In my first post, I discussed Charles Taylor’s book, A Catholic Modernity. I would now like to discuss a second book, which consists of lectures Taylor gave at the Vienna Institute for Human Sciences (Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen) in 2000; these grew out of his Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh in 1999. Surely the most renowned lecture series on the topic of religion, for more than one hundred years, leading thinkers have used this opportunity to share their ideas in the philosophy of religion. Taylor uses William James’s famous 1902 Gifford Lectures as a foil to bring out his ideas. The title Varieties of Religion Today recalls James’s book The Varieties of Religious Experience. Taylor begins by discussing the sense that James’s lectures have largely retained their freshness even after a century, “that this long-dead author is in striking ways a contemporary.” This is doubtless due in part to James’s genius; but also to developments in Western culture, which have to some extent brought it closer to James’s perspective.
The first of the four lectures grapples with the concept of “religious experience,” which characterizes the real methodological revolution of James’s psychology of religion. James’s focus on individual religious experience and his abstraction of institutions, the edifi ce of theological teachings as well as collective experiences, is inherently one-sided and has frequently been criticized; with great expertise, Taylor places this approach within the framework of the history of religion. Here, he eschews the common stereotype that sees the emphasis on individual religious experience exclusively as a beneficial (or damaging) outcome of the Reformation. He knows that as early as the High Middle Ages it is possible to observe “a steadily increasing emphasis on a religion of personal commitment and devotion over forms centered on collective ritual.” What mendicants and piety-focused movements began, certainly reached a new high point with the Reformation. “But this movement toward the personal, committed, inward didn’t exist only in the Protestant Churches. There was a parallel development in the Counter- Reformation,” expressed in attempts “to regulate the lives of the laity according to more and more stringent models of practice.” Although James himself certainly did not have a clear view of these historic facts and although his emphasis on the experience of the Divine was driven by a strong impulse to resist an exclusive stress on commandments and the demands made of human beings by God, Taylor sees James’s thought quite explicitly as a continuation of long-term tendencies within Christianity. But this does not resolve the question of whether concentrating on religious experience when analyzing religious phenomena might also produce a distorted picture. From a Catholic perspective, Taylor asserts, it quickly emerges that mediation by the institution of the church of the link between the believer and the Divine can have no real place in James’s way of thinking. The life of the church is for James of secondary religious importance, a derivation of the primary religious experience; it is not regarded as constitutive, as enabling such experiences. Taylor’s critique of James here is correct; but Taylor goes further still and imputes to James a concept of experience that treats experience as if it requires no formulation, as if it is conceivable at all outside of cultural models. This seems unfair to me. It is true that in his book on religion James failed to sufficiently analyze the interaction among experience, articulation, and cultural interpretive models. But his other writings make it clear that he was very well aware how dependent experience is on interpretation, and vice versa.
The second lecture deals with James’s analysis of the “twice born,” that is, those who do not simply live in a state of untroubled accordance with the world and the faith of their childhood, but rather, aware of suffering and evil and thus on the basis of a sense of melancholy, experience a new breakthrough to faith. Here again, Taylor delves deeper into history, the subject of modern melancholy in this case, than James himself did. I was very impressed by his warning, directed against Max Weber and Marcel Gauchet, not to interpret the history of religion “as though from the beginning we could see it as an answer to the inherent meaninglessness of things.” This might well be to rush to the conclusion that a modern problem of meaning is an anthropological universal. The remainder of the lecture is devoted to reconstructing James’s line of argument regarding the will or right to faith in his famous essay of 1897. Taylor distinguishes between a weaker and stronger reading of James’s argument. On the first view, James merely wished to repudiate the common notion that reason compels us to embrace agnosticism. On the second view, James went further; he, who could bring out the inner logic of conscious faith and conscious nonbelief like no other, wanted to demonstrate irrefutably the necessity of deciding. “James is our great philosopher of the cusp. He tells us more than anyone else about what it’s like to stand in that open space and feel the winds pulling you now here, now there. He describes a crucial site of modernity and articulates the decisive drama enacted there.”
The third lecture is dedicated to a diagnosis of “religion today” and thus to the issue of what James can contribute to the interpretation of the present. In a manner reminiscent of Peter Berger, Taylor equates a situation in which one “decides,” which we have just been discussing, with that of a spiritual “choice.” But this implies a religious landscape that “will be less and less hospitable to collective connections” and whose public sphere is becoming ever more secular and neutral. Taylor uses these ideas as a launchpad for a highly original typology of relations between political and religious communities. To do so, he draws on another classical figure, Émile Durkheim.
Durkheim, of course, very much building on James, developed his theory of the elementary forms of religious life, in which collective ecstasy (or as he called it, collective “effervescence”) took pride of place. For Durkheim, the existence of the church as an institution was a defining feature of religion. In Taylor’s typology, the coexistence of church and state, with “the social sacred . . . defined and served by the church,” is the true “Durkheimian situation.” Political society might, in medieval fashion, be imagined as itself pervaded with sacredness; or in the Baroque sense, whose exponents tried, against processes of disenchantment, to cling to the quasi-sacred inviolability of hierarchical orders, but were forced to compromise when, for example, “also elements of functional justification began to creep in, where monarchical rule was argued to be indispensable for order, for example.” I fail to understand quite why Taylor describes this Baroque approach, which, after all, he has characterized as partially modern, as “paleo-Durkheimian.” In any event, he further distinguishes from this a “neo-Durkheimian” and a “post-Durkheimian” path. The classic example of the former is the United States. There, the pluralism of religious denominations is firmly established historically. The separation of state and religion is necessarily bound up with this; on the other hand, through this separation, “the political entity can be identified with the broader, overarching ‘church,’ and this can be a crucial element in its patriotism.” This path makes it easy to maintain religious faith and religious practice within the process of modernization. The (mostly Catholic) “Baroque” orders, meanwhile, necessarily produced antireligious, militantly secularist counteracting forces. Finally, Taylor describes as post-Durkheimian more recent forms of society, “in which the spiritual dimension of existence is quite unhooked from the political.”
It is at this point that Taylor is able to relate his conception of burgeoning “expressive individualism,” which he has developed extensively in other works, to the diagnosis of religion. The question that arises is whether the expressive individualists still feel the slightest need “[to embed] our link to the sacred in any particular broader framework, whether ‘church’ or state.” This is indeed of central importance. But I cannot see that Taylor really answers the question he himself has posed or even provides a substantial overview of the opportunities and risks associated with expressive individualism in the religious sphere. Although his references to expressive individualists’ affinities with certain values, such as those of tolerance, are quite correct, it nonetheless remains an open question what role collective experiences play or are able to play in forging commitment to values among expressive individualists. We might, for example, ask how, under these circumstances, the value of universal human dignity can be articulated and institutionalized.
We might also ask whether key contemporary religious processes can be expressed within the Taylorian typology in the first place. The Catholic Church in the United States was, for example, never part of a “paleo-Durkheimian” model of social order; it was never located entirely within the neo-Durkheimian order, because it was for a long time eyed with suspicion with regard to its loyalty to U.S. values and because it did in fact wish to transcend these values. Finally, the “post-Durkheimian notion of choosing to join a particular denomination because it is the right one for you [is] rather uncommon among Catholics.” This example might show that Taylor’s productive emphasis on trends toward expressive individualism depends on thinking through, in far greater depth than occurs here, its potential in religious and political terms and in light of its tensions with other value orientations.
Like a coda, Taylor’s book concludes with a short final section, a summarizing response to the question “So was James right?” For all its brilliant sensitivity, James’s diagnosis, according to Taylor, is inadequate in three respects. First, Taylor considers a thoroughly “post-Durkheimian” world almost unimaginable. Collective forms of mediation between the individual and the Divine persist and are constituted in new ways: Individualistic routes to faith might even lead to the consolidation of strong religious communities. Second, the “neo-Durkheimian” model is still very much alive in varied forms of religiously based politics. And third, even religious life, which begins in a “moment of blinding insight,” often leads to demanding spiritual discipline and thus leaves behind views of the religious centered on emotion and inspiration. But Taylor winds up by acknowledging once again the validity of James’s central insight: that we should take individual religious experience as our starting point, at least for the religious analysis of the present day. As an interpretation of James, as Taylor himself concedes, his little book is certainly “idiosyncratic and selective.” As a diagnosis of religion in outline, it is highly stimulating, but nonetheless disappointing in that it merely hints at but fails to tackle in depth a large number of topics. The two slim volumes that I have dealt with here certainly provide us with more “food for thought” than the heavy tomes produced by some contemporary writers; but they also leave us hungry for more fully developed work from Taylor’s pen.
[Written prior to the publication of A Secular Age, this is an excerpt from Do We Need Religion?: On the Experience of Self-Transcendence (Paradigm Publishers, 2007).—ed.]