Charles Taylor has been called the leading philosopher of today. If narrowed to the questions of religion, the self, and human experience, the claim has some grounding. For students in theology, religious studies, modern intellectual history, or the philosophy of religion and secularity, it isn’t long before this book starts appearing on bibliographies.
A child through the great depression, Taylor was born in Montréal, Québec, where he spent much of his career. Completely bilingual, Taylor studied at McGill before becoming a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, receiving a doctorate from Balliol College under the famous Isaiah Berlin and philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe—one-time debate partner with C.S. Lewis. While he served as Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, most of his career was at McGill—a seat which Taylor used to speak as a philosopher and historian of ideas in the West, as well as a Canadian public intellectual. Highlighting his academic tenure, he has won a series of awards and honours, including the Order of Canada and the million dollar Templeton (2007) and Berggruen (2016) prizes. He also received the two awards that are like the “other Nobel” for disciplines outside the Nobel’s range, namely the Kyoto Prize (2008) and the Kluge, which he shared with Jürgen Habermas (2015).
My first encounter with Charles Taylor was in the wake of his Laing Lecture at Regent College in 2001. I came to campus in 2003, and there was a residual energy from the talk—a conversation that no doubt reignited when A Secular Age was released in 2007 as his Laing Lectures were a test of one of the sectiosn of the book. This book was the culmination of 45 years of writing and teaching, from his work on Hegel in the 60s, to his noteworthy Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity in 1989, to his various public lectures where he tested out his ideas for A Secular Age. Besides the Laing Lectures in 2001, one of his most important moments was the 1992 Massey Lectures on CBC, published as The Malaise of Modernity in Canada and The Ethics of Authenticity in the U.S.
Taylor is an important philosopher of religion, historian of ideas, and Catholic public intellectual, and has reshaped the conversation about secularity and religion in the 21st century.
There are not a lot of personal connections between Taylor and Lewis. Taylor was among a group of Canadian intellectuals, including George Grant, who enjoyed Lewis’ work with the Oxford Socratic Club. Taylor studied under the one debater who bested Lewis, Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. I get the sense that Dom Bede Griffiths, a student of Lewis’ and ultimately one of the more unusual Catholic thinkers of the 20th century, has been really important to Charles Taylor’s thinking as a Catholic. Other than that, I don’t know of any conscious connections, or if Taylor was ever aware of Lewis’ work “(beyond casual reference).
I think, though, that Taylor can be helpful for students who are preparing for a study of C.S. Lewis’ works. Here are a few sketchy notes that I found helpful when putting Taylor’s magnum opus in conversation with Lewis.
“Worldviews” or “Worldview studies” are common concepts today, but this fuzzy concept was yet unnamed in Lewis’ time. Despite its popularity, there isn’t even an OED entry for “worldview”—a word I use weekly and that is standard in academic studies. Lewis anticipates this approach to thinking about cultures of ideas, using the term “model” in The Discarded Image to refer to the medieval worldview in contrast to present day. Taylor has a sophisticated conversation about what we call a worldview but what he terms the “social imaginary.” More than just a coincidence of approach, Taylor presses in on the social development of the 16th and 17th century that sits behind Lewis’ literary work of the period, setting the stage for a more sophisticated way of treating the “secular age” of today.
Narrowing in, Taylor sets the philosophical context for the early 20th century as it pertains to Britain. In particular, we get a chance to understand the instincts against which Lewis’ mentor G.K. Chesterton was pressing—not just in his Heretics and The Everlasting Man, but throughout his entire cultural critical work. Lewis should be seen has modeling himself after Chesterton, and Lewis’ philosophical instincts are similar. Lewis’ commitment to writing Miracles–somewhat of an outlier book in his corpus–makes sense when put in the context of Taylor’s reading of late 19th and early 20th century English social thought.
Something that I never properly understood but that Taylor helped me see was the quiet dialogue Lewis was having with Matthew Arnold. On the one hand, Lewis is in some sense a critic in the school of Arnold, trying to present the work of literature for the public without letting his own reading overwhelm the original (e.g., see “Addison” 166 or The Personal Heresy). On the other hand, Lewis implicates himself consistently in his work as a critic, sharing his own experience of the literature to the point where he attempts to re-centre criticism on this point in An Experiment in Criticism. In this way Lewis is offering a yes-no to Arnold.
When it comes to culture, Lewis in many ways adapts Arnold’s canonical approach and believes that literature can work on the morals of the reader. In other ways, though, Lewis rejected the “this is good for civilization” approach that Arnold was on about. This is seen in Lewis’ own discomfort with the empire-building project of England. You see this intimately in Surprised by Joy, where Lewis claims that it is to his shame that as a child he was unable to stomach the private school system. His rebellion against its brutality and his failure to be good at sports seems unusually serious to us as later readers. But as Taylor says, the school of Matthew Arnold was about creating manliness and loyalty in the public schoolboy:
“They had replaced Athens with Sparta as the ideal ancient city” (398).
Lewis was clearly an Athens man, and even when the special poetics of Sparta occurs in his literature—warfare and athletic heroism—Lewis undercuts Spartan valour in numerous ways with a new vision for what it means to be a hero.
Finally, Lewis saw a line of continuity from Matthew Arnold to the Cambridge English school that was at its core anti-God, even when it used the structures of European Christianity or spiritual experience as part of its work to create order against the threat of chaos. Lewis, apart from not being anti-God, could never accept that civilized-infused religion. Where Arnold and Lewis separate so radically is that Lewis would say that an uneducated washerwoman and a transcendental poet become spiritual on exactly the same terms; Arnold would have found this an offensive idea (see Lewis, “Christianity and Culture” 24). Of Arnold, Lewis called this approach a “most dangerous and most anti-Christian error” (“Learning in War-time” 55-56).
Indeed, it is my reading of things that part of Lewis’ overcoming his prejudices against Christianity in moving from theism to Christianity in 1930-31 was overcoming Matthew Arnold (e.g., see his 3 Aug 1930 letter to Arthur Greeves). Lewis predicted that when Arnold and Leavis and all those boys got their way—when literature finally replaced religion as religion—it would take “on all the features of bitter persecution, great intolerance, and traffic in relics” that is the religious temptation (“Unreal Estates” 93). Charles Taylor helps us see how Arnoldian and anti-Arnoldian C.S. Lewis really was—and thus how he was both in his times and outside of his times.
There are other ideas in C.S. Lewis that make better sense when Taylor’s history is considered, like Lewis’ use of the word “manly,” his essay on “Christianity and Culture,” and his careful rejection of certain “-ocracies”—like the rule of a cultural elite, the unfair social pressure against women, the creeping influence of Darwinism as a social philosophy rather than a scientific concept, a looming technocracy that threatened human identity, and bureaucracy in almost any form. A Secular Age also fills out Lewis’ argument about the development of fantasy as an art-form, but I would leave that for another day. And, intriguingly, we see in A Secular Age a reference to the precursor to Lewis’ trilemma: that Christ, given the claims he made, must have been a liar on the scale of a con man, a lunatic with as much credibility as a man who says he’s a poached egg, or the legitimate lord of the universe. While this argument is encased within G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, and no doubt it trails its way through Western history, it has a particular context in a generation that looks to Jesus as a moral teacher. Charles Taylor finds the parent reference to Chesterton in the 1988 novel Robert Elsmere by Mary Augusta Ward, who Lewis called one of the greatest bores of all history, whether ancient or modern (see 29 Sep 1958 letter to Martin Kilmer; more on this below).
Finally, Taylor is not writing analytical philosophy distinct from the stories of culture. It is true that many of the thinkers that Taylor is in conversation with didn’t interest Lewis that much or that appeared later, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, Max Müller, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Isaiah Berlin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Schiller, John Stuart Mill, followers of Émile Durkheim, John Millbank, Martin Heidegger, Albert Camus, René Descartes, Michel Foucault, Martha Nussbaum, Sigmund Freud, John Locke, Jürgen Habermas, Immanuel Kant, Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, and Voltaire. I learned a lot reading this book, and for me it sealed in decades of reading in the Western intellectual tradition.
But Taylor also reaches for literary examples to demonstrate his ideas, speaking of storytellers and poets like George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Madonna, Henrik Ibsen, William Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, William Wordsworth, Ernest Hemingway, Robinson Jeffers, Walter Ong, Cormac McCarthy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, J.K. Rowling, and dozens of others. Reading Taylor, like reading Lewis, is not just reading their theological and philosophical parentage, but also the Western canon as it stands and as it transforms itself. In this way, Lewis and Taylor are drawing from the same wells.
It is difficult to provide a taste of A Secular Age that is not a whole meal. I am tempted to provide you with the extended discussion of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ work as one of the groundbreaking alternative conversion narratives of the modern world. Perhaps, though, a passage of a few pages could show Taylor’s breadth of intellectual development, his use of literary examples, the Matthew Arnold connection, and the trilemma background all in one. Taken from pp. 384-7 of the chapter “19th Century Trajectories” in the transformational section, “The Nova Effect,” the following selection gives us all of those things in a single reflection. The passage also highlights the tensions intellectuals in the 19th century were experiencing, thus showing us the climate that C.S. Lewis was born into. And that is the critical advantage of A Secular Age: with careful scholarship and attention to detail, Charles Taylor provides with creative breadth and depth an intellectual history behind the 20th century that avoids the reductionism of the narratives coughed up most often in universities and documentaries. In this way, it is a useful tool to the C.S. Lewis scholar, but make sure you leave a season for reflection on the book. It is a very, very long book.
It is worth looking at one more document here, a novel which had an immense success both in Britain and America at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. The novel is Robert Elsmere, and the author is Mrs. Humphry Ward, a niece of Matthew Arnold. The protagonist, Elsmere, is an Anglican clergyman who loses his faith in orthodox Christianity. But instead of falling into indifference, or even becoming an open enemy of Christianity (or even worse, cynically carrying on a comfortable career as a clergyman, hiding his true beliefs), he struggles to an Arnoldian position. He wants to redefine the faith, free of its—now indefensible—supernatural myths, and make it once more the vehicle by which humans can accede to a higher moral life.
In a moment of great inner turmoil and suffering at the loss of his early faith, Robert sees the new vision, of a “purely human Christ—a purely human, explicable, yet always wonderful Christianity” (321). He finds that he believes in Christ “in the teacher, the martyr, the symbol to us Westerns of all things heavenly and abiding, the image and pledge of the invisible life of the spirit—with all my soul and mind!” But he cannot accept “the Man-God, the Word from Eternity—. . . a wonder-working Christ, in a risen and ascended Jesus, in the living Intercessor and Mediator for the lives of his doomed brethren” (342).
He believes in God, but this God is something like an impersonal force. He is “an Eternal Goodness—and an Eternal Mind—of which Nature and Man are the continuous and only revelation” (494). Here the author seems to have borrowed less from her uncle, and more from the philosopher T. H. Green. Green appears in the story, under the (rather transparent) name “Grey”, a fellow of Robert’s college in Oxford, who befriends him and acts as his mentor at crucial moments. Green’s philosophy emerged as well out of the same cross-pressures that I have been describing.
On the one hand, a strong reaction against Hume and Utilitarianism, as theories which deny the human potentiality for moral ascent; on the other hand, an inability to accept God as a supernatural agent, intervening in human history. Green found in the work of Kant and Hegel a way of articulating his position. God was in a sense the lodestone which draws us higher, and also the ontic guarantee that this ascent will be possible. But the ascent is towards an impersonal moral order, prefigured in Hegel’s notion of Geist, rather than in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
As Robert puts it from his deathbed:
“personality, or intelligence, or what not! What meaning can they have as applied to God?” (603).
But we need God: “Love and revere something we must, if we are to be men and not beasts” (498–499). And this God is not only indispensable for personal moral ascent. We also need him if we are to find a way of binding together our society. Here he takes up a crucial theme for Arnold. We need a new religion, because we need “a new social bond”.
We need it, for
“that diminution of the self in man which is to enable the individual to see the world’s ends clearly, and to care not only for his but for his neighbour’s interest, which is to make the rich devote themselves to the poor, and the poor bear with the rich. . . . It is man’s will which is eternally defective, eternally inadequate. Well, the great religions of the world are the stimulants by which the power at the root of things has worked upon this sluggish instrument of human destiny. Without religion you cannot make the will equal to its tasks. Our present religion fails us; we must, we will have another!” (572).
In Arnoldian terms, religion is portrayed here as the essential bulwark of Culture against Anarchy.
The novel, as we can see, contains lots of intellectual exchanges on a very high level. How did it nevertheless manage to be a runaway best-seller? Because it portrays so vividly the inner conflict, the intense suffering, which accompanied this deconversion and reconstruction. It is not only that Robert is dismayed himself by the need to abandon his early faith. His marriage to Catherine is almost destroyed by it.
Catherine is herself deeply anchored in an orthodox Evangelical position. For her there is nothing between cleaving to this faith on one hand, and open, scoffing disbelief on the other. She can’t see the point of Robert’s reconstructed religion of a purely human Jesus.
“How can that help them? . . . Your historical Christ, Robert, will never win souls. If he was God, every word you speak will insult him. If he was man, he was not a good man!” (480).
The novel is set in the mid-1880s, and reflects the times. Thus Robert’s early faith follows a contemporary trend, the reaction against the “overdriven rationalism” of Mill and Spencer among many young people of the time (62–63). And again, it is clear that the crucial issues that his de-conversion turns on are not those of natural science and evolution, but those raised by Biblical scholarship. It is these that are pressed on him by Roger Wendover, the squire-scholar who is the major agent of the change. The crucial question might be said to be that of miracles, but in a broad sense; that is, not just the miracles performed by the Christ of the Gospels, but all the Christological doctrines which affirm divine intervention in history: the Incarnation, the Resurrection and Ascension, atonement and intercession, etc.
And the squire in his arguments is firmly in the space in which Trevor-Roper placed Gibbon; “My object has been to help in making it discreditable . . . to refuse to read . . . Christian documents in the light of trained scientific criticism” (318). In other words, the “same social laws” are to be applied to all historical events, including those foundational to Christianity. The assumption is that we, in our rational age of impersonal orders, know perfectly well what these laws are, and have nothing to learn from first-century Palestinian fishermen. The squire is writing a “History of Testimony”, which has a clear master narrative, in which science emerges out of earlier ignorance and irrationality (317–318).
The novel illustrates the force of this historicized framework, in which history is read as an ascent to a consciousness of impersonal orders, on which there is no turning back. Or rather, that is my reading; it would seem that Mrs. Ward accepts this framework as an unquestioned background of her own thinking. The novel, read in the way I am suggesting, can help us break free from that. But it also helps us break free of an equal and opposite simplification, and this is one which Mrs. Ward plainly wanted to challenge.
Where the Wendovers think their judgments are unproblematically scientific and rational, many of the orthodox of the day saw this kind of apostasy in equally stark terms as the simple fruit of pride. It is related that Mrs. Ward attended the first set of Bampton Lectures in 1881, at which the speaker, himself a nephew of Wordsworth, explained the abandonment of orthodox Christianity by a number of intellectual faults, including indolence, coldness, recklessness, pride, and avarice. It was this attack which spurred Mrs.Ward to write her novel, which would show that this was a caricature. And indeed, what emerges from the novel is that good faith and honesty can be found on all sides of this controversy, even though the story awards the ultimate palm for courage and integrity to Robert.
This is a place where I might clarify further my own understanding of these conversions and deconversions. I cannot accept the Whiggish master narrative that they are determined by clear reason. They look rational within a certain framework, indeed, but this framework attracts us for a host of reasons, including ethical ones. Among the ethical attractions is certainly that of the free, invulnerable, disengaged agent. Being one of these is something in which moderns take a certain pride. But to leap from this to saying, simply, that the move from orthodoxy is actuated by pride is quite invalid. In some cases, undoubtedly. But what we’re dealing with in talking of these frameworks is complex environing backgrounds of our thought and action, which impinge on our lives in a host of ways. In one respect, yes, this modern sense of impersonal orders can give us a sense of our dignity as free agents. But it also offers us powerful ideals, of honesty and integrity, as well as of benevolence and solidarity, just to name some of the most prominent. In the whole aetiological story of how these frameworks arose, pride has its place. But in individual cases, the stories can be as many and as different as there are people who inhabit them. In some cases, for a variety of reasons, the sense of an alternative was so far off the screen, that the principal response was determined by the ideals: say, honesty, integrity, and a sense of the human potential for moral ascent. This is what one sees with T. H. Green; and this is what Mrs. Ward shows us in her protagonist.
We are in fact all acting, thinking, and feeling out of backgrounds and frameworks which we do not fully understand. To ascribe total personal responsibility to us for these is to want to leap out of the human condition. At the same time, no background leaves us utterly without room for movement and change. The realities of human life are messier than is dreamed of either by dogmatic rationalists, or in the manichean rigidities of embattled orthodoxy.
But what Mrs.Ward shows best of all is the intense anguish of the cross-pressures here. As with Carlyle and Arnold, so with Robert Elsmere: the agony cannot just be explained by the rational considerations that were in play: the impersonal order pushes to deny Christianity, the need for some purpose or direction in history calls for it. There also were deep personal emotions involved, as we see in Carlyle’s exchange with his mother. The pain was often great of deserting a childhood faith. As Wilson says in describing this retreat of belief, “this is a story of bereavement as much as of adventure” [from A.N. Wilson, God’s Funeral, 4].