Today’s religion

What shape is modern Western culture in today? The 20th century confronts us with both the grandeur and the misery of modernity—in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and Auschwitz to name just two events. But how are we to account for modernity as a whole? This is an important question for theology, since faithfully proclaiming the Gospel presumes an insightful understanding of the culture it addresses.

Many interpreters of Western culture fall into what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls the booster/knocker polarity. The ‘knockers’ of modern culture argue that with the Enlightenment people have lost their faith and as a result Western culture is in decline. ‘Boosters’ argue that through the Enlightenment, the rise of science and reason has enabled moderns to free themselves from their illusions about a god in order to become who they truly are: a free, self-determining people.

Although both boosters and knockers provide some pieces of the puzzle, neither view adequately accounts for modern Western culture. This is not simply a matter of balance—of taking neither an overly optimistic nor an excessively pessimistic stance—but rather a question of what constitutes an adequate understanding of cultural change. Both boosters and knockers offer acultural understandings of modernity; neither accounts for the massive cultural shift of the last few centuries, which has often been powered by Christian understandings and practices.

Earlier this year, in Modern Social Imaginaries (Duke University Press), Taylor published his account of how we have arrived where we are. He argues that ‘central to Western modernity is a new conception of the moral order of society’, which originated in the minds of thinkers like Grotius and Locke, and grew to influence whole stratas of society until it has become the background understanding of modernity.

Taylor describes this modern moral order as ‘the society of mutual benefit’. The idea is that you and I go about our lives as bakers, bankers or priests, and fulfilling our own sense of self redounds to the good of all, with plentiful bread, money or spiritual blessings. His argument is that this understanding undergirds the institutions and practices of our culture. The key institutions discussed are: the rise of the modern economy, the public sphere and popular sovereignty. In this accessible and thought-provoking book, Taylor analyses the formation of these institutions.

Taylor’s account of modernity is both incisive and deeply sympathetic. There is no hyperbole here, which is a significant gain since some theological readings of modernity reveal more about the theological method adopted than the culture in which we live. His reading enables Christians to avoid the untenable position of accepting some of modernity’s gains—for example, human rights—and recognising their significance, while condemning the whole movement of thought and practice that brought them about. At the same time, Taylor sees a strong place for God in modern secular culture: ‘God’s will can still be very present to us in the design of things, in cosmos, state, and personal life. 

James McEvoy teaches at Catholic Theological College, Adelaide.



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