All The Right Reasons

Tonight at Fordham University was the opening session of a conference on "Faith and Reason 2009: A Dialogue at the Heart of Jesuit Education." The opening speaker was someone who comes as close as academia can get to a superstar (and he is, apparently, steroid-free): philosopher Charles Taylor. Speaking before administration, faculty, staff and guests from the 12 East Coast Jesuit colleges and universities, Taylor spoke at length on "Reason and Its Adventures Since the Enlightenment."

Taylor is best-known for his books Sources of the Self and A Secular Age, as well as various works which bridge the gaps between political philosophy, intellectual history, the social sciences and religious thought. In 2007, he received the Templeton Prize and in 2008 the Kyoto Prize. He is widely regarded as one of the preeminent intellectuals of the 21st century, and has made significant contributions to our understanding of the relationship between religious faith and modernity.

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In tonight's talk, Taylor focused largely on reason rather than faith, and pinpointed some areas where he thought our societal trust (faith?) in reason had taken a wrong turn or two in recent centuries. Two of his more prominent critiques were the degree to which Western cultures accepted the notion of "reason alone" as a useful hermeneutical tool (as opposed to its traditional scholastic twinning with faith), and the overweening confidence placed since on reason as a tool for the interpretation of reality and the betterment of human societies.

Ultimately, Taylor noted, even reason requires interpretation, reflection via tradition and community, and articulation via hunches, insights, paradigmatic understandings of the world which are current at any time, and even a kind of "epistemic faith" in order for it to be fruitful to the human enterprise. If we elevate reason beyond its capabilities and limitations, therefore, we make it an idol just as much as any fideist or fundamentalist makes an idol of his or her particular articles of faith.

 

 Jim Keane, S.J.

 

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