*Written on February 23rd, 2019.
Charles Taylor’s Modern “Buffered Self”
I ran across the concept of the “porous self” or mind via the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor a few years ago. The porous self is a term that describes the pre-modern worldview and is usually associated with the medieval era. It’s the idea that our minds, bodies, and souls are porous, meaning that external forces, usually spirits, demons, or deities, could easily influence us under certain circumstances. This is why certain locations and spaces were deemed either sacred or profane in medieval culture. Locating yourself in these spaces made you vulnerable to outside influence, whether positive or negative. From this perspective, it’s easy to see why so much emphasis was placed on architecture and even liturgy during the late medieval and Renaissance periods. According to Taylor, this porous Self was eradicated by Kantian epistemology, making it difficult for us to relate to it. For Taylor, the modern Self is not porous. Instead, it’s insulated or “buffered”, to use his vernacular. The modern man doesn’t believe that outside forces can hijack his mind, making superstition much more unlikely. The key change here is that instead of threats being found outside the self or mind, they are now located within the self. The modern self is “protected” from superstition and irrational dogma (at least in theory), making the locus of faith highly internal. In essence, moderns work with Kant’s phenomena instead of his noumena, separating our perception of objects with the objects themselves making spiritual or demonic forces seem less effectual and more impotent. It’s no surprise that existentialism flourished after Kant as a rebellious embrace of this dichotomy and an attempt to reassert man’s autonomy and identity. These forces (i.e., spiritual and/or demonic) are now found within the self or mind. This protects you from outside forces while also making you vulnerable to your own self. You become a viable candidate for your own psychological or physiological problems instead of these problems being found elsewhere. Exorcism becomes therapy for the modern.
In this post, I’ll be exploring the implications of Taylor’s “buffered self” across multiple disciplines, as well as the problems that it may be causing the modern self. Before the onset of this buffered self, people didn’t consider themselves to be the cause of their psychological and medical problems; it was all externalized. At the very least, it was someone’s external actions that landed them into whatever ailment they were experiencing. This internalizing, or giving power to one’s interior self, may be one cause of the level of alienation that we often experience today with its accompanied modern malaise. The discipline of psychology and the practice of therapy seem to acknowledge Taylor’s buffered self since they both seriously consider what happens inside one’s mind. Cognitive behavioral therapy revolves around this very idea—the changing of one’s thoughts or thought patterns. As moderns, we take our thoughts very seriously. We acknowledge that they could be the devils within us.
My guess is that the idea of therapy would seem ridiculous to a pre-modern, whereas a medieval would probably seek to solve some form of neuroticism by bleeding someone or casting Beelzebub out of them (i.e., by some physical or spiritual means outside of the self). Since the modern self is so insulated and our actual environment in the affluent West is so insulated (both figuratively and literally), this makes it much easier to live in some other world within oneself and to struggle to interact with the world around us. Our thoughts can become obsessive and oppressive to the extent that they drastically affect us, playing with our physiology and sometimes creating psychosomatic illnesses.
I wonder if being modern makes us more vulnerable to this phenomenon. This is one of the questions that this post is exploring. Our Kantian epistemology has given too much power to our thoughts, creating a cycle of mental gymnastics, leading some people to legitimate illnesses and a poorer quality of life—to a bad phenomena and a bad noumena. Has modernity created its own form of mental illness? I’m sure this must be true to some extent. This is not meant to devalue the progress we’ve made. Instead of burning people with multiple personality disorder at the stake, we now treat them. But with all victories there usually comes some form of loss. We may have given the world within our head reins to influence us in means we never imagined, means that a medieval or an ancient would never acknowledge or understand.
Tolstoy & His Peasant Muses
Leo Tolstoy comes to mind here as someone who sought to rebel against the buffered self. Tolstoy envied the Russian peasants, believing they inhabited a world that was more pure and holy than his. They endorsed a simplicity that curated the soul. These peasants no doubt lived in a less “buffered” manner. They had not read Kant, nor did they care to. They were uneducated and poor to say the least, yet, Tolstoy believed that they possessed a level of ignorance that held the keys to the good life. This is precisely the reason why Tolstoy attempted to become poor like them despite that he was Russia’s most famous celebrity at the time. My fear is that Tolstoy discovered in the Russian peasants something other than himself and that this is what attracted him to their modest ways. He believed that those who waddled around in the frigid air in tattered coats possessed some gnostic wisdom. He believed that there was something profound lying within the breasts of these men and women, beneath their threadbare attire.
I’m also worried that there is no going back to a more porous way of living or at least to experiencing the benefits of a more porous life. It seems that this is what Tolstoy may have been trying to do. He was shedding the fetters of modernism with its elevation of the interior self. It doesn’t take much reading to learn that he wasn’t successful. Although reading his Confession makes you believe that he stands somewhere in between Jesus and the Dali Lama, his life did not reflect the glowing morality that he so eloquently espoused. I’m guessing that he, like myself, attempted to bludgeon the porous way of living into his mind. It obviously didn’t work.
Pentecostals, Catholics, & The Porous Self
There’s no escaping modernity. Once you leave the Garden of Eden, there’s no going back. Although, some have attempted to preserve the Edenic version of ourselves (i.e., the porous self), or maybe more accurately, have sought to escapethe buffered self. This only seems to work when one’s plausibility structures support it. If buffered meets porous, the winner would be contingent on the strength of one’s plausibility structures. Bible-beating Pentecostals often win out for this very reason. Only when one learns to abandon these structures can he or she begin to less biasedly examine them. I’m not saying that Pentecostals univocally advocate for a porous self; this is simply not true. On the other hand, many fingers within the Pentecostal and Charismatic body do advocate for such a position, requiring their church-members to possess a pre-Kantian epistemology. This creates serious problems when one encounters the rest of the Western world that inhabits a more buffered self. Furthermore, when you examine the demographics of the Pentecostal movement, especially how it has spread like wildfire in less affluent areas like South America and Africa, this begins to make sense. Only in America is the spread of Pentecostalism an enigma. Part of me sees Pentecostalism as a rebellion against Kant and his apostles, but this cannot be true. Part of me sees Pentecostalism as a preservationist movement that provides a safe haven of metaphysical and ethical certainty to a population of people who feel disinherited by modernism and postmodernism. Its complicated relationship with capitalism and consumerism is an even more astonishing phenomenon. Much of what I’m referring to now lies at the fringes of Pentecostalism. Regardless, the development of the prosperity gospel is quite an achievement. Who expected Western Christianity’s most recent and intensely pious group to venerate the accumulation of wealth as (potentially) being a sign of God’s blessing? It’s like imagining Mother Teresa owning a private jet while all of the Calcutta nuns chatter about how holy she is and that this is apparent because of the jet she was “given”.
As mentioned earlier, I believe what is really going on is not as much an attempt to preserve a uniquely Christian identity or worldview, as much as it is an attempt to escape the ambiguity of a modern worldview (at least among Western Pentecostals). They look to a pre-modern worldview to provide a sense of security. This is exacerbated by the issue of postmodernism with its deconstruction of truth and moral relativism. Modernism was enough in itself, but now Pentecostals have to address postmodernism with its emphasis on the fragmentation of truth and the equal validity of different religions. Feminism and a growing acceptance of homosexuality create even more pressure on the Pentecostal movement, explaining why it has continued to grow as a refuge for people even after the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s (with many of its initial followers being disenchanted hippies). Instead of working within the modern sense of self, these groups have retreated to a pre-modern self. Instead of addressing the here and now, they return to a “back then”. I find this problematic for a number of reasons. How is the church to be prophetic if it requires the world to be porous when, in reality, it’s buffered by nature? This makes evangelism much more difficult since moderns will have to be brainwashed to put away their buffered selves. Evangelism becomes “worldview boot camp” (something my alma mater happily hosts).
Now, I am in no way denying the existence of the supernatural—of God acting outside of the bounds of the laws of nature. My critique of the Pentecostal’s understanding of himself or herself does not necessarily deny the existence of the demonic or angelic either, nor the concrete influence the Holy Spirit may have on a believer. How is one to make sense of the spiritually charged world that the Pentecostal inhabits? I’m not sure. No doubt, much of the demonic has been relegated to legitimate psychological and biology problems today. What used to be sins passed down from generation to generation become the genetic and heretical predispositions we have today. It’s actually quite easy to psychologize the porous Pentecostal self, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that Pentecostals are wrong across the board. To quickly dismiss the references to the demonic and the spiritual in the Bible, especially in the New Testament (i.e., Gospel of Luke), would be unwise. I’m getting on another rabbit trail, so let’s return to Taylor’s idea of the self.
Christ & The Modern Self
So, can Christ inhabit a modern or postmodern conscience? This is the real question. I believe the answer is yes. Just as Christ came and inhabited the ancient Greco-Roman consciousness in the New Testament and the Ancient Near-Eastern consciousness in the Old Testament, he can just as easily inhabit our own. He does not demand us to hold to the same epistemological or metaphysical commitments that antiquity did. Instead, He incarnated them, and I believe he can do just the same act today with our modern/postmodern worldview. This is the challenge, and I don’t blame Pentecostals from being fearful of it. It’s not an easy problem to address. Now, just because I believe that Christ can inhabit the modern self does not mean that the past is useless or irrelevant. Instead, it means that the traditions and practices of the past need to be reappropriated for the present. They need to be reinterpreted because language, culture, and our sense of ourselves changes. Often the structure and traditions of the past can be fresh and inspiring if they would just be re-presented to us. Ancient traditions and practices can be used without bringing along the antiquated baggage that often makes Christianity an anachronism to many. Some groups of Christians do this well; they allow the ancient and the modern to live side by side.
Roman Catholicism comes to mind here. Although the Catholic church looks and feels very ancient, like you’re participating in some historic community of faith, its theology is quite palatable (at times) to moderns. This is not true categorically, since the Catholic church’s structure allows for diversity within limits defined by the church. Regardless, Catholics have avoided many of the problems that evangelicals have run into without giving into postmodernism too quickly like some liberal Protestants have (e.g., Catholic’s relationship with science and historical criticism.). What’s even more impressive is that many Catholics today have a robust Thomist theology while still being able to adequately address modern discoveries in science, history, and psychology (something that evangelicals struggle to do). Yet, Catholics still do not condone birth control. What is so fascinating to me about Catholicism is their crisp juxtapositions of the sacred and the secular, philosophy and theology, and faith and reason. This is exactly why you can see an older Italian man walking into mass with the greatest amount of reverence and walking out, just after washing and making the sign of the cross, proceed to light a cigarette and go about his day.
This brings me to reflect on the conclusion of J. Warren Smith, a notable church historian. Smith has argued that the future of the church, growth-wise, is Catholic and Pentecostal. He believes that liberal Protestantism will die and that evangelicals will fall into either Catholicism, Pentecostalism, or the “spiritual but not religious” category. Both Catholicism and Pentecostalism have remarkably different solutions to the problems of modernity. At the root of these solutions is the question—how does one be a Christian in the 21stcentury? Many believe liberal Protestantism has failed to answer these questions, although it has tried more than any other group. Many believe evangelicalism has sold its soul for political influence and that younger evangelicals who are more cultured and educated will abandon the house of cards built by church leaders. What’s left are the more “ancient” forms of Christianity (i.e., Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, etc.) with their promise of a historic faith and the more recent porous version of Christianity provided by Pentecostals who promise theological certainty and a faith with agency. It’s the smoking Italian Catholic or the porous Pentecostal who will carry the mantle of 21stcentury Christendom. That’s the theory at least.
Since I’m reflecting on smoking Italian Catholics, it seems I’m (once again) getting off topic. I acknowledge that I’ve bounced around ideas across disciplines in ways that are not clearly logical. In terms of my approach to the bible, it seems I’ve advocated for a Bultmanian approach, for a demythologization—a separation of the cultural-historical husk from the kernel of biblical truth. In terms of my approach to philosophy, I’ve sought to reflect on the concrete effects of post-Kantian epistemology. In terms of psychology, I’ve attempted to reflect on how Taylor’s idea of a buffered self could give agency to our thoughts potentially leading to psychosomatic effects and even illnesses. In terms of literature, I’ve reflected on Leo Tolstoy’s Confession and the life this eclectic Russian novelist lived in his attempt to fight against the modern buffered self. In terms of theology, I’ve made Pentecostals, especially in its more extreme versions (e.g., Word of Faith movement), the straw man for why returning to a Pre-Kantian porous understand of our selves is not heathy or even biblically necessary.
If this all seems chaotic and confusing, then welcome to my mind! Please don’t take my meditations too seriously. My writing is often just a means to empty my mind with the hope of correctly placing the ideas and terms I’ve been learning in their rightful places. This is where you come in. I’d love to hear what you all think. I know I probably should’ve ordered this essay in a more logical manner, but I’m afraid that it would have never seen the light of day otherwise, like many other dusty articles that keep my computer operating at a slug-like pace. Thanks for reading.
P.S. (1/25/20) I just discovered this interview with Charles Taylor where he is asked specifically about the rise of Pentecostalism and its relation to this “buffered self” beginning (begins at 14:30). Link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5XC6DK1WkR4
Also, if it’s relevant, Charles Taylor is Catholic, making his thoughts particularly relevant to my ramblings here.