Re-Enchantment of the WorldDANIEL J. MAHONEY
We live in a strange time.
Meanwhile, tracts on atheism ride the best-seller lists—alongside books of soft spiritual uplift from mega-church pastors. What age are we living in, exactly? And yet one has only to turn on the television, go to a movie theater, look at a newsstand or read about, say, sex- education courses in the public schools to feel that our society is almost militantly at odds with revealed religion and biblical teaching. Meanwhile, tracts on atheism ride the best-seller lists—alongside books of soft spiritual uplift from mega-church pastors. What age are we living in, exactly?
A secular one, says Charles Taylor, the distinguished Canadian philosopher and political theorist (and winner of the 2007 Templeton Prize). But his answer is complicated and in no way meant to suggest that religious sentiment is fated to disappear anytime soon. Far from it. A Secular Age tries to explain the modern world to itself in all its contradictions. These include, within a secular culture, the persistence of profound religious conviction and fervent religious observance.
In previous works—such as The Sources of the Self (1989) and The Ethics of Authenticity (1991)—Mr. Taylor had described the genesis of a distinctively modern self-consciousness as well as offering a broadly "communitarian" reflection on the strengths and limits of liberal society. A Secular Age is the culmination of Mr. Taylor's intellectual project, a project aimed, ultimately, at defining what it means to be modern.
The appeal of Mr. Taylor's work lies in its fairness: He does justice to the achievements of modernity—e.g., its self-governance, humanitarian ethics and respect for rights—even as he raises unsettling questions about the "expressive individualism" and nihilism that shadow so much of modern life. His prose can be demanding, but he writes with a certain elegance, too. He is at home in Francophone culture and philosophy as well as Anglo-American scholarship. He leans to the left politically (having been active for decades in Canada's New Democratic Party) but not dogmatically. In recent years the Catholic dimension of his thought has become more pronounced, but his capacity for critical self-examination is strong and his mode of argument almost dialectical, tacking among differing points of view. Even extreme skeptics are likely to follow his arguments with interest and at least provisional sympathy.
Mr. Taylor wants to discover what it means to live in a secular age—to engage "secularity," as he puts it. The question that he asks at the beginning of his book—and that he repeats in different ways throughout—concerns how we have moved from a God-centered world of religious "enchantment" to a world where "belief in God is no longer axiomatic." He does not believe, as some "secularization" theorists do, that "exclusive humanism"—what most of us would call atheism—is the natural position that society arrives at once it has dispensed with religious "superstition."
Exclusivist humanism, Mr. Taylor argues, has much less to do with the imperatives of reason and modern science than its newest proponents would like to think. Well before Darwin, he shows, there was an ethical impulse that identified unbelief with daring, courage and true self-sufficiency. This impulse, one might say, is fundamental to modernity. But so is a religious one. In Mr. Taylor's view, the "desire for eternity" is deeply rooted in the human soul and the structure of reality. Modernity is not headed toward the unilateral victory of an atheism that mistakes itself for reason.
But if Mr. Taylor takes aim at dogmatic secularism, he has little time for religious triumphalism either. He recognizes that "belief in God isn't quite the same thing in 1500 and 2000." Naïveté is no longer available for the believer or the unbeliever alike. The world where religion could simply be taken for granted, where the self experienced the spiritual as a palpable fact, no longer exists and will in all likelihood never exist again.
There are many reasons for the loss of religious naïveté, Mr. Taylor says, and for the secular mentality that may follow from it, rejecting transcendence altogether. The Protestant Reformation plays the central role in Mr. Taylor's narrative. By denying the sacramental, by identifying all "magic" with "black magic," by giving rise to a "work ethic" that has deep links to commercialism, the Reformation helped to pave the way, much against its intentions, to the world of anti-religious humanism.
Modern philosophy did its part, too. Its rationalism—describing a world of free individuals bound only by contracts to one another—broke self-consciously with the Christian and classical past. In terms not so different from those of the radical theorist Michel Foucault, Mr. Taylor laments the rise of a "disciplinary" society with its "rage for [bourgeois] order." He tends to romanticize premodern European "carnivals" as expressions of a chaotic, lively, antinomian impulse within Christianity, now lost. In the new bourgeois order, he says, God became depersonalized, and moralism became bound up with materialism.
But the bourgeois order, Mr. Taylor also notes, gave rise to vigorous critiques of "soullessness," too. Friends of modern liberty such as Adam Smith and Alexis de Tocqueville lamented a "degeneracy," an eclipse of civic spirit and moral virtue. Others, such as Nietzsche, took the critique of soullessness in an illiberal direction, advocating a kind of dictatorship of the dominating will. Mr. Taylor sees modernity as a "supernova" that explodes into radical expressions of itself, some dogmatic and some self-critical.
Mr. Taylor might have said even more about philosophy's role. He ignores, for instance, the "Machiavellian" turn to this-worldly necessity and away from transcendent virtues. He slights Locke's radical emphasis on "self-ownership," an idea that seems to deny God his dominion. But the broad picture he paints is compelling.
More than anything else, Mr. Taylor shows how powerless scientific materialism is to give a full account of the human soul—how little justice it can do to human agency and lived experience. The dominant "therapeutic" approach to human well-being, for instance, often reduces men to instruments by confusing sin with pathology and by undermining the idea of human responsibility. Evolutionary psychology can be similarly reductive.
Secular man senses the inadequacy of such approaches and thus confronts "cross pressures." Thanks to modernity's own narrowness—say, its tendency to adopt a forgiving relativism, its reluctance to see repellent actions as evil—he may even feel intimations of transcendence again.
From time to time, Mr. Taylor playfully evokes the words of Peggy Lee's song "Is That All There Is?" And the answer comes back, more by implication than dogma: "No, there is more." Secularism, Mr. Taylor believes, is dependent on what it denies and can never wholly "disenchant" reality.
It is true, Mr. Taylor acknowledges, that there is no going back—we are now, in some divided way, inevitably secular, as a society and as individuals. But it is necessary and legitimate to challenge radical secularism, even on the political plane. Mr. Taylor is no advocate for the Religious Right or any movement with a "Christianizing" political mission, but he makes a persuasive case that religion is a crucial source of moral and political responsibility.Finally, A Secular Age—in a secular age—has the great merit of showing that philosophical reflection need not end in fashionable nihilism or pragmatic utility. Nor, above all, must it deny the "desire for eternity" that animates and elevates the human soul.
Daniel J. Mahoney. "The Re-Enchantment of the World." The Wall Street Journal (September 21, 2007): W5.
Reprinted by permission of the Wall Street Journal and the author, Daniel J. Mahoney.
Daniel J. Mahoney is Chair and Professor of Political Science at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He received his B.A. from the College of Holy Cross and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Catholic University of America in political science. In 1999, Professor Mahoney was the recipient of the prestigious Prix Raymond Aron. He is associate editor of Perspectives on Political Science and book review editor for Society magazine. A renowned expert on French political philosophy, Daniel Mahoney’s most recent book is De Gaulle: Statesmanship, Grandeur, and Modern Democracy. He is also the author of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent From ideology; Bertrand de Jouvenel: The Conservative Liberal and the Illusions of Modernity; and The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947-2005 which he edited with Edward E. Ericson, Jr.
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