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Must the Sacred be Transcendent?

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In his book A Secular Age, Charles Taylor appeals to the metaphysical-normative distinction between “immanence” and “transcendence” as definitive for post-Axial religion. On Taylor's view, therefore, those of us who embrace a fully secular modernity can be described as having abandoned “transcendence” to take up our lives wholly within the confines of the immanent frame, though he grants we may seek alternative satisfactions or “substitutes” for eternity. But the notion that any metaphysical-normative model of sacred experience can serve as an irresistible foundation is open to doubt if one recalls the Heideggerian insight that any metaphysical picture both reveals and conceals aspects of our experience. Taylor's own description of sacred and non-sacred experience within the immanent frame seems to rely upon this foundational distinction, without entertaining the possibility that the language itself may very well actually distort what our experience is like. This paper pursues the above objections to Taylor's argument, focusing special attention on the assumption that one can judge aesthetic experience (such as listening to a Beethoven string quartet) with the criteria we have inherited from post-Axial religion. The overwhelming authority of the Axial tradition might seem to validate questions such as, “Is there an object?” or “Is the experience purely immanent?” But to such questions we might respond that such language simply has no grip on the phenomena. Any such talk of “substitution” might therefore be understood as an historical remnant in Taylor's book of the traditional monotheist's critique of idolatry.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Harvard University, USA

Publication date: 2011-04-01

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