Why Protestantism Is an Inherently Fragile Faith

secular-age-charles-taylor-coverCanadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age is a landmark study of the process of secularization in the West from the late Middle Ages to the present day. Taylor focuses on the process by which we went from a world in the year 1500 in which it was impossible not to believe in God to today’s world in which unbelief is one valid choice among many.

Taylor’s work has profound implications ranging from the future of urbanism to the failure of the West to comprehend Islamic terrorism.

I didn’t know anything about Taylor when I started reading the book, but I guessed less than one hundred pages into this 900-page monster that he must be Catholic. It turns out he’s a practicing liberal Catholic in Quebec. A friend of mine must have had the same take, because when I told him I was writing about Taylor, he asked me if I’d “gone swimming in the Tiber” yet.  Alas, no. But this book is the most compelling indictment of Protestantism, especially its Calvinist strain, I have ever read.

It doesn’t directly offer such a critique, but it dramatically undermines the viability of Protestantism as currently conceived by showing that it is an inherently fragile faith that is perpetually standing on the cliff of apostasy and atheism.

Protestantism is not alone in this. In the modern world Taylor shows that all beliefs, including non-religious ones, are fragile in a way they were not 500 years ago. But Protestantism, as a product of the creation of modernity, is more tightly bound to this condition than Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.

I haven’t come across any Protestant thinkers engaging with this (though see below on communion). They seemed mostly influenced by the second half of the book, which talks about more recent times, whereas I was more taken with the first half about how we got here.  For example, they draw on Taylor’s descriptions of the “cross pressures” of modernity to inform ministry strategy by speaking to that condition and its weaknesses. But I haven’t seen engagements with the more foundational critiques in the beginning of the book.

To reprise my previous posts, Taylor’s primary objective is to rebut what he terms the “subtraction narrative” of secularization. In the subtraction view, secularization was an inevitable byproduct of science. Astronomy, Darwin, etc. chipped away at religious belief as it was found to be untenable, and what remained is the secular world we know today.  He doesn’t deny the importance of subtraction, as in the case of Darwin, but he also documents crucially the process of addition.  We did not just tear down religious beliefs and the worldview that sustained them, we also replaced them with new things we built.

One of them was the idea of what Taylor terms the “buffered self.” The creation of the buffered self is linked to what Weber called “disenchantment”, or the gradual elimination of the idea of “magic” from the world. In an enchanted world, meanings could exist in external things, and those meanings could impose themselves on us. The boundary between our being and the world was porous, leaving us vulnerable.  So a love potion, for example, had the power to make us fall in love.

In our disenchanted world, meanings exist totally in the mind. There is a barrier between ourselves and the world. Potions no longer have the power to make us fall in love. Being in love is state that exists in the mind.  Per Taylor, “As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that things beyond don’t need to ‘get to me’, to use the contemporary expression. That’s the sense to my use of the term ‘buffered’ here. The self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.”  We see this concept of the self as buffered from the world in, for example, the vast number of mindset oriented self-help books, such as those of Tony Robbins, which are predicated on our personal reality being primarily an internal construct.  The concept of a boundary between the mind and the world is also critical to particularly modern undertakings such as science, which puts meaning in the mind while rendering the world purely as mechanism.

Here’s the problem for Protestantism. The buffered self reduces Protestant Christianity to a purely mental faith. (Which is ironic, given its reputation for anti-intellectualism). It is a Christianity of propositions and intentions. Because in Protestantism Christianity exists only the mind – remember, the world is devoid of meanings and magics – it disappears the minute our mental state changes. Calvinism in particular compensates for this in its theology of salvation – a topic for another post, perhaps – but that doesn’t help the average Christian get through another day before letting God slip out of his mind and into oblivion.

This imposes an incredibly demanding maintenance effort on Christians who wish to hold to faith. This is both because of the purely mental nature of the faith, and its historic character as “truths in tension,” or paradoxes as a critic might say (e.g., one God, three persons; Jesus as fully God, fully man; God as fully sovereign and man with complete free will). This requires adherents to maintain a complex set of propositions and finely calibrated set of motivations in their mind at all times.

Here, for example, is how Taylor describes Puritanism (Calvinism):

Puritan spiritual life moved between a Scylla and Charybdis. On one hand, one had to have confidence in one’s salvation. Too much anxious doubt amounted to a turning away from God’s gift, and could even be a sign that one was not saved after all. But at the same time, an utterly unruffled confidence shows that you were altogether forgetting the theological stakes involved, forgetting that one was a sinner who richly deserved damnation, and was only saved from this by God’s gratuitous grace; that one was in fact hanging over a cliff, and was only held back by God’s outstretched hand.

This is similar to today’s “gospel centered” preaching that’s very popular, particularly in certain Presbyterian (Calvinist) circles. As well-known Presbyterian minister Tim Keller, who explicitly cites Taylor as an influence on his own ministry strategy, says, “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

I have often been puzzled why ministers spend so much time repeating statements like this. Now I understand that it’s because if this slips out of your mind, which it will almost certainly do, you’ve fallen off the cliff.  Protestantism subtracted the magic of the Catholic sacramentals, vocations, etc., but then had to add mental gymnastics designed to comfort the fall and push you back onto the path.

Another aspect is how Protestant ministers are very focused on internal motivations vs. external actions. In the disenchanted world of the buffered self, external actions have no moral significance. In fact, if you do the right thing for the wrong reasons, then you’re an even worse sinner because you’re a hypocrite. No surprise that the Pharisees, legalism, and “religion” are frequent targets of critique. This faith demands both rigorous external compliance (which Taylor also notes) but also the right sort of internal motivations, which we constantly need to be checking.  This was always part of Christianity – Jesus himself talked about hypocrisy, Paul said to “examine yourself”, and the Credo is part of the Mass – but with modern Protestantism this focus on propositions and intent becomes its dominant or even exclusive characteristic.

This is a mentally taxing endeavor the average person will struggle to maintain. It’s thus no surprise that it is intellectually oriented people of above average intelligence the are disproportionately attracted to this strain of Protestantism (e.g., me), though all versions have some flavor of this.

Once Christianity is reduced to a mental state, we are perpetually but one step removed from its complete disappearance, hence its inherent fragility.

We see a similar pattern recur in the way Protestantism rejects the notion of sacred vocations. This emerged from pre-Reformation currents of Reform in which the idea was to reject “two speed” Christianity. There was no longer to be a select group of “super-Christians” like monks and priests, but rather everybody was expected expected to be all in. The Reformation then obliterated entirely the distinction between sacred and secular vocations.

But in Reformed Christianity, and to a growing extent among Catholics as well, there was a pressing spiritual reason to make this demand, which was the one Weber picked up on. To put it in the Reformed variant, if we are going to reject the Catholic idea that there are some higher vocations, to the celibate or monastic life, following “counsels of perfection”, if one claims that all Christians must be 100% Christian, that one can be so in any vocation, then one must claim that ordinary life, the life that the vast majority cannot help leading, the life of production and the family, work, and sex, is as hallowed as any other. Indeed, more so than monastic celibacy, because this is based on the vain and prideful claim to have found a higher way.

Here we face a similar problem. What makes a particular calling sacred is not the activity itself, but the mental state in which it is undertaken. Also, as with a purely mental faith, once all callings are sacred – Keller’s book on faith and work is in fact titled Every Good Endeavor – then we are perpetually but one step removed from none of them being sacred.

We are never so close to God being nowhere as when he is everywhere.

The same thing played out with Deism, which Taylor calls the way station to secularization. First the world is reduced to an autonomous machine designed by God, then the designer is easily dispensed with.

(Taylor does not directly say this, but he hints that all such “flattening” endeavors have destructive consequences, both in the religious and secular worlds).

What’s more, a mentalized faith is inherently an individualistic one since only individuals have minds. Indeed, Taylor has this as a link in a chain that produced the modern concept of the autonomous individual. I would argue that an individualized faith is much more fragile than a communal one.

None of these are theological critiques. They don’t prove Protestantism is wrong, which is not Taylor’s objective (at least overtly). They simply point out that Protestantism is inextricably linked with a modernist belief system that renders it inherently brittle.

To see how this differs from Catholicism, consider how the branches of Christianity view the sacrament of baptism.  Christians historically baptized infants. The original Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed (Calvinist) Protestant sects retain this practice. But early on in the Reformation this was questioned and many post-mainline sects today (e.g., Baptists and most non-denominational churches) do not baptize infants and require someone to be old enough to make a personal profession of faith before being baptized. This is called “believer’s baptism.”

If you think about this in terms of disenchantment and the buffered self, it makes perfect sense. In the world of the buffered self, the act of immersing someone in water can’t have any significance on its own. Only internal mental states contain meaning. So baptism therefore must be a purely symbolic act of inward (mental) faith. Therefore obviously a baby, who doesn’t yet have the mental ability to construct such a mental state, can’t be baptized.

Contrast this with Catholic baptism. In Catholicism, baptism is a magic rite. The sacrament of baptism not only serves as an initiation rite to Christianity it has a real spiritual effect in removing Original Sin from the baptized person and marking him as belonging to Christ.  Catholic sacraments work ex opere operato, which means “by the very fact of the action’s being performed.” The sacrament is efficacious because of the work of Christ, not because of the mental state priest or the infant being baptized.

This obviously doesn’t compute for Protestants. I haven’t exhaustively studied baptism theology (so don’t quote me on this stuff), but my impression is that Protestant groups that still practice infant baptism have created substitute theologies. Presbyterians, for example, seem to treat it as a circumcision analogue that symbolizes membership in the covenant community of the church rather than an individual profession of faith, but don’t apply any spiritual, or magical if you will, significance to it in the style of Catholics.

It’s similar in the case of the Eucharist (communion). The earliest Reformation sects perform it at every service, carrying it over from Catholicism. But contemporary Baptists, Assemblies of God, non-denominational, etc. tend to do it infrequently. The frequency of performing communion seems to roughly correlate with the degree of theological belief in “Real Presence,” or the magical physical reality of Christ in the Eucharist, from highest (Lutheran) to medium (Presbyterian) to lowest (Baptist).

Once sacraments become purely symbolic in nature, there’s little reason to perform them.  If our mental state is correct – and that’s the only valid measure of faith – then they are superfluous.

I suspect that today some ministers are realizing the limitations of this approach. (This could possibly be in part a reaction to Taylor’s critique). Communion is now much more often performed in some of these churches, and they are trying to restore some semblance of a traditional liturgy. But these are still empty, disenchanted forms.

In the West traditional Protestantism is in decline as the social supports that sustained it have fallen away. Yet Christianity is actually exploding around the world, often in new environments like China and Africa. So let’s not overstate the case.

But the most rapidly growing form of Christianity appears to be Pentecostalism. Pentecostalism is the least mental major Protestant group in the intellectual sense. Instead, it relies on a highly emotional expressiveness that taps into its adherents at a more primal level. It’s more experiential.

Pentecostalism’s signature element is its belief in the present day manifestation of supernatural spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues. To me this appears to be a reaction to secularity modernity. In an age where God is appears largely absent from the world, the explosive breakthrough of the supernatural in charismata provides reassurance that he is still there.

But regardless of its origin, Pentecostalism in effect recreated a type of primitive magic.

This obviously speaks deeply to people longing for more than the spiritual austerity and malaise that the contemporary world serves up. In many parts of the world (e.g., Latin America), to the extent that other branches of Christianity have also reinvigorated themselves, it is because they adopted similar practices. Catholicism in particular has always been adept at doing this, and the idea of miracles is hardly foreign to its culture.

I won’t claim to have this all figured out, but Taylor’s book definitely provides massive amounts of material to ponder. There’s another related theme that’s relevant to Protestantism I may share in a future post. I can do this book justice in a blog post, but overall, I’m not convinced the church has fully wrestled with the full implications of Taylor’s work.

from Aaron M. Renn


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