Carlos D. COLORADO and Justin D. KLASSEN, editors. Aspiring to Fullness in a Secular Age: Essays on Religion and Theology in the Work of Charles Taylor. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014. Pp. 301. $39.00 Pb. ISBN 978-0-268-02376-8. Reviewed by John V. APCZYNSKI, St. Bonaventure University, St. Bonaventure, NY 14778-0012 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A pervasive motif in the work of Charles Taylor is the effort to uncover the sources of meaning and value sustaining human life. This involves, among other factors, exposing the normally hidden cultural assumptions which shape our self-understanding, including our sense of degrees of moral value whose sources lie outside of our selves. This sense allows Taylor to claim to discover an openness to transcendence constituting what we are as human, even in our secular age. This concern points to a possible underlying religious theme in Taylor’s work. Even though in his later works he acknowledges an explicit allegiance to the Catholic tradition and examines its implications for his thought in light of teachings on the Trinity, ecclesiastical authority, and sexual morality, these issues are not what the essays in this volume treat. Rather their focus is this underlying concern shaping Taylor’s thought, particularly its implications and legitimacy. The editors pair the essays in what they believe are thematically related headings, which I shall simply indicate in the following observations.
The first part, labeled “existential theism,” begins with an essay by Justin Klassen which argues that we need a more “incarnational” understanding of the human person, which overcomes the abstraction of a linguistic construal of the objectification of ourselves. Taylor recommends that we recognize our spiritual fullness in the concrete particularity of the one suffering before us. In the second essay, Paul Janz considers what he identifies as Taylor’s implicit methodology in A Secular Age. In his critique of the “immanent frame” of the “buffered self” Taylor opens up a Jamesian open space of vulnerability of “full lucidity” where the self feels and experiences both belief and unbelief. Janz claims that Taylor abandons this for a self-securing form of religious idealism. By this Janz appears to imply that a transcendence of nearness, which Taylor espouses, makes it something merely immanent, an understandable interpretation, but one that Taylor’s Catholicism would probably challenge.
In the second part, “ontology and polemic,” Carlos Colorado argues that Taylor’s conception of transcendence is “kenotic,” a form of dispossession that resists pursuit of power in his epistemological and political thinking in order to be attentive to the fact of pluralism. This presumes a “weak” ontology devoid of triumphalism. Ruth Abbey argues in the following essay that Taylor’s analysis of “secularity 3” – the current cultural condition of believers – includes an orientation toward transcendence as a condition for the possibility of human flourishing. This implies that the orientation toward transcendence is ontologically grounded in human nature. Such a claim regarding the “immanent” frame of contemporary culture is a “best-account” form of reasoning, one which defends the role of belief in contemporary secular culture while remaining open to the possibility of a better one in the future.
The third part, “middle dwellers,” opens with an essay by William Schweiker which questions a facet of Taylor’s historical narrative that places the origins of the modern drive for fullness expressed in exclusive humanism in Christianity itself. Specifically, Schweiker claims that it places the “blame” for this rage for order leading to the individualism of the buffered self at the feet of Protestants. My reading of Taylor, however, is not that he is locating blame for anything, but rather uncovering sources that have been lost in secular culture and pointing toward resources for overcoming the impasse between exclusive humanism and expressive individualism available in contemporary human experience that provide opportunities for transformation toward a life of agape. Schweiker’s suggestions of a form theological humanism actually makes explicit what Taylor’s recommendation of living an agapic life tacitly proposes. Charles Mathewes and Joshua Yates make this point when they explain how the drive to reform in the Latin West became instrumentalized by making the implementation of the perfect society the end in itself. The metaphysical primacy of life stifled its practical primacy. Taylor’s irenic spirit seeks a third way beyond this by suggesting a way of a life of faith guided by agape – something to which they hope American Evangelical Protestantism might contribute.
In the fourth section, “ethics and embodiment,” Jennifer Herdt takes up the way in which Taylor attempts to transcend the libertarian/communitarian positions by noting that, once the secularization thesis is properly qualified, both belief and unbelief are leaps of faith. Indeed, Christ’s coming makes true community finally possible, a community of love initiated by divine love itself. This requires a divine pedagogy continually exhorting the members of the community, lest they succumb to the tendency toward triumphalism of imposing codes instead of living in the concrete demands of practical wisdom. Next, Eric Gregory and Leah Hunt-Hendrix compare the ways in which Taylor develops Ivan Illich’s insights into the parable of the Samaritan. For both a problem with modernity is the way in which the parable is turned into a code rather than an event of the breaking in of transcendence. The value of modern morality turns into a burden when it becomes totalizing. The parable thus is a story of communion where contingency intrudes to provide opportunities for the love which enables persons to discover their true identities.
The fifth and final section, “outliers,” begins with Ian Angus’s critique of Taylor’s proclivity to discern tensions and values in competing historical trajectories and then to propose tentative, temporary versions of equilibrium. Contrary to this philosophy of the “middle way,” Angus proposes a model of nonreciprocal relations to assess modernity’s moral ideals, particularly equality. This would have to depart from a Hegelian confidence in the future which animates Taylor’s thought and risk conflict and exile. Such a proposal would contradict Taylor’s catholic orientation and, in the manner of Vatican ideologues, substitute a hierarchy of control. In the last essay, Bruce Ward examines Taylor’s proposal for a “subtler language” that allows meaningful dialogue between contrasting tendencies with the work of Dostoevsky. In his writings Dostoevsky also develops the need for a poetics of agapic love. But he pushes the Reform tendency in the Latin West back to its revision of the Nicene Trinitarian formulation as an example of the rationalizing of God. In addition to a poetics of love, then, a poetics of apocalypticism is required in the sense of the divine unveiling of a human (not a divine) world of violence. This interpretation appears to provide a more catholic reading of Taylor which meets the objection raised previously by Angus.
This brief overview of the essays collected here does not do justice to their nuanced and sophisticated range of analysis. They are all quite good insofar as they explore the narrow range of implications of a religious dimension in Taylor’s philosophical works. They do not address more properly theological questions that Taylor himself raises. The essays would be useful for specialists examining this dimension of Taylor’s thought and would be worth adding to a research library.