a hierarchical understanding of religious life and the elevation of the laity in the doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers’. In brief, the Reformation helped individuals to ‘deny the very distinction between sacred and profane’, resulting in the affirmation of ordinary life (Sources of the Self, pp. 215-18).

(To be sure, there is, in Christian theology, a place for the good which is above all other goods – namely, ‘to serve and glorify God’ – as well as a place for all other genuine ‘goods’ in ‘serv[ing] this final goal’. There is, then, two errors of extreme to be avoided: On the one hand, there is ‘the monkish error of renouncing the things of this world – possessions, marriage – for this amounts to scorning God’s gifts’; and there is the opposite error, on the other hand, of becoming ‘absorbed in all things, tak[ing] them for our end’. The desired balance to strike is an ‘innerworldly asceticism’ – i.e., to live life in a way that is both ‘earnest and detached’, thus affirming the goods of human life (marriage, vocation, friendship) yet denying their primacy. (See Sources of the Self, pp. 221-23.))

The outcome of the scientific and theological forces in giving rise to the ‘affirmation of ordinary life’ is ironic. For behind the motivation for pragmatic efficiency in the natural sciences was the ‘biblical understanding of humans as stewards in God’s creation’ (to borrow from the seventeenth century Scottish Calvinist minister John Durie; quoted in Richard Jones, Ancients and Moderns, p. 94). And behind the motivation of Protestant industrialism was the putting right the disrupted social order of creation, giving it back to God (Sources of the Self, pp. 227-33). Yet, these impetuses helped to forged a social outlook and theology of mundane secularity. That is, in secular modernity, there is ‘no longer a place for a higher good’ external to the human person – an objective meaning to life; instead, there remains only ‘de facto desire’ whereby any ideas of the ‘higher good’ is reduced to the mere ‘maximization of de facto goals’ (Sources of the Self, p. 249). In this way, the character of modern secularized society again makes impossible an objective meaning to life, and further reinforces the individualism that comes with modernity.

Having looked at some of the causes of the rise of ‘ordinary life’, in my next post I shall discuss what this rise means for social ethics and what more precisely such life looks like.

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