Wednesday, December 22, 2010

An Odd Interview

The folks at The New Inquiry offer up an interview with Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor at The Utopian that is just strange. The interview seems to want to revolve around questions raised by Taylor's last, magesterial work, A Secular Age. The very first question signals that the interviewer hasn't quite grasped either the central point of Taylor's work, let alone surveys our contemporary scene for any clarity.
Is it possible to be religious in today’s world?
Even European intellectuals, long either resigned or elated by the passing of even the possibility of religious belief are coming to the realization that, as a very real human phenomenon, it has not and will not disappear as easily as was once envisioned. Indeed, the history of the past generation, if anything, is testimony to the tenacity of religious belief, and the very limited appeal of the western critique of the possibility of religious belief.

This last point is something that Taylor has made part of his philosophical project, that is, understanding how it is that the supposedly universal criticism of the possibility of religious belief is, really, merely a socially and culturally conditioned position. Furthermore, while it has given to the West many gains (which Taylor describes in brief in the interview), it also entails losses as well, which he also discusses.

Furthermore, the interviewers seem insistent to draw out from Taylor what he believes to be the political implications of the work, a view he rejects.
The book may have political consequences, but it’s not something that you could necessarily produce by political action.
What Taylor discusses in his book is the slow-moving intellectual change, with some political effects, but others as well. Are there political ramifications of this intellectual arc? Obviously. Yet, they are far more subtle, and might even be contradictory. Taylor is pretty clear about that in his work, as well as the interview.

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is the interviewer hasn't grasped the essence of Taylor's work. The following question makes that pretty clear; Taylor's response is generous, to say the least.
So let’s talk about these political consequences. If you jettison something like the mechanistic worldview, and perhaps substitute it with a more holistic religion that makes more claims of authority during our time on earth — wouldn’t one of the consequences be that it would be very difficult for many such religions to co-exist? Is the liberal part of your soul worried about the societal clashes that might result?

That sort of thing is possible, but it’s not inevitable. Religions can be lived in very many different ways. One of the big things that started happening in the 20th century is ecumenicism. I don’t just mean: let’s get together, let’s be nice to each other. (Laughs) I mean, I’m all for that.

But there’s something else which is much more subtle. This is ecumenicism as a real desire to learn from the other — and this extends to atheists as well — to learn from the other why their position so deeply appeals to them. There is a great deal of exchange operating at this level. It both presupposes but also builds initial respect and friendship. Again, you could say that this all corresponds to a new upheaval for people, who find it very difficult to flip back to the old way. So people argue that it, too, has downsides. I’m not sure about that, but it certainly has upsides. For instance, it frees in a plural-religious situation — where the other is a real possibility — certain kinds of ecumenicism that have traditionally existed in more despotically ordered societies. For instance, where the Greek Christians and the Armenian Christians and the Turkish Muslims all co-existed and nobody expected anyone to look at each other.

But in situations where one can move around, there is an easy tendency to defend yourself against any doubts about whether you should become an atheist, or whether an atheist should become a Christian, by supremely deprecatory views of the other. “I mean, I could change my mind, but their view is so ridiculous,” or horrifying or whatever. So the side of all this that clears away the deprecatory images is very important to one’s spiritual development — but it’s more than that. It’s a sense that (one is tempted to use one’s own language, naturally, so let me use the Christian language) you can see the Spirit moving in all these different lives, and that is something both very inspiring and furthering of one’s own spiritual development. I think a lot of that is coming to exist.
The interview is interesting precisely because there is an almost total failure to grasp the complexities of Taylor's argument. Like so many in today's world, there is the search for easy answers, for direct political or social implications from a certain intellectual stance. The interview is odd, and interesting, and worth a read, although at times, I wonder if Taylor isn't treating the interviewer like an undergraduate who hasn't quite got the point.

Virtual Tin Cup

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