A Secular Age

From Michael Morgan’s review of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age:

. . .
If one form of Christianity sought to transcend the body, suffering, violence, and evil, another form, more humanistic, failed to appreciate the depth and seriousness of the latter. It was criticized too, but this time not by a humanistic responsibility to the everyday but rather, on the one hand, by those who celebrated violence, aggression, and desire to inflict suffering — once again, it is Nietzsche who comes to Taylor’s mind (634-635) — and, on the other, by those who believe that “this humanism tends to hid from itself how great the conflict is between the different things we value” and “artificially removes the tragedy, the wrenching choices between incompatibles, the dilemmas, which are inseparable from human life” (635); here it is Isaiah Berlin and Bernard Williams whom Taylor mentions. For both such positions, an “untroubled harmony” is “unattainable” and “even a kind of culpable weakness” (635). Here too, however, Taylor finds the critique at times unjustified and yet also, in other cases, wholly appropriate. But oddly enough it is the very same humanism that charges Christianity with an unacceptable disregard of the human that is itself now charged with too compromised a harmony with it.

Taylor’s analysis does not end here, but it is sufficient for us to see the point of his dialectical, ramified exploration of positions: it is to demonstrate that the map of possibilities for belief and unbelief in our age is not a simple one, not even one of basic oppositions. Instead what is needed, as he himself says, is a “new, more nuanced map of the ideological terrain” (626), and it is to further that task that the remainder of Chapters 17 and 18 is designed. It is a project organized around what he calls the “maximal demand,” to examine “how to define our highest spiritual or moral aspirations for human beings, while showing a path to the transformation involved which doesn’t crush, mutilate or deny what is essential to our humanity” (639-640). And the ultimate ground of this demand, he claims, is our aspiration to wholeness. To be sure, Taylor admits that not all see this aspiration in the same terms or in the same way; Plato and Aristotle may both adhere to it and yet with very different interpretations. But he does claim that it is central to a Christianity whose central affirmation is the Incarnation of the divine in the human. This is a very Hegelian commitment on Taylor’s part, and there is little surprise in his making it.

Moreover, embedded in the belief in the Incarnation is a commitment to the union of the sacred and the profane, the infinite and the finite, that does show how profoundly Christian Taylor’s analysis is. One need only note that Judaism, for all its own commitment to some kind of unity in nature and society, is not grounded in the affirmation of a similar unity of the divine and the human. For Judaism, when the infinite encounters the finite in moments of revelation, it is crucial that both retain their utter independence and that the covenant between them is dialectically rich but also respects their fundamental difference. Can the same be said of the ideals of eternity and the realities of history, of redemption and human fulfillment? Or is the distinction between transcendence and immanence, fundamentally, so different for Judaism that the maximal demand need be met but only in a very different way than it must in Christianity?

I raise these questions only to suggest something that I think Taylor would himself accept, that his story of secularization in the Christian West has its peculiar, distinctive features that may influence but might not carry over without alteration to a story about secularization and Jewish life in the West or secularization and Islam in the West — and also in the East. That is, rich and suggestive as it is, Taylor’s narrative and his analysis is by no means the end of the story of religion and Western culture. Indeed, I think that he is careful never to suggest that, even if his story were completed in all its details, it would be such a comprehensive picture. But Taylor’s story and his analysis do raise fundamental and extremely important questions that deserve to be addressed and they do so in provocative and challenging ways. I have tried to say enough about the content of A Secular Age to show why this is so; I leave detailed criticism to the reader. It is a book that no one interested in religion, philosophy, ethics, politics, and art in Western society and culture can afford to neglect.

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