On Charles Taylor in Person

The first and most surprising thing is that he's gregarious with a good sense of humor. In his books he gives the impression of learnedness with a combination of analytic philosophy's obsession with concretely defining terms at the risk of abstraction and continental philosophy's desire to speak about actual human life at the risk of incoherence. In person he gives off the impression of someone who is looking to the resources of past thought to confirm or disconfirm the intuitions he has. The most refreshing thing was his willingness to admit when he just didn't know enough to answer someone's question, and he manages self-deprecation as well as or better than other academics. It may be a show, but it's a convincing one.

I initially found The Sources of the Self and A Secular Age to be interesting books for my own personal and academic interests. Sources of the Self mounts the argument that modern intellectual enterprises are not sustainable on their own, and implies near the end that only Christianity is positioned to surmount these difficulties in any inherent way. A Secular Age argues against narratives of decline in the west, that there was once some moment of perfect Christendom to which we need to return. The Protestant Reformation, in particular, was a necessary moment of rupture, and though it has made the task of being a coherent person aware of all reality more difficult, it is simply a problem we have to deal with. But it also appeared to undermine some of these arguments: the scope of examples of integrated, coherent living are restricted from a general Christianity in his early work to liberal Catholicism (and only liberal Catholicism) in his later work. In that rejection of a narrative of decline, there was still a narrative of decline, the implication that something had been irretrievably lost.

Watching him answer questions in an audience at least half composed of Divinity School faculty and students--and in a conversation dominated by them--convinced me these are incorrect interpretations and uncharitable views of his work. He readily admitted giving short shrift to sources he is now convinced would be quite useful for his account, John Calvin and Karl Barth in particular. The examples that appeared in A Secular Age were those he knew and had nearest to hand, hence the emphasis on Catholicism-as-Christendom. The same happened with my longstanding question of whether the 'liberal' or the 'Catholic' in 'liberal Catholic' was more important. 'Liberal' here means 'willing to be open to different modes of life and live peacefully with them' and 'Catholic' means 'aware of both transcendent reality as well as the things that have been gained and lost in the last 500 years.' For Taylor, it seems to be an 'it takes two wings to fly' situation: however awkward the combination, it's the only one possible for survival. A liberal alone cannot manage the contradictions of modern life; a Catholic (read: Christian) alone will be in denial about the world around him, and unable to reach it as he'd like.

I'll have to mull on this more, to see how I think about it, but it was an excellent validation of the principle of occasionally revisiting things you disliked to see if you've changed your mind.

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