This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM. This is the second of a three part series. Read the first part here and the third part here.
In his wonderfully comprehensive work, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor describes how we moved from a world where it was difficult not to believe in God to a world where it’s difficult to believe in God—where “belief in God is no longer axiomatic.”1 In doing so, he pushes against what he calls “subtraction stories” which try to explain this shift as merely a subtraction of God or transcendence—that is, things we can’t know based on rules and laws—from the equation.2
In many ways, I was operating with a subtraction story in the way I responded to my teammate at the shot put ring. For Taylor, it’s not just that God has been subtracted. Certain obstacles have also been added. When we operate using subtraction stories, we tend to add certain faith commitments as well. This addition and subtraction creates conditions in which we can contest the existence of God.
In our concern over objects and verification, we were only haunted, at best, by the subject outside the conversation (namely, God)… Even though I thought I was introducing my teammate to God by offering explanations for everything, I was pretty much just rearranging the furniture.
For Taylor, the emergence of subtraction stories comes from a shift in the way humans perceive themselves and reality. Instead of seeing ourselves as beings who are influenced by a transcendent reality, we have built walls to shut out transcendence. Taylor calls this the “buffered self”3 because the self has become “buffered” from being influenced by the transcendent. Instead, the buffered self creates rational explanations for reality in order to keep a safe distance from the “supernatural.” The mind and our ability to apprehend correctly the reality of the physical world in front of us has become what is most important. The immanent—the reality which can be found in the physical world—has surpassed the transcendent. Instead of seeing reality as comprising both the supernatural and the natural, the buffered self can only see the natural because of its frame of reference. Taylor calls this frame of reference the “immanent frame.”4
In the immanent frame, the immanent is “real” and the transcendent is just strange. The buffered self in the immanent frame thrives on the separation of immanence and transcendence, natural and supernatural. The buffered self is still “haunted by transcendence,”5 but nevertheless prefers what can be verified and measured over what cannot. This doesn’t mean the immanent frame excludes transcendence, but it is much happier to relegate it to a secondary position and speak of its “effects” in the world of experience. Think of love, for example. The things we love are more real to us than love itself. Love, we think, is emotional and not rational, so it has to be secondary. But love haunts the lover. We know in our bones that this thing we cannot explain, this idea that we cannot verify is still somehow real.
The transcendence that haunts us is as real as the immanent frame, but in the immanent frame we flatten both transcendence and immanence into objects that we can manipulate, control, and—if we’re just rational enough—understand. Of course it is appealing to imagine that we can apprehend reality in this way. As Taylor writes, “Objectification of the world gives a sense of power…which is intensified by every victory of instrumental reason.”6 If we could just objectify the transcendent—just wrangle it to use in our arguments—then, maybe, we could win. But when we use the transcendent as an instrument of the immanent, it loses its transcendence. It feels good to win the argument, but when we think that “winning” an argument about the existence of God is winning indeed, we risk leaving God out of the conversation altogether.
Taylor helps us see that my conversation with my teammate at the shot put ring was not actually a two-sided battle between theism and atheism. No. It was a domestic dispute, a civil war, between two people living in a world of immanence. In our concern over objects and verification, we were only haunted, at best, by the subject outside the conversation (namely, God). In this sense, as opponents in a debate, we were still very much teammates, and not just on the track team. Both the questions and the answers were warmed within the (mostly) insulated walls of the immanent frame. Even though I thought I was introducing my teammate to God by offering explanations for everything, I was pretty much just rearranging the furniture.
1. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 3.
2. Ibid, 22.
3. Ibid, 38.
4. As he explains it, “..the buffered identity…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.’” Ibid, 542.
5. See James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 3-10.
Wes Ellis is a Member in Discernment in the United Church of Christ and an M.Div. student at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has served in youth ministry and adult Christian education in UCC, UMC, and PCUSA settings, as well as evangelical ministry settings. He is passionate about theology and youth ministry and is convinced that the two belong to each other.