Spiritual Amidst The Secular

Ross Douthat grapples (NYT) with the way living in modern, secular societies impacts our capacity to have and interpret spiritual experiences. To think through the matter, he draws on the philosopher Charles Taylor’s understanding of a “buffered self“, which presumes a clear distinction “between inner and outer, what is in the ‘mind’ and what is out there in the world”:

To the extent that the buffered self is a reading imposed on numinous experience after the fact, secularism looks weaker (relatively speaking), because no matter how much the intellectual assumptions of the day tilt in its favor, it’s still just one possible interpretation among many: On a societal level, its strength depends on the same mix of prejudice, knowledge, fashion and reason as any other world-picture, and for the individual there’s always the possibility that a mystical experience could come along … that simply overwhelms the ramparts thrown up to keep alternative interpretations at bay.

But if the advance of the secular world-picture actually changes the nature of numinous experience itself, by making it impossible to fully experience what Taylor calls “enchantment” in the way that people in pre-secular contexts did and do, then the buffered self is a much more literal reality, and secularism is self-reinforcing in a much more profound way. It doesn’t just close intellectual doors, it closes perceptual doors as well.

Dreher explains why Douthat’s academic-leaning post really matters:

As Douthat intuits, this is all actually a much bigger deal than you might think, because it speaks directly to related fundamental questions: What is the nature of reality? and How can we know?

There are other questions, of course.

Are there some things that can only be perceived by a religious mind, in the sense that adjusting the focus on a lens helps us to see things we couldn’t see before? How can we tell the difference between a madman and a visionary? How can we discern between someone who sees manifestations of God, and someone who sees manifestations of demons, but thinks they are of God? Or are they all the same? …

The most important sociological question Douthat raises is about the future of faith. If it is the case that individuals and cultures can lose the ability to perceive the numinous, then it follows that the religious sense can die, as a matter of sociobiological evolution. That is, having lost the ability to perceive spiritual reality, it will not be possible under normal circumstances to regain it, because it will literally not make sense.

Damon Linker finds the whole discussion a bit overwrought, arguing that “none of this is incompatible with individuals continuing to have divine experiences — which many millions of modern people clearly do”:

Historical epochs or eras don’t have homogeneous essences, making them either enchanted or disenchanted. Lots of people in the modern West are thoroughly secular in orientation, but many more aren’t. Just visit a Pentecostal church service on a Sunday morning. Or ask a Mormon for testimony of her personal revelations. Or pray with the congregants of an African Methodist Episcopal church. Or talk to an ultra-orthodox rabbi. Or peek into an orthodox Catholic Church during Easter Vigil Mass. Or read anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann’s important book about evangelical piety. Our shared social world is enchanted for some and disenchanted for others. And America’s thriving culture of conversion shows that many people can and do readily move from one camp into the other.