Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option issues a call for orthodox Christians to develop communal ways of living that can transmit and preserve the faith amid the ruins of late modernity. The work of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor moves along similar lines, albeit with a call for deeper engagement with our secular age. Since Dreher draws on Taylor’s analyses, the publication of his book seems an occasion for exploring Taylor’s vision of the Christian response to late modernity.
Critics of Taylor don’t always see how his thought represents an extended act of aggiornamento grounded in appreciation for the nouvelle théologie of De Lubac, Chenu, and Congar (among others). Taylor has said in a number of contexts that it was De Lubac, Chenu, and Congar who helped him find his way back to the faith. For Taylor, an investment in Christian tradition, particularly as it is understood through the witness of its saints (the communion sanctorum), can provide a balm for those wrestling with the buffered self of our secular age.
The phrase “buffered self” is a heuristic device meant to help late-modern persons understand what it means to live in a social imaginary in which the immanent frame is all there seems to be. Taylor is not interested in classifying this or that person as “buffered,” so much as in describing a mentalité in which everyone participates, to one degree or another. The “immanent frame” is Taylor’s description of the modern social imaginary—a sensed framework that supplies the untested backdrop for the development of beliefs. The late-modern acceptance of the lack of anything beyond the horizontal world is a frame of reference that closes individuals off to transcendence. Even for those, such as Pentecostals, who seem to operate with a porous self, open to the transcendent, there remains a social context that constantly pushes back, telling the Pentecostal that the demonic is simply a mental state rather than fallen angels who seek the destruction of humanity. The moral order is the immanent frame where human flourishing is conceived along a horizontal axis that humans create.
One important (though not the only) meaning of “secular” for Taylor is: the conditions of belief created by the immanent frame and classified as the buffered self. Anyone who experiences belief in God or in the enchanted cosmos of spirits as a contested “option” already experiences the secular age. He or she has been “secularized” precisely because belief in God is understood as optional. Part of what Taylor tries to do in A Secular Age is help Christians understand how they can operate within the immanent frame. His extended act of aggiornamento is, to borrow James K. A. Smith’s title, “How (Not) to be Secular.”
Taylor’s prescription for our secular age remains connected to his reading of Christian tradition, in particular his understanding of the communion of the saints. Within this communion, Taylor notes, there are a variety of models for how conversion unfolds in the life of a person. By “communion of the saints,” Taylor means: “a communion of whole lives, of whole itineraries toward God.” The church consists concretely of diverse peoples with different itineraries toward God that will be finally resolved only at the eschaton. Given that the desire for the transcendent remains embedded within the constitution of the human person, what helps the late-modern self to break out of the immanent frame is to see the rich tapestry of conversion that the church embodies in her life. It is no longer the relationship between the great Gothic cathedrals on the medieval landscape and the scholastic cathedrals of the mind; rather, it is the messy, sometimes chaotic, flow of men and women toward God.
Now, some persons might take Taylor to mean that doctrine does not matter—but that is not what he is saying. The point for Taylor is that the way into doctrine is through conversions, with the accent on their diversity and plurality. It is Taylor’s version of how the nouvelle théologie can be worked out. For example, given that conversions, as itineraries toward God, offer windows onto the truth of God, it is not surprising to discover Taylor defending the claim in The Language Animal that storytelling is an “unsubstitutable” way of offering insight into ways of being. There is something irreducible about storytelling. This observation is Taylor’s nod to biblical narrative and to the Greek tradition of drama and poetry, as well as his affirmation of the power of conversion narratives to reveal transcendent realities.
Taylor resists “Reform,” by which he means: a top-down effort to purify Christianity, the effect of which is to homogenize the rich tapestry into a single liturgical and doctrinal formation in the name of discipleship. This Reform is carried at the institutional level with the help of the clergy. Hence Taylor resists clericalism and its institutional embodiment. Clericalist Reform is what he experienced in Quebec and sees still operative in a “neo-Durkheimian” mode, in which a Christian vision of society is related to the state by way of a common moral framework. For Taylor, this common moral framekwork is what connected deists and Christians at the founding of the American Republic.
A Taylorian interpretation of Dreher might hold that Dreher has given up on the neo-Durkheimian situation, whereby an agreed-upon moral framework can lead to “one nation under God,” and has given a prescription for life in a post-Durkheimian mode, whereby the entire idea of conforming to “a spirituality that doesn’t present itself as your path, the one that moves and inspires you,” is incomprehensible. For Taylor, the time when an external authority such as a church or a state could call for conformity to a set of norms belongs to a neo-Durkheimian mode that still exists—but only alongside a post-Durkheimian mode in which the privatization of spiritual existence and authenticity reigns supreme. What can Christians offer in this post-Durkheimian mode? Antony, Athanasius, Augustine, Benedict, Bernard of Clairvaux, Dominic, Francis—in short, it can offer the variety of concrete ways that Christians journeyed toward God’s order.
Thus, Dreher’s call for creative forms of community comports with Taylor’s ideas, as long as the communities are part of the multiplicity of itineraries one finds in the communion of the saints—not the effort of an institution to purify its members so that they don’t become tainted. This is a definite nod toward religious populism, and it is where Pentecostals live and move and have their being. Of course, so do Catholics and Orthodox and all Protestants, once one factors in the pietistic and mystical streams that undergird them all.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.