Boston College, 2011
In the following interview, Philosopher Charles Taylor discusses the insights that can be gained by understanding the historical and cultural frameworks of Western secular modernity as contexts in which discussions or the content of religion have not only in some sense occurred, been inherited and must now occur and be justified in new settings but also distinguishes it as one kind of modernity amongst many other emerging modernities in the world.
When thinking about the role of Christian thought in the North-American and European modern secular world, Professor Taylor insists that he wants to think of its traditions and its bodies of thought in particular in the plural rather than in its orthodoxies, in the hope of capturing the variety of venues, e.g., “cross-over” dialogues, that have been taken by philosophers and practitioner over time and space. While Christian traditions share in some sense a common philosophical and theological strand or what Professor Taylor calls a “common ground” (e.g., in the Nicene Creed), it is important to remember that even what are perceived as obvious grounds have also been “differently conceived and lived” at the different times and places. Determining what is foundational for Catholicism in this context is largely difficult because of not only the various dialogues that are always going on but also the polemics that have “gotten us in grooves” in thinking of them. It is important to try to explore and uncover the role as well as its different manifestations and “starting points”.
Just how much Western modern secularity is still open to religious expression, contends Professor Taylor, is a complex and interesting question because the interconnectedness between modern secularity in the West and religious beliefs is often simultaneously “open” and “deaf”. The often considered great “achievements of humanity” which could include “democracy, human rights, non-discrimination” have all been inspired while also at times gained by fighting religious faiths and institutions. On the other hand there can also be a “narrowness” in the Kantian and utilitarian types of codification of human rights and democracy that often lose sight of much of human life and “become restrictive, exclusionary, distortive”. We know that liberalism can “be used to exclude” and “to mobilize” against minorities as well as religious orthodoxy. There is always a need however for an outside source of human sensibility that can for instance be found in the New Testament as well as these secularized moral intellectual traditions. In making the case for religious sources, Professor Taylor points for instance on how Christ and the central figures are often portrayed in the New Testament as “reaching out to those that have been excluded on the margins”. There is often something that is being left out in one mode or another when treated absolutely. It’s not enough to say that religious belief is tolerated, we must be much more engaged in order to prevent losing sight of various expressions, religious and secular, of human life.
For Professor Taylor, the modern secular world — although very different from previous ages, is not one that is void of yearning for spirituality and connection. The issue often is that you also have a disconnect between an unexposed “treasury of history” in religious traditions and that which has become fixed or polemically predisposed. There is a sense perhaps or a need to re-expose and renew this history for a new generation. The older modes of expression can be re-expressed through new modes and itineraries. There are different ways, certainly not the only one, that the Christian faith for instance has been lived across the world and time. We need to understand these different manifestations because they can be sources of being “more present” in our current secular age. Professor Taylor believes that the narrative of those dialogues however force whatever story told to be forever re-written, to forever “pass on the flame onto another that is different”, because the present is always be lived differently. This can be difficult to understand in an Age where the master narratives have often be largely in terms of progress.