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Interview by Bruce Ellis Benson

What It Means to Be Secular

A conversation with philosopher Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is one of those rare philosophers who influence the conversation in several distinct fields of inquiry within their discipline. A noted Hegel scholar, he has also addressed contemporary social and political debates in books such as The Ethics of Authenticity and Multiculturalism, and he has given considerable attention to the role of religion in the modern world, in works such as A Catholic Modernity? and Varieties of Religion Today: Williams James Revisited (both of which are reviewed in this issue of Books & Culture). Taylor is perhaps best known for his magisterial work, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, published by Harvard University Press in 1989.

Bruce Ellis Benson met with Taylor several months ago in New York, where Taylor was lecturing at the New School University.

We live in a secular society. What do you think that means?

To say we live in a secular civilization is to say that God is no longer inescapable. It doesn't mean that we live in a society from which God has been expelled. I don't think we ever will live in such a society for very long; the Communists tried that. But the nature of this modern secular society is that it's deeply plural. We have to accept that the ultimate grounding of the civilization we share in common is up for grabs.

Every society has an implicit order—a set of understandings out of which its members make sense of their practices. This set of understandings I describe as a social imaginary, drawing on Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities and on the work of JÜrgen Habermas and Michael Warner, among others. Why imaginary? Because it's very important to get away from the mania for strictly theoretical approaches that proceed as if these implicit understandings were explicitly spelled out in a series of propositions.

If you compare the different political cultures of the Western European and North Atlantic liberal democracies, for example, they look very similar at the level of theory. But the way the political system actually works, the deeper understanding of how the individual relates to society in France as opposed to Germany, in Canada as opposed to the United States, can be very, very different. It's that deeper underpinning that the term imaginary suggests.

In the social imaginary of Latin Christendom, God is inescapable. For the French monarchy in the Middle Ages, let's say, there's an understanding that this whole monarchical authority only exists against the background of a cosmic order, a divine order in which it occupies a certain place. And all of the ritual of coronation and anointing and so on has meaning within this context.

In the social imaginary of our secular day, the underlying moral order exists to promote the mutual benefit of individuals and defend their rights. This understanding of society, which is central to modernity, has developed over the course of several centuries. By now we are so well installed in the modern social imaginary, it seems the only possible one. After all, are we not all individuals? Do we not associate in society for our mutual benefit? How else to measure social life?

In such a society, the notion that moral order is ultimately grounded in God may appear to threaten to upset the kind of polite sociability and tolerance that ideally characterize the modern public sphere. From this perspective, Christianity becomes not only something that you don't need but it actually becomes a danger.

But that is itself simply one understanding of our political predicament. There are competing understandings, mutually contradictory, but none is capable of a knockout blow against all the others. That's what it means to live in a secular civilization. We will never experience the kind of unanimity about the underlying order that existed in pre-Revolutionary France. That will never exist again in human history unless we catastrophically destroy modern civilization and go back to the caves. And any attempt to impose such unanimity, whether of an atheist or a theist kind, will come to a terrible end as Communism did.

You've said that there is a new space for God in the secular world. What is the nature of this "new space"?

Modernity is secular, not in the frequent, rather loose sense of the word, where it designates the absence of religion, but rather in the fact that religion occupies a different place, compatible with the sense that all social action takes place in profane time. Just as in personal life the dissolution of the enchanted world can be compensated for by devotion, by a strong sense of the involvement of God in my life, so in the public world the loss of sacred time and an unquestioned transcendent order can be replaced by a strong sense of God in our political identity. God's will can still be very present to us in the design of things, in the cosmos, in both social and individual life. God can still be the source of our power to impart order to our lives.

There is an alternative reading—namely, that we're moving to a society where more and more the consensus will be around an unbelieving variant of the modern social imaginary. But to me this seems to be just a dream. It's a dream that arises among those who are deeply into an atheist or non-believing position and are convinced as a matter of faith that religion will gradually disappear and everyone will think as they do. For them, the secular world is one in which we all end up agreeing fundamentally that there's no God, and that agreement is the basis of everything. That's an impossible scenario, and the more they think like that, the worse it's going to be.

We're living in a new epoch in which the degree of diversity people have to face is in some ways frightening. It means that on the deepest level you're going to be disagreeing with the people you're co-citizens with. I think that there are lots of liberals—atheist liberals, if you like—who still don't understand this, and then there are also many people on the other side who still don't understand this.

So it's the multiplicity of possible understandings of the social order that is the defining mark of the secular world, rather than the decline of religion?

Yes. We're living in the best political order yet achieved in human history. With all its faults, we're nevertheless accurate in our sense that it answers the fundamental human need to be anchored in the good. But this distinctively modern understanding of the good is such a kind that it can be enframed in more than one way.

It follows from this that there is something unstable about everyone's position. There will be a lot of worrying about alternative enframings. People will be moving back and forth; the children of people who enframe the social order this way will choose to enframe it that way, and so on.

In this state of affairs, there is an enormous yearning for a common enframing—and this is true even among many of those who most vigorously champion "diversity." There's a kind of nostalgia for a time when people were deeply anchored all the way down—or all the way up—in a common understanding of the underlying order.

And the model for this in our own civilization—the model for being anchored all the way down—is Christendom. In Christendom, there was no room for heretics, not because the people of that epoch were especially narrow-minded but because their common enframing was threatened by important differences in religious belief. A desire to revive that model seems to animate much of the American Christian Right.

Today the yearning for a common enframing is a temptation. We are particularly tempted to uncritically identify the modern social imaginary with the highest and best in human life. Modern liberalism has done that to an almost idolatrous degree. Now as I've said, I'm not siding with the reactionaries who reject modernity across the board—not at all. But there's no human social order which captures everything that is right.

That's what I get from the gospel. I'm thinking of something like the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Is this a workable model of social distribution? The answer to that is clearly no. You can't pay someone who worked from 4 in the afternoon to 5 the same as you pay someone who came in at 9 in the morning and worked all day. You can't run a business that way; you can't run a society that way.

But human life is such that sometimes you have to go beyond the self-contained code of the social order—and God goes far beyond giving you your exact due. And sometimes we have to be operating with God and not with the best social distribution system.

Bruce Ellis Benson is associate professor of philosophy at Wheaton College. He is the author of Graven Ideologies: Nietzsche, Derrida, and Marion on Modern Idolatry (IVP) and The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

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