Friday, November 21, 2014
Charles Taylor is rightly regarded as one of the great philosophers of the age, Catholic (as he happens to be) or not. I much admired his 1992 tome Sources of the Self and regard some of his earlier papers as essential contributions to contemporary political and social theory (see, eg, the paper "Atomism" in volume 2 of his Philosophical Papers). But I found his widely renowned and commented upon A Secular Age (2009) frustratingly diffuse. I also had a hunch that the cultural diagnosis (and remedy) of my former teacher Alasdair MacIntyre was more acute but couldn't quite put my finger on the differences between Taylor and MacIntyre. Along comes my friend Matthew Rose with this splendid essay at First Things on Taylor. Here is an excerpt from Rose's conclusion, but read the whole thing to appreciate the range of his deep and critical engagement with Taylor:
The failure here is not that Taylor sets aside the authority of dogma and discourages us from entering more deeply into the wisdom of the Christian past. That’s something we’re all familiar with, not just in our secular culture that can do without the Church’s teaching, thank you, but in our own thinking as well. Taylor rightly describes our experience of modern faith as riven with contingency. Those committed to the Church have lots of interior ways to set aside the authority of dogma, even as we affirm it.
No, the failure is much greater and potentially more debilitating. By assimilating a secular way of believing with the essential content of Christian faith, A Secular Age sanctifies and makes absolute precisely what we should regard as contingent—the age in which we live. This is not to say that much of what Taylor writes about the ways secularity has altered our culture and our sense of self is wrong and should not shape academic debates. His descriptions of the secular age are compelling and deserve the wide discussion they have inspired.
But if it is true that we have reached the end of an era and now live in a secular age, it will be even more important for Christians to know what has been lost and why. This Taylor will not and perhaps cannot teach us. Instead, he makes secularism invincible to the radical criticism it most needs. Like all Hegelians, Taylor is an apologist for the present, a theologian of the secular status quo.
Alasdair MacIntyre also diagnosed our culture as fatigued by the mutual antagonisms of rival traditions. MacIntyre, however, maintained a chastened confidence in the power of human reason to guide us toward the perfected understanding that is the end of all inquiry. Our confusions and disagreements, he wrote in his Gifford Lectures, “can be a prologue not only to rational debate, but to that kind of debate from which one party can emerge as undoubtedly rationally superior.”
MacIntyre combated the prejudice, uncritically affirmed by Taylor, that secular modernity is a historical dispensation from which there is no intellectual escape. He called his work a “radical renovation” of classical traditions of thought. Its most important consequence has been a growing confidence that the work of human reason can be undertaken in a context broader than that of modernity.
We would do well to listen to Taylor, but apprentice ourselves to MacIntyre. For Christians in a post-Christian culture will need to think in terms of the most expansive of all temporal horizons—a time, bounded by the beginning and the end of God’s holy purposes, that Augustine, writing at the end of another epoch, called the saeculum.