John Milbank and Catharine Pickstock on CBC :: “Ideas” interview

If you are looking for an intriguing way to put an hour of your audial energies to good service, may I suggest a podcast from the CBC program “Ideas”–an interview with Catharine Pickstock and John Milbank. It serves as an excellent introduction to Radical Orthodoxy (and brings some of its more abrasive aspects to the surface). The interview is a few years old, but I didn’t find it till last week, perhaps you haven’t found it either.

It is available here. 

varieties of secularism :: comments (3) Taylor as secularist

Series Index

This is the second part of a post that grew too big for its fishbowl (anyone remember Otto?). 

No doubt that Taylor can be read, and should be read in this way. In fact, the greatest payoff of Taylor’s work in my own thinking (and the reason that I turned to his work in the first place) lies along these lines. But A Secular Age is not straightforwardly apologetic, and in many ways the text actually works as a secularizing force upon its readers. The book does not call religious identity into question directly but in the expansive understanding of others that it encourages.

When I visited Duke a little over a year ago, J. Kameron Carter began a lecture by pinpointing modernity’s starting date: October 23, 1492. In large part, his argument for this assertion resonates with Taylor’s basic premises in A Secular Age. Carter argued that contact with a people whose history included no interaction with the Christian gospel (who couldn’t thereby easily be assimilated into the larger narrative as infidels who had rejected it) and the accompanying concept of isolable “race” functioned as an “other” whose very existence necessitated a reevaluation of European identity. Thinking “Christian-ness” and “white-ness” as realities clearly confined to a single continent (an “old world”) constituted them as only one option among others and undermined the universality of the narrative self-understanding within which Europeans lived (and placed their “oriental” neighbors).

Taylor argues that secularization is the story of a developing simultaneous plausibility of an increasing number of identities. Secularization is found where I can imagine myself residing within my city (without too much difficulty) as an atheist, as a Muslim, as a pagan. My contact with people who actually do inhabit these identities (and their contact with me as a Christian) helps me in some small part to understand the very different motivations, goals, and narrative boundaries of others, and subverts any inclination to explain those differences away as stupidity or wickedness. When I understand another person’s perspective by trying on his or her shoes, I inevitably see the explanatory power (and thereby, the fundamental plausibility) of another perspective from the inside. That society is more secular which has a larger number of plausible shoes to try on at any given time. Western secularization, then, is the effect of an increasing ability to see things another way. 

Now, Taylor’s project is a force advancing secularization insofar as it seeks to do just that—to see the explanatory power of other perspectives from the inside. As he provides us a window into the motivations of others (and encourages us to develop the same ability), he leads us into the oftentimes perplexing situation where we can interpret an event or a situation in two or three ways simultaneously. Or, as Pascal said of Christian faith in the upswing of modernity, “There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.”

A few days ago, I made it around to reading Wilfred McClay’s review of Taylor’s book in First Things (May 2008). He makes substantially the same point about the ambivalence of Taylor’s book. He says, “[Taylor’s] heart seems to be most fully drawn to something he calls ‘the Jamesean open space,’ a condition of exhilarated ambivalence at… the place ‘where you can feel the winds pulling you now to belief, now to unbelief,’ and where you can feel fully the force of both sides of the problem.” A bit further, he says, “One wonders why this condition of Jamesean openness is not better described as a logical extension of many of the same forces that Taylor has spent his book warning against.”

In the end, then, Taylor’s book does the church a great service by exposing and undermining the monolithic character of claims for secularization, but the church must go further than Taylor has been willing to go. Being faithful to the testimony of Jesus Christ’s good news certainly doesn’t preclude being able to see things from the perspective of another rationality (which is simply charity), but it does mean entrusting one’s whole heart and soul (“losing one’s life”) to the church’s historical claims about Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and his unique relationship to the Father and Spirit. That commitment, in turn, means that the church must speak to those “others” whom it labors to understand in witness to the singularity of the Christian story, and do so by means of argument if necessary. 

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.

Charles Taylor and John Locke on reason

“I have borrowed the term ‘self-responsibility’ from Husserl to describe something that Locke shares with Descartes and which touches on the essential opposition to authority of modern disengaged reason. What we are called upon to do by these writers, and by the tradition they establish, is to think it out ourselves. As with Descartes, knowledge for Locke isn’t genuine unless you develop it yourself:

‘For, I think, we may as rationally hope to see with other Mens Eyes, as to know by other Mens Understandings. So much as we ourselves consider and comprehend of Truth and Reason, so much we possess of real and true Knowledge. The floating of other Mens Opinions in our brains makes us not a jot more knowing, though they happen to be true. What in them was Science, is in us but Opinatrety, whilst we give up our assent to reverend Names, and do not, as they did, employ our own Reason to understand those Truths, which gave them reputation… In the Sciences, every one has so much, as he really knows and comprehends: What he believes only, and takes upon trust are but shreads.'[1]

Plato, of course, says something analogous…. But what is different with the moderns is that the requirement to work it out oneself is more radical and exclusive, and tis in virtue of their very notion of reason.

Plato enjoins us to stand out against custom and ‘opinion’ in order to arrive at the truth. But the truth at which we arrive is a vision of the order of things. It is not absolutely excluded in principle that our best way of getting there might be to be guided by some authority–not, indeed, the corrupt and erroneous one of popular opinion, but by someone with wisdom. Once we have science [according to Plato], of course, we can dispense with guidance, but it might help us to come to this independent condition.”

I think that our first instinct is to apply this “scientific” mode of reasoning to religious questions—and it tends to strip religions down to bare and vague transcendence—which is about all that any of us can “work out for ourselves.” I’m more and more confident that this mode of reasoning itself needs to be questioned, not least because it is a “tradition” all its own. Taylor is proving immensely helpful in that project.

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[1] John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. P.H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 1:4:23.

[2] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 167-68.