Posted by: gcarkner | November 13, 2012

Inquiry Concerning Human Self-understanding

Who Are We Late Moderns?

The following is an inquest into the possibilities for dialogue among us moderns, people with divergent philosophical positions and postures. Who indeed are we moderns? Where are our roots? What do we have to say to each other? How can we live and work together in a fruitful way amidst intense plurality and difference? In his 2007 award winnng tome, A Secular Age, top Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor offers a deep reflection on the history and current state of modernity in the West. He documents a major change in the social imaginary, the way things seem or make sense to us. This change is a shift in ethos, involving people’s basic sensibilities, their assumptions and perceptions about the way things really are. Taylor notes that human flourishing has become the main focus of life in a period of unbelief in the transcendent or divine. We have moved from a transcendent to an immanent worldview over the past five centuries, from a world picture where God was the ultimate good for the majority of citizens, to one where human flourishing in itself is the ultimate good and prime goal of human existence.

Screen shot 2012-12-03 at 8.57.24 AMTaylor is post-Durkheimian in his view of our secular age; religion has not been replaced by science. He claims that we are in pursuit of more, rather than less, spirituality today. This reveals what he coins as the “Nova Effect” of multiple spiritual journeys in this pursuit of human flourishing, where the individual’s search is the main focus. Think Eat, Pray, Love. Western modernities are the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understanding, rooted in new consciousness and blends of consciousness, a new sense of self. Self, identity is a many splendored thing in late modernity.

He articulates in much detail here, and in his 1989 Sources of the Self, three contemporary Western spiritualities: exclusive/scientific humanism, Christian humanism and neo-Nietzschean anti-humanism. These three hypergoods (cultural drivers) vie for our attention, each with a radically different message to deliver. Taylor feels that this is where the greatest increase in understanding of our modern identity is available for our study and reflection, critique and dialogue. This insight is deeply profound and needs to be taken very seriously.

Amidst this documentation of our modern spiritual journeys, Taylor willingly raises the provocative question for our reflection: Does the best life involve our seeking or acknowledging or serving a good which is beyond (independent/transcendent of) mere human flourishing? Is human flourishing in itself the best prime directive, the one that leads to the best results for human experience? He adjures us to move beyond naïve to reflective and self-critical positions.

In this pursuit, he suggests the need for a recovery of the thickness of language; he wonders whether we have flattened or depreciated our language within the ethos of exclusive humanism and Analytical Philosophy. Have we given science and descriptive language too much purchase on our identity? More on this issue of the flatness of language in a later post. It is the first time in history, notes our philosopher, that a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely-available option (one where human flourishing remained the ultimate goal, and where there was an eclipse of all goals beyond this).

He mirrors this dimension of Modernity to us, and puts it under critical scrutiny. Many of our current most famous spiritual journeys (even though they start within the immanent frame), do not end in immanence, atheism or secularity, but end in belief in God with robust results for human insight (e.g. T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, G.K. Chesterton, Theresa of Lisieux, as well as many contemporary leading intellectuals). This journey entails a transcendent turn towards agape love, a love which God has for us and in which we moderns can participate and engage through his power, one which can transform and mobilize us beyond mere human perfection, pushing out the edges of human possibility, and ironically human flourishing. This is included in the last chapter of my PhD thesis.

There is much to ponder and grapple with in Taylor’s A Secular Age, a seminal work which reframes the discussion of religion in society, and challenges us moderns to think again about who we are, where we are, and what are our possibilities in the early twenty-first century.

Dr. Gordon Carkner

See also John Milbank, Theology & Social Theory: beyond secular reason.

CBC Ideas Series called “The Myth of the Secular”.

Ten Myths about Faith & Reason blog post.

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor giving a l...

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor giving a lecture at the New School in 2007. Charles Margrave Taylor, C.C., Ph.D., M.A., B.A., FRSC (5 novembre 1931, Montréal), est un philosophe québécois d’expression anglaise. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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