Sunday, April 22, 2012

Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays

By Charles Taylor, 405 pages,

McGill philosophy professor Taylor shows how western Christianity became too moralistic and legalistic at the expense of the transcendent dimension. 

He points to the French village priest's strong opposition to Brazilian-like carnival Catholicism, whereby dancing, drinking, and certain other excesses took place on saints days and other Catholic celebrations. In their zeal to take the dancing out of the Catholic holy day, they ended up taking Catholicism out of the village. 

Nineteenth-century Protestants did the same: They shamed young men for their rowdy lifestyles of drinking, gambling, and womanizing, rather than inspiring them with the transcendent view of Christ's resurrection. Men, put off, turned away en masse from the churches. Catholic priests did the same shaming act on young men, and turned the confessional into the most feared or avoided place, with men increasingly shunning it.
The more Christianity moralized in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, the more it feminized and left little place for men. Rather than preaching and inspiring the fear of God, a most masculine spiritual practice, Christian leaders, Taylor argues convincingly, established "polite" Christianity. To be a Christian was to be a part of polite society, especially in the English version of religion. This was when Christ began to be taken out of Christianity, replaced by "proper behavior."

Readers get a clear sense of how secularism developed out of this. Incensed by the meddling of the parish priest in France, the French eventually went from a strong religious revival in the mid-nineteenth-century to severely restricting the Church in education and the rest of the public arena, something they call laicite, a bedrock of modern French political life to this day.

A second kind of secularism developed, mostly in America and other western countries when people turned the excessive moralism of the churches against the churches themselves. They condemned the crusades and every other real or imagined sin of the church. They portrayed religious people as zealous, violent idiots. Ironically, these secularists followed the churches' habit of restricting the vertical, or transcendent, dimensions, but did so even more eagerly than the churches themselves.

Despite the failings of the churches, Taylor refuses to let atheist moralists off the hook. Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and countless other utopian tyrants put their ideals into humanity, rather than finding them from a higher revelation. When humans could not measure up to their ideals, these politicians slaughtered millions.
Taylor cautions against the current liberal and conservative tendency in politics to "cultivate" anger. Anger has become a kind of spirituality, whereby the angered, righteous person feels resentment and entitlement. 

Feminism and a host of other ideologies use this to motivate their members. Yet, given the tendency of anger to cause violence, Taylor warns that a return to a higher, transcendent source is more important than ever.
Taylor is optimistic. Secularism has freed the churches to return to their roots, something that he regards as essential. Now that churches have had their hold on the public arena greatly weakened, they can return to cultivating the transcendent within each of its members.

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