(continued from 6/1/09)

As little inclined as is Charles Taylor to connect the pre-ontological with the metaphysical, religious “experience” with cognitive assertions, he cannot finally avoid making certain claims about the way things are, or at least the way human things are:

We all see our lives, and/or the space wherein we live our lives, as having a certain moral/spiritual shape. Somewhere, in some activity, or condition, lies a fullness, a richness; that is, in that place (activity or condition), life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worth while, more admirable, more what it should be. (5)

This important passage is perhaps Taylor’s most fundamental account of the anthropological ground upon which all descriptions of “religious” experience and of its “secular” or “naturalistic” alternatives must draw. But Taylor soon notices that his anthropology, his account of the structure of fundamental human experiences, appears to be biased in favor of religious believers, to those oriented towards some extraordinary “fullness.” He does his best to redress this bias by acknowledging the case of “unbelievers” for whom ‘the middle condition’ [routinized quasi-fulfillment] is all there is.” (7) But do such unbelievers ignore the call of “fullness” that Taylor seems to hold to be constitutive of our humanity? Or do they pursue under other names or in other modes what believers are seeking when they speak of “God”? But if this is the case, then it seems we would be compelled to ask whether those who seek fullness by reference to God or to some divinity are more aware of what they are seeking and therefore of themselves, of their own souls, than those who practice one form or another of “naturalism.”

It is profoundly characteristic of Taylor’s approach that at this crucial juncture he does not wrestle with such a question, the fundamental question between believers and unbelievers, but sets it aside by re-affirming his move beyond truth claims and cognition to “a sense of the difference of lived experience.”(8) This move allows him to conclude (very liberally or ecumenically) “that power, fullness, exile, etc., can take different shapes.” (11)

“We have to be aware of how believers and unbelievers can experience their world very differently.” (14) To be sure. But is every articulation of an experience of the world equally adequate to that experience, or to the fullest human possibilities? Can Taylor’s account of humanity in “a secular age” avoid leaning towards one or another articulation of human fullness, or of the quest for it?

If Charles Taylor’s book has a unifying purpose, it can only be to explore the challenges facing fullness of life in the modern West and thus to contribute to possibilities of living fully in our “secular age.” But his task is greatly complicated if not finally made impossible by the fact that he both assumes and puts in question a certain Christian understanding of “fullness” as absolute transcendence, as well as the modern reaction against it in favor of an “immanence” defined in opposition to that very transcendence. He understands Christianity to be defined by service to a good “independent of human flourishing,” as “something other than human flourishing,” or as a “renunciation of human fulfillment to serve God . . . ” (16, 17) And yet at the same time he understands that this Christian renunciation of flourishing might finally be bound up with “the restoration of a fuller flourishing.” (17)

By limiting himself to “a set of forms and changes which have arisen in one particular civilization, that of the modern West — or, in an earlier incarnation, Latin Christendom,” Taylor in fact accepts as if it were a natural fact what he takes to be the Western opposition between the “transcendent” and the “secular.” (He takes it as given that there is an “unbridgeable gulf between Christianity and Greek philosophy” (17), and therefore that the Western world can be understood on Christian and post-Christian categories understood as simply incommensurable with the inquiries of classical political philosophy.) Although he offers a wealth of evidence of the mutual implication of the extraordinary and the ordinary, the soul’s fullness and the city’s necessity, he adopts a conceptual framework that seems to absolve him from responsibility for articulating this relationship. He accepts at face value what he takes to be the Christian notion of “a world in which the place of fullness was understood as unproblematically outside of or ‘beyond’ human life” as well as the strictly correlate idea of “an immanent order in Nature, whose working could be systematically understood and explained on its own terms,” the notion of “the immanent,” which “involved denying – or at least isolating and problematizing – any form of interpenetration between the things of Nature, on one hand, and the ‘supernatural’ on the other.” (15-16) By this very, insufficiently critical acceptance of the category of “the secular,” Taylor has crippled himself in his “continuing polemic” against “subtraction stories.” For the very meaning of “secular” is nothing but what is left over when the “transcendent” is set aside.

In other words: Taylor’s whole book is about the interpenetration of ideas of fullness on the one hand and of religious and moral notions understood functionally in relation to political and social necessities, on the other hand. And yet his very definition of “the secular” simply assumes and carries forward a modern Western, that is, distinctively post-Christian claim according to which “human flourishing” can be defined in terms of the subtraction of “transcendence” and thus that there can be “a self-sufficing humanism,” that is, “a secular age . . . in which the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing becomes conceivable.” This tension runs throughout Taylor’s book and renders the argument elusive or unstable at critical junctures: he seems throughout the book to be tracing the development of various expressions of “fullness” as they come to be articulated in politically authoritative forms, and yet his final framework of judgment seems to be determined by the assumption or the hope that the problem of authoritative articulations of fullness is now somehow obsolete, that we have somehow settled into a neutral, default consensus on just plain “human flourishing,” or else that the very question of the meaning of flourishing has become irrelevant to our political condition.

As so often happens in contemporary “moral” and “social” philosophy, a failure to confront the central questions of political philosophy proves profoundly crippling to Taylor’s efforts to defend the respectability of “transcendence” in “A Secular Age.”

Articles by Ralph Hancock

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