It started with reading, in this case a particular column in, of all places, the New York Times. It was by Ross Douthat, and it was titled “Religious Experience and the Modern Self“.
I should explain that I’m an atheist, but not the evangelical kind, and for some time I’ve been wanting to understand the nature and function of religion. Without too long a digression, I would say that the reasons for that inquiry come down to two: first, the fact that religion in one form or another has been a central feature of every known human culture; and second, a sense that religion is not, and never really was, merely a primitive version of science — i.e., merely an erroneous way of explaining the world we experience. The purpose or function of religion, in other words, whether on a personal or social level, seemed to me to be a puzzle, and its cultural centrality made it an important one.
Given that setting, then, Douthat’s title, linking religion with the “modern self”, was an obvious invitation. It mentioned a couple of instances of experiences that seemed to be, from a subjective perspective, sufficiently out of the ordinary as to be termed “supernatural” — one was a case of ghosts appearing to a survivor of the Japanese tsunami, the other of the film director, Paul Verhoeven’s experience of “the Holy Ghost descending”. The point of mentioning these was to draw attention to another text, this one by the philosopher Charles Taylor, on “Buffered and Porous Selves“.
And this is where it gets interesting. I’ve long understood that religion plays unifying or binding role in culture — one big reason that heresy or schism is so serious an issue in cultures where religion still plays such a role, since it threatens what holds the society together. But how does that work on an individual or personal level exactly? Taylor’s piece doesn’t answer that question itself, but it may be a start toward an answer by explaining how a modern “self” differs in an important and fundamental way from a premodern — the latter is “porous”, open and vulnerable to outside forces and agencies in an unmediated sense, while the former is “buffered”, with a developed boundary or crust that enables a distinction between self and “external” world. Here’s Taylor himself:
Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.
This is not a mere “subtraction” story, for it thinks not only of loss but of remaking. With the subtraction story, there can be no epistemic loss involved in the transition; we have just shucked off some false beliefs, some fears of imagined objects. Looked at my way, the process of disenchantment involves a change in sensibility; one is open to different things. One has lost a way in which people used to experience the world.
Indeed, “enchantment” is something that we have special trouble understanding. Latin Christendom has tended more and more to privilege belief, as against unthinking practice. And “secular” people have inherited this emphasis, and often propound an “ethics of belief,” where it can be seen as a sin against science or epistemic decency to believe in God. So we tend to think of our differences from our remote forbears in terms of different beliefs, whereas there is something much more puzzling involved here. It is clear that for our forbears, and many people in the world today who live in a similar religious world, the presence of spirits, and of different forms of possession, is no more a matter of (optional, voluntarily embraced) belief than is for me the presence of this computer and its keyboard at the tips of my fingers.
These two descriptions get at, respectively, the two important facets of this contrast. First, the porous self is vulnerable: to spirits, demons, cosmic forces. And along with this go certain fears that can grip it in certain circumstances. The buffered self has been taken out of the world of this kind of fear. For instance, the kind of thing vividly portrayed in some of the paintings of Bosch.
We tend to use the word “enchantment” now to indicate some delightful, childlike sense of wonder or awe, but that’s not quite what Taylor means by it. If you’ve read Susanna Clarke’s fantasy novel Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, you’ll know there’s a sense of something much more literally dreadful about it. Here’s Taylor’s own faintly amusing take:
Perhaps the clearest sign of the transformation in our world is that today many people look back to the world of the porous self with nostalgia, as though the creation of a thick emotional boundary between us and the cosmos were now lived as a loss. The aim is to try to recover some measure of this lost feeling. So people go to movies about the uncanny in order to experience a frisson. Our peasant ancestors would have thought us insane. You can’t get a frisson from what is really in fact terrifying you.
The second facet is that the buffered self can form the ambition of disengaging from whatever is beyond the boundary, and of giving its own autonomous order to its life. The absence of fear can be not just enjoyed, but becomes an opportunity for self-control or self-direction.
And so, ironically, all that remains of that “porous” openness to the world, that once lay at the heart of the religious experience, for us now is the fright or “frisson” we get from teasing ourselves at horror movies. It gives, at least, some content to the phrase “God-fearing”.
In the next post I’ll mention another reading that fed into this connection of religious experience and exposure to dread.