The Golden Cord: A Short Book of the Secular and the Sacred
Reviewed by John W. Wright, Theology and Christian Ministry, Point Loma Nazarene University
It should not surprise us to find Richard Dawkins at the head of the 2013 Prospect Magazine poll of the 100 most influential intellectuals in the world.1 Scientism weighs hard upon contemporary Western academics. Scientism even slips into the Christian academy, often in disguise. We may study “faith” as a human phenomenon that produces “culturally constructed values” that constitute “worldviews” or “identities” that we may seek to preserve. Underneath such “values,” however, the realm of knowledge, the scientistic reduction of all things to the materiality of immanence, coldly looms. One may admit a momentary transcendence from within human self-transcendence or as the openness of history. Such “transcendence” quickly collapses back into the reconstituted immanence of brute materiality. Naturalism, scientistic or phenomenological, rules.
Charles Taliaferro parries naturalism through retrieving the seventeenth-century Cambridge Platonic tradition. He leads the reader through philosophical arguments and literary expressions to argue the possibility “that life may contain golden cords that lead you to the God of Eternal love” (12). Taliaferro argues in an opposite direction than the academic status quo. Rather than taking the experience of transcendence in order to collapse it back into immanence, Taliaferro argues that immanence bears “cords” that themselves become most intelligible when received as experiences from the eternally Triune God: “The ultimate goal of this short book is to explore and vindicate the experience of God as an eternal, good being” (8).
The book falls into three sections. Chapters 1-3 engage the philosophy of mind to undercut naturalism. Taliaferro suggests that all third-person scientific descriptions of the world depend upon prior first-person accounts: “This [first-person] preferred starting point seems more foundational than any other alternative and would correct the love affair that some materialists have for a third-person point of view” (35). The reality of consciousness unsettles naturalist positions. He suggests an “integrative dualism” – “the view that the self and body are profoundly integrated but not identical … there seems to be more to a person than her or his body, and the relationship of person and body seems to be contingent rather than necessary” (43). Rather than attempting a “knock-down” proof for God, Taliaferro argues that theism allows us to give a more comprehensive account to sustain the commitments of naturalism itself by accounting for personal identity as found in consciousness.
Chapters 4-6 provide the core of the book. Taliaferro examines “religious experience itself, and its prospect for providing us with a clue or golden cord” to God (80). He suggests that “the ostensible experience of God may turn out to be the faint glimmer of that which is overwhelming in goodness, power, and knowledge” (104-105). Such an account allows Taliaferro to respond to the problem of evil in chapters 5 and 6. While most approach the problem of evil in order to justify God in the face of evil, Taliaferro again inverts the question: “Reflections on the problem of evil are incomplete as long as one neglects the question of why evil is a problem” (111). The fact that we experience evil as evil itself provides a “cord” that human beings “are oriented toward some transcendent good” (112). Taliaferro addresses the problem of evil through the experience of redemption, “the transformation of evildoers into persons who are redeemed, and the healing of damaged persons (either victims or agents) into a radically transformed union with God” (132). The classical Christus Victor model of atonement fittingly addresses the situation as we find it. Again, Taliaferro does not give a “foundational” proof; he gives an account that refuses the reduction of first-person experience to some material cause outside itself.
Chapters 7 and 8 complete the book. Taliaferro examines a threefold “bedrock of the great values involved in the experience of the eternal God” (146). The three virtues sound odd for those formed by the contemporary research university. According to Taliaferro, “a call to be drawn ever more deeply into the divine presence” requires “first, to subordinate or repudiate the pursuit of worldly glory (fame, power, prestige); second, to recognize that God is the God of irrepressible life; and third … to recognize the hallowed nature of domestic virtue” (146). Taliaferro gives us a Christian asceticism that contra Nietzsche, does not annul life, but affirms life more deeply than any will-to-power may.
The Golden Cord would make an excellent text for interdisciplinary classes in CCCU institutions, both for Christian and non-Christian students. This is neither your grandfather’s foundationalist “Christian apologetics” nor a post-modernist apologetic affirmation of Christian identities. Taliaferro’s goal is to out-narrate the materialist status quo, to give a thicker rational account of humans and nonhumans in a manner that brings contemporary philosophy of mind together with the history of Christian philosophical, theological, and literary thought. Under skilled professorial guidance, the book may open students to the claim that historical Christian orthodoxy provides a profoundly rational account for the existence of a universe that contains human beings as an extremely small, but immensely significant, part.
Taliaferro’s book would work as an excellent interdisciplinary text because the Cambridge Platonists share a common Augustinian tradition with many CCCU institutions. Those institutions that claim the moniker “Wesleyan” should notice deep resonances with their own convictions. The Cambridge Platonists deeply impacted Wesley, mediated through the works of John Norris of Bemerton and the asceticism of William Law.2 We could understand Taliaferro’s book as an exposition of Wesley’s notion of faith as “the divine supernatural evidence exhibited to, the conviction hereby produced in, a believer of things not seen, whether past, future, or spiritual; particularly of God and the things of God.”3 Wesley’s emphasis originated deeply from within the classical Christian tradition, rather than Lockean empiricism or German idealism.4
Though Taliaferro has given us a useful tool, a major snare in the book arises in his talk of God. Taliaferro shares with the Cambridge Platonists an onto-theological commitment whereby “God and creatures do have some powers in common, such as agency, love, and knowledge” (7). God becomes one type of being among other beings, “an eternal, good being” (8), “a being of unsurpassable, underived excellence” (74), “an all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful being” (107), “the external God” (107). Such language makes God a supreme being that dwells “outside” nature. Ironically, such a theo-logic prepared the way for the very secularization and scientism that Taliaferro seeks to resist.5
If God is an “external God,” then a realm of “pure nature,” a realm dominated by scientism, exists “outside” of God – the very point that Taliaferro wants to resist. We cannot speak of God as one type of being among types. As Aquinas reminded us, God does not fit into any genus.6 In creating from nothing, God is neither “external” nor “internal” to creation; perhaps it is better simultaneously to say, God is both “external” and “internal” to creation. If we lose the skill to speak well of God, we lose the ability to speak of all things being held together in Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine in the unity of one person so that Mary is the Mother of God. Taliaferro could find the necessary linguistic therapy by moving behind the Cambridge Platonists deeper to the Augustinian and first-millennium Christian tradition. After all, a golden cord is merely updating the Augustinian language for a sign, creation illumined by the Holy Spirit for the human mind.
We often forget that the language of “Enlightenment” that led to our scientistic Western milieu derived from the Augustinian language of “illumination.” Taliaferro’s work can help us return this language to the life of the church and lead our students to regain the classical Christian skill of speaking about God and all things related to God, to give them a language beyond the integration of faith and learning to receive the whole world as coming from God, sustained through God, and returning to God. Perhaps the book may do its work as a golden cord itself.
Cite this article
- See David Wolf, “World Thinkers,” Prospect Magazine, April 24, 2013, accessed May 28, 2013, http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/world-thinkers-2013/.
- See John W. Wright, “‘Use’ and ‘Enjoy’ in John Wesley: John Wesley’s Participation within the Augustinian Tradition,” Wesley and Methodist Studies, forthcoming.
- John Wesley, “Hebrews 11:1,” Notes on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Etheral Library), accessed May 28, 2013, http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/john-wesleys-notes-on-the-bible/notes-on-the-epistle-to-the-hebrews/#Chapter+XI.
- See D. Stephen Long, John Wesley’s Moral Theology: The Quest for God and Goodness (Nashville, TN: Kingswood Books, 2005). See also Mark Mealy, “John Wesley” in The Spiritual Senses: Perceiving God in Western Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 241-256; see also M. T. Mealy, “Tilting at Windmills: John Wesley’s Reading of John Locke’s epistemology,” Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 85.2-3 (2003): 331.46.
- For a succinct analysis of this transition and its impact on the university, see Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularize Society (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012), see especially 25-73 and 290-364.
- See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 3, art. 5.