Oviedo Lluis ,
Relationes bibliographicae: The Ongoing Discussion on Taylor’s a Secular Age,
Antonianum, 88/1 (2013) p. 169-179
The amount and quality of reactions to Charles Taylor’s A secular Age make this essay a ‘living work’. Since its publication in 2007 there has been an unending wave of intense discussion and engagement. Collections of papers are being published and made available for open readership, thus extending the debate to more voices, further replies, and deepening the disputed arguments.
A feeling of epochal revision invades the academic milieu, affecting philosophers, historians, sociologists, and – to a lesser extent – theologians and religion scholars. Taylor’s book projects actuality and relevance onto secularization issues; it becomes a ‘hot topic’; current views have been deeply challenged and the burden of proof is apparently being shifted to the other side: secularists seem to be put on the defensive.
A Secular Age re-opens the game and changes the rules of how Western history has been understood, in terms of the role of religion and the contingent progress of an ‘immanent realm’. Secularization has been presented by many scholars as the cipher of indifference regarding religious issues, as the fading away of transcendence. Its most threatening aspects have been the apparent irrelevance it induces, its self-concealment as a phenomenon worthy of attention, its ‘taken-for-grantedness’. It just happened, and being the name given to an ‘absence’, it manages to elude theoretical understanding. Theologians have especially avoided the topic, as they felt it to be like dealing with a ‘black hole’ in their repertoire, a threat engulfing every religious concept. Taylor has changed all this, paying due attention to something of transcendent importance if we want to know our time and its conditions, especially so for religious faith.
Three titles deserve attention when trying to follow the ongoing discussion regarding A Secular Age; the third one collects together interesting new essays of Taylor’s that help to better appreciate his own contribution.
1. Michael Warner, Jonathan Vanantderpen, and Craig Calhoun, Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, Cambridge, MA, London, UK: Harvard University Press, 2010, p. 337, ISBN: 978-0-674-04857-7 (Hbk.).
This book collects 12 essays, a long Editor’s introduction and an afterword by Taylor himself, answering many of the questions arising from these pages. Its genesis dates back to a conference held in Yale in 2008, a year after the publication of Taylor’s work. The contributions to the conference later continued to develop until they converged into the current text.
A way to organize the valuable materials in the framework of a short review is to look at what the contributors highlight, try to correct or else openly criticize in Taylor’s work. In this sense, a set of essays try to expand the proposed vision, to add some new perspective, comparing Taylor’s thought with those of other big names, or with alternative views of the modern history of ideas. Another category of contributions highlights aspects which are absent, or not accounted for in that extensive historical and philosophical reconstruction.
A different group directly challenges some points or even the global approach applied in trying to understand modern secularity. In most cases authors offer their own hermeneutics of the book, stressing its more significant aspects. Sometimes their different perspectives seem to merge. All of them help to deepen and to shed light on many dimensions of that book, which had remained hidden even from its earlier reviewers.
A number of contributors organize a sort of imaginary conversation with Taylor. This is the case of the sociologist R. Bellah, who involves himself in its multi-sided dialogue with M. Masao and Habermas, looking both for shared aspects and specific traits in each approach. Similar exercises of ‘imagined conversation’ bring Feuerbach and Marx onto the scene (W. Brown), suggesting a greater role for ‘historical forces’ like capital in the shaping of the modern predicament.
S. During emphasizes a limit in Taylor’s analysis: the neglect of ‘material causes’; his aim is to correct the applied visual, since a ‘mundane’ realm arises beyond the distinction between religious and secular, opening a proper place for the modern self.
The theologian J. Milbank recognizes Taylor’s genealogy as very close to his own approach, adding just some ‘riders’ or emphases. Following cliches coined by the ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ movement, a sort of ‘bad theology’ is blamed for bringing about secularization. A. Bilgrami plays a similar game, assuming Taylor’s genealogy to advance his own case. A strong suspicion arises from modern attempts to “disenchant” nature in order to make it more available for exploitation.
Furthermore, the loss of the subjective dimension within a modern view that increasingly overlooks the role of personal agency expresses the “disenchanting” process and its disastrous consequences more hypothetically.
Some of the essays included in the present book assume a ‘literary critic’ approach. This is the case of W.E. Connolly and of C. Jager, who read A Secular
Age as a romantic and poetic retelling of modern history, with all the undertones of a new ‘narrative’.
The process described by Taylor can be extended in different ways. The much quoted sociologist J. Casanova explores one of them, as he tries to develop the potential overcoming of the dialectics between the religious and the secular, pointing to a sort of ‘postsecular’ stage, not only in Europe, after the completion of a cycle, when the secular will have exhausted its own potentials and resources.
Some alternative extensions of Taylor’s paradigm – both spatial and religious – are offered by Nilufer Gole and Saba Mahmood. In the first case, the secular is perceived as a ‘civilizational power’, linked to processes of colonialism or to the expansion of Western cultural models as a way of dealing with politics, religion and even sexuality. Such a case becomes more apparent in the Turkish context. Mahmood questions the pretended universalism of a Christian Western model that appears as unique to Taylor, and denounces the absence of ‘other’ religious forms and ways to deal with the secular, beyond the Western pattern.
Still more critical papers are contained in this collection, debunking to some extent the method and contents of Taylor’s program. J. Butler, for instance, points to Taylor’s failure to account for details, to the inaccuracy of his historical diagnoses, and above all, to his inability to account for contemporary religious indifference, and its very disrupting meaning for the pattern developed in A Secular Age. Similar criticism is expounded by J. Sheehan, who offers a historical record which plainly challenges the one Taylor used to build up his thesis. At the same time, he shows his skepticism regarding the apologetic dimension of Taylor’s work, and its promise of a renewed Christian frame.
Taylor himself has contributed an afterword, his own ‘Apologia pro libro suo’, in order to answer to some of the criticism received, and to move the discussion a step further. He justifies the theoretical character of his book, aimed at building a narrative which is meant to be alternative to the one he considers dominant. To challenge the current version of things, a compelling new history is required. This explains the slight amount of detail, the difficulty in accounting for the available empirical data, and in extending such a model to other world areas and religions. His last pages make a touching appeal for a broad conversation, where different models of ‘human fullness’ may interact in a constructive way. This move somewhat recalls the ‘communicative action’ of Habermas’ program that – since the Eighties – has been winning many adepts among my intellectual generation.
Reading this book helps one to refresh a good deal of Taylor’s arguments and to clear up many of his points; its more than 800 pages are not easy to summarize.
The Editor’s Introduction, though, largely contributes to the necessary job of ranging the main arguments and preparing the discussion. The different strands that the authors have explored show the richness of the book being discussed and the scope of a work that (even without a general consensus, at least not on its every point) promotes nevertheless a healthy and illuminating discussion.
This new book reveals a variety of views, as the title suggests; on the other hand, not all of it is equally convincing. Particularly irritating is the genealogy offered by Milbank, who would have us believe it related to Taylor’s own.
His insistence on the ‘Franciscan’s fault’ since the late Middle Ages really looks rash. Despite the relative success of Scotism through the XV to XVII centuries,
Franciscan thought and Franciscan masters did not enjoy such a leading position in Latin Christendom; for instance, Thomism was way more influential at the Council of Trent. During the following centuries Scotism faded away further and further, and by the XIX century it was downgraded to an altogether, marginal position. Milbank’s argument against the negative stance of traditional Christian theology concerning the body and sexuality, can hardly be in agreement with his veneration of St. Augustine, by many measures the most influential author in conveying such a negative view and its supposed consequences.
Playing the game of ‘historical conspiracy’ is always a risky business; history is more complex than these reductive and comfortable versions assume.
Here a characteristic ‘theological vice’ needs to be corrected: the rush to identify agents and culprits in order to make sense of every process. Theology could overcome such a ‘cognitive bias’ by focussing on plenty processes that do not require specific agents to be explained, and appreciating the complexity of such developments.
2. Ian Lask (Ed.), The Taylor Effect: Responding to a Secular Age, Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2010, p. 216, ISBN: 978-1-4438-2263-3 (Hbk.). Taylor’s work has known a broad reception, sometimes adapted to cultural locations and particular circumstances. The essays collected in this volume offer a sort of proceedings from a conference held in Dublin in June 2009 to discuss the meaning and consequences of A Secular Age, even if in many cases the comments take into account whole aspects of Taylor’s long philosophical development.
After the Preface and Introduction, which help to contextualize this set of studies, the book presents 13 essays, organized in two parts: ‘Analysis and Dialogues’, and ‘Applications and Explorations’ (the latter with a more practical orientation). Most of the authors are Irish and the Irish “accent” can be perceived in many of them. Inevitably, the present-day circumstances – cul-tural, social and ecclesial – in that country weigh on the agenda. Nevertheless, the essays provide a great many interesting insights into Taylor’s work, beyond regional boundaries or specific appropriations.
Now we will attempt a selection of the central themes of the ongoing ‘Taylor discussion’. The collected essays offer many voices and interesting declinations of that inspiring thought; the present review will try to group them according to the issues tackled, revealing amply shared concerns and applications.
Very often the authors highlight the central or most relevant points that can be inferred from A Secular Age, showing their connections to particular interests, the local context and conjuncture, or their own disciplinary and research areas. Once these aspects have been emphasized, some questions arise, or the seminal ideas there contained may be further discussed. Ruth Abbey, for instance, assuming a polemic tone, provides statistical figures on religiosity indicators in Europe and other Western countries to question the idea of a dominant ‘immanent frame’, which – in her opinion – would have a much reduced extent. As a consequence, the idea that we are living in a secular age would lack empirical evidence; Taylor’s point may be seen as a philosophical piece insufficiently rooted in social reality.
Many essays take the issue of ‘human flourishing’ as their departure point.
A central question arises: whether it is the most appropriate expression of value and purpose for our times. Criticism focuses on its individualistic and self-referential leaning; the limits of this program become apparent to several contributors. However, other problems can be identified. In this sense, E.G. Cassidy points to the limits of a too strong distinction between immanence and transcendence, to the dangers linked to an exclusive religious horizon, and to the benefits of keeping a more integrated view. S.J. Costello reminds us how categories like ‘fullness’ and ‘conversion’ better serve the goal of tackling secularization; he resorts to Lonergan’s views on conversion to enrich the analysis, revealing how that ideal of fullness often requires a kind of conversion, if we truly want to go beyond the sheer topic of flourishing. M.P. Gallagher contributes a remarkable essay that formulates new applications for theology and
Christian education; his goal is to raise the level of the Christian bid after its crisis of relevance. Taylor clearly contributes to this goal by providing insights into the incomparable greatness bound up with the ideal of fullness, in contrast with the apparently shallower pursuit of human flourishing. A new ambition transpires in these pages, vindicating the ‘grit and drama’ of the Christian Gospel against the discredit of the Church in the dominant culture and the attempts to trivialize faith (118).
The argumentation of different authors brings ethical issues to the surface. J. Dunne points to the ethical predicament implicit in the ideal of fullness, and to the dilemmas derived from this model that – while seeking the highest spiritual and moral expression, might have to sacrifice some elementary human aspirations in the process. M. Shanahan resorts to Plato and his ethics of friendship to propose the ideal of an ethical community as ‘the most shared project of humanity’ (84). In a more practical vein, A.J. Kearns analyses professional ethical codes in a secular age, and the risk that they could lessen the role of ‘moral agents’. This concern is shared by F. Ryan, who unveils the abusive practice of ‘code fixation’ in spite of a more virtuous and prudential understanding of social life, a drift not only social but denoting anthropological difficulties requiring a Christian answer.
Some of the applications explore forms of interdisciplinary exercise. M.A Conway, for example, treads the path of social science and theology; his analysis becomes a plea against the current reductionism in the scientific study of religion, or what he calls ‘vertical secularization’.
Some authors point to pedagogic concerns; the already mentioned Gallagher,
focussing on Christian education; P. Hogan, exploring how educational practice is reshaped by the ‘unquiet frontiers of modernity’; and A. O’Shea pleading for what he calls ‘strong pedagogy’. This view transcends the space of the classroom to assume the axiological importance of sacrifice. When contrasting bids are made by at last three different modern programs, inevitable ‘mutilations’ or limits become apparent in each one, and some traces of violence as well. ‘Strong pedagogy’ is meant to overcome that drive and gradually heal the human condition.
As can be inferred from this brief exposition, the anthropological issue is paramount, and so are its connections with Christian models and ethical developments.
A Secular Age can be read in many ways and allows for many appropriations.
The emphasis often falls on the question of human fullness and the shortcomings of the secular ideal of ‘human flourishing’. This move can reveal a deep concern – especially in Catholic academia, as the one that organized the workshop – about the apparent concurrence of anthropological models and the need to assume a more conscious apologetic stance. Nevertheless, the idea of a ‘Christian superiority’ in the struggle between anthropological models was the least evident for me while reading and reviewing Taylor’s book, which I understood as an attempt to teach Christian intellectuals to appreciate the legitimate claims and models coming from the secular expressivist domain. In any case, one of the most fruitful outcomes of that seminal work has been to bring about a discussion that had been delayed, unnoticed and yet badly needed in order to update Christian theology and praxis. What is the true specific contribution of Christian faith in a secular age, for the present generation? This is a question that motivates an urgent research program. Gallagher, among others, has rightly pointed out how such an endeavour can be taken up, and what domains we need to explore to provide an answer, which will require much more than historical philosophy, and rather involve a heavier dose of human and social sciences.
The issue concerning the neglect of more empirically oriented studies on secularization deserves some side comment. On the one hand, this criticism has been directed at Taylor a number of times, and I find it correct: the issue of secularization has a strong empirical dimension and to ignore it would be misleading. On the other hand, my own empirical research on many data sets, most of them gathered in Europe, confirms Taylor’s diagnosis: Western societies
are increasingly assuming an immanent frame as their dominant structure, despite the still surprising high levels of ‘belief in God’.
3. Charles Taylor, Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays, Cambridge MA, London UK: Belknap, Harvard University Press, 2011, p. 414, ISBN: 978-0-674-05532-2 (Hbk.).
Taylor has still a great deal to say about secularization and religion in contemporary societies and cultures. In this latest delivery several issues require further, even deeper study, often because of their relevance in the ongoing discussion.
The present book contains a selection of 16 essays divided into three blocks: ‘Allies and Interlocutors’, ‘Social Theory’, and ‘Themes from A Secular Age’. The third part covers 213 pages, and contains 8 essays. Some of them are just reprinted articles or even already published booklets, like A Catholic Modernity?, an essay from 1999. I consider as more relevant for this review the 6 entries published after 2007 (166 pages in all), since they can be thought of as prolongations of, or commentaries on, his major work on secularization. In many cases the reader finds a summarized exposition of what has been already published in an extensive form in A Secular Age. This is probably the case of the first long essay ‘The Future of the Religious Past’ (214-286). The attention
is however more focused on issues that, though linked to the central theme of that book, called for further development in the middle of today’s intellectual debates.
In many of the essays Taylor’s voice becomes more openly polemic and even apologetic. The main question to be elucidated is whether a completely autonomous reason can be conceived and applied to the ethical and political domains. The positive answer could imply a verdict of redundancy against the religious contribution in advanced societies. In that case, religion could be deemed useless and secularization would be justified. Most of Taylor’s labours are invested in the attempt to deconstruct several of the ongoing theoretical projects aimed at completely substituting religion, and to show that even very enlightened cultures can hardly do without a religious reference. These essays do not try to answer the criticism raised against his main theses in the last five years or so; they rather try to ‘deepen’ his arguments and to show the flaws in any effort towards complete secularization.
The future of religion is an openly debated question, and it can be tackled in an empirical way, building statistical projections on the available data about religious indicators, or it can be inferred from the long-term process of religious transformations undergone by modern societies. Some clues can be foreseen when the past is closely examined and philosophical reflection manages to locate deficits and points of force in recent developments. In any case, now Taylor makes a more extensive use of the sociological analyses provided by some of the most trusted sociologists of religion. Nevertheless, the focus often shifts towards anthropology and the controversy between the advocates of the modern ideal of ‘human flourishing,’ with all its shortcomings, and those who instead uphold the more ambitious goal of ‘fullness’, which calls for a religious framework. In such a context as this, the idea of ‘empowerment’ emerges as a clue to understand some forms of religious revival, as many sociologists have pointed out in the last decade. Moreover, the social and civilizational factors traditionally linked to religion may still make sense. In any case, the future of religion appears to lie in a more pluralized panorama of religious beliefs and spiritual expressions, beyond the rigidities of Catholic discipline, and the unsavory and dull looseness of a pervasive secular milieu. This tendency reflects a drive characteristic of the ‘age of authenticity’, which nevertheless looks for collective expressions. Furthermore, beyond the Western horizon, religion continues to be an important source of social identity. Finally, the big transformations experienced in the last centuries, replacing several times the religious mind and its social expressions, have left a sense of ‘nostalgia’ for missing experiences worthy of being explored once again. The last sentence in this analysis contains a seed of hope: “The varieties of religious past that have a future may be much greater than we have been led to suspect” (286).
Some authors have claimed that the dialectics between ‘disenchantment’ and ‘re-enchantment’ can express some characteristic features of our present time. The modern predicament described in gloomy terms by Weber at the beginning of the XX century can be inaccurate, since new forms of awe, wonder and feeling of connection can be experienced before the cosmic harmony, or even displayed by the scientific gaze. Perhaps the more disenchanting instance comes from reductive accounts motivated by certain scientific insights into human nature, its ethical and spiritual dimensions. However their explanatory power is limited and many gaps are left, through which ‘mystery intrudes’.
Thus, a reaction against such reductive strategies becomes a pressing issue of philosophical debate (302).
The discussion on secularism is another urgent issue in political theory, and in ethics as well. Secularism tries to establish religious freedom, equality among religions in society and the right of every religion to be heard in the public square. However these demands often clash, and democratic societies require a stronger identity than former models to cope with a less established shared framework. Overlapping demands coexist and some tension is inevitable in this new condition. In any case the ideal of secularism should not be understood as moving against religion, or limiting its range. The main reason for Taylor lies in the limits of secular social order: the project of a modern secular State, able to organize society in an autonomous and sufficient way, is just a myth or an illusion, not supported by the real situation of most aggregations.
Very much related to the issue of secularism is the idea of ‘reason alone’ or the modern attempt to organize everything resorting exclusively to immanent reasoning. This expectation gives form to the Englightenment idea of unrelenting progress and the corresponding dispensability of religion. Once more the modern process that yields to ethical autonomy is reconstructed, to highlight its ideals of freedom and mutual service. However, the most apparent result is a growing individualism and difficulties in the implementation of equality.
Even if the principle of sufficient reason finds support in the development of science and a self-governing, well-organized State, neither “hard” sciences nor social sciences are able to deliver a highly consensual view to replace the role traditionally played by religion and to ensure the foundations of social order.
In the end “[…] in this clash of rival views, lay or this-worldly anthropologies enjoy no epistemic preference over theological or religious ones” (345). Selfsufficient reason turns out to be just an ‘illusion’.
The limits of moralism are further highlighted in an essay that deconstructs the attempt to translate ethics into moral codes. Thus, ‘nomolatry’ or ‘code fetishism’ become characteristics of liberal societies, forgetting all about the order of goods that make possible the respect owed to these codes, and vainly trying to capture the spiritual content of former moral motivations.
Taylor is at his best in the critical remarks at the end of this brilliant essay. He targets all contemporary forms of ‘nomolatry’, secular and Catholic alike; both are guilty – each in its own way – of cutting off the highest ideals, to frustrate the aspiration to the best expressions of life and virtue, and keeping too focused on restricting rules. Some counterexamples still provide fresh air and a step beyond these suffocating limits; this is the case of the Taize community and of the pastoral style of John Paul II in his meetings with the youth (366).
The last essay in this intense collection offers a reflection on the ‘Axial revolution’. The new book of R. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, speaks for the topicality of this argument. Taylor identifies some elements of that crucial change: the human capacity to transcend its own cosmos; the rise of a critical awareness, after taking a distance from immediate reality; the introduction of ‘second order thinking’; and a sense of globality beyond ethnic boundaries (367). Hence comes a new notion of a ‘higher good’ beyond sheer human flourishing, giving rise to new religious callings and social aggregations. Things have evolved considerably in the past centuries until our age, when some features of the pre-axial era seem to return within our cultural framework. The question of what can be deemed gain and what cannot emerges once more when we are confronted with our present secular condition and its attempt to provide a moral order.
Taylor definitively supplies a program and a method in which almost every feature of human history and culture can be placed in such a way as to assume a distinctive meaning. He is aware of building a new ‘master narrative’ that helps to understand events and the process of human development. Within such a framework, a new apologetic discourse might be built for the benefit of unsure believers and vacillating religious institutions. In any case, Taylor’s approach is not naive or uncritical in confronting the limits of some of these institutions he best knows and appreciates, like the Catholic Church. His approach is clearly committed to religious faith and against the militant confidence of the secular enlightened mind; however his commitment does not come at any price, but demands changes and an effort to adapt to new times and mentalities.
Other approaches to religion pale in comparison with this deep and truly interdisciplinary analysis, that has benefited from many studies on religion, and provides insight and true knowledge. This is a lesson to be learned both by the advocates of contemporary reductive attempts to deal with religion from a would-be scientific method; and by theologians as well, often entrapped in an exceedingly self-referential vision, unable to perceive the developments in their own contexts, their challenges and opportunities to vindicate Christian faith.
Once more reasons for criticism arise when empirical reality is taken into account, a deficit many times denounced in Taylor’s work. His attempt at describing the future of religion raises some doubts, especially if it is understood as a version of the ‘compensation theory’. This view claims that the loss of in- stitutional religion might be compensated by new expressions of plural and self-made spirituality. The evidence to date does not support such a prospect, raising many questions and requiring to delve more deeply into the nature of secularizing trends in Western societies.