Charles Taylor on Celibacy II: The Humanist Dilemma


As I explained (very skeletally) in my last post, when it comes to sex and renunciation, Charles Taylor considers both exclusive humanism and creedal Christianity to be on the horns of a dilemma.  Of course, Taylor’s continuing Catholic practice suggests that he sees at least some potential resolution to the Christian side of the dilemma.  But before touching upon the Christian solution, I thought we might examine the humanist dilemma (as he sees it) a little more deeply.

In brief, Taylor finds the typical secular humanist hemmed into a sort of no-man’s land by his inability to define a proper sort of sexual renunciation.  In explaining his position, Taylor deploys Martha Nussbaum’s distinction between the “internal” and “external” transcendence.  Simply put, internal transcendence is good renunciation, the kind that ennobles us and aims us toward properly human excellences.  External transcendence is bad renunciation, the kind that mutilates us and aims us toward inhuman excellences.

Taylor accepts that some such distinction is inescapable.  Even when Catholicism most vigorously promoted the “monkish virtues”, for instance, it never condoned Origen’s alleged self-castration for the sake of the kingdom (my example, not Taylor’s).  Early Christians lauded the monasticism as an “angelic” life, but they clearly understood that one still had to imitate the angels in a human way.  Celibacy was considered an internal transcendence, and castration (or angelism) an external transcendence.

Nonetheless, once we leave behind the limit case of physical mutilation, Taylor finds the distinction unserviceable.  In the wake of the Reformation, for example, more and more kinds of renunciation began to be categorized as “externally” transcendent.  The Reformers’ “homecoming to ordinary life” led them to consider celibacy the new equivalent of castration—an inhuman renunciation aiming at external transcendence.  Secular humanists, however, were not long in using this same logic against the severe monogamy demanded by the Reformers (John Calvin, after all, had his wife picked out by close acquaintances to avoid even the appearance of carnal motivation).  The discipline of persevering in an unfulfilling marriage (or in a difficult chastity outside of marriage) became a new mutilation and a new external transcendence.  Finally, the protagonists of the “immanent counter-Enlightenment” (here Taylor names Nietzsche and Foucault), revolted against even the requirement that sex be civil, consensual and “nice.”  As Taylor sees it, “It was inevitable that the ‘normalizing’ humanism raise profound objections from those who rebelled at its reductive take on the aggressive, combative, licentious dimensions of human life”.

The upshot is that secular humanists are now being criticized by their fellow immanentists for requiring too much transcendence.  But secular humanists cannot ally themselves with the Neo-Nietzscheans because the logic of their position leaves no altruistic or democratic sentiment standing.  Nietzsche, after all, “wanted to jettison not only body-hatred, but pity, the relief of suffering, democracy, human rights.”  His Übermensch is unquestionably more elitist than the Christian celibate; for, unlike industrious and interceding monk, the Übermensch has no reciprocal duties toward “common” folk.

Ironically, this universalism of respect and charity, which secular humanists want to hold on to, has much in common with the spirit of celibacy.  As Taylor points out, sexual renunciation was not so much about body-hatred, or even the renunciation of sexual pleasure, but about overcoming the exclusivity and particularity that sexual love requires:

The life of sexuality and procreation was part of a concern for one’s family and its descendance, a concern with lineage, property and power which, while not bad in itself, was a barrier to a wholesale giving of oneself to the love of God.  In other words, renunciation was part of an attempt to find a fuller response to the agape of God as seen in Christ, to take part in a fuller, more all-embracing love.  This is close to the perspective in which we should see the dedication of St. Francis of Assisi; and it reminds us of the battles that the Church has waged through the ages with power of lineages, from Pope Hildebrand in the Investiture controversy to the friar who marries Romeo and Juliet without the knowledge of feuding parents.

For Taylor, one’s sex life will always live in inescapable tension with “the aspiration to a more universal love and concern, one decentered from the self.”

Secular humanists, however, are left with the unenviable task of promoting a universal order of sexual, racial, and economic equality—all without requiring the renunciation of any genuine human goods.  If they admit that obstacles to this universal order (i.e., macho aggression, clannish protectionsim, Dionysian sex, etc.) are goods of any kind, then they too are trapped in the logic t which celibacy appeals.  In eradicating these obstacles, they would be requiring a mutilation for the sake of a “higher calling”.  Hence, they must present everything below the secular “normal,” not as a lower good to be renounced for a higher, but as pathology pure and simple.  This opens the way to sin-as-sickness, the triumph of the therapeutic, the austere speech codes of political correctness, and the psychological reengineering of sub-normal persons (Taylor considers Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange prophetic).

In short, people in a secular age must abide in a sort of strictly policed mediocrity.  They cannot descend below the secular normal to find release in Nietzsche’s dark, orgiastic thrills.  Nor can they transcend the secular normal toward a more heroic, self-sacrificing, and universal love.  They are taught that, in doing either, they renounce their humanity.  Secular humanism is proving to be far more constraining than Christianity—and this may prove to be its undoing (to be continued…).

3 Responses to Charles Taylor on Celibacy II: The Humanist Dilemma

  1. James says:

    Thanks so much. Loving this Charles Taylor and celibacy series. Go well

  2. […] a Christian dilemma is less insightful than his presentation of it as a humanist dilemma (see parts I and II).  Nonetheless, since most Christian believers are rather more influenced by sociological […]

  3. […] which he develops extensively in A Secular Age (recently discussed on this blog here and here)—especially as it touches on sexual ethics. To wit: though secular humanists find many of the […]

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