Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Immanent Communities, Consecrated Economies: Taylor, Herder, and What We Hope (or Work) For

Last month, at a local symposium on Christian faith and culture, I had the opportunity to listen to and learn from James K.A. Smith, a theologian and, lately, a valuable interpreter of the work of Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher whose writings have been very important to my own thinking. Smith's book How (Not) To Be Secular is a wonderfully helpful guide to Taylor's latest (and, quite likely, last) major work of philosophy and moral theory, A Secular Age--but I can't deny I found Smith's presentation and his book somewhat disconcerting, because it suggested to me that I may have misunderstood something pretty important about Taylor's philosophy. But I'm not sure about that, and I want to try to work out my thoughts here.

In my dissertation, I read Taylor's work primarily through a close examination of Johann Gottfried Herder, a late 18th-century German thinker who Taylor himself frequently seemed guided by--particularly in how he thought about language and meaning--but who also held to an ontological (in fact theological) conviction about the universe that appeared much stronger than Taylor's, or at least stronger than anything convictions that Taylor had chosen to share in his writings (I have to use the past tense, because I really haven't kept up on his work since the year 2000 or so). Herder's insistence that, through processes he labeled Einfühlung (a kind of empathetic listening to or "feeling into") and Besonnenheit (what might be called "reflective discernment"), the human mind was capable of naming and making poetic and moral use of certain organic verities which are immanently conveyed within and through all human history and language is, frankly, kind of mystical in a Heideggerian sort of way. But it also appealed to Taylor's desire to push back against a model of knowing which was committed to epistemological description, and instead think more communally and culturally about how we as persons know things, and what we can morally do with the things we know. Taylor's arguments about social and political life, from his moral anthropology to his claims about multiculturalism to his work on cultural toleration in his home province of Quebec, have all been shaped, I think, at least in part by Herder's particular approach to one of the essential problems of philosophy in modern pluralist societies: how to insist upon a unified standard of truth or identity or community while still respecting the fact of separateness or individuality? For Herder, the answer to that problem is found in an ontological claim that presents those aforementioned organic verities as reflecting the divine. Taylor doesn't go that far--as different scholars pointed out, Taylor's hermeneutics may be strong, but his ontology is weak. My conclusion was that Taylor's project gestured toward, but didn't fully lay out the terms of, what I called "immanent community": an idea that there can be, collectively realized from interpretive engagements with one's own historical and cultural traditions, bonds of attachment which are not merely localized expressions of morality, but authentic--if always evolving--connections to real moral truths.

Now given the tentativeness of much contemporary moral philosophy, that's actually an impressively firm communitarian conviction. Not Herderian in its religiosity, but certainly strong enough, I thought, to account for all the criticism Taylor received throughout the 80s and 90s from his more secular-minded colleagues. I'd hoped, when I heard that Taylor was working on a larger book to explore the sort of faithful "hunches" he talked about at the conclusion of Sources of the Self, to see him explore this theme of authentic-moral-communities-as-realized-through-affective-interpretation further...and perhaps, hidden (in plain sight?) within A Secular Age, that really is what he does. But from what I heard from Smith's presentation on Taylor and secularism, I wondered if my hopes were off-base. I came away from listening to Smith, and then from reading his book, wondering if Taylor's hermeneutics were actually "weaker"--or shall we say, less reflective and interpretive, less subjective or "Herderian"--and his ontology "stronger"--that is, more direct, more objective--than I'd long thought. That is, far from agreeing with Matthew Rose's interesting but ultimately rather silly attack on Taylor (which concludes that, by thoroughly and thoughtfully detailing contemporary secularism in terms of a self-enclosing "immanent frame," Taylor has made himself into "an apologist for...the secular status quo"), I'm finding myself intrigued by Smith's back-handed defense of him: that perhaps it would be "more consistent" with Taylor's own accounts of how we seek open ourselves up to the transcendent to push back against the sort of uncritically anthropocentric assumptions about human flourishing that undergird his arguments. Doing so, though, would, if not put the lie to, than at least greatly complicate my prior reading which presented Taylor's whole Herderian effort to work out a philosophical anthropology in terms of interpretively realized moral truths as a result of his determination to explain why subjecting the transcendent to the immanent (to make a twist on a very old and narrow theoretical joke which almost no one will get: the aim isn't to immanentize the eschaton, but to eschatize the immanent!) was a good thing, in that it historically allowed Christianity and moral philosophy to find a focus on "the practical primacy of life." Smith explicitly says that Taylor puts himself on the side of those "who might even say 'that modern unbelief is providential'"...and yet his treatment--as presented by Smith, anyway--of transcendence and the sublime seems to me to go beyond what I previously understood Taylor as saying: that--and here I'm using the words of Stephen K. White, another fine scholar of Taylor--"God as a moral source is now [in our secular age] inextricably entangled with subjective articulation."

I suppose I could just put all this on the shelf until that time, however many years hence, when I actually read A Secular Age for myself and come to my own judgments about what it ways, and what it means for how I should understand all of Taylor's previous writings. But in the meantime I've read something else, and it has intersected with my thinking about this philosophical problem in a complicated but, I think, interesting way.

Joseph Spencer is a Mormon philosopher and theologian; he's written a fine book--For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope--which looks closely at Christian and Mormon teachings about the virtue of hope, and connects that theme to the kind of transformative, utopian economic projects which, in our present capitalism age, almost no one can plausibly hope for, though that is what Mormons like myself are supposed to do. When I'd first encountered his work, I wasn't very impressed--but fortunately, I had a reason to re-read it, and when I did, a great number of connections seemed to leap out at me. In particular was Joe's investigation of the idea that far from being unreasonable to hope for things that are truly revolutionary, hope (at least as laid out by Paul and other New Testament authors) is in fact ineliminably connected to the unseen, unanticipated, and yet already assumed ideal. As Joe put it: "[Paul's emphasis] is, rather, an insistence that hope be oriented to the unseen but fully immanent anchor of the seen. Hope gains its strength neither from its rootedness in a constitutively invisible everywhere, nor from its orientation to an era yet to dawn, but instead from its attention to the complete lack of self-sufficiency invisibly inscribed in every created thing." Or, put more prosaically, and importing some Taylorian terminology: we here in the immanent frame of fragile belief and haunted doubts are called to hope for a transcendent event, not knowing in any sense what that transcendent event will involve or result it, but confident in its reality because that transcendent break-through is immanent to all creation.

Joe's arguments are narrowly focused; he doesn't present an anthropology of human existence, a history of religious belief, or an account of interpretation. But I found his narrow focus extremely illuminating in terms of this strange discontent I've had with Smith's presentation go Taylor's philosophical account of our secular moment. Joe's whole project is to get the Mormon faithful to think clearly about what it means--not just religiously, but also socially, economically, and ultimately (though he is ambivalent on this point) politically--to affirm a hope in something as revolutionary and ideal as a community where the ownership of private property (and thus the inequality which, in a world of both liberty and markets, would inevitably follow) is replaced by collective stewardship (and thus overall, if not absolute, equality). To say that you truly hope for the emergence of such an order of exchange and social relations is no easy thing. And by the same token, it seemed to me that the burden of Taylor's argument as I understood it was no easy thing--and that, perhaps, if my understanding of Smith's reading of Taylor is correct, and thus my interpretation was wrong, Smith is making Taylor's work a little bit easier.

I don't mean to suggest that Smith himself sees Taylor's teachings as simplistic or easy in themselves; he clearly recognized the obvious truth that they aren't. Nor do I think Smith is pulling "easy" answers out of Taylor's work--it's quite clear from Smith's writings that he sees the argument about how one is to understand the possibilities for acknowledging transcendence in today's secular world as demanding a great deal of attentiveness and thoughtful work, recognizing that God may be attempting to meet us in our social embededness, and in our own disenchantment. So no, it's not easy in the sense of telling all who doubt to look for a revelation which will overwhelm our own subjectivity. But I really do wonder if this presentation of the problem and our historical response to it isn't at least a little more straightforward than I'd originally believed. It reads to me as a kind of reception, not as a kind of co-creation. Part of what makes Herder's writings so maddeningly elusive at times is that he's attempting to describe how he can believe that we, in all our profound and very diverse historicity and individuality, are nonetheless actively realizing the singular meaning of things. It's a metaphysically heavy claim, almost Hegelian in its weight, yet one inseparably wrapped up with our own subjective cultural and poetic creations. To put it another way, I had understood Taylor, in light of how I'd understood Herder, as tying his moral realism to engaged acts of interpretation, because that engagement--with all its practical attention to human flourishing--in fact itself is the revelation that many feel haunts our secular moment. While now I wonder if actually we're best understood more as receivers than creators; that our engagement is more a matter of attending and waiting, rather than of sub-creation. (Smith's admiration for Rod Dreher's arguments about believers exercise the "Benedict Option" and waiting out the inevitable transformations around us--"waiting for St. Francis" as Rod has repeatedly put it--is perhaps revealing here.) Transcendence meets us, and we need to recognize it in its arrival...which I recognize as laying out a difficult philosophical (not to mention pastoral!) task, but still, it's not quite the same as saying, as I'd originally understood Taylor as arguing, that we are in the unenviable (or is it enviable?) position of needing to do the collective work to naming transcendence for what it is, and articulating the terms of our meeting of it.

Reading Joe's book put me in mind of an old discussion hosted by James Faulconer, a brilliant philosopher (and, I learned during last month's conference, a friend of James K.A. Smith) who, at different points separated by a decade or two, taught both Joe and I at BYU. Jim wanted to get people's thoughts about this essay by John Milbank, in which he explores what it would mean for Christians to seriously challenge the idolatrous marketplace which defines most of the fundamental social realities experienced by just about everyone in the modern West. Milbank's conclusion is to call the inhabitants of Western modernity (which, perhaps not coincidentally, is exactly the audience of Taylor's work) to exercise some hope in a gift economy--or what he has referred to elsewhere as "socialism by grace." My own response to Milbank is here, and I can't deny that it was somewhat intriguing, and maybe even a little gratifying, to realize that a full ten years on, the very same issues which are troubling me here were troubling me there. Milbank wants us to orient ourselves towards that transcendence which breaks apart what Taylor rightly calls--as quoted by Smith--the "terrible flatness....with [our] commercial, industrial, or consumer society." An order where production and exchange partakes of genuine love and authenticity, not the reductive grit of self-interest--an order where the economy (meaning here the whole panoply of modern life) is oriented around something higher something which in the Mormon traditions is labeled "consecrated." Joe wants this to, and Taylor and Smith are arguing about how we can make our ways to the point of being able to hope for and work towards such. Milbank, having laid out his arguments, turns towards the end of his essay to a serious of harsh attacks against the modern liberal state, contrasting it to the "liberality" that only a collectively received community may enable. I agreed with practically every step he made in that argument--but ultimately couldn't understand why he was so certain that there needed to transformation in the political (and by extension, I would argue, the interpretive) tools available to us in order to engage properly in the sort of hopeful work he claimed which Christianity calls us to. As I wrote towards the end of my response, thinking of all sorts of different populist political movements and reforms, "there are tools available to work towards the theological politics which Milbank assumes (rightly, I think) our belief in the Kingship of Christ to make incumbent upon us." I still believe that--and when I read Taylor and Herder, I thought I was seeing a way to understand how it is that such interpretive tools are also, despite--or perhaps because of--their decidedly quotidian, anthropocentric, practical character--immanent realizations of transcendence. And here I am essentially just quoting Martin Luther King, or Dorothy Day, or Tommy Douglas, or William Jennings Bryan, or any of the old Christian socialists: the bringing of people together into even such a crude instrument as a protest march or worker's union or a co-op is itself the kind of consecrated and transcendent hope which we believers ought to be about.

In the end, I suppose all this just can't get away from the simple fact that I am suspicious of anything which seems to point towards a quietist reception of that which will enable a transformation of our communities in and through which we live, rather that the always-interpretive struggle to build--and thereby transform--those communities. My taste for democratic governance is both agonistic and  process-oriented, in that way: I think interpretive confusion is not only an entirely ordinary and to-be-expected way of life, but that it is in and through such interpretive confusion that moral meanings and truths and realities are named and made. Our every transcendent revelation will turn out to have been an always-already immanent and communal co-creation, I think. I suspect that not a single one of the phenomenologically inclined folks I've referenced in this too-long post--Herder, Taylor, Smith, Joe, anyone--would take issue with that formulation; they just might disagree with me on the interpretive work and hope bringing it about involves. Those more sensitive to the need for patient attendance upon that which may be interpretively realized have taught be a lot, over the years; I'm far more local and variable and (I hope) humble in my sense of where and in what form the transcendent might appear to guide us towards more equal communities than I once was. But at the same time, I'm still pretty convinced that such moments of transcendent justice will be, nonetheless, built. If it turns out that my best philosophical understanding of what such hopeful building consists of  was wrong, well, it'll mean I need to some more thinking. I'm not sure it will change my mind, though. Maybe I'm just stubborn that way.

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