catholic-modernity.jpgSince the publication of his magisterial book Sources of the Self in 1989 at the latest, Charles Taylor’s work has become well known and highly respected in philosophy and the social sciences the world over. Monographs and collections of critical articles on his work have begun to appear in the past few years; his reconstruction of the crucial values and value innovations characteristic of the Western tradition seems set to have a lasting and profound influence on intellectual life. Some readers of Sources, particularly its last few chapters, might have wondered how exactly Taylor’s indirect plea for theism, which he makes there, might be related to his personal religious conviction. But the book itself and Taylor’s publications in general make it rather difficult to answer this emerging question. As George Marsden remarks, “Only the most acute readers might surmise that the author is Catholic, if they did not know that already.” Taylor’s hesitation with regard to this issue is completely understandable. Another leading Christian philosopher of our time, Paul Ricoeur, did not incorporate those of his Gifford Lectures that included discussion of theological matters in the volume Oneself As Another because of his horror of the thought of being perceived as more of a “crypto-theologian” than a philosopher. Within philosophical and scientific discourse, arguments must indeed be developed with the intention of convincing everyone, irrespective of his religious or other commitments. But elucidating the relationship between knowledge and faith in Taylor’s work is at least of importance to understanding his work in context, if not to determining what constitutes a viable conception of Christian thinking today.

The book A Catholic Modernity, though very small, illuminates these issues in a rich and rewarding manner. It grew out of a talk given by Taylor in 1996 as part of a lecture series at the University of Dayton, Ohio. This was explicitly conceived as an opportunity to invite prominent Catholic intellectual figures to reflect in personal terms on the issues outlined above. Taylor’s lecture is introduced here by James Heft, a Marianist priest and representative of the host institution. Four distinguished scholars present their reactions to Taylor’s lecture, and finally Taylor comments on these responses and provides some concluding reflections.

The centerpiece of the book is Taylor’s lecture entitled “A Catholic Modernity?”. It is written in the style that has become Taylor’s trademark: modest and dialogical, but forceful in its metaphorical creativity. Taylor’s key literary device in this lecture is his introduction of Matteo Ricci, the famous Jesuit missionary in China four centuries ago. Ricci had set out to preach the Christian faith to the Chinese, but he became deeply impressed by Chinese religion and culture and discovered the intricacies of an enterprise that has been called “preaching wisdom to the wise” (F. Clooney). Taylor attempts to look at our modern civilization in a similar way, as “another of those great cultural forms that have come and gone in human history”; he invites us to think about “what it means to be a Christian here, to find our authentic voice in the eventual Catholic chorus.” He is fully aware that it is both easier and more difficult to see our own post-Enlightenment civilization as Ricci saw China. It is easier because our culture is still pervaded by Christian elements despite all secularization; we need not start from scratch when we reflect upon Christianity in our culture. But it is also more difficult because modernity, at least in Europe, is so often defined as anti-Christian. But such a dichotomous view, which implies that post- or anti-Christian modernity features no more than remnants of a Christian past, is misleading. Against this notion, Taylor defends his core thesis: “that in modern, secularist culture there are mingled together both authentic developments of the gospel, of an incarnational mode of life, and also a closing off to God that negates the gospel. The notion is that modern culture, in breaking with the structures and beliefs of Christendom, also carried certain facets of Christian life further than they ever were taken or could have been taken within Christendom. In relation to the earlier forms of Christian culture, we have to face the humbling realization that the breakout was a necessary condition of the development.” Taylor’s thesis closely resembles the reform of Catholic self-understanding during the buildup to and course of the Second Vatican Council. The goal of total fusion of the Christian faith with a particular society is not only considered unrealistic but not worth pursuing, even dangerous. Taylor’s Catholicism accepts functional differentiation and the importance of a public sphere as “the locus of competing ultimate visions.” He goes so far as to send “a vote of thanks to Voltaire and others for (not necessarily wittingly) showing us this and for allowing us to live the gospel in a purer way, free of that continual and often bloody forcing of conscience which was the sin and blight of all those ‘Christian’ centuries.”

This central thesis also explains the title of the book. Taylor is situating himself in continuity neither with the so-called Catholic modernism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries nor with pleas for a “modern Catholicism,” whatever that might be. Rather, he defends the role of Catholicism within modernity, that is, the pluralistic discourse of the contemporary world.

Well, one might reply, that is fine for Taylor and the Catholic Church, but what does it add to this discourse? Is his move anything more than a belated adaptation of Catholicism to the world of liberalism and democracy? In the second part of his lecture, Taylor tackles these more far-reaching questions, and here his claims are certainly more controversial. Although secular humanists might accept, for example, that human rights might be based on elements of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and although they might also welcome a Catholic plea for pluralism, they continue to assume that “human life is better off without transcendental vision altogether. The development of modern freedom is then identified with the rise of an exclusive humanism—that is, one based exclusively on a notion of human flourishing, which recognizes no valid aim beyond this.” From a Christian viewpoint, this secular humanist attitude is unacceptable; for Taylor, accepting this view would mean undergoing a “spiritual lobotomy.” And he goes on to demonstrate that there is “something that matters beyond life, on which life itself originally draws.” This can, of course, easily be misunderstood as a reversal of the modern “affirmation of ordinary life,” which Taylor himself described so sensitively in Sources of the Self. But Taylor distinguishes very clearly between the alleged tendency for the avoidance of suffering to play an increasingly smaller role in public policy and “opening the way for the insight that more than life matters.” He is not going to convince anybody by rational means here, but he can at least expose the self-serving attitude of “secular humanists” blind to the possibility that their denial of transcendence might have destructive consequences. He outlines a dialectic of secular humanism. On the psychological level, this relates to the pitfalls of social reform or philanthropic action untempered by unconditional love for the beneficiaries and realistic pessimism about the human potential for change, and, in fact, based on utopian historical visions or moralistic expectations. On the philosophical level, a parallel dialectic is at work in the relationship between secular humanism and Nietzscheanism. Influenced by René Girard, Taylor speculates on the fascination with death and violence as “at base a manifestation of our nature as homo religious.” Embracing transcendence without returning to the fusion of faith and secular order is Taylor’s way out of the present crisis of reason.

There is little disagreement among Taylor and the other contributors to the volume; the responses are more complementary than critical. George Marsden, a leading Protestant American historian, encourages Christian scholars to follow Taylor’s example and deploy their religious faith in a similarly productive and visible manner in their work; Jean Bethke Elshtain supports Taylor’s pluralism with reflections on Augustine’s Trinitarian theology, which sees God as a unity in diversity and underlines that humans were created in his image. Rosemary Luling Haughton emphasizes contemporary activism, new mythologies (such as that of Tolkien), and the need for an anti-ascetic revision of our views of the Christian conception of life as something to be enjoyed. I found the contribution by William Shea the most stimulating. Shea, author of a remarkable book on the history of U.S. philosophy of religion, adds important historical substance to Taylor’s claims by elaborating their relationship to Catholic modernism and church doctrine. He supports Taylor’s conclusions about the dialectics of secular humanism with critical reflections on John Dewey. At the end of the book, Taylor himself discusses his earlier critique of Foucault’s deeply “anti-dialogical” philosophy and his resistance to the exclusion from the field of philosophy proper of the problem of moral motivation; he brings out how these issues are connected with his attempt “to change the agenda” of contemporary thinking in ways that make it at least possible to articulate Christian motives.

This small book does far more than help contextualize Taylor’s thinking. It addresses questions crucial to contemporary moral and religious debates in a thought-provoking manner. My only major critical question is whether Taylor’s view of contemporary atheism is not far too optimistic. He sees atheism mostly in terms of secular humanism on the one hand and neo-Nietzscheanism on the other, and this might be true of the more or less secularized societies of Western Europe. But what about secularized post-communist societies, from East Germany to Russia (with the significant exception of Poland)? The value orientations prevailing in these countries are hardly best described as “secular humanism.” We could be dealing here with a new version of a-religiosity and anti-religiosity, which cannot be conceived as a continuation of earlier Christian motives. Although it is often easy to reach a consensus on values in the case of “secular humanism,” concerning human rights for example, in these societies the situation is far more complex. Believers, who are in the minority, might either be embattled or condescended to. Here, a dialogue between Christianity and Enlightenment might appear profoundly eccentric. These are not objections to Taylor’s convincing arguments but matters that Taylor’s Central European sympathizers cannot resist mentioning.

[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.]