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Charles Taylor's "A Secular Age"

A Secular Age (10): Taylor on Christianity

Ivan-illich-1-sized In the final chapters of the book, Taylor explores where he believes Christianity is heading by painting his broad impressions as to what modern Christians believe, and thus the nature of what he terms 'the new Christian consciousness'. By this phrase, Taylor seeks to explore something like the following question: ignoring those Christians who are practicing some earlier version of Christianity (such as the Young Earth Creationists, whose beliefs lie somewhen between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries), what do modern Christians now believe?

Firstly, Taylor makes it clear that those Christians who are not bound by an earlier form of practice have as great a commitment to humanist ideals as those representatives of unbelief who practice an exclusive form of humanism. Both Christians and exclusive humanists have similar ethical goals, even though their underlying beliefs are radically different. Taylor notes that this is “not an accident” since secular humanists and modern Christians “both emerge from the same long process of Reform in Latin Christendom. We are brothers under the skin.” He is keen to note that in terms of the key dilemmas we explored last week:

Christians don’t really ‘have the solution’… in the sense that we usually take this, and that for two reasons: first, the direction they point to cannot be demonstrated as right; it must be taken on faith; and second, related to this, we can’t exhibit fully what it means, lay it out in a code or a fully-specified life form, but only point to the exemplary lives of certain trail blazing people and communities.

But this understates the difficulties… The Gospel message doesn’t fit into the categories that have come down to us through ages of human history, and is recurrently being twisted, even by its own adherents, to make sense in these terms. This means that there are clearly wrong versions of Christian faith. But it doesn’t mean that we can give a single right version to replace them.

So modern Christianity finds itself problematically positioned, keen to develop a new expression – the aforementioned 'new Christian consciousness' – but still inevitably rooted in its past:

This modern Christian consciousness thus lives in a tension… between what it draws from the development of modern humanism, and its attachment to the central mysteries of Christian faith. It endorses the decline of Hell, the rejection of the juridical-penal model of the atonement, and any hermeneutic of divine violence, as well as affirming the full value of human flourishing. But it cannot accept the self-enclosure in immanence, and is aware that God has given a new transformative meaning to suffering and death in the life and death of Christ.

Taylor even goes so far as to suggest that Hell may be empty, saying “Hell, the ultimate separation from God, must remain a possibility for human freedom, but all the presumptuous certainty that it is inhabited must be abandoned.” It is not entirely clear from where this conclusion is drawn, but it may rest in part upon the ancient theological idea of the Parousia – that there will be another existence at the end of time, and that the full demands of Christian life might be met only then. This emphasises the fact that Taylor operates his own beliefs within conventional Catholic doctrine – albeit in a highly unorthodox fashion.

However, this is not to say that he is without criticism of the Vatican. For instance, on the subject of sexual ethics, he emphasizes an urgent need for reform, highlighting both contraception and homosexuality as issues requiring new theological sense (without expressing any opinion as to the nature of the resulting reforms). He accuses the Vatican of serious inconsistency in the context of enforcing sexual codes:

…the present position of the Vatican seems to want to retain the most rigid moralism in the sexual field, relaxing nothing of the rules, with the result that people with “irregular” sexual lives are (supposed to be) automatically denied the sacraments, while as-yet-unconvicted Mafiosi, not to speak of unrepentant latifundistas in the Third World, and Roman aristocrats with enough clout to wangle an “annulment”, find no bar.

He frequently makes the point that Vatican dogma and Catholic Christianity are two entirely different matters, noting in particular that “what Vatican rule-makers and secularist ideologies unite in not being able to see, is that there are more ways of being a Catholic Christian than either have yet imagined.”

This leads into a central part of Taylor’s criticism of Christianity, which draws heavily upon the arguments of Ivan Illich (pictured above), the visionary thinker whose philosophy produced many radical critiques of modern society in the 1970s and 80s. Illich has been called the intellectual father of the Web 2.0 revolution – that is, collaborative internet phenomena such as YouTube, Facebook and the Wikipedia. Taylor says of Illich that he “learned a lot from him”, and advances an Illich-inspired position that Christianity cannot be codified and that “…something is lost when we take the way of living together that the Gospel points us to and make of it a code of rules enforced by organizations erected for this purpose.”

Illich frequently cited the old Latin proverb “Corruptio optimi pessimum est”, which translates as “the corruption of the best is the worst”. He applied this criticism to all the institutions of the modern world – including (perhaps especially) to the institutionalised Church, from which Illich withdrew in 1960 when he resigned his priesthood. Taylor recapitulates Illich’s key arguments in respect of the Church in full, in order to lead to the following conclusion:

We can’t live without codes, legal ones which are essential to the rule of law, moral ones which we have to inculcate in each new generation. But even if we can’t fully escape the nomocratic-judicialized-objectified world, it is terribly important to see that that is not all there is, that it is in many ways dehumanizing, alienating; that it often generates dilemmas that it cannot see, and in driving forward, acts with great ruthlessness and cruelty. The various modes of political correctness, from Left and Right, illustrate this every day…

Codes, even the best codes, can become idolatrous traps, which tempt us to complicity in violence. Illich can remind us not to become totally invested in the code, even the best code of a peace-loving, egalitarian, liberalism. We should find the centre of our spiritual lives beyond the code, deeper than the code, in networks of living concern, which are not to be sacrificed to the code, which must even from time to time subvert it. This message comes out of a certain theology, but it could be heard with profit by everybody.

But rejecting codes as a means of implementing the goals of Christianity “leaves us with an immense set of messy, hermeneutical issues”. Rejecting a static code means that there cannot be one single, correct version of Christianity, and that there will always be irresolvable issues. Attempting to set these issues aside by appealing to “some secure instance of authority, whether the Bible or the Pope, is a dangerous and damaging illusion.” Furthermore, in a move that parallels my discussion of the ethics of metaphysics, Taylor suggest that:

…the Church, as a communion of different peoples and ages, in mutual understanding and enrichment, is damaged, limited, and divided by an unfounded total belief in one’s own truth, which really better deserves the name heresy… Many believers (the fanatics, but also more than these) rest in the certainty that they have got God right (as against all those heretics and pagans in the outer darkness). They are clutching onto an idol, to use a term familiar in the traditions of the God of Abraham.

Thus the final position that Taylor advances is critical of both of the polar positions that we saw earlier as defining the scope of the nova effect. The entire book has been advanced primarily as a rebuttal of the popularity of subtraction stories, but it is equally exigent as a critique of the failure of Christianity to live up to its own central ideals. In the context of the former, Taylor summarises his position in respect of imminently-focused zealotry as follows:

In societies where the general equilibrium point is firmly within immanence, where many people even have trouble understanding how a sane person could believe in God, the dominant secularization narrative, which tends to blame our religious past for many of the woes of our world, will become less plausible over time. This will happen in part because it will be clear that other societies are not following suit, and thus that this master narrative isn’t about universal humanity; and also because many of the ills for which “religion” was supposedly responsible aren’t going away. Of course, the plausibility of the narrative can be sustained by stigmatizing the religious societies as hostile to modern values, as many Europeans tend to do today with the United States; and even more with “Islam”. But unless we sink to a real “clash of civilizations”, this way of lending plausibility to the secularization narrative will give out sooner or later.

But in the context of the latter, the failure of Christianity to meet its own goals, he is equally critical of all attempts to enforce a single codified interpretation of Christian ideals, since the “Gospel message” (as Taylor likes to refer to it) runs entirely counter to this approach:

The point is… that our Christian life itself has suffered a mutilation to the extent that it imposes this kind of homogenization. The Church was rather meant to be the place in which human beings, in all their difference and disparate itineraries, come together; and in this regard, we are obviously falling far short.

A Secular Age is the first major work in philosophy of religion in the twenty first century, studiously researched, brilliantly reasoned, and marred only by its excessive length and sprawling structure. Taylor’s theistic bias may mean that many proponents of the subtraction stories he refutes will never read his criticisms, which is unfortunate, but this also means that philosophers wishing to advance this kind of anti-religious argument will lack credibility until they grapple honestly with the issues that Taylor raises.

Even if the book were read only by Christians, it could have a profoundly transformative effect. By meticulously laying out the history of Christianity, and concluding by showing why modern Christian institutions fail to live up to the promise of its origins, Taylor offers in this work a framework for radically re-imagining the Church into something far closer to Jesus’ ministry. The possibility of a third Ecumenical Council (“Vatican III”) drawing from Taylor’s philosophy in the way Vatican II drew upon the theology of Karl Rahner and John Courtney Murray (which inspired Taylor to become Catholic in the first place) holds out the prospect of a profound renovation of Christian institutions. Even if this step is too much to hope for, modern Christianity can only be enriched by the influence of this book.

Charles Taylor offers us an account of the history of the West that “has no place for unproblematic breaks with a past which is simply left behind us.” The entire work is structured around the principle that “the story of how we got here is inextricably bound up with our account of where we are”, and in so doing A Secular Age combines the past, present, and perhaps even the future, in an epic tale of history, philosophy and religion. This serial has only been able to paint a vague impression of the wealth of ideas that the book contains, and has struggled with attaining succinctness throughout, but if it somehow manages to bring Taylor’s philosophy to a wider awareness it will have been thoroughly worthwhile.

A new serial begins next year.

Comments

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I don't have much to say in response, but I do want to thank you for posting this serial. There's a lot to take in here, but it's certainly made me think.

Thanks Deirdra! I was extremely glad to have the chance to do this, and even though it turned out more verbose than I hoped, I'm very glad to hear from people such as yourself who have gained something from reading it.

That was a very well done summarization (with the one caveat that I've not read the original - yet - so I cannot say for sure); certainly you've given a great deal of thought to bringing out the nuances of the work rather than narrowing it and, if you'll pardon the pun, codifying it into a series of dogmatic assertions.

I read your serial and found it very interesting. I am doing research in Scandinavian religiosity (and more specifically the conditions for understanding Christianity in a late modern context). I use Taylor's description of our age as a starting point for my study and it has been a joy to read your interpretation of A Secular Age. I'm currently trying to identify and discuss Taylor's main points. I find that it is not easy to do without reverting to subtractions not dissimilar to the ones Taylor is battling. Thank you for taking the time to discuss Taylor; I have found it helpful. Let me know if you have continued thinking through issues that A Secular Age raises or if you have come up with or across good critique of Taylor.

Miika: thanks for your commment! "A Secular Age" was a life changing book for me, and it was my pleasure to share a precis of the book in this serial with a wider audience.

Best wishes!

Thanks for the summary, it is really helpful for having a quick overview! Though references to pages would've been even more helpful, this really sums it all up. Any new projects in the pipeline that concerns similar themes?

Daan: thanks for the kind words! I'm not one for page references - since they vary from edition to edition it always seems a waste of effort to me.

Nothing quite on this scale in the pipeline at the moment, but I'm always working in this sort of space and hope at some point to get a book of my own published.

Best wishes!

Really, really informative. Helped me immensely with my studies.

Hey Col,
Thanks, glad it was useful. I've really got a lot out of Charles Taylor's work, and indeed my new book draws against his recent work with Hubert Dreyfus. Nice to know this serial is still being read eight years after it was written!

Cheers,

Chris.

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