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Book Description This book is about a journey: out of the confines of nihilism and cynicism into the heart of rich meaning. It presses the question to us: Does nihilism have the last word? The book addresses a contemporary crisis of faith, a crisis of identity, and a sense of lostness in late modernity. Our companions on this all-important journey are a fine, seasoned group of writers, poets, social reformers, philosophers, scientists, scholars and public intellectuals. Among the notables are Alvin Plantinga, Miralslov Volf, Jürgen Habermas, David Bentley Hart, Michel Foucault, Calvin Schrag, Jim Wallis, Tom McLeish and Jens Zimmermann. Special mention goes to eminent philosopher of modernity Charles Taylor for his deep, insightful cultural lens. He brings a major contribution to the discernment of our circumstances and our critical choices.
The Great Escape from Nihilism is about a courageous and somewhat dangerous journey, but ultimately it is a path towards hopeful alternatives to the forces that weigh down our spirits, and the tensions that divide us, the rhetoric that makes us afraid. We must decide whether the quest to escape outweighs the risks. After mapping the contours of nihilism and the immanent frame in Part 1, the story proceeds with diagnosis and then prognosis, involving both deconstruction and reconstruction. The ten substantial conversations that follow in Part 2 are modeled on real, ongoing discussions and lively debates over several years on university campuses across Canada, the United States, Europe and elsewhere. Despite their immense practical value, there is much more to life than science, technology, business and algorithms. Our journey involves the quest for the Holy Grail of human flourishing, the deeper life, the thick self.
Through the complex “lens” of Charles Taylor and the writings of some of the most influential philosophers and theologians of our time, Dr. Carkner provides wise and persuasive suggestions of ways forward in navigating the landscape of late modernity. The transcendent turn to agape love is the most challenging concept he exposits. This project is a rare and provocative contribution of high integrity. ~Dr. Olav Slaymaker, Professor Emeritus, UBC Geography
“In the Great Escape from Nihilism, Gordon Carkner follows his earlier 1990s widely-appreciated foray into the bleak, yet endlessly alluring world of cultural and philosophical nihilism. The mature fruit of a further twenty years of study, rigorous reflection and face-to-face interactions with a multitude of thinkers, teachers and public intellectuals reveals itself in this book. Dr. Carkner first offers an inclusive and fair minded critique of nihilism’s self-focused and finally self-destructive worldview. Then drawing sensitively upon a wide variety of contemporary writers and spokespersons, including his prime mentor Professor Charles Taylor, he articulates an alternative life vision, costly yet accessible, rooted in agape love. The book offers realistic goals grounded in genuine motivation towards authentic hope and meaning for life. In my view, this is a ‘tract for our times’ to be read and studied by all who carry a sense of compassion for the rootlessness of so much of contemporary culture. It should be put into the hands of students of higher education across the disciplines. For many it could prove a source of life-changing inspiration.” ~Dr. Bruce Milne, Pastor Emeritus First Baptist Church, Vancouver
As a graduate student from the Middle East, this book has helped me understand Western culture better. I highly recommend it. ~Mary Kostandy, UBC PhD student in education (from Cairo, Egypt)
Keywords Nihilism, Secular Age, Search for Meaning, Scientism, Apologetics, Radical Individualism, Ideology of the Aesthetic, Recovery of the Good, Agape Love, Incarnational Humanism, Communal Responsibility, the Common Good, Late Modernity, Transcendent Turn
Introduction to The Great Escape…
In this discussion, we want to engage the ideology of nihilism. It has taken many captive. Some are passive participants while others are self-consciously involved and have become active promoters. Nihilism is related to how we approach the world, how we choose and how we perceive reality. The interrogation of this outlook promotes dialogue about some crucial issues in late modernity, our current situation at this stage of Western Enlightenment. Working diligently together to decipher the code, we will expose the ideology to critical examination, and we anticipate some pertinent discoveries. We have chosen Charles Taylor as our principle investigative assistant. As one of the great thinkers of our time, he will be of great help to move our discussion onto significantly higher ground. He is one of the top twelve living philosophers, the preeminent Canadian philosopher in the political, cultural and moral realm, and the premiere philosopher of Western modernity. With his help, we hope that through discerning our location within Western culture, we can explore the claim that nihilism does not have the last word.
What follows is a deep structure protest that there are broader horizons and layers of meaning to be explored, researched and discovered. The journey ahead entails an archival rediscovery of lost language, lost potential in relationships, lost perspective on our lives. The discussion proceeds as a committed liberation project, because many today long to escape the confines, addictions and seductions of nihilism. The project is both a cultural probe and a quest. In his landmark book A Secular Age (2007), Taylor offers a monumental analysis of our philosophical and cultural climate, explaining how we have gotten here and where we might be headed. The stakes are high. He traces how we moved from theism through deism to atheism over 500 years, during roughly 1500 to 2000 C.E. But in this substantial, prize-winning tome, he also explores how we can rethink and refresh the current debate about our identity and the nature of our ‘secularity’. Who indeed are we late moderns? What are the possibilities for dialogue between people of such divergent philosophical and ethical positions? How can we live and work together in a positive way? What are the interpretive keys for unlocking the mystery of our age, its spiritual and cultural imagination? Taylor claims:
Our language has lost, and needs to have restored, its constitutive power. This means that we can deal instrumentally with realities around us but their deeper meaning (the background in which they exist) the higher reality which finds expression in them, is ignored and often invisible to us. Our language has lost the power to Name things in their embedding, their deeper, richer and higher reality. The current incapacity of language is a crucial factor in our incapacity of seeing well and flourishing. Our language, our vision and our lives often remain flattened in late modernity. (C. Taylor, 2007, 761)
The discussion that follows is an attempt to recover the richness of language and also the larger horizon of its meaning. In both A Secular Age (2007) and his prior landmark discussion on philosophical anthropology, Sources of the Self (1989), Taylor documents a major change in the social imaginary. That entails its interpretive background, or way things seem to make sense to us. One might also refer to it as the conditions of plausibility. There has been a shift in ethos, one that includes people’s basic sensibilities, their intimate assumptions and perceptions about reality. He strongly encourages us to learn from our historical roots: “Our past is sedimented in our present and we are doomed to misidentify ourselves as long as we cannot do justice to where we came from.” (C. Taylor, 2007, 29). Our philosophical narrative is vital to our present self-understanding and problem-solving capacity.
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