6 September 2009

The ethic of authenticity

During the week I was trying to reconcile Dawkins militant reason and my own antipathy with the manner in which various religious institutions seek to transmit culture, the contemptious ambivalence to modesty in all but a most literal, fashion sense is, imo, most worthy of much contempt that nevertheless contends with an acceptance that life requires meaning beyond the mere transmission of the truths of natural history.

The question "how are we to live" is therefore as pertinent as ever....and good advice for both groups is hard to find. Here is some....

Listen, if you prefer (download)

a recommendation from an eminent contemporary philosopher: about a way to live in our pluralist western world - and this is a key point - whether you are religious or non-religious.

Charles Taylor: You have to see yourself as one interlocutor among many, not necessarily fully understanding all your interlocutors but open and wanting to listen and to see what makes them tick and so on. There is that other exercise of the imagination, the if you like the hermeneutic imagination: understanding the strangeness of the other, which is part of the process of dialogue. I think that is also a crucial part of it.

Margaret Coffey: Welcome to the program - I'm Margaret Coffey and you heard there Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. He doesn't just make recommendations for living as we do in an often angrily pluralist context; he also challenges received ways of thinking about contemporary culture. There are misunderstandings there he says - history that is misunderstood - and what he wants to do is to explain Western culture to itself. We'll hear some of that cliché challenging explanation in this Encounter.

At the age of 76 Charles Taylor is an extraordinarily active philosopher and a politically engaged one too. He writes about western philosophy but his work generates interest all over the world: for example, last year he was awarded the 50 million yen Kyoto Prize for arts and humanities. We'll hear from him at length in a moment - in a discussion about the place of religion in contemporary western culture - but first, a little background. Ruth Abbey has edited a recently published collection of essays about Charles Taylor's philosophy - she gives us a sense of the reasons for its capacity to engage a diverse range of people.

Ruth Abbey: His works are an invitation to dialogue and conversation. Although he is an extremely successful philosopher there is nothing forbidding or intimidating about his writing style - if anything it is a little beguiling in its conversational way because it draws you in and you nod your head and think oh sure I can go along with this, that seems right, when sometimes what you need to do I stand back and subject some of the claims to closer scrutiny. There is also the depth of knowledge he brings to each of the topics he deals with. He is extremely erudite.

Margaret Coffey: Associate Professor Ruth Abbey teaches Political Science at Notre Dame University in Indiana where she curates a Charles Taylor bibliography that's freely available on the internet. Taylor has published considerably since the 1960s and he's intensely involved in various discussion networks. But three works that have been read particularly widely appeared over a twenty year interval: Sources of the Self, was published in 1989. The Ethics of Authenticity appeared in 1991, and most recently, in 2007, A Secular Age.

Ruth Abbey: What he is trying to do in that book is to think about what the conditions and experience of being religious are in the contemporary western world. This is something that is a bit more tacit in his argument rather than formal - but he thinks that humans by their very nature have an orientation to what he calls transcendence. For Taylor transcendence involves a belief that there is a reality above and beyond human beings and that the significance of that reality has some bearing back on how we live and how we try to live even if we don't always succeed.

Margaret Coffey: And before anyone is tempted into a Dawkins/Hitchens type response!

Ruth Abbey: He's not critical of science at all. He is in many ways a realist - he believes that the truths that Western science has discovered really are truths about the physical world. But what troubles him is the priority or the primacy some people have given to scientific ways of knowing, scientific forms of epistemology, and Taylor would want to argue that there is something much more fundamental in the way we know and engage with the world. And this is a line of thinking that he has inherited from the tradition of phenomenology , from thinkers like Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, that there is a certain knowledge that we have that comes from the fact that we are embodied beings engaged in practical coping with and making our way around the world on an everyday basis. For him that is the fundamental form of human knowledge and science comes after that, science presupposes that, science tries to abstract from that but the scientific way of knowing can never explain that more fundamental, grounded, practical, active, embodied style of knowledge that we have.

Margaret Coffey: Ruth Abbey, and armed with those insights in to Taylor's fundamental ideas, we'll turn to Taylor himself on our secular age. For Encounter, Professor Taylor spoke recently from Vienna with Adelaide based theologian James McEvoy. James teaches theology at the Catholic Theological College and at Flinders University. Charles Taylor begins his discussion of religion in a secular age with a key insight. He gives an account of religion's variety of condition - from precipitate decline in his home province of Quebec, for example, to the highest ever membership of churches in the US, and, with that, its tremendous variation in kind of religion. It's an account very different from the conventional secularisation thesis of inevitable decay, a thesis developed notably by British sociologist Steve Bruce. Professor Bruce, who teaches at the University of Aberdeen, has written extensively on religion in the modern world. Charles Taylor agrees with Bruce - religion has changed in the West - but, as you'll hear, he rejects the rest of Bruce's thesis.

Charles Taylor: Religion is tremendously changed, it's tremendously varied and it goes up and down and it is even very varied in its quantity today. I think the basic thing that I call the secular age is the openness of all these possibilities, that no matter how atheistic or how pious you are, you realise you live in a world where there is this immense spread of possibilities, that you are just one among many. There is a sense of its not being at all necessarily so. And I think this is what marks the secular age. Now in this set of possibilities in any given society more people will be in one than in the other and that is one of the facts of modern life.

James McEvoy: Amidst this diversity then when you look around in the book A Secular Age you've drawn this picture from the beginnings of the 16th century to the present and you trace a changing understanding, well a whole range of developing understandings of the place of religion over that time. I wonder if you could paint that basic picture for us?

Charles Taylor: Fifteen hundred is where I start the book, sort of. You look back to religion at that time ... in a certain sense there was a form, or a very complex you know concatenation of forms that were all embracing because everywhere in your life you came across it - you might be coming across it in a local ritual to ward off evil spirits from the crops or you might come across it because you went on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela or you might come across it at a high mass at Easter. You see there was a great many different aspects to it and there was thought to be a kind of unity. It wasn't conceivable that you could be a part of this society without being part of that. Now we have an incredible if you like fragmentation of human life - I mean that is what a lot of people have seen as essential to modernity. You know the fact that there are these different spheres - that in my business life I meet a whole lot of different people than I do in my home life, or in my football team I belong to or the orchestra I belong to. There is always a different set of people, and a different set of relations and they are not integrated. And they are not integrated with the whole society and they are not integrated with any with any world outlook. There is this kind of splaying apart, fragmentation, whatever you want to call it. And that means the kind of religion that existed in a Catholic monarchy of 1500 is just inconceivable today. There has to be another kind of religion which is more personally committed, more connecting me to certain people and not others, not necessarily related to everything else that I do, 'though I can relate it myself. That's the kind of religion that exists today. I think the Bruce idea, Steve Bruce's idea of religious indifference is really very, very wrong. I mean there is religious indifference in this sense: whenever there are lots and lots of possibilities some of them seem to me to be more attractive than others and some of them seem to me to be just off - I don't need to spend much time thinking about them. A lot of people feel that about religion today and even some religious people feel that way about unbelief but it is much more common to have unbelievers if you like feel that way about religion today. The kind of indifference that Bruce is talking about is something much more radical and I just don't see that happening, because he sees religious options as becoming as weird as some of the stranger notions coming out of Star Trek. And that to me is not possible for a very profound reason - that we still go on, people who don't believe still go on as defining themselves as people who don't believe. Their definition of themselves is over against what used to be the dominant definition. In that sense, the transcendent is always there as a possibility for people.

James McEvoy: Part of this contrast between that 16th century world and our own is around understandings of the self. You trace an immense shift in the way that we understand ourselves as human beings now in contrast to the way that people back there did - in fact you talk about the difference between porous self, that living in a sort of magical environment almost, and the buffered contemporary self. I wonder if you would let us into that world for a moment.

Charles Taylor: I mean this is very hard thing to define and I am sure that I haven't properly defined it, but I think it is extremely important. You can see it just in geography today; you can see in certain parts of Africa for instance that there is a completely different sense of spiritual forces and so on surrounding people there. And It is that shift in experience - the ancestors that did all these rituals to keep the wood spirits away from the cattle and so on had a very strong sense of potential threat which they had to do these rituals and so on to combat. And, the development of what I call the buffered self is a self that no longer feels that threat, that feels invulnerable to that, right, and there is a certain sense of almost relief and a sense of self-containment that goes with that and you can see the sign of it is that people now like to get a frisson by going to see films about witchcraft and so on whereas you know 300 years ago they would think you were absolutely out of your mind if you found sort of amusement in this. But at the same time, it is very clear if you look at how this is being lived in the last centuries that a lot of people feel this, exactly this, invulnerability from another point of view as a kind of desensitisation. They've lost something. If you like the whole Romantic Movement is full of a reaction where people are saying there is something bigger out there; there are bigger forces out there. I think of Wordsworth's notion of the great force moving through all things and so on, and their whole attempt is if you like to recover a certain sensibility which they never can quite do in the original form. But you can see that this, what is very good as an invulnerability, can turn around to be something very imprisoning, as a loss of sensitivity, a loss of contact with a larger world. And I think that tension is absolutely constitutive of modern Western experience.

James McEvoy: You pointed out strongly there the down side that the Romantic Movement sensed strongly: the lack of contact with what is outside of ourselves. Seems to me there are also benefits there you know - we are so profoundly buffered selves today - we live with the advances of modern science, nobody would want to forgo medical technology, there is a whole understanding of self that emerges out of this buffered self in which we are deeply implicit...

Charles Taylor: Yes, absolutely, and that is why you find that with some Romantics perhaps some of the deepest Romantics, there is an attempt not to go back but to recover what was lost in a new form. The conception of modern freedom, the self understanding of modern freedom, the sense that we can control our lives, is something they don't want to give up but they have the sense that we have to recover some functional equivalence of what they had before. I mean one of the most important strains in a lot of post Romantic thought is this idea of both/and. We have to somehow bring together again two sides of ourselves which have developed and the development of one was at the expense of the other but we don't want to give up either. And I think that that of course is what you see in Hegel, what you see in Marx, what you see in a whole host of other thinkers in the modern world, what you saw in various aspects of the sixties and so on - there is always this aspiration to put it all together.


Margaret Coffey: Philosopher Charles Taylor, talking there with theologian James McEvoy, about the elements of the secular age we live in. In the next part of the discussion, Charles Taylor offers another different take: this time on religion not as victim of the secular age, but rather as progenitor! And progenitor therefore of much that is characteristic of our political, social, economic and cultural lives. Bur first, a gloss on Taylor's vocabulary. Ruth Abbey spoke earlier of just how accessible his philosophy is - he avoids technical language. But he does develop some unique concepts: you've just heard about the 'buffered self' for example. There's another Taylor concept coming up. You'll hear Charles Taylor refer to modernity as a time in which people live in an 'immanent frame,'

Ruth Abbey: The 'immanent frame' is a very important concept in A Secular Age. And it's a concept that some people have misunderstood. Taylor argues that the immanent frame is a key distinguishing feature of western modernity. You can think about the economy, the public sphere, the purpose of government, as simply serving human needs. It can serve them more or less well but the rationale for all these institutions can be given in a way that is simply human or immanent, in a way that makes no reference to God or some wider religious or transcendent reality. However, he wants to argue that you can live within the immanent frame in an open or a closed way. If you live the immanent frame in a closed way, you deny the existence of any transcendent reality - but we can also remain open to the transcendent while going on living within the immanent frame and that is Taylor's preferred model, if you like, for living religion in the modern western world.

So, I think he really needed to add a question mark to the title of A Secular Age because the title itself sounds like a pronouncement - here is our age, it is secular, there is an 'immanent frame' and that is our fate. And that is not really what he is trying to say.

Margaret Coffey: Ruth Abbey ... and now - on Radio National's Encounter - the next part of the discussion between Charles Taylor and James McEvoy - about Taylor's subversive history of modernity: he begins the history of modernity much further back than is usual, and then, in an interesting way he sheets modernity home to religion. Here's James McEvoy.


James McEvoy: Can I move on to the next idea about the role of religion in creating the secular age. That seems a very striking aspect of your account. You point out that the church in the late medieval and early modern period had a growing concern with reform, which you have a capital R for. Quote: a drive to make over the whole of society to higher standards. How do you see this drive to reform at work?

Charles Taylor: Well I think you still of course see it in all the kinds of reform movements we see in our politics trying to clean things up , make them work better, have a perfect democracy, have a citizenship which perfectly respects the rights of others and so on and so on. This is very clearly a lineal descendent of the whole movement for reform which you can see starting in the 11th century with Hildebrand moving through the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Counter-Reformation and on - that the driving idea was that the present state of affairs was a kind of uneasy compromise between the demands of the Gospel on one hand and the order of things in this world, the type of power that had to be there in kings and emperors, the various kinds of compromise that had to be made with violence, with soldiers, with armies, with battle and so on. There is a sense of a continuing compromise. You have that earlier with Augustine's idea of the two cities, the city of God and the human city. And the idea behind reform, or the drive behind reform, the temptation to reform, is that we don't need to live in this conflicted, intermediary, bad compromise. We can move to make over everybody so that they fully reflect the demands of the Gospel and there isn't a necessity for kind of two sides to things any more, two demands on us anymore. I think you can see this moving forward in a way I don't fully understand because the ante was upped as it were every time: what Hildebrand, the Pope, in the 11th century was demanding -well what Calvin eventually demanded went well beyond this and what further reformers after went well beyond this and It ended up producing a well ordered, disciplined, organised society, one which was so well organised and so controlling of its environment that it in a certain sense began to eclipse the very notion of the transcendent. It's a society that we can now live as what I call immanent frame, where it sort of explains itself in its own terms and doesn't need to refer to a transcendent, though it allows for a transcendent. And in a certain sense at that point you can see various movements breaking off carrying on a program of reform while throwing aside the original impetus. So something like the Jacobins in the French Revolution are an excellent example of that - I mean they are carrying on this idea of let's reform everybody into a really good ordered citizen, fully loyal to the Republic, and taking on all the virtues of following nature and treating other people as equals and so on, but will do that without any reference to the ...what was the original impetus, which is living the life God wanted us to live. And I think the drive to reform we still see in our world is a continuation of that. It is part of the almost the cultural DNA of the modern West.

James McEvoy: Another implication just from a religious perspective is that there is a tendency in many religious thinkers to think of modernity as something that has happened to the churches and if only we could only get back to prior to that we'd get rid ourselves of this godless world, you know, whereas this picture of the effect of reform makes it very clear that secularisation is something that is brought about by the drive to reform itself.

Charles Taylor: Yes, the splitting off of a set of unbelieving outlooks on the world from this is a kind of own goal in a certain sense of the Christian drive to reform. You see, when one really successfully managed to, supposedly anyway, integrate the demands of the gospel right though ordinary life, right through the life of people in their families, in their productive lives and so on, you made this what looked like a kind of perfect system, the kind of thing that the Enlightenment eventually referred to, a kind of perfect system of behaviour, the perfect system in which everyone operates as a good citizen and equally with others and so on. Once you create this sense it can go along with the notion that, heh, we can do this. we human beings can do this, we don't necessarily need grace or some power from above - the whole 18th century is full of this, you find among elites the idea that, heh, we can do certain things, for instance we don't need to suffer these regular plagues which kill off I don't know what percentage of the population, we have ways of organising, quarantine. But the sense that we can do this - that human beings can do this alone, can play into a sense that we don't need the church, we don't need God. So in a certain sense as it were the bases for it were laid by the actual reform movements in the church.


Margaret Coffey: So there it is. On Radio National's Encounter, abc.net.au/rn, you're listening to the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, author most recently of A Secular Age. Listening to his account of the reform movement makes one think that there is much more that is religious in Australian history - and in contemporary debate - than is perhaps generally recognised. Take the way reform segues towards conformity.

Charles Taylor: Yes, its conformist effect is very, very strong. I mean take for instance - I hate to single this out but - the Protestant Reformation itself you can see a very radical homogenisation, a kind of crushing of the variety and difference in the forms of spirituality that existed before. I mean there were forms of spirituality of monks, of anchorites, of people who were totally outside ordinary life, and people who were in ordinary life but with in a rather strange relationship to it. And the consecration of a single way of being, married, family life, in a calling, with a sense of piety and so on. So you can see this, and indeed all forms of Puritanism this kind of homogenisation of peoples' lives. And you see it today in the contemporary church - in every Catholic Church in many parts of the world imposing in even clearer fashion a single way of being a sexual being, and we're not going to have any truck with homosexuality and so on and so on and so on. You see this reform drive homogenises, it allows for only one, or a small number of forms of correct, proper living. So one of the big things you find with the Romantics again is a defence of the heterogeneous, a defence of the offbeat, a defence of the different, a defence even of the shocking. Of course this pushes people like Byron and Nietzsche very, very far. But that's part of the tension that we are in in the modern world and the greatest force against this homogenisation, which is I would say today the ethic of authenticity - its basic thrust is that every person has their own way of being so you have to fight against this homogenising conforming force - that comes right out of the Romantic period, comes out of people like Herder and others. But we wouldn't have this kind of reaction if we didn't live in a world where the other force was so powerful - the force towards conformity, towards uniformity.

Conformity also goes along with a very important feature of the modern world, the rule of law. And if nonconformity, if originality is going to be destroying that, it is going to be destroying ..well... its most important protection. So there again all the attempts at human life in the modern world I think are filled with potential dilemmas, precisely because we are trying to have our cake and eat it; in a certain sense we are trying to have what we gained and trying to regain some of the things we have sacrificed in the process of gaining those first things.


Margaret Coffey: Philosopher Charles Taylor, talking there with James McEvoy. You heard Taylor characterise the modern world as filled with potential dilemmas. Taylor's philosophy is about thinking through some of these dilemmas, including dilemmas produced by modernity's pluralism. In a multicultural, pluralistic society like Australia, for example, how do we resolve differences, and what kind of language do we use to conduct our discussions in the public space? Here's Ruth Abbey.

Ruth Abbey: The public space is indeed a very pluralistic one and in fact Taylor believes that the whole religious scene in the modern world is a profoundly pluralistic one. And in this way his project is much closer to the work of John Rawls who is an important 20th century liberal thinker in English language political philosophy. This comes out more clearly in a document he published about a year ago now, which was an enquiry into cultural diversity in his home province of Quebec. Taylor was the co-chair of a commission that travelled around Quebec, engaged in public hearings, did a lot research about cultural diversity and religious diversity as a part of that cultural diversity. And when you read that report - it's a 300 page document - his position on the role of religion in public life strikes me as very Rawlsian. So I think there is something of a convergence between these two thinkers.

Margaret Coffey: Many people decipher a language of reason, a language which we supposedly can all share in this public space, but Charles Taylor has something to say about that, doesn't he? It's not that distinctive and autonomous as we might like to think?

Ruth Abbey: That's right - it won't be distinctive and it won't be autonomous and the idea that you could find a language of reason that was somehow neutral and impartial that could rise above the conflicting perspectives is something that he would be suspicious of. But it seems to me that there is a similarity between the two because Taylor argues that one of the ways in which religion is experienced in the modern world is through what he calls cross pressures and fragilisation and what he means by this [is] that anyone living in the modern western world has to realise that there is this plurality of religious positions and that people who hold different religious views from one's own are not all stupid or wicked or immoral. And this is very close to Rawls' concept of the burdens of judgement, that when someone else arrives at a different conclusion from us we can't just say you're wrong or you're stupid. The free exercise of their reason has led them in one direction; the free exercise of someone else's reason has led them in another direction. So it is not as if for Rawls reason is going to dictate an outcome that everyone will be able to agree upon. When you take this insight into account in order to respect the freedom and equality of other people you have to acknowledge that plurality of thinking, that diversity of thinking that for Rawls as for Taylor will be ineradicable in modern western societies. Only through government oppression could we end that diversity.


Margaret Coffey: We'll return to Charles Taylor in a moment, this time in an explicitly religious vein. But first another gloss on his wonderfully evocative and telling vocabulary. Along with the 'buffered self', and the 'immanent frame', he's come up with the 'ethic of authenticity'.

Ruth Abbey: He argues that the ethic of authenticity is something that is unique to western modernity. This idea that there is, if not a true me, then there is a way of being in the world, that is genuinely mine, that is not bred of conformity, not in any way artificial, that's not in any way based on self deception, this sense of being true to who I am in my own unique fashion. The interesting thing that Taylor does with that is to show that this idea of being true to yourself in your own unique fashion is itself a cultural product. Taylor doesn't run it down for that reason - on the contrary, he's trying to put it into context, show it as a modern development and in many ways he talks about the positive things that have grown out of this ethic of authenticity.

Margaret Coffey: And in his book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor talks about how this ethic of authenticity imbues religious thinking in the modern world - it has a powerful influence, he says, on the way individuals think about religion. James McEvoy again, talking with Professor Taylor.

James McEvoy: One sentence that I am very fond of in A Secular Age describes the place of religion in the age of authenticity. You say the religious life or practice that I become part of must not only be my choice but it must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this. Now clearly this presents some strong challenges in different ways and perhaps we will get to those in a moment. But it seems to me that it captures the perspective of a wide range of believers. It reminds me of perhaps Augustine's most famous line, "You've made us for yourself O God and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." Perhaps the most liberal and the most conservative believer would see their faith as making sense of their spiritual development. Do you see this understanding as a gain?

Charles Taylor: Absolutely. You know, 'cause I mean your quote from Augustine really I think points that up. It touches something very deep in the whole Christian revelation - that it's not about conformity to a single model but it is about communion between people who come to God and to each other through very different paths. This sense of course was always there in the church: you think of all the strange offbeat saints, St Francis, St Ignatius Loyola, and so on who went through extraordinary itinerary including sometimes a very important itinerary in their lives before they became followers of Christ. And you see these itineraries in all their difference converging and somehow these converging but different paths get canonised afterwards. But then the same church that canonises them very often wants to impose total conformity, a single path, on people today. Now, you can open this up in a much more creative way I think if you take the step into an ethic of authenticity - in that sense there is a fuller living of this feature of the Christian tradition. Obviously there are also losses, that lots of people go off in other directions. Now, that's path of the package, but this positive side of the package from a Christian point of view is that this very, very important feature of the whole Christian vision which I try to sum up with the notion of communion of saints, people coming through different itineraries, is finally given its full force, it can finally breath fully in a certain sense in the life of Christians today.

James McEvoy: You've already said that the age of authenticity has a down side for religious traditions, or at least makes some things difficult. I think in the book you say that it can easily lead to trivial spiritual options. I was presenting this picture of religion in the age of authenticity to a staff of a large Catholic school in the West of Adelaide and in response to your sentence about faith making sense of my spiritual development, one very talented and also very committed teacher said some of my students turn to Madonna for spiritual nourishment and they are not thinking about the mother of Jesus. I wonder how you would respond to her.

Charles Taylor: I mean I think two thoughts on that question. Number one, there are gains and losses and this gain is very important. But number two, when you have this kind of real civilisational shift, in which the mindset in which everybody lives changes, you just can't go back to the older forms and the creative response of Christians and of the Church to this is to be part of the process of searchers, sharing their search, to show how much Christian faith is a kind of set of paths of search, as against a set of already given answers before you even ask a question, right? What we have to take from this is a way of speaking to this world rather than trying to roll it back to what it was before 1800, which apart from the fact that it would forgo the important gains, is actually utterly impossible.

James McEvoy: It seems to me an implication of that is that it's not that you are implying that the Gospel is any less important or that we have to shear off different aspects of it, but that we have to find a new way to proclaim it in this age.

Charles Taylor: This is something that again points up what was always there, that is that there are all these different paths. Astonishingly enough in a very early part of the modern period before the West got really arrogant in the 19th century, there were missionaries, Jesuit missionaries for instance Matteo Ricci in China and De'Nobili in India in China who had this idea well that the faith is not something that belongs to Western civilisation, it is something, people come at it from all these different directions, and we have to help the people here find their own very different path. Now in a certain sense that is already multiculturalism and in a certain sense it is the same spirit behind the notion of authenticity. So, a germ that was there has now really flourished in the 20th and 21st century in the West. This is not to say that we are compromising or shearing off parts of the Christian faith but we are finding a way for very different people to come together in it.

Margaret Coffey: On ABC Radio National's Encounter, you've been listening to Charles Taylor emerge as a philosopher who is a religious person. Two things you've gathered about Taylor that are important: he's from Quebec, and he is religious.

Ruth Abbey: He grew up in a bilingual and bicultural family and so this has given him not only a bifocal way of thinking about language and meaning and so forth. And this made him a mediator, someone always looking for common ground between the two, and this has been a powerful motif in all of his philosophical thinking. And he does this in A Secular Age when he talks about people who are absolutely religiously committed and people who are absolutely committed to the reality of atheism and he tries to show that these two groups have more in common in their style of thinking than either would really like to recognise.
Until the publication of A Secular Age, many people would have read Taylor's work not knowing that he was a Catholic. It wasn't relevant to the issues that he discussed, it didn't come out in his arguments. It began slowly with the end of his 1989 book Sources of the Self when in the last pages of that work he ponders whether the very demanding ethics that we have these days of universal solidarity can be sustained without some sort of religious underpinnings. But it is most powerfully evident in this work A Secular Age. It is not typical for philosophers to come out with statements of their religious positions so Taylor was taking some risks.

Margaret Coffey: So, finally, Charles Taylor on the religious perspective. Here's James McEvoy putting the question.

James McEvoy: In the book you draw a contrast between two different understandings of human fulfilment - what you call the immanence perspective and the transformation perspective. And you are saying there that this secular age is in a sense less hospitable to the transformation perspective. I should be more clear about those two perspectives: the immanence perspective and the transformation perspective where human flourishing is seen in the very goods of human life like family or community or career, and the transformation perspective where good is found in a God who is way beyond human flourishing. I think your argument is that the secular age itself is less hospitable to the transformation perspective. It is difficult to open the immanent frame, to use another of your images.

Charles Taylor: Yeh it is hard to say just what I wanted to say there because in a certain sense that is true - I mean the very fact that we have this notion of a self sufficient immanent world - which you know people in the middle ages wouldn't have understood what you meant because everywhere the forces of spirits and so on, of God, are working so that it isn't a self-contained world - but the fact that we can live in this world can be an invitation to some people to think well there is nothing beyond it. And that means that not only, you know, there isn't a God but this notion of transformation, we can't expect people to transform themselves beyond what it would mean to be a good citizen, a good lover of one's family, a benevolent human being and so on. The kinds of extraordinary transformation we find in a Francis of Assisi would make us uneasy as it made David Hume uneasy in the 18th century - this is not possible and if you try to do this kind of thing you are going to not only break your teeth but you are going to take on some kind of terrible self-distortion. So, the possibility of becoming really in a certain sense sanctified and the sense that that is not possible, that we have got to keep our sights low, these two reactions just grind against each other in our world. And in a certain sense it's easier to take the immanent perspective today, but in another sense a lot of people feel a tremendous hunger out of that. See, every one of these things works in both ways. The sense of being enclosed in the immanent world is for some people a comfort and for other people a sense of imprisonment. So how does it all add up: it is harder, is it less hard? Well in different ways it is each.

James McEvoy: Something about hope Charles: the book seems an immensely hopeful work - it is an immense work that draw together philosophical and historical perspectives as well as those of social and political theory and sees itself as giving an adequate, a good account of each of those, which is just an amazing task. Yet it is also immensely hopeful. I wonder what kind of hope does your view of the place of religion offer.

Charles Taylor: I think it is a strong but, where's the word, limited, I mean it's - that there is always some path further to tread. That's the point, that one can see a new kind of frontier that we have to move on to, this frontier of dialogical, diversified world or church that's still in communion, connecting. Dialogue really requires some sense of communion. If you break any sense of commonality with your interlocutor then the dialogue is over, right. So, there is this movement that we can make to open up something that is perpetually in danger of being closed in our world, being closed not only by very narrow definitions of the church's function but being closed by various kinds of narrow negation of God altogether. So, the hope that there is always some further direction to walk in, there is always some further road to move, that we are not at the end point, that - it's in a way obvious to me. But why limited? Because how far will this go? How much will this produce, how much evil will this actually avoid right now, all the terrible things going on and so on, I just don't know. You have to just in this sense take this road and hope that it produces certain good effects, which it may not.

Margaret Coffey: And you take this road, Charles Taylor says, through dialogue.

Charles Taylor: The stance of dialogue is really a stance where you recognise that there very likely is something deep and powerful that makes some kind of sense in animating the lives of other people. I mean there also can be moves towards evil and so on that you plainly see but there can also be something you don't understand now but it is there and you really want to understand it. It is that kind of opening to the possibility which makes all the difference. And then when you can get an interlocutor who has the similar reciprocal stance, it is extraordinary how things change. In two ways: I mean one, you throw away the crutch of supporting your own faith by looking on that person as being some kind of depraved figure, and that itself does you immense amount of good because faith only grows through living in the doubts. And secondly, you do discover that there are things there you never suspected, but that are really quite remarkable, that there is a kind of complementarity between yourself and those others, even people from very different religious perspectives, atheists and so on. This stance can open up something and open up into a kind of friendship across these barriers where you both know you have gained tremendously from the exchange and there is a sense of solidarity in this, which is again from the Christian point of view, is what life is all about. Life is about communion across distances.
So you get the sense that something very new and very creative is happening here.


Margaret Coffey: This has been Encounter - Charles Taylor and A Secular Age. My thanks to Charles Taylor, and to Ruth Abbey and James McEvoy. Professor Taylor is the Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at McGill University in Montreal. Rev Dr James McEvoy is a theologian who teaches at Adelaide's Catholic Theological College and at Flinders University. Associate Professor Ruth Abbey teaches in the political science department of Notre Dame University in the United States and she is also the curator of a web-based Charles Taylor bibliography. She has written and edited studies of Charles Taylor's philosophical thinking. You'll find a transcript of this program at Radio National abc.net.au/rn - just locate Encounter. Along with the transcript there'll be further information about each of the participants, book references and interesting weblinks. Charles Taylor's subtle ideas bear another listening session .. so don't forget the podcast version - at Encounter, on Radio National, abc.net.au. Technical production of this program was by Chris Lawson. I'm Margaret Coffey.


No comments: