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Colorado, Carlos D., and Justin D. Klassen [Eds.]
Aspiring to Fullness in a Secular Age. Essays on Religion and Theology in the Work of Charles Taylor.
Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press 2014. 344 S. Kart. US$ 39,00. ISBN 978-0-26802376-8.
Charles Taylor’s work on religion and modernity presents a mountainous landscape of genealogy, philosophical anthropology and acute hermeneutical reflection. It’s a formidable trek for any concerned surveyor, and – maybe particularly for those with theological interests – capable guides are a most welcome help. This is because readers of Taylor often sense that although certain theo-logical commitments loom large, they seem to only partially sur-face, at times, indirectly. In Aspiring to Fullness in a Secular Age, Carlos Colorado and Justin Klassen have gathered twelve eminently capable scholars, a mix of renowned commentators and newer academics, to guide us in viewing the role of religion and theology in Taylor’s work.
Readers of Taylor will recall familiar themes, which are picked up in new registers or located within the skein of Taylor’s broader work. The book is thematically divided into five parts addressing existential theism, ethics, ontology, humanism, and critique of modernity. In the interest of space and at the risk of leaving aside some rather fruitful critique, in what follows, I would like to address the latter three themes as they appear in three emblematic contributions.
Extending her dependable commentary, Ruth Abbey looks at conceptual features used by Taylor to extrapolate lived religious experience under modern conditions of belief. Authenticity, as one feature, descends from ›expressive individuation‹ into a modern religiosity that is unbound from ready-made forms and dependent solely on the individual’s conviction. The fragilization of contemporary belief is the other corollary feature, whereby the co-presence of several competing ways of life challenge the individual to change beliefs and practice, or at least make them more tenuous.
Abbey’s analysis exposes some ambivalence and challenges the notion of our age as ›secular‹. Taylor, she points out, suggests that many people may not experience religion as a drive for authentic-ity or against fragility. If this could be the case, she asks, how might these be conceptually helpful as descriptors of lived experience? As it turns out, citing a recent Pew study, she adds that the empirical evidence does seem to support Taylor’s theses, despite his own equivocation. However, neither authenticity nor fragility seem intrinsically connected with the rise of exclusive humanism and hence unbelief. Indeed, they both seem more reliant on a notion of plu-ralization as a central causal factor. In the end, Abbey detects an ontological underpinning to Taylor’s diagnosis, namely: some orientation towards religion or transcendence appears as a constant of human nature.
In a theologically constructive critique, William Schweiker explores possibilities for theological humanism. In a reconstruction of Taylor’s argument, a middle position emerges between two recurring antagonists: exclusive humanism and what Schweiker calls ›hypertheism‹, or uncritical, moralistic religion. His ultimate goal is to show how theology, by its openness to transcendence, can naturally perform a kind of middle-ground, critical humanism that is non-reductionist and hence fits nicely with what might be seen as Taylor’s implicit, religiously inspired humanism.
In his reconstruction, Schweiker shows that, for Taylor, there is a modern way of being religious and striving towards fullness that may be oriented beyond the immanent frame. Between monastic renunciation and puritanical moralism, he prefers the middle way of self-giving love, or renunciation that returns to an affirmation of life. Furthermore, casting aside religious positions altogether for an inner-wordly concept of fullness, results in a stultified, morally flattened humanity. On a social-political level, transformation is similarly hindered both by positions that close off orientations to transcendence and also those reverting to hypertheism. Thus, be-tween exclusive humanism and religious ›rage for order‹, Taylor vouches for a Catholic sort of ›devout humanism‹ that links personal drive toward God with the mediating nature of the sacramental community.
Schweiker wants to show that the norm for valid religious life is not derived from the authority of revealed sources, but – following Taylor – by an articulation of the conditions for human fullness in modernity. Theological humanism, then, is Schweiker’s supplement to Taylor’s critique. It suggests a way of living that embraces a free inhabitation of religion, supported by life in community, guided by sensitivity to modern conditions of experience.
Ian Angus evaluates Taylor’s apparently fatalist acceptance of modernity, taking aim at what he calls the ›non-Hegelian Hegel-ianism‹ inherent in his social philosophy. Illuminatingly, the opposed themes of instrumental reason and Romantic expressivism are positioned in Angus’s reading as two terms in a Hegelian triad. But whereas with Hegel these terms are reconciled in mediating institutions, for Taylor, a final synthesis never occurs. Reconcilia-tion between reason and reality thus becomes a polemical project, which depends on a recovery of meaning from religious sources for collective action.
The Hegel in Taylor obstructs his vision in two ways, Angus argues. Firstly, instrumental reason is seen as necessary, even though it tends to break the bounds of horizons of human meaning. It is interminably a part of modern life, because – Angus points out – it is the second term of the triad in the balancing act of modernity. But rather than offer an Aufhebung of this term into a reconciled community-of-individuals, Taylor calls for political action to recover and reframe technology in an ›ethic of caring‹. Angus asks pointedly whether there is never a time one should be open to exile from such instrumentalizing forces. Secondly, Taylor’s characterization of ›egalitarian, direct-access‹ society demonstrates his Hegelian optimism, as it maintains the ›self-regulating subsystem‹ of the economy as a necessary pole opposite human agency. Angus shows that hierarchies indeed continue within such systems, and in fact their oppressive, mechanistic nature may better explain continued protest against objectified systems rather than a Romantic impulse for individuation.
Angus disagrees, both with Taylor’s Hegelian evaluation of the crises and with his proposed cure. He wants to make a case for the possible rupture of horizons of meaning and the reasonableness of exile from degenerate social-cultural forces. The remedy he offers is found in a reconsideration of ›egalitarian complementarity‹ independent of other-wordy sources.
Given the reticent nature of Taylor’s theology as it appears, almost mirage-like in his work in hypothetical questions or references to poets who »say it better«, one might anticipate a tendency to straw man in the book’s essays, whereby overly substantive claims are made concerning Taylor’s theology and his argument concerning religion and modernity are critiqued on the basis of a suspect reconstruction. But that temptation has been well withstood. As the authors look at specific themes, methods and frameworks, they pose, often provocatively, questions of Taylor’s own philosophical and theological sources and motivations, checking for internal coherence or even exploring practical applications for religious communities. With its accessible length, helpful index and incisive commentary, Aspiring to Fullness offers an excellent guide for entry into Taylor’s large and growing work in the field.