Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Immanent Frame: The Buffered and Porous Selves

Written by: on February 28, 2015

This week provided a challenge to continue to absorb a-little more, seek to go deeper and basically unravel Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Throughout the writing, Taylor creates and maintains an inquisitive approach that engages the reader. At the outset, Taylor asks a seemingly unpretentious question, “What does it mean to live in a secular age?”[1] However, the root of Taylor’s query deepens: “Why is it so hard to believe in God in the modern West, while in 1500 it was virtually impossible not to do so.”[2] It is apparent that Taylor leaves no stone unturned while investigating every miniscule segment of knowledge that might shed some light on the transition that is referenced in the question.

Taylor refers to a number of themes[3] that when considered together interlock like a puzzle to clarify and reinforce the answer. Taylor notes a few: enchanted world, disenchantment, buffered self, buffered identity, internal spaces, disciplined self, and individualism.[4] He notes the outcome of the interlocking themes:

[t]he buffered identity of the disciplined individual moves in a constructed social space, where instrumental rationality is a key value, and time is pervasively secular. All of this makes up what I want to call “the immanent frame”. There remains to add just one background idea: that this frame constitutes a “natural” order, to be contrasted to a “supernatural” one, an “immanent” world, over against a possible “transcendent” one.[5]

I propose that Taylor is giving a significant dimension to the concepts, themes and outcomes that form the answer to the question, “What does it mean to live in a secular age?” Ultimately, in a secular age, the possibility remains to choose for oneself to be closed (buffeted self) or open (porous self) to the reality of the transcendent. There are “two different ways of seeing the world within this immanent frame, one closed and one open. One does have the choice to open one’s self to the beyond or the transcendent …each [open or closed] is a picture that holds us captive.”[6] It is a scriptural imperative that we choose. There are many ways humankind, in all ages, comes to God. In A Secular Age it is no different; the natural and the supernatural, the immanent or the transcendent; serving God or self; the spiritual or the physical. The imperative is that we should not waver between the two.

In our on-line chat I was able to get a glimpse of the key themes in A Secular Age. Also, there were several references to “Summaries of Charles Taylor.” So I did some searching to find summaries or synopsis on Taylor’s writing. I did find several summaries and blog spots, especially on “immanent frame” and “buffered self” that were helpful.

I want to pull out some summary thoughts – they do not necessarily tie together as the interlocking pieces as noted by Taylor, but for me they are clarifying.

Eugene Raikhel clarifies the porous and buffered self:

[t]he distinction between modern and what [Taylor] calls pre-modern senses of self. Taylor characterizes the difference as one between the world of the “porous self”–an “enchanted world” in which spirits and cosmic forces “could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical,” and that of the modern “buffered self” — in which the boundaries between self and other, as well as between mind and body, are much more evident and firm.[7]

There is a process that characterized the pre-modern to modern transition. Taylor notes that it was in part the “maturing of unbelief” or in “the nineteenth century when unbelief comes of age.”[8] In a published blog spot, Taylor illuminates the process:

Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.[9]

The buffered self in the modern world is the effort to gain control, to give an autonomous order to life. There are boundaries that act as a buffer against the outside sources present in a “porous self” that believes in, yields to, and practices the presence of transcendent powers that are external influences. Gordon E. Carkner gives insight to autonomous self as it relates to the imminent framework as experienced from the perspective of the buffered self:

The buffered identity (as opposed to the porous pre-modern) self is a key part of such a mental frame. It operates within a disenchanted world where supernatural beings or forces with teleological goals or intentions are deemed close to impossible. Final causes are eliminated from the picture. With this immanent frame, there is a loss of a cosmic order; everything important is this-worldly, explicable on its own terms; it fits within the time-space-energy-matter dimensions. Social and political orders are constructed by humans solely for mutual benefit, not to please a divine entity. Society is made up of individuals (the normative element). Each human is charged with finding her or his own way of being human … their own individual spiritual path. Everyone has also become an individual measure of the good.[10]

Our chat session was helpful in understanding some of the themes in A Secular Age. Concerning “immanent frame” John said, “Immanent frame is the concept that we live in disenchanted, buffered existence that leaves our ideas of life and the cosmos based on our rational and exclusive human understanding…mainly scientific in nature.” Jason responded, “John, that’s it!” while further stating, “from the reformation onwards, the ordered categorizing of life left to talking about the world in a way that removed the need to refer to God and we ended up with a ‘buffered self’ and ultimately a self with no reference to God needed….”

I have only scratched the surface. Charles Taylor in A Secular Age characterizes the concepts and practices in our contemporary social and religious era. Secularity helps to understand post-Christian, modernity and postmodern; the church can better minister by understanding the social, cultural, religious and philosophical shifts as presented by Taylor.

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), Kindle ed. 30.

[2] Ibid., 8535.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 8535-8564.

[5] Ibid., 8585-8587.

[6] Gordon E. Carkner, “Charles Taylor Articulates the Immanent Frame of the Secular,” BCU Blog, (accessed February 26, 2015) http://ubcgcu.org/2013/10/11/charles-taylor-on-secularity-immanent-frame/

[7]Eugene Raikhel, “Charles Taylor on ‘buffered and porous selves,’” Somatosphere & more (accessed February 25, 2015), http://somatosphere.net/2008/09/charles-taylor-on-buffered-and-porous.html.

[8] Taylor, Secular Age, 5800, 6006.

[9] Charles Taylor “A Secular Age: Buffered and Porous Selves,” The Immanent Frame:Secularism, Religion, and the Public Sphere (accessed February, 25, 2015) http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2008/09/02/buffered-and-porous-selves/

[10] Carkner, Ibid.

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6 responses to “Immanent Frame: The Buffered and Porous Selves”

  1. Ron…
    I so appreciate your insights and the investment you make each week to synthesize and apply our readings. In reading your blog post you brought attention to the open/closed, the buffered or porous self. To live in a secular age, is our “call” to be porous? Is this part of our transformation? You’ve got me thinking …

    Blessings Ron!

  2. Ron,

    Thanks for your thoughts here. It helped some, but overall I am still a bit confused by Taylor. This book was like taking a math class for me. I got some of it but the concepts were hard for me to grasp and apply. I did read most of the book, but it did not go inside. I do hope to read it again sometime; I see its importance, but I just could not see a lot of application in my present situation.

    I will continue to try to discover just what Taylor was trying to do here. You have inspired me to read what others are saying about the book. I will do that. I am sure it will help.

    • rhbaker275 says:

      Thanks for your transparency – I have the same experience with much of our reading that is written in a philosophical genre and that often deal with sociological concepts. Theological works – great; writings on culture and context, I am generally okay; I love history but I don’t know people and dates.

      With Taylor, I had an interesting phenomenon, I could pick up and read at most any point in the book and really “get it” and be enjoying and thinking, wow this is not so bad. But after a couple three pages, I would be lost again. One thing I noticed and maybe others won’t agree with me, but he keeps referring to what he is writing in chapters ahead or referring back to what he said in previews chapters.

      I obviously struggled with “A Secular Age” and sometimes got it completely wrong. I did, on this second paper, do a library and internet search. I found some articles that helped me. I sense how important this book is … how well I will do in the days ahead to pick it back up and get to know it better remains to be seen.


  3. Michael Badriaki says:

    Ron, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. Great thoughts on the immanent framework. I think that Taylor is by far my favorite author I have read in the program. I intend to do more in depth study of his works because I have learned a lot and his has certainly pointed me in the right direction when it comes to certain questions I have had about Christianity in the West and Southern hemisphere. The battle of the buffered and porous self seems to be one of the ages. It is a human battle.

    You rightly quote Carkner ,”The buffered identity (as opposed to the porous pre-modern) self is a key part of such a mental frame. It operates within a disenchanted world where supernatural beings or forces with teleological goals or intentions are deemed close to impossible.”

    This in my opinion is the buffered self’s attempt to express unbelief in a transcendent God’s ability to open humanity’s eyes to the reality of the supernatural sphere.

    We experience and express the supernatural and enchanted sphere in Uganda and all Africa even amid modernity. The paranormal is real and it’s force interact with the nature. This is why I agree with you when you write, “The buffered self in the modern world is the effort to gain control, to give an autonomous order to life. There are boundaries that act as a buffer against the outside sources present in a “porous self” that believes in, yields to, and practices the presence of transcendent powers that are external influences.”

    The denial of the supernatural is also part and parcel of the many major struggles of the western church today. The challenge in some western churches is teach that God is primarily concerned with ultimate questions involving the origin of life, purpose, and destiny of people. And on the bottom level, teach that God is also focused on human and material realities, largely economic well-being, science, and largely divorced from spiritual realities.

    This lives out the middle elements, and fails to consider the ad hoc crises and misfortunes of present life, or to even consider the present involvement of demons, evil spirits or angels in people and even Christian’s lives. The understanding of spiritual warfare is completely missing.

    Yet Paul took time to write, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” (Ephesians 6:10-13)

    Thanks Ron for encouraging me to reflect in response.

  4. Russ Pierson says:

    Ron, you’ve wonderfully captured the gist of Taylor’s conception of the “immanent frame” and suggested helpful ways we can apply this understanding in our lives and in our work–thank you!

    I’ve been working with some colleagues on a presentation we hope to do at next year’s national AASHE conference (Assoc. for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Ed), entitled “Sustainability and Faith: The Language of Transcendence as Common Ground”. Your post highlighted two things for me as I ponder my part in this presentation: (1) just how much Taylor and his ideas have become a part of me since I first encountered him back in DMINLGP 1 (Thank you, Jason Clark!); and (2) I need to re-engage with Taylor to think anew about those “immanent” and “transcendent” ways of seeing the world (and beyond) … which makes me especially happy I’m chatting with you all this week. 🙂

    Thanks again,


  5. Richard Volzke says:

    I agree that it is important, as scholars, that we research all sides of an issue and report on both what we agree and disagree with. In my own research, I have come across information and facts that have unveiled my own false assumptions. We must strive to remove our biases from our work and focus on the facts, no matter where they lead us. I believe that the modern West is too quick to take information and facts at face value. People no longer explore and question information.

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