Hope in a Time of Secular Despair

As Snell admits, Christianity and Judaism, with their critique of paganism and rejection of idolatry, played a big part in banishing the “magic” and “enchantment” from nature. And yet, while God is transcendent, He is also immanent. Indeed, Christianity is all about how the transcendent God entered the “immanent frame.” The church would do well to emphasize the doctrines of Creation, Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, Sacraments, and Vocation, all of which should resonate with those who have an “immanent frame.” Snell thinks Christianity may well come back.

“Humans are not well-suited to radical immanence.” After all, those who believe only in what they can see are still made in the image of God and possess a supernatural purpose even when they reject any kind of transcendent reality. But such a disconnect creates anxiety and malaise. As a result, substitutes for transcendence are pursued, which only make things worse. So says R.J. Snell in his new book, Lost in the Chaos: Immanence, Despair, Hope, a penetrating analysis of contemporary secularism.

Snell is building on the work of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, whose book A Secular Age argues that humans tend to think and perceive things through a “frame,” which, like a picture frame, limits what they can accept and imagine. Today, people tend to operate within what Taylor calls an “immanent frame” that fixates on the tangible and the immediately perceivable. There was a time, however, when people had a “transcendent frame,” through which everyone discerned a reality beyond the tangible and that gave the tangible meaning. The physical world was “enchanted,” that is to say, to one degree or another, it was “porous” to the supernatural, to gods or to God.

Secularism is not a matter of modern science replacing religion, Taylor shows, since religion has continued to flourish during modernity. The immanent frame allows for an “open-world” in which the transcendent remains accessible, though modern-day believers still embrace their faith as only one option of many and exercise it through an immanent lens.

But the immanent frame also allows for a “closed world,” the notion that the interior and material realm is all there is. Says Snell, drawing on Taylor, belief in a closed world is not a conclusion from rational or scientific argument. Rather, it is “a moral stance, an ethical commitment. … Secularity is demanded by a commitment to certain ‘values’” held by the person who insists on independence, nonconformity, resistance to authority, and refusal of the “consolations of an enchanted world.”

The coming apart of the “premodern” transcendent frame with the Enlightenment era resulted in an Age of Reform, a confident time of revolutions, social and political changes, and the new ideas of “modernism,” all celebrating a sense of liberation from the supernatural and otherworldly. But such reforms were often built on the unacknowledged remnants of the transcendent order. If matter is all there is, and matter can be reduced to physics and chemistry, meaning is impossible. “A universe of matter in motion reduces humans to matter in motion, ‘wet robots’ as we are sometimes called.”

If the universe isn’t “porous” to the transcendent, human beings aren’t either. We become the source of meaning, but that meaning is pretty much pointless, having no relationship to the outside world, which is also pointless. The result is what Taylor calls the “buffered self” in which we are self-enclosed, separated from others and the world, and autonomous. Today postmodernism has finished off any sense of transcendence. As Snell says, “Postmodernism and its progenitors critiqued and deconstructed any and every claim of order, harmony, or rationality as nothing more than projections of power and force.”

This allows for no hope of any kind. Life itself is no longer necessarily considered a good thing. Along with the decline in the number of marriages to the lowest level in history is the rejection of parenthood. Children have always been the sign of hope, Snell says. But today many young adults are getting sterilized on the grounds that it is immoral to bring children into this world. Coupled with the acceptance of abortion, the conclusion is that “it is not good to be, not worth giving life to another.”

So what can anyone do in this climate of despair? Snell examines three options. The first is “frenzied activism.” He notes the difference between “natural rights,” grounded in objective reality and transcendent morality, and today’s “human rights,” grounded only in the buffered self. The latter have no content. “They are formless aspirations to equality rather than substantive claims about the good.” They are purely negative: freedom as the absence of limits; autonomy as the lack of interference by others; diversity as nonconformity and nonuniformity.

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