I do not feel at all at ease with these kind of questions. I don’t like these kind of problems. I always have the impression, as once Heidegger put it, that we have here people busy sharpening knives when there is nothing left to cut. (Giorgio Agamben)1
I’ve been suffering from a serious bout of ‘meta-madness’ and I’m blaming Charles Taylor. This debilitating affliction consists of being mired in method and plagued by prolegomena. It’s the theological equivalent of never getting off first base, of waggling interminably on the tee, never able to strike the ball. It’s when good and necessary methodological hygiene starts to take on unhealthy OCD-like tendencies. As with all these things, no doubt, nature and nurture are involved. Temperamentally, both before and after conversion, I’ve always been quite inquisitive, asking lots of questions. The bigger they come the better. Twenty-five years ago as a bright-eyed and zealous (read ‘rather annoying’) evangelical undergraduate studying for a theology and religious studies degree in an extremely liberal department in the UK, every lecture discussion, no matter what the topic, would quickly descend into matters of method and the ultimate authorities from which we were building our theology. My philosophy of religion lecturer Denys Turner2 was calling me ‘his Baptist Fundamentalist’ two lectures in. Second row, last seat on the left half of the room (yes, I always sat in the same seat), I just couldn’t stop myself asking meta questions. I just couldn’t let things lie. It was fun at the beginning but after a while became pretty tiresome for all concerned especially for the bunch of students at the back of the class who has only chosen to study theology because it was ‘something to do’ and so really didn’t want to be there. Oh how they loved me. The result was endless pouring over foundations with very little construction to show. It’s probably this experience that led me into student ministry with theological students in similar liberal departments, and then into lecturing within a confessional academic community. It’s probably how I’ve ended up lecturing on the theology of religions, worldview and apologetics, and it’s probably why I’ve been so drawn to Reformed theology in the key of Van Til where systems, presuppositions and transcendental ‘stuff’ is where the real theological action is to be found. Looking back I thank God for this trajectory but there have been times when the ‘meta-madness’ sets in with the result that I seem to end up pawing forlornly at the outside window while inside the theological party is in full swing. Some of my colleagues and students are a little worried about me and have tried to shake me out of it.3 But I’m still in pain and as I’ve said, Charles Taylor is responsible for this latest flare-up. I hope a little musing on this meta-madness might be cathartic and constructive.
As someone who lectures on culture, religion and public theology, the Canadian philosopher’s A Secular Age4 is unavoidable – ‘we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, Oh no! we’ve got to go through it!’5 I’m not the first to note that it’s a breath taking achievement: polymathic, gargantuan and audacious.6 Moreover, for someone who increasingly reacts against a flat, abstracted, ahistorical, oversimplified and reductionistic biblicism, Taylor’s work both in substance and style is a heady potion. It’s big and bold. It takes historical complexity, connectivity and contingency seriously. ‘Ideas have consequences, as Richard Weaver put it. True, but consequences have ideas.… We feel his descriptions in our gut because he’s describing our world, where we feel and experience the world differently regardless of focal beliefs’.7 And as James K. A. Smith nicely states, Taylor helps us ‘attend to the background of what Jeffrey Stout calls our “dialectical location,” the concrete particulars that make us “us” that got us where we are. This is a bit like realizing that forging a relationship with a significant other requires getting her or his back story; that there is a family history that is embedded in your partner, and understanding the partner requires understanding that story if the relationship is going to move forward.’8 Against other rival and unsatisfactory accounts of the ‘secular’, inhabiting Taylor’s story is not only plausible but intoxicating as it marries detailed ethnographic granularity with broad Romantic sweep.
And yet as a theologian I have had a nagging question: from the perspective of Reformed theology, what is Taylor actually saying? This comes in a weaker and stronger form.
The weaker form became a question (there we go again!), I asked in public to Jamie Smith when he spoke at an event in London a few years back in the run up to his commentary on Taylor’s A Secular Faith. I had listened to Smith’s lucid and helpful summary of Taylor’s thesis delivered to a broadly evangelical audience. The question I asked, second row, last seat on the right half of the room (only joking!) may well have sounded impudent and arrogant but certainly wasn’t meant to be. It went something like this: ‘Yes! And?…’
To re-iterate, I don’t think my question was driven by a ‘not invented here’ attitude, but was rather a genuine enquiry. From the perspective of theological anthropology, and specifically a full-fat robust Reformed theological anthropology, what was Taylor saying that is actually new? Were there any anthropological surprises here? Yes, Taylor has his own lexicon that we’ve all been learning and utilising in our writing and speaking: ‘subtraction story’, ‘cross-pressured’, ‘flatness and fullness’, ‘buffered self’, ‘social imaginary’, ‘immanent frame’, and ‘fragilisation’.9 But put through a Reformed ‘Google-translate’ isn’t Taylor’s simply complementing, confirming and fleshing out older well-worked doctrines, such as the imago Dei, sensus divinitatis, Incurvatus in se and the fabrica idolorum?
One might protest unfairness as Taylor is not attempting to do theology. His purpose is philosophical, phenomenological and historical. He is being descriptive and explanatory. But now comes the stronger form of the question because there is theology going on and it’s quite close to the surface:
Taylor is a practicing Roman Catholic who hasn’t shied away from bringing his personal convictions to bear on his scholarship. However, A Secular Age reveals a complex and perhaps even contradictory set of theological assumptions. On the one hand he’s critical of the processes that have disengaged, disenchanted, disembedded, and buffered the self toward an exclusive humanism in which human flourishing is the only goal and immanence the only frame. On the other hand, it is not clear the extent to which his own ideal is specifically Christian.…Taylor hardly avoids doctrine, but many of his most direct normative excurses display an almost visceral reaction against traditional teachings.10
Horton proceeds to describe a list of doctrines that Taylor rejects, but which Reformed theology cherishes. Moreover, it is doctrine itself which seems to come under scrutiny in Taylor’s account.11 In a similar vein, Matthew Rose notes in A Secular Age an implied and indirect Catholicism, but one of a decidedly ‘liberal’ and ‘Hegelian’ bent. The result is that Rose critiques Taylor for being overly dogmatic about contingency:
By assimilating a secular way of believing with the essential content of Christian faith, A Secular Age sanctifies and makes absolute precisely what we should regard as contingent – the age in which he lives…. [H]e makes secularism invincible to the radical criticism it most needs. Like all Hegelians, Taylor is an apologist for the present, a theologian of the status quo.12
And thus my meta-madness is triggered. Sirenlike, I’m instinctively pulled towards Taylor’s analysis and its helpfulness for cultural exegesis and mission. Rose and Horton’s alarm bells pull me back from an overly uncritical reading of Taylor. This might be enough to get on happily with one’s theological life: take and appropriate the good, filter out and reject the less helpful and move on. But not for me. I seem inexorably to be pulled under to consider the theological criteria and justification for my appropriation and appreciation (or not) of Taylor. How much and on what basis do I engage with Taylor given the unorthodoxy of his own theological commitments? How much are his Catholic, his liberal Catholic, his Hegelian influenced liberal Catholic commitments detrimental to his project and my assessment of it? What’s my theological method for discernment? These become my pressing issues.
Sucked into this vortex, I return to how one might assess the work of a polymath like Taylor by viewing him as a historian and so giving me permission to have a brief foray into the world of historiography comparing and contrasting two Reformed scholars and historians Carl Trueman and Garry Williams. I choose these two because I’m familiar with them and respect their work.13
Carl Trueman had not written much on method although one notes a comment at the beginning of his study on John Owen, Claims of Truth:
My interest is not to discover whether Owen was right or wrong, but to see what he said, why he said it, whether it was coherent by the standards of his day, and how he fits into the theological context of his own times and of the western tradition as a whole. Of course I do have personal intellectual convictions about the theological value of Owen’s writings, but I have tried to be aware of my own theological commitments and to keep them as separate as humanly possible from my analysis.14
Although admittedly late to the historiographical party, noting that ‘obsession with method is one of the baleful aspects of modern literary theory’,15 Trueman’s Histories and Fallacies uses the case studies of Holocaust Denial and Marxism to argue that while there can never be neutrality in historical writing, there can be objectivity: ‘at the heart of the historian’s task is this matter of verifiability and accountability by public criteria’.16
Key for Trueman is a distinction made by historian Keith Evans between historical theory and historical method, which
goes a long way to explaining why good historians can appreciate and interact with others who operate from different theoretical positions. I can read feminist, Marxist and structuralist works and find them helpful, and indeed where necessary challenge their findings because, by and large, good historians in these fields are committed to the same kinds of methods of verification that I use.17
Where historical writing goes awry is when a theory becomes an ‘all-encompassing aprioristic view of reality into which the phenomena of history must be made to fit.… It is a form of idealism that will ultimately squeeze the presupposed framework that is derived from abstract philosophical principles, not the result of induction or deductions from historical phenomena.’18 On this basis one can see how Trueman might approach something like A Secular Age. Indeed he has, in the recently published TGC book on Taylor’s tome. Appreciative of Taylor’s appreciation of the complexity of historical narrative, Trueman’s main critique is that while Taylor’s account is cogent, it needs supplementing by factoring in material factors – political, technological and cultural.19
Garry William’s historiography is explicitly and unashamedly theological.20 Any study of history will be inevitably selective, subjective and limited in its scope, always being filtered through a particular metanarrative and so requiring us to acknowledge explicitly our criteria for selection. The doctrine of total depravity has affected the telling of history as it has for all intellectual activity, ‘the telling of history is Christian telling, or it is hostile telling…. Facts come in the context of stories of the world, and that means that the natural mind will produce history hostile to Christ and his people.’21 The Christian is to challenge hostile history-telling by telling a counter-history based on the revealed metanarrative and pan-historical reach of Scripture: ‘in broad terms, how we view the last 2,000 words is determined by Scripture itself…. [A]ll our history telling must be located explicitly within the broad biblical framework”22 and under the exhaustive Lordship of Christ. Williams goes on to note that this approach is not to disprove the immediate fact of the quality of non-Christian thought. Rather, it is to question ‘its consistency and ultimate viability’:
The upper parts of the edifice may appear secure and well-furnished, but there are deep cracks in the foundations. Non-Christian thought is successful despite itself. It can cohere only because of the coherence of all things in Christ, yet it denies the same Christ.… The more a non-Christian teacher teaches and the better the history he writes, the more acute the tension between the fact of his work and its internal impossibility. If a shed is falling we may not worry; when Venice is sinking we do. Brilliant non-Christian historical work desperately needs a firm foundation in Christ.23
To my knowledge, Williams has not engaged directly with Taylor’s Secular Faith but I would like to suggest that his interaction with Taylor would offer a different and more systemic critique given Williams’s own historiography and the elaborate nature of Taylor’s construction.
What accounts for the difference between these two Reformed historians? For those aware of the Reformed confessional tradition, the theological dynamic by which we can only answer this question boils down to the definitions of the doctrines of the antithesis24 and common grace25 together with the articulation of the relationship between the two. These definitions and construals depend upon exegetical, biblical-theological and systematic considerations.26 How one understands this relationship implies ontological, epistemological, ethical and aesthetic implications in terms of the concept of worldview, the interpretative power of a priori theological systems, the possibility of objectivity and the nature of factuality.
Williams is much happier playing in methodological mud and is quite open to his indebtedness to the presuppositionalism of Van Til and what this means for his historiography. Trueman needs a little more drawing out on the issue, but that’s precisely the point! In his interview about History and Fallacies he notes with characteristic humour that he steers away from the ‘E’ word (epistemology) believing it to be massively overused.27 He does not believe that his historical method is distinctively Christian, indeed there is no such thing as distinctively Christian historiography. Rather there is good and bad historical work which always needs to be methodologically self-aware, recognising the limits and provisionality of all historical work. When pushed he appears to align himself with Scottish Common-Sense Realism and the British empiricist tradition (and certainly not the Continental philosophical tradition!). That said, if I was to try and articulate the theological presuppositions behind Trueman’s method (I’m at it again!), I would note that his argument for objectivity and the commonality of historical method is founded upon a different (and weaker) articulation of the noetic effects of the Fall and the antithesis, and/or an elevation of common grace which mitigates these effects and makes possible commonality between historians of all different ideological persuasions.28 What is interesting to note though, is Trueman’s conclusion to his essay responding to A Secular Age:
In closing, however, I must make one more critical comment on Taylor. He’s careful throughout to avoid asking the truth of the ideas he discusses. That is appropriate as his task is descriptive and explanatory. Yet I wonder if a narrative as broad and grand as he offers can ultimately avoid that question. Why do some ideas end up as part of the social imaginary while others do not? We can answer in part by examining the material conditions and process of cultural development…. But even the nagging question of truth comes back in: If we reject a reductive materialism and believe that material conditions do not strictly determine which ideas flourish and which die out, then why does Idea X win and not Idea Y? Is it merely time and chance, or are certain ideas inevitably more attractive, and if so, why? And can this question be answered purely in terms of describing the processes themselves? … Augustine and Pascal would have an answer: The ultimate dynamic driving this secular age is the denial of our creatureliness and the assertion of our autonomy.29
Maybe Trueman is a muddier Van Tilian than he would care to admit…
Where does this leave me in my meta-madness, let alone my own relationship to A Secular Age? As I hope you’ll realise, these reflections aren’t really about Taylor but about us. I’ve already mentioned my attraction and indebtedness to a Van Tilian understanding in terms of the importance of a biblical transcendental analysis in all academic disciplines and the principle that ‘antithesis must precede common grace’.30 Until I give up these commitments I’m probably always going to be prone to linger on methodological concerns and err on the side of caution in my appropriation of accounts which are not grounded on the Christian worldview as revealed in Scripture. Reminders on methodology might be one way those like me who have meta-madness can serve the constituency.
I conclude with three constructive ‘criticisms’.
First, I would like to see some bigger methodological health warning stickers in evangelical commentaries on scholars like Taylor: ‘Please use responsibly’. Note: such warnings do not mean we don’t engage with a Taylor. Precisely the opposite. We need to engage more deeply with a Taylor and cannot skim off the top in a way that simply ‘evangelicalises’ his terms. Superficial analyses do not serve us well, or those with whom we are engaging. When we look at both the fruit and root of the Taylor tree, we will have apologetic opportunities to push at his presuppositions, offering the repair work needed for his account to hold. In short, we will be able to subversively fulfil his story.
Second, we need to note that often the most helpful aspect of non- or sub-Christian systems, is when they themselves helpfully critique and deconstruct other non- or sub-Christian systems. One might call this an example of critical co-belligerence. I discovered this was precisely the case in my theology of religions dialogue with the conservative Catholic theologian Gavin D’Costa and his own devastating critique of the ‘pluralist’ Catholic Paul Knitter with whom we were also in dialogue.31 I think this is also the case with Taylor and his criticisms of other accounts of the secular and exclusive humanism. Agreement on positive construction is always going to be harder, but I refer you to my first point.
Finally, we need to do some soul-searching. To my mind it is worrying that intellectually hungry and impoverished we rush to raid the creaking cupboards of other traditions and systems because our own cupboard is bare. Why aren’t we producing accounts as big, sophisticated and imaginative as Taylor’s but which are methodologically and substantively theologically orthodox? Why aren’t we doing grown-up Reformed social theory that is interdisciplinary and takes the social sciences seriously? Surely, this is a providential spur for us to look at ourselves, to build on our own more sure foundations, and be strategic in how we are birthing and developing Christian academics and Christian academic institutions.