Tag Archives: Charles Taylor

The Nones

Charles Taylor in his book “A Secular Age” may have insights into the “Nones”, the  “unaffiliated population” whom surveys say are leaving their religious traditions “because they stopped believing in its teachings.” Their numbers are increasing, surveys say.

Some become unaffiliated because they do not believe in God or the teachings of most religions. Many leave a religion because “they think of religious people as hypocritical or judgmental, because religious organizations focus too much on rules or because religious leaders are too focused on power and money.”

It’s interesting to see that “ far fewer say they became unaffiliated because they believe that modern science proves that religion is just superstition.”

Taylor says the theory that religion will disappear as science advances doesn’t hold up because there’s a search for “human fullness” for a “higher world” that doesn’t go away. Surveys indicate that’s the case among the unaffiliated today

But Taylor also recognizes that people find religions difficult today.  In the western world, our secular age is an age of “expressive individualism;” people want reasons to believe and belong. They need religious places that meet them as they are. They’re looking for religious experience.

“Those who believe in the God of Abraham should normally be reminded of how little they know him, how partial is their grasp of him. They have a long way to go…Many believers (the fanatics, but also more than these) rest in the certainty that they have got God right (as against all those heretics and pagans in the outer darkness). They are clutching onto an idol, to use a term familiar to the traditions of the God of Abraham.”  (p.769)

Churches need to engage the world with reasons, not with condemnations.  Belief leads us to the mysterious Unknown, not sharp certainties. Jesus kept speaking to Nicodemus many nights, it seems. As the story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus says, it takes time to believe. We’re slow learners. We pray that on their journey the “Nones” will find him “in the breaking of the bread.”

Steve Jobs. A Secular Saint?

Some years ago that term was used to designate someone without any obvious connection with religion, yet who had the heroic virtue we usually associate with the saints.

As I listened to his address to graduates at Stanford University a few years ago, I thought the term could apply to Steve Jobs who died a few days ago. It was a remarkable address that any Christian preacher would admire and be happy to preach. I was especially moved by his respect for death as an advisor and mentor for life.

A solid spirituality. You hope the next generation would follow his example.

The other night on iTunes, one of Jobs’ wonderful contributions to the new digital world, I listened to a lecture (free) by Charles Taylor, author of The Secular Age, from Columbia University. Taylor objected to new atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens who want to banish religion from the world as a worthless and destructive force.

But he also objected to Christians denying the worth of secularists who work for the good of the world and its peoples.

There are secular saints as well as saints honored by the church.

What’s a Retreat?

I’m preaching a retreat for priests next week and I’m wondering what to say. As usual,  I ask myself –what is a retreat anyway?

A car tune-up comes to mind.  I usually delay getting it done because I wonder if I really need it; after all, the car still runs. Why go on retreat we say; we’re still going along spiritually? But the car needs to be tuned up; the oil needs to be changed; the tires need to be balanced and any unusual noises need to be checked out.

The concept of balance stands out. A retreat is a time to regain spiritual balance. That’s suggested by a commentary on the Our Father by St. Cyprian I read recently.

God is “our” Father; we pray for “our” daily bread; we ask that “our” sins be forgiven, the saint stresses. Early commentators like Cyprian emphasized  a common approach to God as they reflected on the prayer taught by Jesus.

It’s not just me and God.  We go to God together, not alone, the saint says. My voice joins with others. I have to ask for others as well as myself. I have to pray that “Our bread–that is, Christ,” the cosmic Christ who embraces us all, be given to us all.

“ We must fear and pray lest anyone should be kept at a distance from salvation who, being withheld from communion, remains separate from Christ’s body. For he has given us this warning: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you will have no life in you. And therefore we ask that our bread – that is, Christ – may be given to us daily, so that we who live in Christ may not depart from his sanctification and his body.”

We live in an age of  “expressive individualism,’ as Charles Taylor describes it, and we need to rebalance ourselves by entering into communion with other realities besides ourselves.  We’re imbalanced towards individualism, and  imbalance is dangerous.

What realities? Certainly we need to open ourselves to other human beings. We belong together and we need each other. We tend today to become preoccupied with ourselves, which leads to isolation and loneliness. We  might need rebalancing.

“As generous distributors of God’s grace, put your gifts at the service of one another.” ( 1Peter 4,9) It’s not enough for me to have gifts; it’s wrong to hoard gifts;  I have to use them for the service of others. That will cover a multitude of sins, St. Peter writes, our personal sins.

In an age of expressive individualism, it’s easy to fall into a selfishness that causes us to look out for ourselves and turn away from others.

It’s not just the human world we must commune with. What about the natural world? The fragile world of nature so endangered today? Some say we have become imbalanced because we have lost our connection with the universe. We come from the dust of the earth;  besides giving ourselves to our human family, we need to put our gifts as the service of our natural world as well.

Finally, we must remember our union with God, our creator, the One who sustains us; the one who calls to intimacy and lasting communion. “God is my refuge and our strength,” we say in the psalms. “Without me you can do nothing, “ Jesus says.

In the recent issue of the Jesuit magazine American (June 6-13,2011) Fr. Richard Hauser SJ reviews a book by Louis Savary call The New Spiritual Excercises: In the Spirit of Teilhard de Chardin, (Paulist Press)  It’s an attempt to re-envision Ignatian retreats in the light of de Chardin’s evolutionary and cosmic perspectives. Good idea, the reviewer says.

Is a retreat a time of rebalancing, renewing our communion with God, our human family and our world? Is a retreat a time to become aware of where we fit in the evolution of things, in the cosmic picture? I think so.

Religion Isn’t the Problem

Charles Taylor in the recent issue of Commonweal Magazine (February 25, 2011) wrote an article called “Religion is Not the Problem: Secularism and Democracy.” He’s the author of a previous, highly-praised book called “A Secular Age” which examines the process of secularization at the heart of so many of the disputes today between religion, the churches and society.

Taylor addresses the judgment of some today who hold religion responsible for many of the problems of our times, and so society is better off without it and the churches that profess it. Religion should have no voice in public affairs; it’s a private matter that shouldn’t enter any public debates. This view is found particularly in the western world.

Those against giving religion a public voice in the world argue that when you see a transcendent world linked to this world–which is what religion does– you see reality through a distorting lens of superstition. You can’t build society on insights that come from religion; it can only be built on what human reason and experience knows, they say.

The denial of a role for religion in society and its displacement by human reason is a modern development, Taylor writes. The view didn’t exist in societies of the past; it’s a creation of the western world and develops from the time of the Reformation.

A crucial step occurred in the 18th century with the rise of Deism, a philosophy that saw human reason as the dynamo behind human progress. The Deists acknowledged God as the Great Architect, but human beings are the builders who take up the task. For them, religion has a place, but it’s like a cop on the beat. Religion keeps things in order with its code of ethics.  For Deism, “some religion, or at least some piety, is a necessary condition of good order.”

I think of the 18th century Anglican Chapel of St. Paul in downtown New York, still standing among the great skyscrapers, where George Washington and the city’s leading figures worshipped. Before the recent renovations in the church (a mistake, in my mind) the focus in the old church sanctuary was a list of the Ten Commandments spelled out large over a modest table. That corresponded to what, in the eyes of the Deists, was the church’s function– to produce honest, law-abiding citizens.

On the brink of converting to Catholicism in the early 19th century, Elizabeth Seton, now a Catholic saint, sat in that church and thought of the Catholic Church of St. Peter,  a short distance away, where Jesus Christ was honored in the Blessed Sacrament and scenes of his saving life and death were prominently  displayed in its decoration.  She wanted a religion that was more than an ethical code.

I think also of St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists and a saint of the 18th century, who had a vivid sense of a world beyond this one, which could be known through prayer. He preached that life here on earth was a preparation for a future life, won by us through Jesus Christ, who died and rose again.

Taylor describes the process of secularization nourished by the Enlightenment reaching a radical stage with the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century when reason was exalted as the only tool of human progress and religion was banished from society.

The denial of a role for religion in modern western society, particularly in the modern state, creates a severe problem today. For one thing, it sees no place for any Moslem society, with its laws and customs based on a religious faith.

Can a society exist that is not simply secular? This is an important issue today.

Taylor argues for this possibility. It would involve a separation of church and state, “meaning that the state can’t be officially linked to a religious confession except in a vestigial and largely symbolic sense, as in England and Scandanavia.” It would also require

  1. No one must be forced in the domain of religion, or basic belief. This is what is often defined as religious liberty–or the ‘free exercise’ of religion…
  2. There must be equality between people of different faiths or basic beliefs; no religious (or areligious) Weltanschuung can enjoy a privileged status, let along be adopted as the official state view.
  3. All spiritual families must be heard and included in the ongoing process of determining what the society is about and how to realize these goals. And I believe that we might add a fourth requirement: that of maintaining harmony and comity among the supporters of different religions and views. “

Taylor offers a way into the future, I think. In a global society, the state must respond to an increasing diversity in an even-handed way, protecting people with their differences, treating them equally and giving everybody a hearing. He does not conceive of secularism as an evil, but as a challenge brought about by new times. He calls for “a revisionary understanding of secularism.”

“In order to merit the name ‘secularist,’ regimes in contemporary societies must be conceived, not primarily as bulwarks against religion, but as good faith attempts to secure a few basic goals. They must protect people in what religion or outlook they choose. They must treat people equally. And they must give all people a hearing. As our modern democracies attempt to shape their institutional arrangements to a remarkable diversity of beliefs, we must not be afraid to adjust our hallowed democratic traditions in pursuit of liberty and equality for all.”


How fast today?

“The disciples of John approached Jesus and said,

“Why do we and the Pharisees fast much,

but your disciples do not fast?”

Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn

as long as the bridegroom is with them?

The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them,

and then they will fast.”

For a brief moment in time, Jesus Christ, the Word of God, appeared in the flesh. Then, he rose from the dead and his appearances in the flesh ended.

Now his disciples have to fast, according to today’s lenten reading from Matthew 9, 14-15. What kind of fasting should they do? Certainly a little fasting from food, drink, entertainment would help, for sure.

But how about turning  from that “expressive individualism” that Charles Taylor calls the trademark of our western world. A more subtle kind of fasting.

There’s a commercial on television calling us to go to the Florida Keys, where  you’re free to express yourself and do what you like, where freedom reaches its highest expression. Sounds like that “far off country” that beckoned the Prodigal Son.

Does our fasting means fasting from  too much attention to ourselves, which leads us to turn our backs on our own? Do we need to pay more attention to helping the poor, where Christ can always be found?

Health Care and “Expressive Individualism”

Charles Taylor says that “expressive individualism” is the predominant trait of our time. Taylor doesn’t consider the trait without merits, I think, but when it takes over it causes havoc. That’s when it becomes “I gotta be me,” and everybody in the world has to know about it and listen to me.

I watched a meeting on CSpan recently on health care from Dartmouth, MA. Congressman Barney Frank, not known to shy away from a fight, was fielding questions from a contentious crowd.

“On what planet do you spend most of your time?” Frank responded to a woman who called the new government  health initiatives a “Nazi plan.”

“Expressive individualism” at its worst. No one seemed to be there to listen or learn; they were there to make their own point–loudly. So we should worry about the future of health care in this country.

St. Bernard, in a homily on Mary, said, “It was God’s will that Mary be meek and humble of heart, since Jesus was to become the outstanding example of these virtues, so necessary for the health of humanity.”

Humility necessary for the health of humanity?

Listening and learning are certainly part of it, and isn’t that what we all must do today? I like the sites of the Catholic Health Association http://www.chausa.org/ and the US Catholic Bishops at http://www.usccb.org/healthcare/

Our church has been at health care for a long time, and is a major provider of health care in this country.

Be good to listen and learn from her.


You can’t miss seeing relics in Rome.

Devotion to relics is waning in the church today as far as I can judge. In the western world, influenced as we are by scientific thinking,  we find them puzzling. Rome, the center of the Roman Catholic Church, is filled with them.

Most of the churches we are going to, like St. Peter’s and St.Paul Outside the Walls, were built to house them. So why are bones of saints and relics of the mysteries of the life of Jesus, like relics of the cross in St. Peter’s Basilica and Holy Cross in Jerusalem, the holy stairs at the Scala Sancta, St. Peter’s chains in the church of St. Peter in Chains, the crib from Bethlehem at St. Mary Major, there in the first place?.

The cult of relics flourished when people believed in an “enchanted world,” to use a phrase from Charles Taylor, where heaven and earth were close together and God was seen as actively engaged in nature and history.

Our western world believed in an enchanted world until the time of the Enlightenment in the 17th century, when scientific thinking began to emerge. From then on, religion came under the microscope of science and reason more and more.

You can see an enchanted world in the psalms. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” (Ps.18) God is “maker of heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them.” (Ps.146) God is savior as well as creator: “The Lord sets prisoners free; the Lord gives sight to the blind…The Lord protects the stranger, sustains the widow and orphan,  but thwarts the way of the wicked.” (Ps. 146) He “dwells in a holy temple” and they are happy who find him there. (Psalm 84) He “takes delight in his people.” (Ps.149)

God is close to creation and is its loving savior, these prayers say.  God is not distant, as many followers of the Enlightenment came to believe, or unknown as many might say today. According to Christian belief, God is present in our world, as Jews believe, but he reveals himself now in Jesus Christ, his Son.

The sacraments of the Church–Baptism, Confirmation, the Holy Eucharist, etc..– are special signs of God’s abiding presence in our world. They’re signs of Christ who remains with us from birth till death, and leads us to a kingdom that will come.

Relics are part of the sacramental dispensation. Relics of the saints, like those of Peter and Paul,  are reminders that God works in people on earth. Now they see him face to face, yet “from their place in heaven they guide us still.” They are part of a communion of saints; even now drawing us into God’s loving friendship.

Similarly, relics of mysteries like his cross and his birth are sensible reminders that the great mysteries of Christ abide with us too.

One danger of an “enchanted world,” a world where God is close, is that people misuse its powers for their own selfish purposes and not as aids to salvation. The abuse of relics became particularly acute in the 15th century when they were bought and sold and used superstitiously. A slide to magical thinking began.

At the time, voices within the church condemned the abuse of relics, but church authority didn’t move quickly enough to stamp out the abuse–partially because they benefited economically from it themselves.

A major attack came from Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers, who not only condemned the abuse of relics for endangering  faith, but also called for their elimination altogether.

In its own movement of reform, the Catholic Church upheld the practice of honoring the relics, but laid down laws governing their use. They are not magical objects that give us power over things, but holy signs calling for conversion and humble recognition of an all-powerful God.

A second attack on relics followed the scientific revolution that began in the 17th century. Rationalist scholars, focusing on the Christian faith, questioned the historicity of  Jesus himself and the gospels. Since relics were part of church belief and practice, they also came under scientific scrutiny. If they didn’t pass the test of science, they were rejected.

Because of religious and scientific questions about relics, some avoid them and turn to art and architecture instead. But don’t miss the relics. They’re important; you can’t understand the churches without them.