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Modernity and Transcendence: A dialogue with Charles Taylor, edited by Anthony J. Carroll and Staf Hellemans

by
12 August 2022

Robin Gill reviews a collection of reflections on an RC thinker’s work

PROFESSOR Charles Taylor, political philosopher, committed Roman Catholic, and Templeton Prizewinner, came to international attention with his blockbuster Sources of the Self: The making of the modern identity (1989).

Alongside Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981), it was an essential book for applied theologians in the 1980s to read. There were crucial differences between Taylor and MacIntyre. Taylor was more affirmative of many of the strengths of the Enlightenment, and MacIntyre was more inclined to depict religion as a counter to Enlightenment modernity. Yet both combined a wide and profound reading of modern philosophy and sociology with a less-than-fashionable commitment to the possibility of (RC) Christian faith.

In 1996, Taylor wrote the influential essay “A Catholic Modernity?”, which took the culturally sensitive evangelism of Catholic missionaries in China in the 16th century (which sought to accommodate rather than replace local culture) as a model for churches as they responded to modernity today. In turn, this led him to another blockbuster, the influential but diffuse A Secular State (2007), arguing that religious and secular faiths were likely to continue as bed-fellows in pluralistic Western societies, whether their contesting exponents liked this or not.

By 2007, Taylor had discovered David Martin’s critique of the entrenched belief, held by many social historians and sociologists of religion, that modernity inevitably brings about secularisation. The intention of the two editors of Modernity and Transcendence is clearly to bring Taylor into direct dialogue with David (and his wife, Bernice) Martin, using Taylor’s 1996 essay as a focus; but, in the event, after David’s death in 2019, this has become a book dedicated to him.

David Martin’s essay, written just months before his death at the age of 90, is wide-ranging and eirenic, tracing the different social and cultural ways in which Christian Churches and Christian thinking respond to modern Western society. It is a splendid summation of his mature thoughts. In contrast, Bernice Martin is (implicitly) more critical of Taylor, with an extended illustration of the ways in which Pentecostalism, especially in South America and Africa, challenges the idea that there is a single “modernity”, as Pentecostals manifest a deep attachment to modern technology alongside distinctly non-Western “spirit” beliefs.

The Martins are followed by three essays broadly supportive of Taylor by Francis Schüssler Fiorenza (on Catholicism), Robert Cummings Neville (on Confucianism), and Souleymane Bachir Diagne (on Islam), and a more critical essay by Jonathan Boyarin (on Judaism). These essays are followed, in turn, by a characteristically wide-ranging and generous “response” (it is really a “clarification”) by Taylor, now 90 as well, and a final, thoughtful outline of the debate by the two editors. An insightful interview of Taylor by Carroll can also be found free on Anthony Carroll’s YouTube channel.

Taylor summarises his own position to modernity and the Enlightenment as follows: “So the Christian supports and tries to live some version of the Enlightenment ethic, but in the different register of kenotic compassion. And this leads to important differences, both in assent and dissent. And these differences may just plant the mustard seeds whose growth may transform the world for the better, more than the best ethic of rules could ever do. This I take to be a tenet of Christian faith, not an apodictic certainty.”

Personally, I identify strongly with this summary and with the book’s careful structure. The editors define its aim at the outset, give the same questions to each of the respondents, offer Taylor room to summarise his position, and bring the whole to a (sort of) conclusion.

Inevitably it is “sort of”: this is a debate that is unlikely to be resolved. Religious responses to modernity/modernities are so varied — the editors could easily have added respondents from any number of other faith traditions and variations within them — and depictions of “modernity” are readily debatable. Yet this book does attempt to address an abiding issue for Churches and, just as importantly, it brings together two gracious and mature Christians — Charles Taylor and David Martin — exemplars of nonagenarian wisdom.


Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent, and Editor of
Theology.

 

Modernity and Transcendence: A dialogue with Charles Taylor
Anthony J. Carroll and Staf Hellemans, editors
Amsterdam University Press £27*
(978-9-4637-21180-9)
*available from www.aup.nl/en/

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