Thursday, August 06, 2009

A Secular Age 10

From the Theory Camp discussion of Charles Taylor's A Secular Age.

Taylor ends the book with "Conversions." This was a little disconcerting, as we expected him to offer a more programmatic statement of how to deal with the dilemmas of transcendence and immanence in modernity. Instead he took a few "itineraries" of changed lives as models. In particular, he takes Charles PĆ©guy and Gerard Manley Hopkins as cases. These were not familiar cases to the students, so they did not leap out as helpful models. Nonetheless, Taylor drew a useful story from their lives.

I came to see why he ended with the lives of converts. He made a crucial point at the outset of the book that most people choose their position on the transcendence/immanence (or supernatural/natural) spectrum not because they were convinced by a rational argument, but because they were impressed with some one's or some group's way of living out their convictions. In the end, then, what he needs to show us are the narratives of exemplary people, rather than a philosophical program. And the great advantage of converts' narratives is that they choose one way versus another for a reason. And intellectual converts are most useful of all as examples because they choose one path versus another for a reason that they can articulate, write down, and pass on to others.

Taylor's position - a high-brow orthodox Catholicism - is a sophisticated one, making its way between the horns of several hoary dilemmas. The pool of sophisticated, high-brow, orthodox Catholic converts who left helpful written records of their personal itinerary is rather select. Taylor gives us the best-known people he could find, even if few students know who they are.


TallCoolOne said...

Students, especially the kinds of American students likely to attend a "theory camp," probably wouldn't know Peguy. His works have only been widely available in translation during the past twenty years. And he still has the label of "Catholic," therefore parochial (in the bad sense), author.

Ignorance of Hopkins, though, is a bit of a shock. Any thoughts to account for this?

TallCoolOne said...

And I would want to contest your assertion that there is no wealth of figures from the orthodox Catholic "camp."

Given, though, that people, apparently, don't even know a major English-language writer of the 19th century, that can't be too surprising, on reflection.

Gruntled said...

Not just orthodox Catholics, but high brow orthodox Catholics who take his particular middle way, converted, and wrote (well) about why they converted and how they live this middle path. Those are in short supply.

I think few students, unless they directly study poetry, know any poets who are not lyricists.

halifax said...

Taylor is not now and never has been a didactic philosopher or essayist so it's not surprising that he ends with a couple of biographical 'possibilities'.

I'm not surprised that the students had not heard of either person. Though I would beg to differ with your position on high-brow Catholic converts who left explanations. How about John Henry Newman, Thomas Merton, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Ronald Knox, GK Chesterton, Dorothy Day, GEM Anscombe, Peter Geach, Christopher Dawson, and Gabriel Marcel? Most of these have left some account of their conversion or, at the least, their inclinations in that direction.