Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age”: Context & Question

March 1, 2011

Wow, this book is 800 pages... really?!I write this morning proposing a project – over the next few weeks I’d like to present, synthesize and analyze some portions of Charles Taylor’s massive and massively important tome A Secular Age.  Aside from being Roman Catholic (and Canadian!), Taylor is, in my opinion, a brilliant philosopher.  He is currently Professor Emeritus at McGill University in Montreal.  Those interested parties among us can find a link to Taylor’s contributions to a website which sprung from A Secular Age here.  A good and recent interview with him can be found here, and (of course…) there’s always Wikipedia.

But let’s take on the tough question right away: if there’s all this material out there already, why add more to it on this blog?  It’s pretty straightforward actually.  I want to write about Taylor’s thought here because I see this community as, in some respects, a community of ministers.  As a ministerial community, a community of servant-believers, I am convinced that understanding the context of our belief and service will help us to do it better.  One significant Jesuit presupposition runs something like this: in thinking we believe and serve more effectively.

So… if you buy that and are sticking with me (!) I’m going to try to do this in six parts, six interlocking blog posts, each of which will correspond to a different aspect of Taylor’s work.  The first part of this effort, then, is to set the scene, to give a précis of Taylor’s project.   So to it, then!

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Charles Taylor on Celibacy III: The Catholic Dilemma

June 9, 2010

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Though Taylor is a gifted sociologist of religion and a perceptive intellectual historian, he is not a profound theologian.  Consequently, his presentation of celibacy as 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 “cross-pressures” than by fine theological distinctions, his reflections still retain a certain value.  They at least get at some of the “uneasiness” that most folks feel about the Catholic tradition of sexual renunciation—and they may well describe one of the deeper cultural obstacles to promoting non-ordained, celibate vocations.

I

In Sources of the Self, Taylor observes that it was once relatively easy to describe the purpose of celibacy by reference to the Church’s “economy of mutual mediation.” Read the rest of this entry »


Charles Taylor on Celibacy II: The Humanist Dilemma

May 30, 2010

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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. Read the rest of this entry »


Charles Taylor on Celibacy I: “Mutual Fragilization”

May 23, 2010

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Religious Sisters in Taylor’s Native Quebec

Whenever the New York Times makes clerical sexual abuse a front-page story, it becomes something of commonplace among loyal Catholics to point out that sexual abuse is at least equally common among Protestant pastors and married rabbis and agnostic soccer coaches; yet, the failings of non-celibates receive comparatively little attention.  It’s right, of course, to decry selective reporting on the failures of Catholic celibates.  Yet, for all the prejudices that the Times may harbor, it seems to be responding largely to market forces.  Stories of clerical abuse, for instance, almost always become the most accessed and e-mailed articles of the day.  And though the seemingly endless parade of disgraced priests is not a little discouraging, it also reminds me that the world is strangely interested in the lives of celibates.  Reading chunks of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has, moreover, given me a better language for explaining why. Read the rest of this entry »


Moderne, Postmoderne und wir

February 22, 2010

It has been wonderful to page through First Things 20th Anniversary Issue—and not only because of its priceless, circa-early-90s pictures of the neocon clan.  The issue also features some excellent First Things essays which I have never read, like Joseph Bottom’s “Christians and Postmoderns” from February 1994.  Alas, I wasn’t a ROFTER at age ten.

Reading the essay caused some latent neurons in my head to refire as I began again to consider a question I have often mulled over: Which poses a greater threat to Christianity, modernity or postmodernity?

Were I submitting this essay to a professor for a grade, I would need, at this point, to stop and define what I mean by modernity and postmodernity.  But since I am not handing the essay in for a grade and want to avoid writing a many-thousand word blog post, let me omit positing a definition of modernity—and trust that the term is more or less clear—and proceed straightaway to the difficult task of grabbing the slippery fish of postmodernity and holding it still long enough to slap a definition on it. Read the rest of this entry »