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.”

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

reasonable religion :: Charles Taylor on history and faith

In a chapter of Sources of the Self devoted to articulating the Deist’s vision of human identity and moral sources, Charles Taylor offers the following on the relation between faith, reason, and history. To read the passage in context it is necessary to understand that Taylor doesn’t advocate the position he articulates in the second half of the paragraph.

“So the paramountcy of order [in creation, from the Deist’s perspective] excludes miraculous interventions. But it also marginalizes history. The ‘historical’ nature of Judaism, Christianity, Islam—that is, the fact that allegiance and piety are focused on key historical events: Sinai, the Incarnation, the giving of the Quran—is intrinsically connected with their recognition of the extra dimension. These events are the eruptions of God’s affirming power in human life, and its continued force in our lives requires that we maintain unbroken continuity with these moments through tradition. Once the notion of order becomes paramount, it makes no more sense to give them a crucial status in religious life. It becomes an embarrassment to religion that it should be bound to belief in particular events which divide one group from another and are in any case open to cavil. The great truths of religion are all universal. Reason extracts these from the general course of things. A gap separates these realities of universal import from the particulate facts of history. These latter cannot support the former. ‘Contingent historical truths can never serve as proof for necessary truths of reason,’ as Lessing put it.” [1]

The very concept of “religion,” in its contemporary construal, contributes to the embarrassment about historicity. Religion is taken to be a general category, of which Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Christianity, and Hinduism are all concrete examples. Similarities between these faiths justify classifying them together under one general concept. They all share things like: belief in what remains invisible, an account of the meaning of human existence, and concern for symbols, rites, and liturgies. Accustomed to ordering and classifying other particulars, sloths (both two-toed, and three-toed) or salamanders for instance, human reason turns its attention toward religious behaviors and beliefs, extracts their similarities and sets forth a category, “religion,” that holds them all.

Thinking about “religion” in this general way influences the way in which common sense approaches religious questions. The temptation offered by the concept of “religion” per se, lies in the attempt to skim all the “good bits” off the top of world’s religions by collecting what they hold in common without having to get one’s boots mucky by stepping into the historical events and subsequent authoritative traditions. The value of the general category, in other words, is that it allows us to understand and conceptually manipulate all the particulars—it allows for the broad view.

This perspective doesn’t merely hold sway with those who stand outside all the religions and looks down upon them. It is part and parcel of the way that believers themselves see their own faith, and shapes their thought and practice. We tend to emphasize that which we know will gain acceptance from listeners, and so we apologetically couch our particular faith as a particularly well-adjusted historically grounded expression of the universal truths that “religion” is supposed to possess. “Look at how impartially benevolent Christianity makes us,” we say. The difference between our perception of a “moderate” believer and a fundamentalist often lies in whether he expresses his beliefs in language subordinated to “universal truths” or whether he insists on grounding everything in historical revelation. Hence the embarrassment.

The trouble is that the general concept is dependent upon the particulars. There really is no such thing as “religion.” No general definition properly encompases the exemplars. If you want to point to what religion actually is, you need to point to a specific group of people with a particular set of beliefs and practices. This is no different than noting that there really is no such thing as “human suffering.” We all know what human suffering is (firsthand), but human suffering cannot be experienced generally; it happens in this arm broken by police brutality, this child’s hunger, this mother’s grief. The general concept is useful, but only as a summation. Similarly the “universal truths” that are skimmed off the top of “religion” are really dependent on their original context, the practices and beliefs that give those truths depth and meaning. Stripped of that context, what seems to reason like “universal truth” one day looks more flexible the next. Both Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre speak of modernity as inculcating patterns of thought that strip human beings out of the context of a larger story (an account of the origin and goal of being-human) in which to make sense of their actions. Instead we are left with “universal truths” and naked experience to interpret as best we can by our own lights. The context makes all the difference.

One problem with Lessing’s “ugly ditch” between the necessary truths of reason and contingent events of history is that it is terribly hard to find necessary truths expressed anywhere but by contingent and historical people. Reason itself is a historical event. And one does not escape “tradition” by allying oneself to the broadest and least committed perspective possible—it is only within the particular tradition of Enlightenment thought that this disengaged and instrumental stance toward reality is taken as authoritative. It is from this perspective that talk of interaction between God and human beings appears “embarrassingly” historical (and by implication, irrational).

All this to say that there is no way out of history and into the universal—at least not without making some very “religious” sounding claims about the capabilities of human reason. Likewise, any notion of the steady progress of humankind under the tutelage of Reason (now unshackled from superstition) is telling a story about the origin, goal, and meaning of human life, and as such is making religious claims. Finally, secular ethics is, at its best parasitic on the values inculcated by religious traditions. At its worst, it is unaccountable to religious traditions altogether and falls prey to the temptation to objectify and instumentalize human beings and the rest of creation for the sake of whatever appears “rational” at the time. The “universal truths” of secular ethics are a harvest planted by someone else.

These things have been pointed out elsewhere (and more articulately), but I find this pattern of thinking so deeply ingrained within my own mind (repent, repent!) and in the culture around me that another attempt to point them out cannot hurt. So I say, hold strong to the historical tradition of Christian faith, don’t bother too much with the embarrassment over historicity, and don’t be bullied out of faith by a rationality whose ethics feeds on faith anyway.
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[1] Taylor, Sources of the Self, 273.

varieties of secularism in a secular age :: april 4-5

Charles Taylor

The Social Science Research Council has announced a conference that it is co-sponsoring at Yale University surrounding Charles Taylor’s recent (Templeton Prize winning) book A Secular Age. The book has attracted significant attention from a wide range of critics (some deeper, some more superficial).

 Carolyn and I are going to gear up for a short road trip to Connecticut and attend the conference, which is free and open to the public. Besides the keynote address by Taylor himself, I am particularly looking forward to John Milbank’s paper entitled, “What is Ordinary Life? Taylor, Catholicism and Modernity.” I hope to post my notes and reactions to a few of the sessions here. Anyone else in the area ought to consider attending (and should also let me know so that we can go ruminate on the lectures over a pint or two).

The papers presented will be published by Harvard University Press and carry the title of the conference.

the promise of political salvation :: politics as religion

The other day, one of Barack Obama’s speeches lit-up all my “political messianism” warning lights.

In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.

To be parsimonious, I’m pretty sure that I can refute that statement with two words: Manifest Destiny.

Whether or not you think there has ever been anything false about American hopes depends, more or less, on whether you are driving the covered wagon or lying in the ruts and reservations left behind. If you have not seen the speech/music video in which the line appears, you are in for a treat. Here is a political liturgy that tells us where power lies, and who we ought to become:

My main point, however, is to point to an excellent interview: Paul Kennedy speaking with John Gray on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. show called Ideas. The program is available for download (scroll down to “Utopian Dreams”), and presents Gray’s argument that the “secular” politics of the last two centuries have co-opted religious devotion and eschatological expectation in grand narratives that order human life in the present. He is speaking as much about neo-conservative agendas for the triumph of democracy as the Marxist end-times revolution. Politics is at its best, he insists, when it aims toward the modest goal of helping folks get along. The program is well worth your listening.

living the questions :: an incoherent odyssey

The Adult Education Forum at my church has begun a journey through a video series entitled “Living the Questions.” My reaction to this morning’s video and discussion may hold out promise for a series of posts in the weeks to come, and I would hope to extend the conversation started in the Forum to an even larger group of people.

Living the QuestionsThe video began with a fellow quoting both John Milbank and Alasdair MacIntyre. Naively, I got excited, thinking that this series might provoke some serious dialogue about faith and tradition. The fellow comfortably seated on a desert rock quoted to us MacIntyre’s definition of a tradition: a socially embodied and temporally extended argument.

But from that point forward, the argument was one sided, more of a monologue, really. Furthermore, it proceeded in a direction that neither Milbank nor MacIntyre would have relished introducing.

The first speaker after the introduction was John Shelby Spong, and after him Marcus Borg, followed by Matthew Fox—and a host of folks known for pushing the Christian faith to become… well… something else (or die, in Spong’s estimation). I do recognize some value in bringing these voices into the church—Christians are likely in their day-to-day lives to meet doubts and aberrations stranger than those presented by this cast of characters—we should at least be conversant with these lines of thought. But this video should not be presented as an argument!—at least, not in the sense of a conversation. The makers need not have turned to fire-breathing fundamentalists to balance the views on offer—where were Hauerwas, Wright, Hart, Marty, Williams? Balance, apparently, was not one of the goals of the series. Nor, it would seem, is speaking of the substance of Christian faith.

The metaphor of “The Journey” provided the thematic center for this morning’s episode. Faith is not a destination, we were told, but is exploration, questioning, wrestling, struggling. The one thing that remained certain throughout the presentation is that certainty is the enemy of authentic faith. We need to be willing to “not-know” more and to forsake the albatross of unpleasant beliefs. A few stanzas of the “poem” that came as supplementary material to the video will make this clear:

What would happen if I pursued God—
If I filled my pockets with openness,
Grabbed a thermos half full of fortitude,
And crawled into the cave of the Almighty
Nose first, eyes peeled, heart hesitantly following
Until I was face to face
With the raw, pulsing beat of Mystery?

What if I entered and it looked different
Than enyone ever described?
What if the cave was too large to be fully known,
Far too extensive to be comprehended by one person or group,
Too vast for one dogma or doctrine?

I risk taking the posture of moral indignation here, and I want to avoid it. But I left today’s Forum disheartened and sad—disappointed that our catechesis has come to giving a soapbox to figures who would like to kick out the pillars of the church’s historic faith. We are not in the fortunate position of being so literate in tradition that a few weeks spent teaching on the sacraments, or on the church’s teaching about wealth would come across as old-hat.

There is an oppressive insistence on journeying, and an oppressive privileging of “the journey” that robs people of the genuine hope that the tradition offers. Forcing everyone to reinvent the wheel and find the spiritual answers “for themselves” is not mercy, nor love—it’s modernism. The single mother of three children, who works two jobs to keep a family’s bodies and souls together is ill served by being cast out into the seas of uncertainty to begin her “spiritual journey”—she needs well-trained leaders who can teach her well, and aren’t afraid to do so.

When brothers and sisters are dying of cancer, are we being oppressively dogmatic in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and the hope of wholeness in salvation? When our culture lacks a moral center, is it really all that doctrinaire for the church to point to discipleship as a coherent life?

How far can the church undermine its own proclamation and remain the church? I find the sort of faith that this video was promulgating to be self-centered, vacuous, and ultimately parasitic. Etymologically the word “tradition” is connected to the task of “handing down” what is received from one’s elders. If we are genuinely to conceive of faith as a great personal journey of exploration that may lead us, as it has led Spong, Borg, and Fox, to liberate ourselves of faith in Christ’s divinity, resurrection, and singularity, then what will be left to hand down? Are we, as Dawkins would suggest, abusing our children by teaching them about the faith? We are certainly robbing them of part of their “journey” if we teach them as a “certainty” what they could have discovered on their own some forty years later.

There is some value to be found in the video that we watched this morning. There is a pietistic element in the encouragement toward a journey that encourages personal appropriation and asking difficult questions. Being fully present at church entails a level of engagement that does not take everything for granted. Awe, worship, and wonder all rest on a holy curiosity that presses in toward what is unknown. If this were all that was being said, I would be content to be exhorted from the likes of the characters mentioned above.

Furthermore, I have argued before that the “we” of the creeds (as in “we believe) is not hegemonic but inclusive. Where you or I have doubts, the church may sustain us in its faith; just as we may help to sustain others in their darker times. We profess faith boldly to one another, sometimes beyond our own ken. There is indeed flexibility and room for “journey” within the church’s proclamation. Nevertheless, we continue to profess and proclaim. Faith does not exclude doubt, but it does ask doubt to listen peaceably.

“Living the questions,” however, all too quickly becomes a spiritual navel-gazing that neglects the people God loves. “Living the questions” can become a way to put faith in one’s own journey, rather than in Jesus Christ. Borg spoke metaphorically about walking the Labyrinth: “there is no way to get lost in the labyrinth, even though it is not a direct path.” Unfortunately, that is a difference between labyrinths and real life. Out here, it is possible to get terribly lost, and terribly confused, and to inflict terrible injury on others in the process. When my faith is placed in my own abilities, or in my own journey, then I am left terribly alone, and terribly unaccountable.

Honestly, if I genuinely thought that it was all about “my journey,” I wouldn’t be at church. The coffee is not that good. I can meet interesting and provocative people elsewhere. I can find a decent jello-casserole recipe online. This video only reinforces the message that the mainstream culture sends undulating in our direction with ceaseless pressure. “What do you want? How do you feel? Where do you feel good? Go there! Be that! Choose for yourself! Choose, choose, choose.” This isn’t Mystery; it’s capitalism. Nor is it the solution to the spiritual bankruptcy of fundamentalism; it’s merely the antithesis. Churches that want to prosper under the banner of this mantra are forced to pander to the culture’s whims. Frankly, Lutherans will never be that hip—and when I’ve seen them trying, it has been nothing short of painful.

Rather than searching for therapeutic value in the cross, we ought to return to our roots (maybe even deeper than Luther!), and teach the vibrant and dynamic tradition that we have allowed to turn stale while we blithely looked for something more interesting. Moreover, we should come again to Jesus, whose mystery stretches beyond any of our efforts to summarize, encapsulate, and formulate. Let us carry our questions to the cross, perhaps then we will discover which of them were worth asking in the first place.

a thought about thinking

Modern thought patterns are marked by the attempt to understand everything in the simplest terms possible; which means, that if we are prone to any fallacy, it is that of reductionism. Recurrently we find this to be the case.

a conversation with Ralph Waldo Emerson :: on self-reliance

Someone I greatly love and respect recently sent me a copy of Emerson’s essay on “Self Reliance” as an expression of his basic instincts with regard to religion, power, and the study thereof. He asked for my thoughts on the matter—which is a rare enough event these days that I jumped at the opportunity. I thought I would share the comments more broadly. They come in two forms: 1.) Below is a summary of my basic feelings on the piece. 2.) By clicking here (On Self-Reliance), you can access a Word document that has my comments written in the margins of Emerson’s text. I would love to hear what others think of Emerson, or my take on his thought.
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The creed that Emerson is preaching seems to me to be the perfect religious expression of the Romantic wing of the Enlightenment. He is attempting to be very counter-cultural, and I have no doubt that in his day he was perceived by many people to be quite radical. But what he is offering, I will suggest, is not counter-cultural but is only the expression of the liberal half of the culture. His adamant non-conformity only represents conformity to a broader tradition than the traditions he saw at hand. To do that claim justice would require elaborating further on the history that I only briefly mentioned in one of the notes, but maybe I can offer a few points.

What is radical about what Emerson has to say?: That we should all decide for ourselves and guide ourselves? That authority cannot be trusted? That anything outside our own experience is liable to be the expression of someone else’s attempt to control us? Again, that is only the expression of an attempt to get “back to the sources” back to the very beginning, the very root of human existence, to see the very beginning and so to see human life in its pure form. With such a vision (we imagine) we could live rightly. The Enlightenment has been the sustained attempt to think or to experience ourselves back to our own beginnings. It is a fundamentally religious endeavor. And that is why persons within the Enlightenment tradition find themselves perpetually at odds with religion—and perpetually drawn to explain it. On that note, Kant tried to keep religion, but he had to divorce it from philosophy. Hegel tried to keep religion and philosophy together (because he knew they couldn’t be separated) and he ended up declaring himself to be God! Marx was wise enough to know that religion had to be one of the first things to go in his utopia because it offered a competing meaning for human life. To go even further back, Plato wanted to banish poets from the Republic—stories are not good for ideal citizens. The best theologians have always recognized Western philosophy as another religion. Modernity itself is a religion of sorts, or a whole host of little sects if you’d rather. Romanticists think that they’ll plumb the depths of truth by living with their hearts wide open to the world, because they understand human beings as primarily an experiencing creature. Many of them ended up in very, very dark frames of mind, wearing a lot of scars. Idealist and rationalists sought to establish human beginnings by putting themselves in contact with (supposedly) universal Reason.

Here’s a bit of Bonhoeffer: “Thinking pounds itself to pieces on the beginning. Because thinking wants to reach back to the beginning and yet never can want it, all thinking pounds itself to pieces, shatters against itself, breaks up into fragments, dissolves, in view of the beginning that it wants and cannot want…. Critical philosophy may proudly renounce what it lacks the power to attain or else lapse into a resignation that leads to its complete destruction; either alternative stems from the same human hatred of the unknown beginning.”

The other side of this dynamic, and to my mind an equally unhelpful one, is an insistence on traditions and institutions for their own sake. Emerson and folks like him often have people to argue with who are little more than their mirror image on the other side of the same cultural movement. One side pulls while the other pushes. I may sound like I’m taking that other position (honestly, if I had to choose I might lean to that side at the moment). I hope that I am not being blind in the importance I place on tradition. There is no point in space “out there” where we can stand and objectively evaluate traditions from outside them. But after all that I’ve said, I am grateful to the Enlightenment for the notion that we should think as objectively as we can about different traditions. A big part of my decision to stay in the Christian tradition has been the help I’ve gotten from others in recognizing modernity as a tradition unto itself—and one that equally deserves evaluation.

All that to say, when Emerson urges “self-reliance” as the key to living well as a human being, I can’t help but hear him echoing a lot of other figures, and I’m not yet convinced that the religious option modernity has on offer is the best one available.

That’s not to say that I don’t love philosophy, nor that I don’t see value in studying it. But it often comes with its own account of history, reason, and what it means to be human—and when those presumptions are examined, what is taken to be “foundational” is no less “superstitious” than what is rejected out of hand. That realization is driving a lot of post-modern philosophy, or hyper-modern if you’d rather, and philosophy is literally consuming itself. I’m getting off track.

My main gripe with Emerson, besides what lies above [in the marginal comments], is not that he isn’t looking hard for truth. I just wonder if he is looking in the right places. He argues that truth can best be found within one’s self – apart from tradition, apart from history, apart from authority, apart from the advice (imitation) of others. But what is left of the “self” that Emerson describes? I’m not sure that the self can be understood outside of all the relationships that Emerson wants to strip away. And derivative of that, I’m not sure that he’ll find truth there. I don’t necessarily expect Emerson to come to a final agreement with me, but I’m not sure about the wisdom of searching for the meaning of history outside history. Looking for spiritual truth in lofty heights of personal experience and inward navel-gazing means that one will always miss Jesus, born in a rough and simple manger, died on a rough and simple cross, who lives still in the rough and simple realities of the world, and even communicates through the rough and simple realities of human habits, customs, and traditions.