Elizabeth Drescher, PhD

Being None

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What is religion? If one identifies this with the great historic faiths, or even with explicit belief in supernatural beings, then it seems to have declined. But if you include a wide range of spiritual and semi-spiritual beliefs; or if you cast your net even wider and think of someone’s religion as the shape of their ultimate concern, then indeed, one can make a case that religion is as present as ever.

~ Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 427

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It feels like I’ve been reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age for the last decade (though of course that can’t be true). I gave it a reasonably thorough scan when it first came out in 2007, and began rereading of it in more detailed earnest earlier this year. I frequently joke that I don’t agree with Taylor often enough, but what with the book weighing in at some 800 pages, I’m not planning to take up many more articulations of how secularity unfolds in Western history. Still, my many conversations with the religiously unaffiliated increasingly convince me that Taylor has much of the religious history right, but “misrecognizes” a good bit of the spirituality.

Ultimately, Taylor has a hard time with the in-between—with the idea, for instance, that a postmodern person might orient meaning-making practices within what he calls “the immanent frame” over a traditional “transcendent frame,” but that she might nonetheless experience moments of self-transcendence that point, if not decisively to a divine supernatural being or force, to something much larger than herself that matters in a particularly rich and fulfilling way that may reorient her life project. In the end, Taylor wants to suggest that it is possible, and indeed necessary, to choose between belief and unbelief, religion or not, as these are situated within an arguably (but not narrowly) Roman Catholic Christian transcendent frame. To experience the transcendent within the immanent frame and not wholly be turned toward the former, Taylor argues, is to be “responding to the transcendent reality, but misrecognizing it. … shutting out crucial features of it.” [768] It cannot, for Taylor, be both/and, or, perhaps more accurately, it cannot be one within the other.

Yet, of course, for his early followers and many later Christians, Jesus was exactly this: the transcendent expressed, lived, and experienced within the immanent. So fully was it the case that the immanent divine was experienced in Jesus, his teachings, and his Way that the Jesus of the New Testament made clear, and instructed his disciples to teach, that the Kingdom of God was present in the here and now reality of human life, infused, as the immanent frame always is in the Christian worldview, with the transcendent. Never either/or. Always both/and—always in the in-between.

Many of the religiously unaffiliated around the United States with whom I talked these last couple years don’t quite see it this way, particularly when Christian language comes into the conversation. If they sometimes experience a sense of what Taylor calls “fullness”—”a richness; that is, in that place (activity or condition), life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worthwhile, more admirable, more what it should be.” [5]—it is not, as Taylor insists, ultimately imbued with the transcendent. Some do see it something along those lines, yet still they resist Taylor’s assumed relationship between experience and durable, propositional belief. They report that they experience what they think of as moments of engagement with a transcendent “something,” but they are not particular keen to nail down what that means. In fact, much of the “fullness” experienced in such moments comes precisely from not insisting on a particular meaning, certainly not one that can be retained though all time.

This is what I’m beginning to think Taylor misses and what many of us who continue to practice religion, spirituality, faith, or whatever we might call it in some relationship with institutional churches also miss: the idea of process, of fullness unfolding in meaning and re-meaning throughout a life, of malleability and impermanence as markers of meaning-as-it-is-being-known, rather than as markers of belief. For many of the Nones I talk with, this sense of organic meaning-making, of attentiveness to an enriched now, an immanence perhaps enriched with transcendence, is the fluid center of their spiritual lives.

The truth for me is that I remain Mainline Protestant enough that often I kind of don’t get it. I dutifully take notes while I’m thinking that the person to whom I’m listening just can’t commit. She’s confused about her experience, I’ll think. He doesn’t know how reliant he is on theistic meaning-making structures, I’ll note. But more and more I do understand that they’re reaching for something else, something not yet named on its own terms in the either the past or the present that calls both on the language of immanence and the language of transcendence, then reaches beyond them.

To what? To what?

That’s the $64,000 religious question, and I surely don’t have the answer. But I do think the beginning of the answer is in language—in how we talk about experience, meaning, religion, spirituality, and how we continue to be infected by dualistic language that shuts out much of the provocative, productive, meaning rich in-between.

So, maybe the question isn’t so much “what?” Maybe it’s more “how?” How do we stay in conversation, in relationship, stay attentive and engaged in the process of change as the change is happening?

Author: Elizabeth Drescher PhD

I am a scholar, writer, and speaker on religion and spirituality in everyday life today and in the past.

4 thoughts on “Being None

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