William A. BARBIERI, Jr., editor. At the Limits of the Secular: Reflections on Faith and Public Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014. Pp. xii + 374. $35.00pb. ISBN 978-0-8028-6877-0. Reviewed by David CLOUTIER, Mount St. Mary’s University, Emmitsburg, MD, 21727
This collection of essays arises out of a long-term research group associated with the Secularity Project, and comments on various aspects of Charles Taylor’s grand narrative A Secular Age. Barbieri’s introduction ably summarizes Taylor’s tracing of how the Christian West “moved from an epistemic landscape in which belief in God was literally unquestionable to one in which it has become optional, and even problematic” (2). The essays form responses to the question of “what follows” from Taylor’s primarily “epistemic” project in terms of “how religious groups should intervene in public debate and public policy” (6). The collection defines “public life” broadly, avoiding either a “separation” of religion from public reason or “attempts to revive theocratic models” (11-13), and as a whole (though not in every essay) follows Taylor’s expression of concern over a “closed” secularity while retaining sympathy for many aspects of the modern project. The essays take their cue from “key words” (15), such as community, culture, tradition, and pluralism – thus, the collection does function rather comprehensively as a survey of major themes in religion and public life. While the authors do have “conflicting attitudes regarding the value of secular institutions” (23), they share a “deeper” recognition that secular discourse and cultural formations “inform the entire category of religion” (24) and a “core concern with how…belief might be made more believable” (25) in the face of these powerful formations of politics, economics, and communications technology.
The individual essays display a range as capacious as Taylor’s own narrative. Some provide very accessible access to major synthetic work in Catholic theology: David Tracy’s impressive clear overview of “three distinct notions of public reason” (29) as dialectical reasoned argument, dialogue with classics, and engagement with “excessive” mystical discourse; or William Cavanaugh’s compact précis of his work describing the secular age not as one in which two distinct things have come to be separated, but rather as “an age in which the religious-secular distinction has been invented” and serves particular powers (105). Other essays require more background knowledge from the reader, but are equally impressive contributions, such as Peter Casarella’s lengthy intervention on how Latin American theological discourses challenge Tracy’s and Taylor’s categories and assumptions. The division of the essays into four sections roughly indicates the overall range. The first set of essays deal largely with negotiating existing discourses about church and world, the second with critique of these existing discourses in terms of hegemonic socio-political constructions, the third with concepts of the person within theological anthropology, and the final section with the practical problems of cultural fragmentation and heterogeneity.
The range of the collection makes it a very valuable and stimulating project. Most especially, the contributors are drawn from a wide range of perspectives, rather than any particular era or school of Catholic thought. Cavanaugh and Vincent Miller share the discourse with Tracy and Robert Schreiter. Almost uniformly, the essays draw nuanced conclusions, which cannot be classified along the tired liberal-conservative, or open-closed polarities. This is clearly a “both/and” collection; Scheiter’s essay surveys “two forms of catholicity,” which roughly correspond to the usual dichotomy, but indicates that “it is not a matter of choosing one form of catholicity over against the other” and commends “a good number of Catholics trying to combine elements from the two” (98).