reasonable religion :: Charles Taylor on history and faith

by Eric Daryl Meyer

In a chapter of Sources of the Self devoted to articulating the Deist’s vision of human identity and moral sources, Charles Taylor offers the following on the relation between faith, reason, and history. To read the passage in context it is necessary to understand that Taylor doesn’t advocate the position he articulates in the second half of the paragraph.

“So the paramountcy of order [in creation, from the Deist’s perspective] excludes miraculous interventions. But it also marginalizes history. The ‘historical’ nature of Judaism, Christianity, Islam—that is, the fact that allegiance and piety are focused on key historical events: Sinai, the Incarnation, the giving of the Quran—is intrinsically connected with their recognition of the extra dimension. These events are the eruptions of God’s affirming power in human life, and its continued force in our lives requires that we maintain unbroken continuity with these moments through tradition. Once the notion of order becomes paramount, it makes no more sense to give them a crucial status in religious life. It becomes an embarrassment to religion that it should be bound to belief in particular events which divide one group from another and are in any case open to cavil. The great truths of religion are all universal. Reason extracts these from the general course of things. A gap separates these realities of universal import from the particulate facts of history. These latter cannot support the former. ‘Contingent historical truths can never serve as proof for necessary truths of reason,’ as Lessing put it.” [1]

The very concept of “religion,” in its contemporary construal, contributes to the embarrassment about historicity. Religion is taken to be a general category, of which Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Christianity, and Hinduism are all concrete examples. Similarities between these faiths justify classifying them together under one general concept. They all share things like: belief in what remains invisible, an account of the meaning of human existence, and concern for symbols, rites, and liturgies. Accustomed to ordering and classifying other particulars, sloths (both two-toed, and three-toed) or salamanders for instance, human reason turns its attention toward religious behaviors and beliefs, extracts their similarities and sets forth a category, “religion,” that holds them all.

Thinking about “religion” in this general way influences the way in which common sense approaches religious questions. The temptation offered by the concept of “religion” per se, lies in the attempt to skim all the “good bits” off the top of world’s religions by collecting what they hold in common without having to get one’s boots mucky by stepping into the historical events and subsequent authoritative traditions. The value of the general category, in other words, is that it allows us to understand and conceptually manipulate all the particulars—it allows for the broad view.

This perspective doesn’t merely hold sway with those who stand outside all the religions and looks down upon them. It is part and parcel of the way that believers themselves see their own faith, and shapes their thought and practice. We tend to emphasize that which we know will gain acceptance from listeners, and so we apologetically couch our particular faith as a particularly well-adjusted historically grounded expression of the universal truths that “religion” is supposed to possess. “Look at how impartially benevolent Christianity makes us,” we say. The difference between our perception of a “moderate” believer and a fundamentalist often lies in whether he expresses his beliefs in language subordinated to “universal truths” or whether he insists on grounding everything in historical revelation. Hence the embarrassment.

The trouble is that the general concept is dependent upon the particulars. There really is no such thing as “religion.” No general definition properly encompases the exemplars. If you want to point to what religion actually is, you need to point to a specific group of people with a particular set of beliefs and practices. This is no different than noting that there really is no such thing as “human suffering.” We all know what human suffering is (firsthand), but human suffering cannot be experienced generally; it happens in this arm broken by police brutality, this child’s hunger, this mother’s grief. The general concept is useful, but only as a summation. Similarly the “universal truths” that are skimmed off the top of “religion” are really dependent on their original context, the practices and beliefs that give those truths depth and meaning. Stripped of that context, what seems to reason like “universal truth” one day looks more flexible the next. Both Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre speak of modernity as inculcating patterns of thought that strip human beings out of the context of a larger story (an account of the origin and goal of being-human) in which to make sense of their actions. Instead we are left with “universal truths” and naked experience to interpret as best we can by our own lights. The context makes all the difference.

One problem with Lessing’s “ugly ditch” between the necessary truths of reason and contingent events of history is that it is terribly hard to find necessary truths expressed anywhere but by contingent and historical people. Reason itself is a historical event. And one does not escape “tradition” by allying oneself to the broadest and least committed perspective possible—it is only within the particular tradition of Enlightenment thought that this disengaged and instrumental stance toward reality is taken as authoritative. It is from this perspective that talk of interaction between God and human beings appears “embarrassingly” historical (and by implication, irrational).

All this to say that there is no way out of history and into the universal—at least not without making some very “religious” sounding claims about the capabilities of human reason. Likewise, any notion of the steady progress of humankind under the tutelage of Reason (now unshackled from superstition) is telling a story about the origin, goal, and meaning of human life, and as such is making religious claims. Finally, secular ethics is, at its best parasitic on the values inculcated by religious traditions. At its worst, it is unaccountable to religious traditions altogether and falls prey to the temptation to objectify and instumentalize human beings and the rest of creation for the sake of whatever appears “rational” at the time. The “universal truths” of secular ethics are a harvest planted by someone else.

These things have been pointed out elsewhere (and more articulately), but I find this pattern of thinking so deeply ingrained within my own mind (repent, repent!) and in the culture around me that another attempt to point them out cannot hurt. So I say, hold strong to the historical tradition of Christian faith, don’t bother too much with the embarrassment over historicity, and don’t be bullied out of faith by a rationality whose ethics feeds on faith anyway.
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[1] Taylor, Sources of the Self, 273.

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