A Secular Age:

What inspires us & what holds us together

posted by Charles Taylor

secular_age.jpgHaving escaped for a few seconds from the Commission, I had a chance to read many of the very interesting posts to the blog. With many I agree, others not. But there are two points where I obviously failed to communicate what I wanted to say (possibly because that is incoherent, though I hope not).

Elizabeth Hurd headed off a series of entries with “The slipstream of disenchantment and the place of fullness”. “Fullness” is a term which is probably attempting the impossible. My thesis is that every possible position on what life is really about secretes its own sense of what can inspire us, cause us to rejoice, give us a sense of liberation, lift us, etcetera. The problem is that, as this short list of examples illustrates, these are terribly different, and no single term will sound entirely right to holders of all positions. In that sense, “fullness” may seem to load the dice in favour of religious views, but it wasn’t meant to. (Anybody who can suggest a better generic term for any future writings on this subject is earnestly enjoined to do so.)

It in particular wasn’t my intention to say that positions belonging to what I called “the immanent counter-enlightenment” don’t have their own forms. This was at least part of the point in a couple of Nietzsche citations; especially the one which makes up the last entry in the posthumously published Will to Power, ending with “der Wille zur Macht, und nichts ausserdem!” Anyone who doesn’t feel the inspiration, the sense of power and oneness with the vast universe, hasn’t taken Nietzsche’s meaning. I could go on, but it seems too that Deleuze’s “nomadism” is also one of these powerful and inspiring ideas. Etc.

Nor did I mean my remarks about the possible (and sometimes actualized) connections between post-Nietzscheanism and violence to stand as a “refutation” of this line of thinking. That would be absurd. The rest of the book continually takes account of the way in which Christianity has been used for violent and oppressive ends; of the ways in which Enlightenment humanism can be a source of Foucauldian normalization, and worse, without ever implying that these positions are therefore refuted. But while everybody from Voltaire on through Hitchens is reminding us of the Inquisition and the Crusades, and the Frankfurt school, Foucault and others remind us of the danger of normalization, not as much seems to be written about the dangers of anti-Enlightenment (or maybe I’m just betraying the narrowness of my own reading lists; admittedly, life being short, I don’t spend much time reading the American religious right).

The very idea that one could adopt a position that involves no danger of such dérapage seems to be profoundly deluded.

The second point I’d like to comment on is Bob Bellah’s questioning of my category of “post-Durkheimian”. Here again, I feel that I left things in somewhat of a muddle. I don’t think it’s possible to have a successful, modern democratic society without some strong sense of what unites us as citizens. But this doesn’t have to be organically linked with what, if anything, unites us religiously. Both paleo- and neo-Durkhemian societies do have such an organic link, but of a rather different kind. I wanted (somewhat confusingly) to extend the latter term to cover societies which have a lay philosophy as such a unifying bond, such as Jacobin France. Which indeed, opens the possibility of a struggle between two rival neo-D identities, such as we saw in France for a century and a half, and such as we see today, I believe in the USA. And there are other cases, such as Wilhelmine Germany where the hegemonic view was Protestant, but this made for a struggle between pious conservatives and “Kulturprotestanten”, like Weber; and it also set the scene for a bruising battle between both these forces together against the Catholic majority, which was seen as somehow anti-national.

Now in this understanding a post-D dispensation would be one in which there might be lots of religious belief and belonging, but the central pole of allegiance of the state would not be related to this. This does not mean a society without cohesion. Many modern states, including the two to which I belong (Quebec and Canada) simultaneously, are self-consciously faced with this challenge: How to define what holds us together, while specifically abstracting from any particular religious affiliation, but also from any over-arching “lay” philosophy. The Jacobin republicans among us (I mean here Quebec) have solved their problem, but this involves a neo-D solution borrowed from French “republicans”. The majority of Quebeckers don’t want this. Another minority pines for a semi-return to our wall-to-wall clerical past (without the tears, agony and repression). Neither of these solutions is viable. Still others dream of making nationalism a virtual state religion (some of these are independentists, but it would be a mistake to see all independentists in this light).

We need another solution. Will we make it? Stay tuned for the next installment.

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One Response to “What inspires us & what holds us together”

  1. avatar Jim Norwine says:

    I want to ask Professor Taylor if his take on fullness is not finally too generous. (I say this in spite of the fact that, I think like Taylor’s, my own worldview is “postmodern” in being at once both orthodox [conservative Lutheran in my instance] and yet also non-hegemonic. That is, this sort of hybrid or what might be thought of as “transmodern” orthodoxy is sufficiently modest to accept the truth that my belief that “my way is the highway” is only that: my belief. Who am I to dictate to the Always-So concerning the legitimacy of other paths…?) I sympathize with his desire to be inclusive but question whether in fact fullness, real fullness, is possible in a secular Weltanschauung. Here I am more or less equating fullness with what Leslek Kolakowski calls “special significance”. Kolakowski makes it clear that he thinks that, absent God, such capital-M meaning is not available to us. It is nihilism, soft or hard, all the way down. Philip Rieff, in his brilliant 2006 screed “My Life Among the Deathworks,” makes I think the same argument, i.e., that the now-dominant postmodern or what he terms “third” culture is doomed because of its rejection of the “vertical in authority”. Atheism is of course an entirely reasonable perspective, but if one takes the king’s shilling does not one have to live with the consequences of that decision? To suggest that real fullness still somehow remains in a heartless existence in which special-significance meaning has been slain seems to me at the very least disengenuous, something like when supposedly devout Christians go through life blithely ignoring our soul-test to defend the poor and powerless.
    Thank you

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