Charles Taylor begins his magisterial book A Secular Age by asking why it was almost impossible not to believe in God in 1500, but in 2000, believing in God is seen as something you do with difficulty, if at all. Taylor says that it’s because the late medievals were heirs to a belief system that regarded the world as enchanted. God was everywhere, and ordered all things to Himself. All of Creation — and it was “Creation,” not yet “Nature” — was a sign pointing to its Creator. You really feel this in Tudor Monastery Farm, and the feeling is important, because, says Taylor, what really matters are the things that everybody takes for granted. It is an anachronistic mistake to think that our late medieval ancestors regarded the world as we do, except with a belief in God added to it. They did not. God and things divine were far more present in the imaginations of the people, who looked around them and saw Him. They lived in a cosmos — a universe ordered by God, pregnant with meaning and divine purpose.
As theologian Hans Boersma has shown me, the ideas that swept away the TMF worldview were already in play among religious and academic elites for centuries before they had a popular effect. And as Taylor, as well as the historian Brad Gregory, demonstrate, the Reformation was the key event that destroyed the medieval sense of sacramentalism undergirding the TMF “imaginary” (a Taylor word). To be clear, neither Taylor nor Gregory blame the Reformation. The medieval church was massively corrupt, and efforts to reform it from within Catholicism itself inadvertently brought the whole superstructure of medieval belief crashing down — and with it, Christendom.
It’s a much more complex story than I have time to get into in this blog post, and it’s by no means simply a matter of ideas having consequences. It is also true that, as you might put it, consequences also have ideas. That is, you can’t understand why the project of church reform had so much power without also understanding how traumatic the Black Death of the 14th century — which killed one in three Europeans — was for the people of Europe. Plus, it is plain even in Dante, writing in the early 14th century, that the wars fought by the papacy, and its thoroughgoing corruption as a worldly power, was bound to undermine the belief of ordinary Christians.
Charles Taylor is extremely careful to say that it did not have to be this way. It is, he stresses, a self-serving anachronism to accept the standard secularist narrative that we live in “reality” now, and that reality is what you get when you strip the God delusion away from society. Had certain actors behaved differently, things might have turned out differently. The point is, “exclusive humanism” — the idea that this world is all there is, and we should seek out happiness and flourishing within it, with no reference at all to the transcendent — is itself a construal, a “take” on reality. Ours is the only civilization in history that has had this particular take, he notes.
There is no clearly demonstrable reason why the medievals were wrong to sacralize time, or to believe that they lived in an enchanted world. The key thing to take from this, though, is that we moderns live in a different plausibility structure than they did. This means that efforts to re-inhabit the medieval worldview cannot succeed, because we can’t un-learn from our experience. For Taylor, “a secular age” means not strictly an age in which religion has been walled off from the common experience. It means primarily an age in which we all know that belief in God, or unbelief in God, is a choice. The fact that belief in God is not taken for granted is what makes this a secular age. Even communities that fervently believe in God live in a secular age, because they are surrounded with evidence, as the medievals were not, that it is possible to live without strong belief, or to live with believing in God in a different way … or not at all.