Certain observations regarding Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age made in previous posts can only be echoed—the book’s magisterial sweep, the masterful command of history, the penetrating questions about the human condition with respect to both religion and no fewer than three forms of secularity. Taylor’s recounting of the rise of the “disciplinary society,” “the buffered self,” “Providential Deism,” and the “immanent frame” have all been referenced by various contributors to this discussion. But it turns out that you can tell a lot about a book by the terms that are included in or omitted from its index.
The theme of loss is one that, while not listed in the index, is a deep undercurrent in Taylor’s account. One question that those of us working in the area of religion and human rights might pose of Taylor’s study to ascertain its implications for our field is: What is the fate of human rights—particularly religious rationales for human rights, respect for “religious human rights,” and the engagement of religious believers and religious bodies in struggles for human rights around the globe? This question may initially seem unfair, as it is not specifically posed by the author (though human rights, natural law, and such human rights precursors as Locke, Grotius, Pufendorf, and the Stoics do appear in the index). The topic of human rights is one that, while broached only sporadically in Taylor’s lengthy text, is mentioned in a way that indicates a certain depth of respect and support. It is the sense of Taylor’s own affinity for human rights that makes the question viable and compelling in the current context of pluralism, terrorism, and secularity.
Taylor’s apparent support for “our very strong universal commitments to human rights and well-being” coexists in tension with his desire to raise questions about the moral sources of our human rights and the strength of our aspiration and motivation to attain them. Indeed, Taylor seems to situate himself within “modern civilization’s ‘loyal opposition’,” whom he sees as committed to defending the idea that there is “something uniquely valuable and important about the civilization of democracy and human rights,” an idea that in some cases leads them to “pine for a really Christian moral order.”
A Secular Age is, it turns out, a profoundly Christian philosophical work, particularly reflecting Taylor’s own Catholic confessional commitments. Taylor wants to address not only secular adherents to the mind’s reason, but also certain practitioners of the faith who, like Pope Pius IX in the nineteenth century, decry “all the errors of the modern world, including human rights, democracy, equality, and just about everything our contemporary Liberal state embodies.” Taylor proclaims Pius IX “just wrong to think that democracy and human rights were incompatible with Christianity, or even inferior social contexts for the flourishing of the faith,” while at the same time reminding that “this doesn’t mean that Catholics suspicious of democracy in the nineteenth century might not have seen some of its dangers and weaknesses most clearly than we do as children of the twentieth century, who had to defend democracy against various gruesome forms of tyranny.”
One might question the precision of Taylor’s location of human rights in the Catholic tradition, particularly as he seems knowledgeable of the ebb and flow of that tradition, in which Pius IX arguably constitutes the nadir, with John XXIII taking the tradition to its later twentieth-century zenith. As other reviewers have noted, Taylor’s confinement of his study to the Christian, or post-Christian West, as important as it is for understanding the development of the secular age in that theopolitical, social, cultural, and economic context, is a limitation of the book, particularly when it comes to human rights, which are universal by definition. One wonders in particular how Taylor would recommend that inhabitants of Western liberal democracies characterized by “secularity 3,” in which religion is both optional and compartmentalized, should respond to inhabitants of other societies (Islam, Islamophobia, 9/11, and “clash of civilizations” do make it into the index) for whom religion really does operate as a Rawlsian “comprehensive doctrine,” encompassing all spheres of society and experience.
Taylor’s argument is, however, helpful in complexifying and problematizing both the “human” and the “universal” as these have developed in the evolution toward a secular age. The trajectory has been from a world in which nature and society were both “enchanted” in the sense of being “under God,” toward an “exclusive humanism” in which neither our nature nor our spiritual aspiration toward fullness are referenced toward the transcendent or divine. The new humanism has given rise to an ethic emphasizing the “active capacity to shape and fashion our world, natural and social” in a way that is “actuated by some drive to human beneficence” as a “substitute for agape,” the Christian understanding of altruistic, self-giving love modeled on the love of God for humanity. Far from embodying this agapic vision, Taylor sees the Modern Moral Order as defined by a decidedly liberal and social contractarian notion of “mutual benefit,” occasionally tempered with a Humean sense of “sympathy.” It is worth noting here that “agape” gets an extensive notation, while “mutuality,” along with such related terms as “sympathy” and “justice” (and also “liberalism”) with which agape is frequently contrasted are omitted.
In Taylor’s sense, neither mutuality nor sympathy provides an adequate motivating ethic to support even the most laudable commitments to human rights. Something is lost in the transition from agape and grace to mutuality and justice. (Indeed, “grace” is another prominently argued but unindexed term—see pages 10, 78, 91, and 542.) This may be suggestive of a gap between our aspirations and our capacities to achieve them, implied at one point in Taylor’s noting the “continuing lack of fit between the dominant, accepted notions of flourishing and the demands of the gospel,” a tension that invokes similar gaps between the immanent and the transcendent, and the universal and the particular, as these relate to human rights. Taylor takes issue on some of these points with his frequent philosophical interlocutor, Martha Nussbaum, whom he praises for cautioning us against attempts to “transcend our humanity,” while at the same time pointing certain anti-theological affinities to the transcendence project of Nietzsche and his followers. Of Nussbaum, and to those who would cast off theological (especially Christian) arguments for human rights, Taylor asks, “In view of the importance of Christian universalism and agape in the constitution of the modern idea of moral order, ought we really to hope for the utter uprooting of all the belief and desires which Christianity has inculcated in our civilization?”
Nussbaum’s arguments for human capabilities as the foundation of human rights do point to another possible avenue for human rights—namely, the grounding of human rights in an understanding of a neo-Stoic and neo-neo-Thomist understanding of natural law. As invocation of the Stoics suggests, this is not a new turn, but a very old one. It is congenial and congruent with Christian understandings, but more broadly inviting and appealing to other religious traditions, perhaps even to secular humanists of goodwill. This is not nearly the robust and reconstituted Christian agapism that Taylor would prefer, but it may be the more achievable aspiration in a world in which cosmos has become merely a universe governed by Providential Deism.
But it appears that such secularized natural rights arguments are not the ones that Taylor would prefer. For, as suggested above, Taylor’s account is both Christian and Catholic. Nowhere is this more true than in Taylor’s frequent description of the secular age as involving “excarnation,” or the “transfer of our religious life out of bodily forms of ritual, worship, practice, so that it comes more and more to reside ‘in the head’.” Human rights are grounded in—and their lack or abrogation threatens—both the mind and the body. So any references to bodies or embodiment (also absent from the index) tend to make human rights advocates take notice. References to “incarnation,” “excarnation,” “Carnival,” and the “festive” recur frequently in Taylor’s pages and are well represented in the index—a fact not lost on the co-author of this review (Green) who was born in the great, if beleaguered, city of New Orleans. Could it be that Mardi Gras is the solution to many of the problems of our era? Is this the sensibility which has been lost?
In the end, the book’s intriguing, if incomplete, index may hold the key. If Carnival is a theme that recurs frequently in the book’s first half, agape predominates toward the end. Neither Carnival (described in one place as connecting us to the “‘communitas’ dimension of society” nor agape are given particular prominence in the book’s chapter titles (and subheadings would have been a great help in a book this massive), but they are referenced heavily in the index and recur as a persistent and percussive beat throughout the text. Is agape to pick up where Carnival left off or was lost? Is a particularly antinomian variety of agape (described in one place as a “gut feeling”) to be the primary ethical sentiment and motivation undergirding our commitment to human rights? Is a free-flowing, Carnivalesque, heroic agape adequate to that task? Or, does it need the additional layer of institutionalization and legitimation that the law (an unindexed term) and human rights regimes provide?
In conclusion, we would return to that other prominent cross-cutting theme in A Secular Age—loss. Clearly, for Taylor, the transition to the secular age has involved many kinds of loss, most especially a loss of what he labels the “heroic” in a non-Nietzschean sense. In this way his narrative is profoundly sad. Taylor does an estimable job of recounting the past and present of our secular age. Prognostications on for the future on the basis of this account seem bleak—for human rights and other compelling issues of our time. Can we escape the disenchantment of the secular age and the “unquiet frontiers of modernity” to something better and more tranquil? Should we try? Transformation and conversion (both indexed) are additional prominent features of the Taylorian account. Is there an exit through these? Or are we in a new “Iron Cage”?
It is important to remember that what is lost can be found or retrieved. Taylor might take heart in efforts of those working on human rights at the intersection of law and religion, particularly in the post-9/11 context which is so pitting the secularized and the resolutely unsecularized against one another in these matters. There, many of us are working to retrieve nature, natural law, human nature, human capabilities, and pluralistic religious interpretations of these in a ways that incorporates Taylor’s earlier concerns for “recognition” (even more than “authenticity”) into a new theory of “cosmopolitanism” in building a new interdisciplinary, international, and interreligious culture of human rights aspiration and realization. Though the relation of religion to human rights is merely a subtext of Taylor’s achievement in A Secular Age, it is a contribution that is likely be studied and commented on further by those working in these fields.