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Tudor Farm & Charles Taylor

The transcendent frame of late medieval life

Last night we watched on YouTube the second episode of Tudor Monastery Farm, the BBC reality/documentary series in which two archeologists and a historian live out the daily lives of tenant farmers on a monastery farm in Tudor England, circa 1500. The kids love the show as much as we do, and it’s fun to watch as a family.

Last night’s episode focused on the sheep as the center of Tudor-era farm life, and the English economy. What stood out about the era was how incredibly hard life was, but also how ingenious people were in inventing techniques and technology to make their lives easier.

The show is helping me in my research for the Benedict Option book, believe it or not. One of the presenters of the program, a self-described atheist named Ruth Goodman, marvels in the second episode, as she did in the first one, over how religion suffused the lives of medieval people. She says that the calendar people lived by was not like our calendar, but rather was ordered around the feast days of saints, and other religious holidays. I mean, they had the same calendar we did, but they related to it in a very different way than we do. These people lived in a cosmos; we live in a universe. Very big difference. I’ll explain below.

Charles Taylor begins his magisterial book A Secular Age by asking why it was almost impossible not to believe in God in 1500, but in 2000, believing in God is seen as something you do with difficulty, if at all. Taylor says that it’s because the late medievals were heirs to a belief system that regarded the world as enchanted. God was everywhere, and ordered all things to Himself. All of Creation — and it was “Creation,” not yet “Nature” — was a sign pointing to its Creator. You really feel this in Tudor Monastery Farm, and the feeling is important, because, says Taylor, what really matters are the things that everybody takes for granted. It is an anachronistic mistake to think that our late medieval ancestors regarded the world as we do, except with a belief in God added to it. They did not. God and things divine were far more present in the imaginations of the people, who looked around them and saw Him. They lived in a cosmos — a universe ordered by God, pregnant with meaning and divine purpose.

The medievals also sacralized time. This is a very difficult thing for us to apprehend today. Evgeny Vodolazkin, the medievalist and author of Laurus, presents a medieval conception of time in his novel. It is one of the most confounding things about the book for modern readers, who are accustomed to regarding time as simple, straightforward, and linear. In fact, as Taylor points out, time was a much more complicated thing for the medievals, who believed that time was grounded in eternity, and that eternal realities ordered time. In his terrific little book about A Secular Age, Jamie Smith describes it like this (the material in quotations below is from Taylor):

In the premodern understanding, because “mundane” or secular time is transcended by “higher” time, there is an accounting of time that is not merely linear or chronological. Higher times “introduce ‘warps’ and seeming inconsistencies in profane time-ordering. Events that were far apart in profane time could nevertheless be closely linked” (p. 55). This is somewhat akin to Kierkegaard’s account of “contemporaneity” in Philosophical Fragments: “Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion than mid-summer’s day 1997” (Secular Age, p. 55)

Our “encasing” in secular time has changed this, and so we take our experience of time to be “natural” (i.e., not a construal): “We have constructed an environment in which we live a uniform, univocal secular time, which we try to measure and control in order to get things done” (p. 59). So nothing “higher” impinges upon our calendars — only the tick-tock of chronos, and the self-imposed burdens of our “projects.”

I got a sense of what that felt like from Laurus, but I could see it clearly in Tudor Monastery Farm. 

What I’ve been learning from my intensive reading these past three weeks in theology and history is, well, how we went from Tudor Monastery Farm to where we are today. As theologian Hans Boersma has shown me, the ideas that swept away the TMF worldview were already in play among religious and academic elites for centuries before they had a popular effect. And as Taylor, as well as the historian Brad Gregory, demonstrate, the Reformation was the key event that destroyed the medieval sense of sacramentalism undergirding the TMF “imaginary” (a Taylor word). To be clear, neither Taylor nor Gregory blame the Reformation. The medieval church was massively corrupt, and efforts to reform it from within Catholicism itself inadvertently brought the whole superstructure of medieval belief crashing down — and with it, Christendom.

It’s a much more complex story than I have time to get into in this blog post, and it’s by no means simply a matter of ideas having consequences. It is also true that, as you might put it, consequences also have ideas. That is, you can’t understand why the project of church reform had so much power without also understanding how traumatic the Black Death of the 14th century — which killed one in three Europeans — was for the people of Europe. Plus, it is plain even in Dante, writing in the early 14th century, that the wars fought by the papacy, and its thoroughgoing corruption as a worldly power, was bound to undermine the belief of ordinary Christians.

For all that, it was not the case that the 15th century (the one preceding the Reformation) was a time of falling away from faith. To the contrary, it was a time of great faith among the people — which is why the pressure for reform grew so strongly. Put simply, they wanted the monks and the clergy to live holy lives, as they were supposed to do, and the reformers (not yet the Reformers, if you follow) sought holier lives for the ordinary folks too.

A historian who appeared briefly at the end of Tudor Monastery Farm last night said that in 1500, the medieval harmony held in the English countryside. It was the calm before the storm. Luther’s protest was just around the corner, as was the violent trauma of the English Reformation, including the Henrician dissolution of the monasteries. Though they don’t talk about politics in TMF, it is very clear that the monasteries were economic powerhouses, up until their dissolution. Whatever its theological implications, Henry VIII’s move can be seen as a hostile nationalization of industry. [UPDATE: An academic friend writes to say it was more like a Thatcherite privatization of industry. Henry seized the monasteries then sold them off to raise money. — RD]

It is also true — and this you can see in TMF too — that the advance of technology and the growth of markets was bound to upset the settled medieval consensus. This is what I mean by consequences having ideas: that ideas are seeds that only grow in fertile ground. Political and economic transformations underway in late medieval Europe moved the people’s imaginary, making the ideas of the Reformers more plausible than they would have been otherwise. It doesn’t make the Reformers right (nor does it make them wrong!), but it does explain why things worked out the way they did. What’s more, according to Gregory, the constant warring between Protestants and Catholics in the wake of the Reformation, and the impossibility of resolving theological disputes in the absence of common authority, exhausted Europeans, who began searching for a way to live that bracketed off religion from “real life” for the sake of peace. In other words, Christians brought a lot of this onto themselves by their bloody feuding.

Let’s be clear that it’s not the case that the world became disenchanted the day Luther proclaimed his 95 Theses. Luther himself retained something of the sacramental viewpoint, and it’s somewhat in Calvin. Zwingli was the resolute anti-sacramentalist. In any case, Protestants certainly lived as if God were around them all the time. It’s just that His presence was not metaphysically anchored in materiality the way it had been in medieval times, and over time, that mattered. A lot.

Charles Taylor is extremely careful to say that it did not have to be this way. It is, he stresses, a self-serving anachronism to accept the standard secularist narrative that we live in “reality” now, and that reality is what you get when you strip the God delusion away from society. Had certain actors behaved differently, things might have turned out differently. The point is, “exclusive humanism” — the idea that this world is all there is, and we should seek out happiness and flourishing within it, with no reference at all to the transcendent — is itself a construal, a “take” on reality. Ours is the only civilization in history that has had this particular take, he notes.

There is no clearly demonstrable reason why the medievals were wrong to sacralize time, or to believe that they lived in an enchanted world. The key thing to take from this, though, is that we moderns live in a different plausibility structure than they did. This means that efforts to re-inhabit the medieval worldview cannot succeed, because we can’t un-learn from our experience. For Taylor, “a secular age” means not strictly an age in which religion has been walled off from the common experience. It means primarily an age in which we all know that belief in God, or unbelief in God, is a choice. The fact that belief in God is not taken for granted is what makes this a secular age. Even communities that fervently believe in God live in a secular age, because they are surrounded with evidence, as the medievals were not, that it is possible to live without strong belief, or to live with believing in God in a different way … or not at all.

Taylor’s work calls for epistemic humility. The way the medievals framed reality certainly made perceiving certain truths more difficult. But they were also able to see somethings more clearly than we do. The same is true of our own time. Taylor’s point is that the things that “everybody” takes for granted about how the world works — our “metaphysical dream,” as Richard Weaver put it — is by no means as uncontestable as many of us think. The “immanent frame” our Western culture’s master narrative imposes on our experience of the world — that is, the intellectual structure that orders the only truths we can admit are those that emerge within a system closed to transcendence — cannot forever keep out intimations of transcendence. The history of ideas from 1500 till today suggests that the immanent frame appeals to people today because it makes us free to do whatever we will. After all, if the world is not enchanted, if matter doesn’t have any intrinsic meaning, then we are free to bend it to our wills. There is a line — not a straight line, but an unbroken one — between the disenchantment of matter and the dissolution of gender categories, and transhumanism. The whole idea of “human rights” is parasitic on Christianity, and will not hold without a firm religious foundation.

We ought to consider the possibility that the anti-metaphysical dream is just a story we tell ourselves to justify our own desires and preferences.

The immanent frame liberates, but it also imprisons. More on this in my next post.