Monday, November 05, 2012

Insights Into the Mind of Charles Taylor

A most interesting essay on the mind and writings of Charles Taylor (“Sentimentality or Honesty? On Charles Taylor” published at, the author (Mark Oppenheimer, writer for the "Beliefs" column in the New York Times on August 29-Sept 5th Edition of The Nation: ) attempts an overview of Taylor’s recent thought. The author comments that “when you take the recent books by and about Taylor together – as only a professional philosopher or a book reviewer would do – you see they offer an intelligible vision of how to think about the modern world. Because Taylor writes so much, any synopsis of his views is necessarily a travesty. I am about to attempt one… And I surely misrepresent him, for nowhere does he state the propositions I am about to ascribe to him this is my gloss, and I don’t expect he would use language like mine.” Nevertheless, I transcribe the five (5) propositions that (according to the author and insightfully on his part) characterize Taylor’s recent work.
What is most interesting to me is the suggestion that the Enlightenment and Reformation were “necessary” – somewhat like a Nestorius or Theodore of Mapsuestia were critical for the development of the Christological dogma of the one Person and two natures. Had they not insisted on the true humanity of Christ – the distinction of person and nature not obtaining at the time – there would have been no Council of Ephesus and Chalcedon to give us what Benedict XVI has described as “the boldest and most sublime simplification of the complex and many-layered data of tradition:” “Son of God, possessed of the same nature as God and of the same nature as us.”[1] That is, as the Christological dogmas emerged from the graveyard of heresies, so also the dignity of the human person as “other Christ” and therefore Son of God, his freedom of self-determination and the universal call to holiness in the ordinary that characterizes the consciousness of the Church and its Magisterium during and after the Second Vatican Council would not have reached the cultural consciousness that they have today except for the intervening Protestant Reformation and the turn to subjectivity around the time of Descartes and the so-called “Enlightenment.”
1)      “Once enchanted, we are now disenchanted.” “Up until about the year 1500, Taylor believes, people in Christendom were enchanted, had ‘porous selves’ open to metaphysical notions, theophanies, divine guidance, etc. Since that time, we have become disenchanted: whereas once most people had no choice but to believe, belief is now an option. Today, even if we choose to believe in something unseen, belief is necessarily of a different character than it was in an enchanted age, when belief simply was.

2)      “Our response should not be nostalgia for the old, more unified, more religious Christendom.’ “Taylor is a Roman Catholic, and as with his response to disenchantment, he stakes out a position on nostalgia at odds with some prominent Catholic philosophers, like his contemporary Alasdair MacIntyre and his old teacher G.E.M. Anscombe. For them, modernity – disenchanged, secular, materialistic – is in its essence regrettable. For Taylor, modernity does not have to be a bad thing. [And I – blogger - would insert here, that Benedict XVI sees it as a good and necessary thing].

Like many religious philosophers, Taylor sees the foregrounding of earthly life, as opposed to eternal life, as one aspect of modernity. This worries him, because seeing one’s bodily survival and flourishing as the ultimate goal of existence tends toward selfishness. In ‘A Catholic Modernity?,’ my favorite essay in Dilemmas and Connections, Taylor discusses possible alternatives to the culture of earthly life. One alternative comes from Nietzsche, who ‘rebelled against the idea that our highest goal is to preserve and increase life, to prevent suffering… Life itself can push to cruelty, to domination, to exclusion, and, indeed, does so in its moments of most exuberant affirmation.’ Another alternative comes from Christianity, which, especially in Catholicism, can give license to asceticism, monasticism and other denials of aspects of life.

But Taylor is no Nietzschean, and he does not want to romanticize that we might call Extreme Catholicism. Not only is that premodern Catholicism unrecoverable, Taylor says, it had to expire in order for us to become a more charitable, humane species. Taylor argues that with the Protestant Reformation came an ‘affirmation of ordinary life’ (the term is discussed at length in Sources of the Self) that refocused religious devotion on the daily acts and works of ordinary people while elevating the sufferings of those ordinary people to a matter of divine concern.

                In the Catholic world, it was too easy to feel that none of us mattered – all that did matter was present in the church, or the Mass, or heaven. But one it became clear that God was present when you read the Bible, it also became clear that the affairs of those Bible readers mattered to God. Taylor seems to say that Protestantism rescued Catholicism. Modernity gives us horrors, but also graces such as we never knew: ‘The age of Hiroshima and Auschwitz has also produced Amnesty International and Medecins sans Frontieres.’ Taylor says that Christianity ‘needed this breach with the culture of Christendom… for the impulse of solidarity to transcend the frontier of Christendom itself’ [my emphasis]. Panhuman solidarity, so much a part of our humanity now, is too  valuable to lose. So the work at hand is to live with modernity: it’s worth it.

3)      “ ‘If we’re going to live with modernity, we should start by trying to understand its many forms – chief among them, in the contemporary West, the cult of authenticity.’ Rather than being good Christians (or, for that matter, good utilitarians or good Kantians), we now seek to be authentic, true to ourselves. I just want to be me. Like the worship of life, the worship of one’s authentic self, or true nature – a worship heightened in the Romantic movement – can result in narcissism, not to mention absurdity. We now say things that would have made no sense in the year 1500, things like, ‘I would marry her, but I’m not sure settling down is who I am.’ Obviously, there is a problem here, one Taylor recognizes. But he insists that this need not be a  bad
striving. It could even be fruitful, if only modern man and woman figure out how to make it so.

4)      “That is the task at hand: how to live a life that is personally authentic – a goal the medieval church would not have understood, much less approved of – while giving that life meaning, spirituality, fullness.’ In other words, how can we keep our modern humanity without losing what is best from the enchanted past? (…)

“(I)t seems to me that ‘authenticity,’ a word he uses only  for the personal project, is actually the word he wants for the political project too…. But as I read Taylor, he seems to say that just as any given woman in Quebec wants to be true to herself, the Quebecois want to be true to their culture. It is the same problem on two different levels. It is the Romantic urge personally and politically, and in both cases it seems to appear, historically speaking, just on either side of the  year 1800. The political urge makes no sense without the personal one Taylor recognizes this equivalence implicitly, and his work argues for it, but he never quire formulates the extent to which, for him, the personal is political.

5)      “ ‘To the extent that we can succeed in being authentic, as people and as cultures – succeed in creating political forms or governments that allow people and groups to flourish that way – we will have a greater fullness than what people had in the old age of enchantment.’ In fact, Taylor believes, we may be able to have a fullness unimaginable in days of old. In a sense, we will have solved the problem implied in proposition one, the problem of disenchantment. We will have shown disenchantment to be a blessing.” [Author unknown as of this writing].

[1] J. Ratzinger, “Dogma and Preaching” Franciscan Herald Press (1985) 8.

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