James L. Heft, Ed.: A Catholic Modernity?: Charles Taylor's Marianist Lecture

(New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)

Taylor, a philosopher of modernity from McGill University, is regarded among the very finest contemporary philosophers in the world. This lecture develops themes offered in his two greatest works, Sources of the Self and The Ethics of Authenticity, but for the first time places them explicitly in the light and language of his own faith as a Catholic. His arguments will be of particular interest to persons interested in faith and culture, religion and public life, or in Taylor's wide-ranging philosophical work. The central question of the lecture, between possibilities of reaction and of positivist faith in progress, is how to respond to a world whose history in the last century "can be read either in a perspective of progress or in one of mounting horror." The arguments cover a broad swath, almost too big for a lecture, undoubtedly too big to do justice to in a review. 

Taylor argues for a number of tremendous paradoxes in contemporary culture. First, "modern culture, in breaking with the structures and beliefs of Christendom, ... carried certain facets of Christian life further than they were ever taken or could ever have been taken within Christendom ... In relation to the earlier forms of Christian culture, we have to face the humbling realization that the breakout was a necessary condition of the development." Taylor has in mind, in particular, the affirmation of universal human rights and freedoms for all persons, and also the efforts of science and public policy to promote human flourishing. We have managed through these efforts to raise our standards of what is a decent, human standard of life. 

Despite its attractiveness based on the "very logic of the Incarnation," Taylor argues that Christendom is a doomed, even counterproductive project, as realized in history. "There can never be a total fusion of the faith and any particular society, and the attempt to achieve it is dangerous for the faith." The outcome, an unhappy "spiritual lobotomy," is one we must live in and work with. The question is how. 

Taylor is not a naive friend of modernity, or of secular humanism. The latter, he says, deprives us of a connection to something that matters beyond immediate circumstance and life itself, and from the foundation from which life draws. He also notes the extent in modernity of "anti-humanist" thought, and the connections between religion and violence.
Given the gains modernity has wrought for human good and the fundamentally flawed nature of any kind of unified religio-cultural system, Taylor has no desire to turn to a pre-modern system of thought, if such were possible. What he does argue, though, is that a denial of the transcendent, made readily possible by modern culture, "can put in danger the most valuable gains of modernity, here the primacy of rights and the affirmation of life." Taylor worries about "the possible fate of a culture that has aimed higher than its moral sources can sustain." 

After examining some ways that we have sustained the gains we have made, he contrasts them very briefly to the capacity they all have to turn into colossal failure, the sort of cultural and political Hiroshimas that have marked the twentieth century. The capacity for solving this lies in a recovery of the foundational ethic of unconditional love or compassion, based on who we are as beings in the image of God. Rather than take the best we can from modernity and condemn the rest, Taylor concludes that we have to find our voice from within the achievements of modernity, and work from there.
The responses by four fine thinkers, Catholic and Protestant, and concluding reflections on these by Taylor add a great deal to the volume as well. William Shea provides a helpful contextualization of some of Taylor's major points and glosses on how we might respond today to the Enlightenment legacy. Jean Bethke Elshtain uses Taylor's essay to launch an Augustinian meditation on diversity and what it means to be created in the image of God. 

I found George Marsden's response most fascinating of all. Whereas Taylor had suggested our stance as Catholics in the modern world might be thought of as akin to the position of Matteo Ricci in Chinese culture, Marsden suggests instead that we look to the story of the Prodigal Son for a better metaphor. Instead of seeing modern culture as a foreign culture to work in, we might find empathy, like the father, if we remember that the son-modern culture-is born of Christianity, and bears many of the marks of its father, who is at least partly responsible for what it is. To Marsden, the prodigal culture "is immensely attractive and has many genuine accomplishments that Christians should admire," but also lives "high on borrowed moral and intellectual capital much longer than anyone has a right to expect." The son's rebellion should be taken for what it is, destructive not only to others, but to the son as well. That family relationship calls for "genuinely loving sympathy" for the son: "Letters to alienated children that condemn everything in their lifestyle are going to get tossed away in anger. Better to sympathetically consider their interests and aspirations in their own terms and gently lead them to see their own emptiness." 

Marsden also highlights a way that Taylor may help us out of the rut that the liberal project of Catholicism can leave us stuck in. Taylor, he notes, calls not for a "modern Catholicism," in which "modernity becomes the standard for repudiating those parts of the tradition which do not suit current tastes." Rather than let modernity set the terms, or simply to slide back into some pre-modern or static traditionalism, we ought to think about how to develop a "Catholic modernity." This text introduces many rich themes well worth exploring further. It does not resolve quandaries about church and culture, or the religious intellectual in secular academia, but it does provide some striking means to reflect on them. I hope it will be widely read. -- Thomas M. Landy