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How Did We Get Here? From Enchantment to Secular

Written by: on February 20, 2015

January 3, 1825, Robert Dale Owen bought the entire town of New Harmony, Indiana. His goal was to set up his perfect society based on “the principles of the sciences by which a superior character can be formed…and by which a superfluity of wealth can be created and secured for all without injury of any.”[1](59) Owen’s new world allowed no religion because it “created and perpetuated…a total want of mental charity among men” and “generate superstitions, bigotry, hypocrisy, hatred, revenge, wars, and all their evil consequences.” (58) Therefore, it would be “devoid of forms, ceremonies, and mysteries; for those constitute the errors of all existing systems…which created anger, and produced violence and bloodshed throughout society.” (57) Owen based his beliefs squarely on the “consistent truths of nature” that “would result in the formation of characters ‘that…will not only greatly surpass the wise and learned of the present and proceeding times, but will appear as they really will be, a race of rational or superior beings,’”(57) (foreshadowing Richard Dawkin’s “brights”?).

Robert Owen’s social experiment illustrates a midpoint in the trajectory of the social imaginary of Western society described by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age as it moved from the medieval enchanted world to secularism. In Owen, we see the audacity of the belief that both society and human character can be formed and engineered apart from any higher source. This drive required a new basis for public order “beyond and in spite of confessional differences.”[2] (127) Natural Law became the foundation that would free society from all past issues of confessional differences and political domination. Owen set forth a program that “through the discipline and training of subordinate population” would result “in the internalization of values of self-control and industriousness among these subjects.” (118) Here, we see the movement toward an “extraordinary confidence in the capacity to remodel human beings.“(121)

What Taylor helps us understand is the complicated process that made possible this ambitious program toward an ordered society based on exclusive humanistic and naturalistic beliefs. Already, in Owen’s imaginary, we see several key features of the pre-modern thinking being displaced (or subtracted, using Taylor’s terminology): 1) the idea that world of nature pointed to what was beyond itself; 2) society was grounded in a higher reality (a heavenly kingdom); 3) that people lived in a enchanted world –being both open and vulnerable. These developments made it possible for Owen to propagate his scientific based, self-sufficient society, buffered against any transcendent reality. In the 1820s, this suggests a huge leap forward from the enchanted world of the 1500s.

However, in 1800, Western society was far from fully secular, though the door was clearly opening. In a debate between Alexander Campbell, a Christian preacher and apologist and Robert Owen that lasted for several days, it was asked which of these viewpoints (Biblical Christianity or Owen’s social engineering) prevailed. Only three in the crowd of over one thousand stood for Owen. Even in 1820s, it was still a long way to our day when “religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested).” [3] (21-22) The vast majority of Western society were still “porous,” not yet able to accepted a disenchanted world. However, Campbell himself was unknowingly contributing to the process of disenchantment and excarnation. With the help of the Reformation, during which the idea of a making over of society began with removal of a two tiered society (saints vs. sins), the common man was now expected to rise to higher levels of holiness and good character, which in the past was left for the monks and priests. Further, we find in Campbell the exclusive regulation of God’s action to the Scriptures, leaving the cosmos free of spirits and anything transcendent. God could only be known now through rational, scientific, deductive study the Word. Though Owen and Campbell were debating from different points of view, they were both caught in the world increasingly “disenchanted and de-charged of transcendence.” (Smith, 39) The process of secularization had clearly taken root, a “realm purified of the contingency, particularity, and irrationality of religious belief, and instead…governed by universal, neutral rationality.” (21)

Owen himself, like so many other scientific thinkers in antebellum America, had not yet rejected God outright. He still held to a Deist belief. But the door was now open for Secular3, when “belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.” (Taylor, 3) Owen foreshadows much of this secular age of the 20th century that we now accept as normal. As Smith well summarizes this first part of Taylor’s book as answering the question: “How, in a relatively short period of time, did we go from a world where belief in God was the default assumption to our secular age in which belief in God seems, to many, unbelievable.” (Smith, 47)

What Taylor describes was best illustrated for me by a student I had in my campus ministry. Rebecca, grow up in the church, with dedicated Christian parents. She was intellectually brilliant and highly scientific. She knew her Bible, at least the facts of the Bible, better than I did. But, it soon became clear that something was missing in Rebecca’s faith. She was surrounded by people who experienced a life changing and intimate relationship with a living God through the presence of Jesus’ spirit in their lives. But what trouble Rebecca was that none of this made any sense to her. She knew and accepted the facts of Biblical Christianity, but they were no different then the facts she found in a chemistry book. She was so thoroughly rational, scientific or captured in a disenchanted and secularized worldview, that the concepts of “the spiritual” or “a relationship with an invisible God” had no clear meaning in her mind. It made absolutely no sense. But, at the same time, she was haunted by something missing that she saw in others. Here, I believe, is the challenge for the Church today: How can God become real or make sense to those who are like Rebecca? 500 years ago, there were very few Rebeccas in the world. Today, she is becoming the norm! Taylor gives us a guide to how this happened.

______________

[1]Richard J. Cherok, Debating for God: Alexander Campbell’s Challenge to Skepticism in Antebellum America (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2008).

[2]Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2007).

[3]James K.A. Smith, How Not to be Secular (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2014).

About the Author

mm

John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.

9 responses to “How Did We Get Here? From Enchantment to Secular”

  1. John…
    Such a rich post drawing out both Taylor (and thankfully) Smith’s insights. I more often than not wonder at the challenge of modernity to “hold” tension it was either/or, not “and/both.” I wonder what might have been if Owen’s intention could have held the possibility of a third way? I am also curious to see what insights Richard might have reflecting on Rebecca’s experience. What insights do Christian apologists provide in your question?

    Thank you for your insights!

    • mm John Woodward says:

      Carol, I like your characterization of Owen as “either/or” — there seems little middle ground here. As far as Rebecca and apologetics…it made me do a lot of rethinking about “defense of the faith” from historical/textual/philosophical perspectives, because that is not what concerned Rebecca. I think it was emptiness her worldview – she had facts, answers, everything figured out, but it didn’t effect or deal with the deeper, personal things of her life. It left her cold. So, more facts might not be the way forward, but a story that spoke to deeper parts of her life might. Does that make sense? By the way, today, Rebecca is a Catholic, loving the rituals and mysteries of the tradition. Go figure!

      Thanks Carol for your thoughts…always insightful.

  2. mm Deve Persad says:

    Thanks for sharing those events from Richard Owen’s experiment, John. Those are very challenging to me, as they address some of what my own research is geared toward – the discovery of virtue and it’s role in the leader’s life. You speak of the disappearance of the transcendent nature of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s as though we’ve substituted, a love for the Bible for a love for Jesus and in the process have developed people who lack vitality but are excellent in a bible trivia game, much like Rebecca. The question for me/us is, having gained understanding as to how we got here, what are next steps to discovering anew the transcendent life that God desires?

    • mm John Woodward says:

      Deve, as Mitch did also, you’ve ask that million dollar question. See my response to Mitch…but I am truly hoping that Taylor (part 2) will start to find some of those answers! Thanks for your thoughts and (in light of our reading this week) your truly challenging work!

  3. Hey John, so true regarding the point you made that though Owen and Campbell were debating from different points of view, they were both caught in the world increasingly disenchanted and de-charged of transcendence. Great tie in.

    It was amazing to me to read Taylor’s description of how we ended up where we are now: in a secular age. But once I followed his logic and understood the epochal changes that took place throughout history it was an inevitable conclusion.

    So Dr. John, now that we have the historical precedence set as to how we ended up in this mess, my question is how do we both convert the masses to a deep relationship with Chris and at the same time prevent the seemingly slippery slope to secularism?

    • mm John Woodward says:

      Mitch, you have asked the million dollar question! I truly hoping that Taylor gives us some way forward. For Rebecca, who today is a practicing Catholic (a movement to a very enchanted world), it was a process of seeing her small, scientific world as not providing the answers to things that are most meaningful and close to the heart. Maybe that is going to be the starting point – of realizing our “disenchanted buffered ration scientific” world is pretty empty!

    • Richard Volzke says:

      Mitch
      We cannot convert the masses to a deeper relationship with Christ, only Jesus can do that. The only thing we can do is to educate them, lead them by example, and pray as the Holy Spirit works. As far as keeping off the slippery slope of secularism, I am not sure that will be possible. I believe we may already be on the slope, have been for sometime, and in some areas are racing downhill.
      Richard

  4. John,

    You are always the historian! Great post. Lots to think about here. So whatever happened in Owen’s town? I am most curious. We can talk more about this on our road trip in June.

    I am also curious about Rebecca. Whatever happened with her? I have met a few Rebeccas in my day. By the way, I would argue that there were probably quite a few Rebeccas in 1500 — but they were in the shadows since it wasn’t popular to be a sceptic then. But I know that there were lots of quiet skeptics in those centuries. Just look at the religious wars of post-reformation Europe. There were a large group of people who were fed up with religious wars. Secularity, to many, offered a way out of the craziness of the day. I get that. I get it in my own life. Christianity, depending on one’s experience, can either be a place of peace or a place of pain. Maybe for Rebecca it was the latter.

  5. Michael Badriaki says:

    John, a job well done on this post. Firstly, thank you for introducing me to Owen. I am going to read up on Owen, what an interesting man indeed! Yet his is a perfect example of what Taylor is discussing. I think that “Owens” can be seen in the church today. There are many Christians who are trying to understand their relationship with God apart from certain pre-modernity schools of thought. They are trying to engineers news ones as expressed through the emergent, emerging, hipster and fresh expression movements. Much like Taylor’ subtraction idea aimed at the following areas you quoted “1) the idea that world of nature pointed to what was beyond itself; 2) society was grounded in a higher reality (a heavenly kingdom); 3) that people lived in a enchanted world –being both open and vulnerable.” Christians who are bored with Church are on similar journeys.

    Thanks John, great post!

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