Philosopher for a Secular Age: Charles Taylor’s influence in the Catholic Church
Readers of a feature article by America editor in chief Sam Sawyer, S.J., in the most recent issue will have noticed references to a scholar whose work informed much of Father Sawyer’s analysis: Charles Taylor. In addressing the possibilities for moving beyond the current much-lamented polarization afflicting both our national politics and the Catholic Church in the United States, Father Sawyer noted that Taylor’s book A Secular Age offers valuable insights for America’s readers, writers and editors.
“There are two main points from Taylor that have bearing on the question of polarization,” Sawyer writes: “His distinction between three different meanings of secular and his concept of being ‘cross-pressured’ by having to constantly choose among many sources of ultimate meaning.” Taylor argues that the meaning of the word secular has at least three different senses in our contemporary context. The first two are obvious enough—“a sphere differentiated from the sacred, as when the church is separated from the state,” or “the results of the historical process of secularization, such as a decline in belief in God or religious practice.” But Sawyer focuses on Taylor’s third sense of secular: “a cultural context in which religious belief has come to be understood as one contested option among others.”
Even deeply religious people still have to live in a world where their beliefs are not settled once and for all, but always pressured by other possibilities.
You’ll have to read Sawyer’s article for the rest, but the central point he draws from Taylor is that even deeply religious people still have to live in a world where their beliefs are not settled once and for all, but always pressured by other possibilities. No longer do we live in an “enchanted world” or a Christendom where certain central beliefs or ways of life are taken for granted by all. The result of this constant pressure on one’s beliefs can be polarization, because we (as individuals or groups) can give in to the sense that we are always under attack—and must always be on the attack against our opponents. The antidote to that polarization, Sawyer argues, is cultivating and valuing the communion we share, even with those with whom we most profoundly disagree.
Who is Charles Taylor? Not the former president of Liberia who is serving a 50-year prison sentence for crimes against humanity (an important qualification to make, I once discovered while teaching students a bit too dependent on Wikipedia). The Charles Taylor of whom Sawyer writes—and whose ideas have featured prominently in a number of America articles over the years—is a Canadian philosopher and social theorist who has become one of the world’s most influential thinkers in the last few decades.
Born in 1931 in Montreal, Quebec, Taylor was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, from which he also received a doctorate in philosophy in 1961. While academic appointments took him to a number of universities over the years (including Oxford again), he was for much of his career a professor of political science and philosophy at McGill University in Montreal. He has authored more than 30 books, largely in philosophy, the most well-known of which are Sources of the Self (1989), The Ethics of Authenticity (1991) and A Secular Age (2007).
America’s editors lauded him as “a star philosopher” when he was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2007, calling him “an exceptional philosopher, a practicing Catholic much influenced by the Second Vatican Council, yet unallied with any school of thought or intellectual fashion. His Sources of the Self (1989), a study of the emergence of modern consciousness, is a model of philosophical reasoning, appreciatively sorting through the history of ideas to identify what ideas were mistaken and what worth preserving.”
In 2019, Pope Francis presented him with the Ratzinger Prize (an award chosen by the Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Foundation to support theological research), noting that Taylor’s work “allows us to deal with Western secularization in a way that is neither superficial nor given to fatalistic discouragement. This is needed not only for a reflection on contemporary culture, but also for an in-depth dialogue and discernment in order to adopt the spiritual attitudes suitable for living, witnessing, expressing and proclaiming the faith in our time.”
In a world where even transcendence and truth have to be sought and claimed (and reclaimed), how do humans flourish?
Like Sources of the Self before it, A Secular Age is a doorstop of a book—896 pages in hardcover—and was published to rave reviews, including dream endorsements from Alasdair MacIntyre (“a major and highly original contribution to the debates on secularization that have been ongoing for the past century”) and Robert N. Bellah (“One of the most important books written in my lifetime”). In his 2007 review of the book for America, Dennis O’Brien wrote that “Taylor develops a thick description of the radical changes that have occurred in our culture over the last 500 years,” because to anyone born before 1500 or so, “our current secular world picture would have been virtually incomprehensible.” Unlike our ancestors, Taylor wrote, modern humans are “buffered selves,” independent beings who view the world from a far distance. (Think of Descartes obsessing over the mind/body duality.) Where did this “buffered self” come from?
“The buffered self emerges from a broad reconstruction of what Taylor calls the social imaginary, a view of self and world for which a developing cosmic imaginary often is alleged to be the ground,” O’Brien wrote. “The social imaginary of the buffered self offers humans the freedom to create a social world.” While one might link this idea of a free self to everything from science to the Reformation, Taylor instead sees it emerging out of a loss of a sense of transcendence, of enchantment, a historical development reflected in the last two centuries in everything from Romantic movements in art and literature to fascist politics to religious strife and disillusionment with traditional institutions. In a world where even transcendence and truth have to be sought and claimed (and reclaimed), how do humans flourish?
“A Secular Age is an extraordinarily important work because of its deep historical sensibility and acute philosophic perceptions,” O’Brien wrote. “Taylor’s understandings are absolutely crucial in considering the place of Catholic Christianity in a secular age.”
At a 2015 conference on “Renewing the Church in a Secular Age,” Taylor said that “the big, big issue” for the Catholic Church today is how to “accompany the seekers without shocking the dwellers.” That requires, he said, that Catholics reach out to nonbelievers, to seekers and to members of other faiths, and also that they reach out with the same amount of energy and compassion to other Catholics with whom they do not agree. “We are all part of the same sacramental communion and we have to behave like it,” he said.
To hear Charles Taylor in a 2021 online panel discussion on “Fragile Democracy: Technocratic Takeover and Popular Renewal” (moderated by America’s culture editor, Patrick Gilger, S.J.), click here.
Pope Francis: Charles Taylor’s work “allows us to deal with Western secularization in a way that is neither superficial nor given to fatalistic discouragement."
Our poetry selection for this week is “Even the Cracks,” by Sandra Kolankiewicz. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.
In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.
Other Catholic Book Club columns:
The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison
‘The Irish Lincoln’: When Éamon de Valera visited America
Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)
Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America
James T. Keane