The unquiet frontiers

  • April 12, 2011

Few books have garnered as much respect during the past five years as has Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. That respect is well-deserved. Given secularity’s convoluted history, there isn’t any one, normative study that traces out its evolution; but, if there was, Taylor’s analysis might apply for the distinction.

Few scholars bring so wide and deep a scholarship to the area of history and faith. Taylor confesses that he is a man of faith, but strives insofar as this is possible for anyone, believer or agnostic, to not let his own beliefs colour his research. Few, even those critical of the book, accuse him of that. He is generally objective, reporting what happened without either trumpeting or bemoaning it.

And what he traces out is the big story of how we moved historically from a culture and a consciousness within which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God to today, where belief in God is merely one option among others and often not the dominant one. Until the full-flowering of modernity we lived with what Taylor calls a “porous” rather than a “buffered” consciousness. A porous consciousness is more naturally mystical. A buffered consciousness is what Karl Rahner had in mind when he said we would soon reach a time when someone would either be a mystic or a non-believer.

A porous consciousness is porous precisely in its incapacity to protect itself against spirits and angels, demons and superstition, against good religion and bad religion. We don’t have to go far back to remember when we used to sign ourselves with the cross and holy water during a lightning storm. The other world, however it was understood, could bring us to our knees. We didn’t always like how the supernatural could leak through our defenses but we were pretty helpless in preventing it.

A buffered consciousness is precisely one that is buffered against angels and demons, against good religion and bad religion, leaking through. Today rather than being frightened by a lightning storm, we enjoy the free fireworks. We are much more buffered against the other world and how it can break through in our consciousness. This makes secular consciousness (an awareness that doesn’t feel any conscious need to connect its existence, sustenance, meaning and striving for happiness to anything beyond itself and the world) a genuine option for us and makes faith more a choice than a given.

But there is a crack in our buffered, secular consciousness. Taylor calls this “the unquiet frontiers of modernity.” There are certain things against which we cannot buffer ourselves, and not just loss, depression and fear of death. These can, and do, shake the secure foundations of our lives and drive us to our knees in helplessness. But we can be driven to our knees for the opposite reasons: Love, beauty, hope and joy can also break through our buffered shell and break us open to a meaning beyond what this world has to offer. There is disquiet and fragility on both frontiers.  

Here’s how Taylor puts it: The sense that there is something more presses in. Great numbers of people feel it: in moments of reflection about their life; in moments of relaxation in nature; in moments of bereavement and loss. Our age is very far from settling in to a comfortable unbelief. Although many individuals do so, and more still seem to on the outside, the unrest continues to surface. Could it ever be otherwise?

The secular age is schizophrenic, deeply cross-pressed. People seem at a safe distance from religion; and yet they are very moved to know there are dedicated believers, like Mother Teresa. The unbelieving world, well used to disliking Pius XII, was bowled over by John XXIII. A pope just had to sound Christian, and many immemorial resistances melted. It’s as though many who don’t want to follow want nevertheless to hear the message of Christ, want it to be proclaimed. The paradox was evident in the response to the late Pope. Many people were inspired by John Paul’s public peripatetic preaching, about love, about world peace, about international economic justice. They are thrilled that these things are being said.

God may not always seem evident in our world, but in our deepest fears and hopes we still have His calling card.

(Fr. Rolheiser can be reached at his web site