Charles Taylor :: secularization conference

Tomorrow morning Carolyn and I are going to drive over to New Haven in order to spend a few days listening to people interact with Charles Taylor’s recent book, A Secular Age. Taylor has become something of a hero to both of us in the last year or so, and we are both looking forward to meeting him there. In particular, Taylor (along with Alasdair MacIntyre) has helped me to articulate the instincts and patterns of thinking that foment doubt. Situating those patterns of thought historically and culturally  does not make them go away, but it strips them of any claim to absolute objectivity—and in so doing, increases the plausability of faith (which nonetheless always remains a “leap”). This is not the place to go into the exact shape of my doubts, but by “patterns of thought” I am referring to fairly common tendencies in our culture; a penchant for reductive explanation, instrumentalizing and pragmatist thought, and the critiques of characters like Feuerbach and Freud.  Taylor did not set out to write an apologetic in either Sources of the Self or A Secular Age. Nonetheless, both of these books have allowed me to see through my own doubts in fairly significant ways—which is something I count as a great gift. 

In the next few days, I intend to post basic outlines/notes from a few of the sessions at the conference (a schedule is available here). I am not sure whether we will have internet access in New Haven, but regardless postings will appear soon. Your thoughts and comments are not only welcome but solicited. 

To start things off, I’ll offer a few quotes that adumbrate the basic argument behind Taylor’s attempt to tell the story of secularization in a new way in A Secular Age:  

“The change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others. I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me, whose way of living I cannot in all honesty just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith (at least not in God, or the transcendent). Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives. And this will also likely mean that at least in certain milieux, it may be hard to sustain one’s faith. There will be people who feel bound to give it up, even through they mourn its loss. This has been a recognizable experience in our societies, at least since the mid-nineteenth century. There will be many others to whom faith never even seems an eligible possibility. There are certainly millions today of whom this is true…

“Now in this regard, there has been a titanic change in our western civilization. We have changed not just from a condition where most people lived ‘naively’ in a construal (part Christian, part related to ‘spirits’ of pagan origin) as simple reality, to one in which almost no one is capable of this, but all see their option as one among many. We all learn to navigate between two standpoints: an ‘engaged’ one in which we live as best we can the reality our standpoint opens us to; and a ‘disengaged one in which we are able to see ourselves as occupying one standpoint among a range of possible ones, with which we have in various ways to coexist.”

For Taylor, the story of secularization is not primarily the story of the removal of religious figures from positions of political power (the disestablishment of churches and the separation of church and state), nor is it the story of the decline of religious belief and practice (however that may be measured), rather the story of secularization is the story of the plurality of plausible interpretations for human experience, and the inability to reach a perspective where one can finally and decisively inhabit one interpretation or another. As such, Taylor is arguing that secularization is not the result of the inevitable march of scientific knowledge or changes in political and economic structures; rather, it arises as the result of the surfeit of plausible self-understandings, some of which have no recourse to any transcendence.

The thesis of the text, (which will likely need some unpacking in the next few posts) is this:

“I would like to claim that the coming of modern secularity in my sense [the third “story” in the paragraph above] has been coterminous with the rise of a society in which for the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true.”

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 3, 12, 18.

3 Replies to “Charles Taylor :: secularization conference”

  1. I’m thrilled you’re taking this on and I’ll be reading closely. Secularism is a massive issue for us in Europe … much more now than it was four years ago. It’s actually pretty astounding how Christianity and even faith in general have been relegated to a prior epoch of human evolution.

    I’ve been on the hunt for good authors who are writing on the historical progression building up to what we presently identify as secularism (I like Taylor’s definition in his thesis above) and what this means for the identity and witness of the Christian Church. Let me know what you find. And pass on our best to your lovely wife!

  2. I was disappointed that Taylor did not seem to really connect with the issue I raised to him during the keynote session. Pannikar’s emphasis on faith (as openness) rather than belief is a great fit for those of us who have followed his example, improvising our way with one foot in each of two religious traditions. (In this writer’s case, it has been Catholicism and first Zen, the Tibetan Buddhism.) But others — many of whom are belief-oriented — in the traditions we inhabit, feel that what we are doing in questionable at best. And realistically they cannot be expected to put many years of effort into practicing a tradition they were not born into. Not only is the first reconciliation difficult for some members of our “secondary religious tradition,” but an additional reconciliation becomes necessitated by the first.

  3. Steven,

    Thanks for dropping by. I’ve think that I’ve got you narrowed down to one of two fellows who asked similar questions, but I’m not sure which. Did you ask the question about “believing in” rather than “believing that,” or was yours the question about trying to navigate the boundaries of loyalty to a home-tradition while genuinely being open to another?

    In large part, I think that your question might be answered by scaling back your expectations of what Taylor was suggesting in the last bit of his keynote address.

    Obviously as you say, none of us have time to really and “authentically” understand everyone else’s viewpoint from the inside. To submit oneself to all the necessary practices, disciplines, and learning an “other” tradition would be unrealistically onerous.

    I think that Taylor’s recommendation for reconciliation is a far more modest and far more “political” proposal than you seem to be looking for (though it’s not without implications on the deeper existential level). If average-joe sorts really learn to see the “motivating intensities” of their neighbors, they are a lot less likely to kill each other. Having-seen from another perspective, they have a perspective from which to interrogate their own. In that plurality, they are exposed to a secularizing “neutral” space.

    Your own practice “improvising your own way with one foot in two traditions” sounds challenging. I do wonder if something like your own religious practice might actually be the “secular spirituality” that people were speaking of all weekend. Please tell me if I’m wrong, but living in the space between two religious traditions means that you are simultaneously (not to say arbitrarily) drawing on the resources of both. I imagine that you inhabit a posture of possibility with regard to two traditions, the neutral “open space” that cannot be identified with either.

    At any rate, my wife and I had a long conversation on the way home yesterday about the challenge of being able see things in multiple ways. To put it starkly: The benefit is that we are much less likely to kill one another over our differences. The drawback is that none of us know who we are.

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