Philosopher Charles Taylor joins Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz for a two-part conversation about what's gone wrong with our democracies and finding common moral understanding. They discuss Christian nationalism, authoritarian government, the future viability of Christian faith and practice, the chaos of the post-truth epistemic crisis that’s rampant in political dialogue today, the role of social media in that crisis, and Taylor's most recent thinking about the growth of common ethical understanding in a world that often fails to live up to those shared moral principles of respect, dignity, and care.
(Part 1 of a 2-part series)
This episode was made possible in part by the generous support of the Tyndale House Foundation. For more information, visit tyndale.foundation.
Introduction: Ryan McAnnally-Linz
The human world today is not the same as it was three hundred years ago. Far from it. Technology, economics, politics, art, culture—all have seen transformations, even revolutions, around the globe. Thirty years ago, a triumphalist narrative of these changes was in vogue: “modernity,” it was said, had solved humanity’s perennial problems, broken through our narrow-minded ethical traditions, and set us towards a future of comfort and perpetual peace after, in Francis Fukuyama’s phrase, “the end of history.” Even three years ago, we thought the world was different. I mean, I did.
No wonder so many of us are trying to understand the revolutions and mechanics of human society. If you’re paying attention, you’re driven to understand. And so columnists and talking heads—academics and public intellectuals—not to mention your radicalized high school friend on Facebook—we all have these theories about ideal human society and culture, and, like how the hell we wound up here. Unfortunately, our desire to know and understand often exceeds our abilities to perceive and explain.
Charles Taylor is our guest for the next two episodes of For the Life of the World. He sees human life and action not as something to be explained, but to be elucidated, lived with, and made sense of. Over 7 decades, he's produced an astonishing and magisterial body of work, spanning social theory, religion, epistemology, history, politics, the self, aesthetics, science, technology, and more.
But you might be surprised to know that 30 years ago he described himself as a "monomaniac"—he meant that his ultimate concern is really singular: human life. The one issue that motivates his entire body of work is "philosophical anthropology." But answering the questions of what human persons are and what it means to live a life worthy of that humanity, he says, requires thinking along the borders and intersections of the massive diversity of human society and culture.
He has a long history of political engagement as well. As an undergraduate at Oxford in 1955, he launched one of the first campaigns to ban nuclear weapons. During the '60s he ran several times for Canadian parliament as a major-party candidate, but fell short by a small margin each time. The result for us, of course, is gratitude for the incredible body of work that came in the wake of his attempts to gain office, including Sources of the Self, The Ethics of Authenticity, A Secular Age, The Language Animal—all the way up to his 2020 book, Reconstructing Democracy: How Citizens Are Building from the Ground Up.
Taylor graciously joined Miroslav and me this summer for a long conversation about what's gone wrong with our democracies and finding common moral understanding. We cover a lot of ground, discussing Christian nationalism, authoritarian government, the future viability of Christian faith and practice, the chaos of the post-truth epistemic crisis that’s rampant in political dialogue today, the role of social media in that crisis, and Taylor’s most recent thinking about the growth of common ethical understanding in a world that often fails to live up to those shared moral principles of respect, dignity, and care.
We'll run this conversation in two parts, this week and next. Special thanks goes to many of you listeners and friends who responded with thoughtful and important questions. Those questions helped to frame this conversation. Thanks for listening.
- Introduction: Ryan McAnnally-Linz
- Charles Taylor's history of political engagement and his interest in philosophy
- What role did Vatican II, especially on freedom of religion, play on Taylor's politics?
- Catholic intellectuals: French philosopher and theologian Emmanuel Mounier and French priest Henri de Lubac
- Integralism and Dominionism
- From Constantine on, we've lived with Christendom
- Christendom is a "straight jacket for spiritual growth of the Christian faith."
- What is the telos of history?
- The Pope Francis approach: "Stop worrying about defending what's there and you reach out and just be a Christian."
- Democracy isn't functioning the way it should be.
- Voting for Trump: "It'd be laughable if it weren't cryable."
- "If Trump pulled off his coup d'etat, that would be so catastrophic for the Western democratic world."
- Democracies worldwide aren't in good shape: in what respects and what's underlying that?
- Are we seeing the erosion of (1) common sense of identity and (2) universal principles of democracy?
- "Even common human nature is being called into question."
- "Democracy is no longer perceived as a moral ideal, but is simply a tool of governance."
- "The fear of White replacement": The problem with political alignment that resists White minoritization.
- "The fear of being replaced is very profound."
- Question from Peng Yin (Emory University): "In A Secular Age, you described a rather uplifting modern social imaginary. Society is a realm of mutual benefits where our purposes mesh. In the present moment, however, society is increasingly seen in conflictual terms, as no more than a theatre of competing interests. Has that social imaginary you captured more than a decade ago vanished in our current crises of democracy? If so, do you see any prospect for its recovery?"
- Question from listener Lynette Roth: "In a polarized world, where the divisions are falling along religious lines (and the religions are black-and-white, take no prisoners), how is democracy (where every voice counts) possible? How can democracy and religious conservatives live together?"
- Entrenched in political tribal factions.
- "Fear that we're going to disappear—that our version of Christianity is going to leave the earth."
- Second only to "Follow me" in the scriptures is the phrase: "Be not afraid."
- "This is not the end of the story."
- Hope for the future: "The evangelical virtue that we need."
- This podcast featured philosopher Charles Taylor, theologian Miroslav Volf, and theologian Ryan McAnnally-Linz
- Edited and Produced by Evan Rosa
- Hosted by Evan Rosa
- Production Assistance by Martin Chan & Nathan Jowers
- A Production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School https://faith.yale.edu/about
- Support For the Life of the World podcast by giving to the Yale Center for Faith & Culture: https://faith.yale.edu/give