Posted by: gcarkner | November 15, 2015

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? 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Screen shot 2012-12-03 at 8.57.24 AMTaylor is post-Durkheimian in his view of our secular age; religion has not been replaced by science.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 flourishingwhere 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 top Canadian 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 and the pursuit of the good life.

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

Dr. Gordon Carkner

See also John Milbank, Theology & Social Theory: beyond secular reason. and David Brooks, The Road to Character.

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

Come to the GFCF forum on the Future of Higher Education.

See also Jens Zimmermann, Incarantional Humanism (IVP, 2012)

Osborne.GFCF talk Some key questions from November 17 Higher Education Panelist Emily Osborne

Critical Questions to Ponder about the Self in Late Modernity

How does the pursuit of wisdom relate to developing job skills and work fitness? What are the sources of such wisdom?

What does it mean to become a cultured individual? What does it mean to become robustly personal and relational?

What is the relationship between knowledge and deeper understanding of life? What is the role of contemplation?

Does one’s development have anything to do with a consciousness of social benefit and the common good?

Are there key questions, human questions, that science cannot even begin to ask? Can science provide an adequate worldview? How do we discern between good science and the ideology of scientism?

What does personal formation have to do with education: fostering curiosity, wise judgment, humility and openness?

What cardinal intellectual and social virtues should we be pursuing and where are they sourced? Where are the models or exemplars for such virtues?

What role do universities have in shaping leaders for society? How do students develop into good citizens and learn to negotiate key issues on the international stage?

What is our responsibility to preserve the long history of the academic heritage?

What is the rich content of the good life we are pursuing through education? What is a thick definition of education?

How do we learn to use technology wisely as a tool towards good ends, without being consumed by the ideology of technologism?

Is there a place for religious and theological reflection in shaping the future task of the university? How does this contribute to the knowledge and life skills we need to live well?

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