The eminent Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor recently agreed to sit down with Ronald Kuipers on behalf of The Other Journal to have an extended conversation about the many issues he raises in his latest book, A Secular Age. The two philosophers discussed such topics as the relationship between religion and politics, the relationship between faith and philosophy, and the matter of carrying forward a religious tradition in what Taylor has described as an “age of authenticity.” In what follows, the second of a three-part interview, Taylor discusses his understanding of authenticity as something that deeply influences contemporary Western life, including the issue of how religious life is best lived in such an “age of authenticity.” In suggesting ways in which the representatives of religious traditions should respond to people “where they are at,” Taylor echoes the themes of such twentieth-century educational theorists as Paulo Freire and John Dewey.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Another one of the discussion areas I want to probe is the notion of authenticity, which is kind of a troubled concept in that it means so many different things in different contexts, and even just within philosophy itself. In A Secular Age1 you seem to suggest that the mass adoption of the expressive individualism of the Romantic era has both gains and costs. And I guess I am not sure if in that affirmation you were also affirming something of what [Martin] Heidegger meant by authenticity.
Charles Taylor (CT): No, it’s unfortunate that it’s also Heidegger’s word. It’s not that Heidegger’s notion is millions of miles away, but he did mean something different. For Heidegger, the difference between authenticity and inauthenticity is in whether you simply accept a routine version of your tradition or whether you go back to its very bases and roots and make a resolute decision for it. So what he’s really talking about is resolute decisiveness, whereas I’m using authenticity as shorthand for the background idea that everyone has their own particular way of being human and that you can then be either true to that or untrue to that. And I think this is a background idea that’s shared by large regions of Western society, which is why I refer to our present age as an age of authenticy. It became sort of absolutely universal in our society in the 60s, after having been a very common notion for the previous century and a half among the cultural elite.
And this idea has become the common background from which people work out their lives. From that point of view one reaction is to say, “Listen, we’re neither for nor against authenticity; it’s simply where we’re at.” From another point of view, there are certain gains and losses associated with living in an age of authenticity. On the one hand, a trivialization of authenticity is readily available that can make people quite unserious about certain very important issues; and on the other hand, authenticity can introduce the opportunity for discovering better and more profound ways of living and engaging with theses issues.
TOJ: So would you say that one of the things that’s better about an age of authenticity is that, instead of people taking up any particular position for traditional reasons and just carrying on a tradition unthinkingly, now people are more self-consciously saying, “Here I stand.” Are you saying that’s a good thing?
CT: That’s certainly one way of looking at it—though that’s more of the Heideggerian way of looking at it, perhaps. It’s more that you get people really asking themselves what their particular spiritual direction is.
There is a lot of spiritual seeking going on today. For example, if you were to visit the ecumenical community of Taizé in France,2 you’d meet people who are really seeking, and there is something really admirable about this. It’s not that there haven’t always been such seekers, it’s that now there are a lot more. That’s one of the good products of the culture of authenticity, which gets paired with the bad products of trivialization and “I’m just doing my thing” and all that kind of stuff.
TOJ: I’ve just finished co-teaching a two-week summer seminar entitled “Ethics After Auschwitz,”3 which focuses on the work of Theodor Adorno and Emmanuel Levinas, and one of the things that has come up is that not only is Adorno critical of authenticity in Heidegger, but he’s also critical of this seeking that you seem to be describing, because of its tendency to end up in trivialization. For example, let’s take something as simple as consumerist fashion trends; what Adorno would argue is that people think they are going for individualism, authenticity, and cultural transformation, but in reality they’re just capitulating to the domination of the capitalist system and the culture industry. So not only do their actions not bring about any real substantive structural change, but there isn’t any real subjectivity or authentic personhood at work here either.
CT: Yes, well, we have to make two separate criticisms here. Because one criticism arises out of the political perception that there really would be a possibility of revolution if only people could be called away from that kind of trivialization. And the other is this very profound point that in lots of cases people end up rushing in herds toward a certain definition of authenticity. That definition of authenticity is terribly derivative, and it makes people virtually indistinguishable from each other as they pick up some trend. I think both these criticisms are bang on.
But the place where many people make a mistake, or I should say, where they have a totally different framework in which to see this than I am proposing, is that they see it as just a kind of contemporary fad, a fad about fads, which we could call people back from and get back into the old days when people were recruited into massive battalions, either Marxist revolutionary in Adorno’s case, or orthodox Protestant or Catholic in other cases. I think this is really a massive mistake. It’s analogous to the Catholic Church prior to Vatican II, which failed to see that something happened in the French Revolution that made it impossible to go back to tightly knit Catholic societies ruled from on top, yet they were always trying to reestablish these kinds of societies. Of course, there was more realism in the Vatican than that, but they didn’t really want to give their blessing to or acknowledge the theoretical acceptance of a new era in which states were ruled democratically by people and in which there was freedom of religion. It’s not until Vatican II that they came around to that.
Now, one could argue, I suppose, that there were lots of things wrong with modern democracy. And of course this is true, but I would like to say two things. The first is that you can make the judgment that in the transition to modern democracies more has been gained than has been lost. But even independently of that, you can criticize all those people for the simple fact that they didn’t see what the hell was going on; they didn’t see what kind of world they were talking to. Now again, they had excuses for that because they were so viciously attacked in some cases by the representatives of the new order and so on, but—
TOJ: So what I here you saying is that, first, we should accept the fact that this is simply the way the world is, and second, that there really have been gains.
CT: Yes, and further, that the proper stance toward it is not saying something like, “let’s roll it back.”
TOJ: So it seems like you would almost want to make a normative distinction in an age of authenticity between inauthentic authenticity, where the quest for individuality leads ironically to a new conformity, and something like authentic authenticity.
CT: Yes, the way I have worded it is in terms of better and worse ways of living in this age. And we should direct our efforts toward trying to maximize the better ways rather than pretending to ourselves that we can roll it back.
TOJ: I’d really like to talk about the relationship between religion and memory, or religion and tradition, because I think it’s an important question to consider in an age of authenticity. You suggest in A Secular Age that “through secularization processes the level of understanding of some of the great languages of transcendence is declining” and that because of this decline “massive unlearning is taking place.” In this context, how do you still see yourself as, say, “a link in a chain of memory,” if I could use Danièle Hervieu-Léger’s phrase? What does it mean to continue to identify with an ancient tradition in our age of authenticity?
CT: Well, my idea of Christian faith is very much something that doesn’t simply belong to this age. This is something I try to articulate in the last chapter of my book, that the Christian faith can be lived better and fuller by links with other ages than our own, and so we read Augustine or about the lives of the Saints and so on. And I would say that almost any kind of religious life that I can conceive of would require this in order to be deepened—both because these links can serve to deepen the religious life and because through these links one can begin to pry oneself loose from too close of an identification with one’s age.
Now, I’m saying what sounds like two opposite things, but I believe they can be put together. One is to really learn the nature of your age if you want to talk to it. And the other is, if you really want to deepen your religious life, you should learn to loosen yourself from too close of an identification with this age. And so it’s very important that those languages be kept alive; and once again, a place like Taizé comes to mind, where seekers can get in contact with these languages of transcendence in their own way.
TOJ: So in a sense, in an age of authenticity, someone’s individual seeking quest can take them in a direction of relearning, or repeating forward, a great language of transcendence.
TOJ: So it’s not necessarily that in an age of authenticity we would be so forward-looking that we would cut ourselves off from our religious past.
CT: Right, right. Sorry to give such a trivial example here, but one sees this even on the level of fashion, where in these different waves of fashion that have a retro character people still tend to dress themselves quite uniformly. There really isn’t any level in this age where there is a total cutting with the past.
TOJ: I think you also say in A Secular Age, on the fashion example, that in one sense it’s a trivialization, faddish, and conformist, but it’s also a code or a language that kind of pierces the lonely crowd, sending out messages to other people and so forth.
CT: Sure, so what I would like to draw attention to is the fact that Christians need to think about how to speak to this age, what this age needs, and what they have to offer this age.
TOJ: And to do that you’re saying they need to learn—
CT: Yeah, they need to understand this age. Take something like Taizé, where they don’t ask you to sign allegiance to any doctrine, rather they come and listen to your questions and then offer various kinds of prayer sessions that you are welcome to attend. Have you been to Taizé?
TOJ: No, I haven’t. Have you?
CT: Oh, yes, and I was really deeply impressed by it. A couple of my kids also went, so I know of their experience as well. I think Taizé is an excellent example of people responding to where people are, as they say, living and loving in a way that makes up for some of the lacks and losses that come along with our age of authenticity.
TOJ: I guess if Christianity is what it claims to be, then it should be able to be, without making people sign on to any kind of belief system, something like what Taizé accomplishes; there should be a basic confidence that you will be able to discover something relevant here for your contemporary life.
CT: That’s right, and you wait to see what their questions are, what their search is, and then you try to respond to them in as creative a way as possible. That is a way to look at this age and act toward this age. And I regret the fact that so many church people are dedicated to rolling it back.
TOJ: Some have read chapter twenty as sneaking in a kind of apologia for Christianity, but in fact you actually put a very significant challenge to Christians and the current state of affairs in Christianity in the West. Would you agree with that?
TOJ: Because I actually think that, in terms of you talking about agapistic networks and other thick normative notions that come from Christianity, there is a sense in which you are saying at the end of your book that Christianity itself has failed to live up to this vision.
CT: I mean, I’m not saying this in a highly moralistic tone, because it is almost impossible to conceive of a very large-scale church totally living up to it, but there definitely is an insufficient awareness of how far we have fallen below that vision. That’s what I find at least. So many people are simply satisfied with where we’re at and simply want to recruit people and normalize people into this way of being without sufficient awareness. I’m not saying that we should put on sackcloths and ashes and keep pounding ourselves for being below our level of aspiration; it just means that we should be aware that there really is a gap.
TOJ: The recognition of that gap is very important to me too. The basic argument of my last book, Critical Faith,4 was that an appropriate faith should allow for this moment of critical reflection. And what I hear you saying is that contemporary Christianity doesn’t have a strong enough sense of how far it has fallen and regressed from what it was called to be.
CT: If we were really aware of the gap, then you wouldn’t have this appalling sense coming from some people that “we’ve got it all right” and “we’re the answer to all this decay and breakdown that is happening”; you know, “just listen to us and we’ll reestablish morality and order” and so on. No wonder people who are outside and who are seeking are repelled by this, just repelled!
TOJ: And rightly so! That makes some of the reception of your book interesting, because certain secular readers were hearing you say just that, right?
CT: Yeah, because they’re so incredibly locked into their view of what Christianity involves that they can’t really get over it.
TOJ: So whereas some read you as saying that secularism has led to all this decay and that Christianity possesses the means to escape from it, you’re in fact criticizing Christians who say that sort of thing. Yet you still want to recommend what you see as a normative Christian take on our contemporary situation, but it’s in fact one that Christians themselves have fallen from.
CT: Yeah, but you see you have to read the whole book, and I’m sure most people didn’t. You see I have an unfortunate way of writing that I don’t know how to change [laughter], because the nature of that book and other books of mine is that I take people through a lot of very different positions and try to explain each position. It gets to be very wearisome to say, “according to x, according to x, according to x,” and so I tend to swing into a position, and I assume my reader understands that I am now working out a certain position, and I then begin to use the rhetoric of those people in that position in order to get a sense of the logical sense of it. Now, if you don’t read the whole book—I mean it’s obvious to me that the guy who wrote the New York Times book review5 simply turned to page 25 and page 375 and then closed the book. And he happened to hit a sentence that was describing some position that wasn’t mine, but he attributed it to me. Now, if you just take a sentence out of the middle of the page, that’s an easy mistake to make. I think that’s one of the things that has always happened to me.
TOJ: A colleague of mine described your swinging into various positions as digressive, but I really have the sense that if you have the patience and discipline to follow, then it’s really worth the ride.
CT: Well, thank you. I certainly hope that’s what my readers will experience [laughter]. But I don’t really know how to do what I am trying to do. I mean, I couldn’t really communicate a sense of why people are really into the various positions that they are, which is what I am trying to do in the book, without getting into it in the way that I have.
TOJ: Part of it is also the scope of the book. You’ve taken on the massive project of providing a thick historical picture of spiritual development in the West from 1500 to 2000, in order to tell a better story than the secularization story; that’s a monumental task to set for yourself, and I don’t know how one would go about that task in a linear manner. How do you feel about the general reception the book has received so far?
CT: I’ve been astonished that it’s made such a splash. I guess I just expected that it would be read by maybe twelve and a half people and then it would be over [laughter]. It obviously has something to do with the zeitgeist and what’s currently happening. Perhaps if I’d have published it two years earlier it would have fallen like a stone into a pond.
TOJ: I don’t know about that, but I do hear you saying that there was a certain moment—
CT: And the moment may not even be finished yet.
TOJ: Right, it’s still with us. Speaking for myself, I think your book is going to do a lot of work helping to shape the conversation that’s going to happen in this moment and increase the understanding of a lot of the different sides of this issue. I think you already see that happening in something like the Immanent Frame blog.6 Would you agree with that?
CT: Yes, I think that is just a terrific blog. It’s run by people who you really want to be participating in this kind of conversation.
TOJ: I had wanted to ask you a question about reform, partly because I come from a Reformed background, but I know you are talking about reform in a larger sense as something sweeping through both the Protestant and Catholic churches, and you’re not the first to point out that this drive leads into administered societies and things like that. Maybe this has little to do with your analysis of the work of reform, per se, but I’m interested in how you see ecumenical relationships between various Christian denominations in our time doing the kind of work you do. What kind of testimonial register, or message, would you see that global Christianity could bring to the world in terms of solidarity?
CT: I think there is a very important new field opening here, and it’s quite remarkable how ecumenicism just became incredibly important as the twentieth century moved on. I’m not sure I have all the explanations for this, but it did indeed happen, and became a much bigger part of the agenda of every church, particularly the Catholic Church. Again, that was part of the turnaround brought about by Vatican II.
I think there is something very new happening where there is a sense that we don’t believe in any particular position, whether as Catholic or Reformed peoples, whoever the we happens to be. We don’t have all the answers; we can’t entirely explain why things are going the way they are going; and we can’t explain why people of good will don’t always agree with one another.
Without deserting our particular position—because it’s something that is very deep in us, and it’s a part of our spiritual life; I mean if you are Catholic, you go to Mass and so on—we have the ability to open ourselves and to try to understand and feel in a sympathetic way why people hold to a different position, whether it be Protestant or something outside of Christianity like Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim. And there is a certain kind of dialogue where both sides are trying to do that, which goes beyond a sort of backslapping where we’re all friends, beyond a “let’s-tackle-together-the-problems-of-the-world style of ecumenicism” kind of thing—which is fine on one level, but it really doesn’t go to the level I am talking about where you really have this desire to know what it’s like to be the other person and live their kind of spiritual life.
TOJ: And that is relatively new, wouldn’t you say?
CT: Very new!
TOJ: I’m only thirty-nine, but I’ve seen quite a thaw in the academy over the past ten or fifteen years. It seems that there is a broad desire among people of various religious traditions to engage in immanent critique without skirting their own position, and to try to find out from the point of view of another what makes their position attractive to them. You know, having conversations without predicting where they will go, in which people just genuinely want to understand each other better.
CT: I think this is a really important spiritual development. It represents a different way of inhabiting one’s faith. And it gets beyond the terrible fear reactions that we mustn’t let too much in from the outside, or that if we do gain a sympathetic understanding of the other, we are somehow betraying our own spiritual tradition.
It also resists the attempt to strengthen one’s faith by accepting and perpetuating totally unreal stories of other religions. You know, people have said for years that Hinduism and Buddhism are simply other-worldly, and so Western Christians haven’t felt the need to consider that these religions really might have something to teach us because we’ve assumed from the outset that they don’t. So this operation I am involved in is partly a throwing away of crutches to move towards a more open, honest, and authentic faith.
1. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).
4. Ronald A. Kuipers, Critical Faith: Toward a New Understanding of Religious Faith and Its Public Accountability (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002).