Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Charles Taylor on Locating the Truth

Reading Charles Taylor

A few months ago, I finally made it through Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor's landmark book, A Secular Age. I won't even try to respond to the book in general, which was the densest, richest, and most thorough analysis of the spirit of our time I've ever read; I can't claim to have internalized much of what Taylor put into it on first first. (I do highly recommend it, or James K.A. Smith's more readable guide to it) But I came across a passage toward the end of the book that perfectly articulated something I'd been trying to think about in Taylor's typical, fuzzily precise way, and I want to expand on and respond to it here. (If you happen to have the book, it is section 4 of chapter 20)

The context of this passage is Taylor (a practicing Roman Catholic) reflecting on Vatican II and the tensions between its theology and the "established Catholic tradition", exemplified by the decrees of the Council of Trent. In other words, "what should we make of the reform of Vatican II?" Taylor begins by saying:
Now there are two clear perspectives in which this can be seen. On one hand, we can postulate that what is at stake here is the ultimately and totally right understanding of Catholic Christianity. Then this issue is, who got it right, Vatican II or Trent, and/or in which respect? (p. 752)
Regarding Charles Péguy, a twentieth-century Catholic theologian whose thought was influential for Vatican II, Taylor says that in this perspective (emphasis added),
We would be dealing with his background in the way that is familiar from many debates in secular history. For instance, the way in which believers in Progress argue that earlier ages couldn't have been expected to see certain truths which are obvious to us, because they lacked certain knowledge, or a freedom from prejudices, and the like; or from the other side, the way supporters of traditional ways may argue that in the contemporary condition of moral decay, when the most basic decencies are under attack, we cannot expect that young people will be able to see the value of what has been lost. We describe backgrounds and perspectives, in other words, as epistemically privileged or deprived, as good or bad vantage points to discern some single truth. (p. 752)
To greatly simplify, this perspective involves the kind of thinking that says, "I'm right, you're wrong; here's why." There is a "single truth", and some parties are more "epistemically privileged", able to discern that truth, than others. Taylor goes on to describe the second perspective in which Péguy and Vatican II can be viewed:
The second framework in which we can understand this kind of study postulates that what is at stake is complementary insights. Neither is simply right or wrong about a single issue, but each bring a fresh perspective which augments and enriches our understanding. The issue is to see how these different insights fit together, and for this purpose filling out the background, the social/intellectual/spiritual context from which an insight comes can be very illuminating. (p. 752)
Taylor favors this second perspective, but in keeping with it, he argues that the first perspective is also necessary and can be the truer at times. There are some points at which "Péguy's views just contradict earlier established beliefs, and Vatican II changes the reigning ideas surrounding Vatican I; like the importance of freedom, the value of democracy, the centrality of human rights, the judgments made on other faith traditions, and so on." (p. 753) Pius IX's staunch opposition to democracy and human rights as incompatible with Christianity was "just wrong", yet nineteenth-century Catholics like Pius IX might have seen the dangers and weaknesses of democracy more clearly than we do today; we still have something to learn from them. Their insights and ours, in other words, are complementary. He gives a few other examples of how the views of nineteenth-century Catholics can complement those of twenty-first century Catholics, like the old principle that "error has no rights" and fasting guidelines. Of these he says,
We have to grasp these historical differences bi-focally; in one way, we are dealing with right/wrong issues, in which each change is a gain or loss of truth; in another with different avenues of approach to the faith from out of very different ways of life. A total focus on the first can blind us to the second. And this would be a great loss. This is partly because understanding another approach can free us from the blindness that attends a total embedding in our own. (p. 753) 
What Taylor is recommending is a way of conversing (or disagreeing) with historical or contemporary figures that attempts to view one's one perspective as complementary to the other's. In other words, you don't necessarily adopt another's view and may even say you disagree with it, but you seek to understand that view beneath the surface, discern the values and insights underlying it (which will often be more agreeable than their conclusion), and learn from them as far as is possible. Taylor further expands on this thought with another example, one likely more familiar to Protestants:
Christians today, for example, have to climb out of an age in which Hell and the wrath of God are often very faintly felt, if they are understood at all. But they live in a world where objectification and excarnation [a term Taylor defines as "the transfer of our religious life out of bodily forms of ritual, worship, practice, so that it comes more and more to reside 'in the head'."] reign, where death undermines meaning, and so on. We have to struggle to recover a sense of what the Incarnation can mean. But Jonathan Edwards, for instance, three centuries ago, lived in a world where the wrath of God was a powerful presence, and where thee difficulty was to come to an adequate sense of God's universal love. One can respond to this difference polemically, and judge that one or the other was bang-on right, and the other quite wrong. We condemn Edwards as caught in an old mode, or ourselves as having watered down the faith.
But we can also see it in another light. Neither of us grasps the whole picture. None of us could ever grasp alone everything that is involved in our alienation from God and his action to bring us back. But there are a great many of us, scattered through history, who have had some powerful sense of some facet of this drama. Together we can live it more fully than any one of us could alone. Instead of reaching immediately for the weapons of polemic, we might better listen for a voice which we could never have assumed ourselves, whose tone might have been forever unknown to us if we hadn't strained to understand it. We will find that we have to extend this courtesy even to people who would never have extended it to us (like Jonathan Edwards)—in that respect, perhaps we have made some modest headway towards truth in the last couple of centuries, although we can certainly find precedents in the whole history of Christianity. Our faith is not the acme of Christianity, but nor is it a degenerate version; it should rather be open to a conversation that ranges over the whole of the last 20 centuries (and even in some ways before). (pp. 753-754)
It is hard for me to admit that I could have anything to learn about the Christian faith from one such as Jonathan Edwards, but Taylor makes a compelling case. That refusal to learn, to seek truth everywhere and from everyone, is just the flip side of my assurance that thanks to sound Orthodox teaching, I have finally "gotten it right" and can slip into something like Taylor's first perspective. It is sin. Taylor starts to put this composite perspective together:
This, of course, leaves us with an immense set of messy, hermeneutical issues: how the different approaches relate to each other; how they relate together to questions of over-arching truth. We will never be without these issues; the belief that they can finally be set aside by some secure instance of authority, whether the Bible or the Pope, is a damaging and dangerous illusion.
What this fragmentary and difficult conversation points towards is the Communion of Saints. I'm understanding this not just as a communion of perfected persons, who have left their imperfections behind them; but rather as a communion of whole lives, of whole itineraries towards God. ... Itineraries consist not only of sins. My itinerary crucially includes my existence embedded in a historic order, with its good and bad, in and out of which I must move toward God's order. The eschaton must bring together all these itineraries, with their very different landscapes and perils. (p. 754)
I agree with Taylor's identification of this conversation with the communion of saints; or perhaps equivalently, with Holy Tradition. Contrary to my first impressions of it, Tradition is not simply the collection of all the answers to theological questions that the Church has authoritatively settled upon over the millennia. Looking back at the definitions quoted in my post on Holy Tradition, several of them define Tradition not merely as a body of doctrines or teachings, but as "the life of the Church in the Holy Spirit", or "the living memory of the Church", as an ongoing "activity or dynamism". Put another way, the fullness of the truth of the Christian faith is found in Holy Tradition, but it comes to us not in the form of a formula or formal body of teachings, but in the form of a conversation spanning time and space, across the communion of saints. The Orthodox Church, with its absence of a secure, singular, "final" authority apart from Christ himself, seems like a uniquely conducive place for this conversation, this light-giving meeting of persons. In other words, I think Taylor is really onto something here.
And this gives us a second reason not to let the issue of final truth occlude the difference of itineraries. It is that the Church, as a communion of different peoples and ages, in mutual understanding and enrichment, is damaged, limited, and divided by an unfounded total belief in one's own truth, which really better deserves the name of heresy. (pp. 754-755)
Belief in the infallibility of the Church must not become this. I am not the Church. (The same is arguably true for the infallibility of the Scriptures) Taylor concludes:
I have described two different meanings we can give to the sense the contemporary convert has that she must move outside the established order. One sets us to look for the perfectly adequate historic order; the other invites us to a conversation which can reach beyond any one such order. The goal in this case is not to return to an earlier formula, inspiring as many of these will undoubtedly be; there will always be an element of imitation of earlier models, but inevitably and rightly Christian life today will look for and discover new ways of moving beyond the present orders to God. One could say that we look for new and unprecedented itineraries. Understanding out time in Christian terms is partly to discern these new paths, opened by pioneers who have discovered a way through the particular labyrinthine landscape we live in, its thickets and trackless wastes, to God. (p. 755) 
The Christian faith, I have heard it taught, is not a system of rules or teaching; it is in something like this sense that it is often said not to be merely a "religion". It is a journey towards and into the One who is Truth, and yet who transcends all that our minds can grasp. Charles Taylor grasps this reality and invites us to live accordingly.

(Dis)agreeing Constructively

The idea that Taylor's way of putting things helped me to articulate is that, as you might guess, theological discussion usually doesn't live up to the vision he lays out. Specifically, people tend to think from his first perspective—I'm right, you're wrong, here's why—and neglect the second—here is how our understandings complement and inform each other. The first perspective deals with rightness as a zero-sum game, like a military battle or, well, a game; the second handles it more like a cooperative venture, a group project. The danger of overapplying the second perspective is syncretism and naive gullibility. The danger of overapplying the first is more common and evident all around us; polarization, polemic, endless bickering, intractable controversies and debates. Instead of thinking cooperatively and coming to a fuller understanding of the reality than they could arrive at separately, each party assumes their "side" has to be correct at the expense of another.

A simple example of this is an interaction my wife and I share almost daily: when she tells me she loves me, I jokingly respond, "No, I love you," as if correcting her. The idea of marital love being a zero-sum game so that one spouse's love comes at the expensive of the other's is silly, but this pattern occurs more seriously elsewhere. For example, a phrase often used to respond to calls for gun control measures is "guns don't kill people; people do." This slogan sets two (I would argue complementary) families of responses to gun violence, gun control and improved prevention/mental health care, against each other. A simple religious example which I have commented on before is the controversy dating back to the nineteenth century over whether the Bible is "merely human" writing to be treated "like any other book", or if it is something more. In the course of opposing this conception as a denial of the Christian faith, theological conservatives came to adopt theories of Scripture that instead overemphasized its divine nature, such as biblical inerrancy.

I also saw this pattern of escalating reaction repeatedly while studying the history of modern theology. Deists and Enlightenment thinkers reacted to the ugly clashes of Orthodoxy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and proposed a religion based on pure, natural reason. Schleiermacher, responding to the growing conflict between religion and reason, proposed a way of doing theology centering around human religious feeling and experience rather than dogma, which would become the school of liberal theology. Theological conservatives and fundamentalists, reacting in turn to theological liberalism, doubled down on the divine authority and traditional interpretation of Scripture. Modern theologians, dismayed at what they saw as conservatives' silo mentality, proposed to demythologize Christianity, or tried to fuse Christianity and existentialism, or something else. Liberal, fundamentalist, process, neo-orthodox, liberation, and existential all developed in reaction to real abuses of teaching, and may even have formed around a kernel of truth, but they remain only fragmentary, incomplete perspectives, in part because of their need to distinguish themselves from what they react against.

This outward spiral of reaction and counter-reaction, also described by Taylor in A Secular Age, is responsible for a good deal of the theological diversity of modern Protestantism and Catholicism. It demonstrates how both of his perspectives are necessary. Rare is the case when a teaching is completely false and is rightly met only with denial. Sin is not creative; it corrupts that which already is, and so most beliefs will have an underlying kernel of truth to them. Critiquing a reasoned approach to just about anything will usually involve a mix of affirmations and denials: some tenets may be correct, others wanting; and even then, they may involve correct premises worthy of affirmation while proceeding from them wrongly.

The conversation Taylor points towards involves both of his perspectives; looking for truth in the wisdom and witness of others as well as identifying where they genuinely (and not just seemingly) conflict; discerning where someone's view is wrong and how it is merely incomplete. Ecumenical dialogue between different religious traditions will not get far without such a spirit of humility. And within a religious tradition, this attitude helps prevent divisions from forming in the first place, reminding individuals that they can never contain the fullness of the truth with which the Church has been entrusted; we must constantly be open to receiving it from others. The Church is the fullness of the truth, Orthodox believe, but I am not the Church and am not fit to speak for her. At least on an individual level, orthodoxy is always freedom from error, never having nothing left to learn. As in Taylor's example of Trent and Vatican II, we can and should seek out and learn from diverse voices and sources within the breadth of Holy Tradition as complementary sources capable of shedding light on parts of the truth we may be inclined to neglect.

It is a common Christian truism that we are not saved merely by having doctrinally correct theology. In the extreme case, reactionary, polemical thinking can lose sight of this reality as we become more concerned with refuting error than with loving the truth—when we make what we deny central to what we believe. Denial, in itself, is not redemptive, no matter how awful is the thing you are rejecting. Such adversarial thinking reinforces disagreement, even revels in it, rather than seeking to heal it. It is a form of the divisiveness I described last time. Nurturing "seeds of the Word" is more important than rooting out every last "seed of the adversary". One will hopefully get you a blooming garden, the other a barren plot of dirt.

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