Charles Taylor’s Apologetic

In Taylor’s recent essay A Catholic Modernity?, the philosopher presents what amounts to an argument against exclusive (i.e., secular) humanism. I’ll give a brief sketch of it here.

Taylor begins by asking the question:

…who can make more sense of the life all of us are living? If we are right, then human beings have an ineradicable bent to respond to something beyond life. Denying this stifles. But then, even for those who accept the metaphysical primacy of life, this outlook will itself seem imprisoning. 1

He continues by pointing out a feature of modern life that coheres with this perspective. He calls it the “immanent revolt”, or the revolt from within unbelief, and points to the most influential example of this position, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche, of course, rebelled against the idea that our highest goal is to preserve and increase life, to prevent suffering. He rejects this both metaphysically and practically. He rejects the egalitarianism underlying this whole affirmation of ordinary life. But his rebellion is, in a sense, also internal. Life itself can push to cruelty, to domination, to exclusion, and, indeed, does so in its moments of most exuberant affirmation.

So this move remains within the modern affirmation of life, in a sense. There is nothing higher than the movement of life itself (the Will to Power). But it chafes at the benevolence, the universalism, the harmony, the order. It wants to rehabilitate destruction and chaos, the infliction of suffering and exploitation, as part of the life to be affirmed. 2

This logic plays itself out in broader ways:

Of course, one of the fruits of this counterculture was Fascism–to which Nietzsche’s influence was not entirely foreign, however true and valid is Walter Kaufman’s refutation of the simple myth of Nietzsche as a proto-Nazi. But in spite of this, the fascination with death and violence recurs, for example, in the interest in Bataille, shared by Derrida and Foucault. James Miller’s book on Foucault shows the depth of this rebellion against “humanism” as a stifling, confining space to break out of. … I see these connections as another manifestation of our (human) inability to be content simply with an affirmation of life. 3

In addition to the danger expressed in Nietzsche, Taylor also describes several others, surrounding a general problem: how do we find the psychological resources to sustain the high ethic we liberal humanists have set for ourselves?

One way is to find our self-worth in helping others. But this is a fragile motivation:

However, philanthropy and solidarity driven by a lofty humanism, just as that which was driven often by high religious ideals, has a Janus face. On one side, in the abstract, one is inspired to act. On the other, faced with the immense disappointments of actual human performance and with the myriad ways in which real, concrete human beings fall short of, ignore, parody, and betray this magnificent potential, one experiences a growing sense of anger and futility. Are these people really worthy objects of all these efforts? Perhaps in the face of all this stupid recalcitrance, it would not be a betrayal of human worth, or one’s self-worth, to abandon them–or perhaps the best that can be done for them is to force them to shape up.

Before the reality of human shortcomings, philanthropy–the love of the human–can gradually come to be invested with contempt, hatred, aggression. The action is broken off, or worse, continues but is invested now with these new feelings, becoming progressively more coercive and inhumane. The history of despotic socialism (i.e., twentieth-century communism) is replete with this tragic turn, brilliantly foreseen by Dostoyevsky more than a hundred years ago… and then repeated again and again with a fatal regularity… . 4

Another way to motivate such action is by a sense of injustice. But this comes with its own problems:

We have seen it with Jacobins and Bolsheviks and today with the politically correct Left and the so-called Christian Right. We fight against injustices that cry out to heaven for vengeance. We are moved by a flaming indignation against these: racism, oppression, sexism, or leftist attacks on the family or Christian faith. This indignation comes to be fueled by a hatred for those who support and connive with these injustices, which, in turn, is fed by our sense of superiority that we are not like these instruments and accomplices of evil. Soon, we are blinded to the havoc we wreak around us. …

This humanism leaves us with our own high sense of self-worth to keep us from backsliding, a high notion of human worth to inspire us forward, and a flaming indignation against wrong and oppression to energize us. It cannot appreciate how problematic all of these are, how easily they can slide into something trivial, ugly, or downright dangerous and destructive.

A Nietzschean genealogist can have a field day here. Nothing gave Nietzsche greater satisfaction than showing how morality or spirituality is really powered by its direct opposite… [.] … it is clear that modern humanism is full of potential for such disconcerting reversals: from dedication to others to self-indulgent, feel-good responses, from a lofty sense of human dignity to control powered by contempt and hatred, from absolute freedom to absolute despotism, from a flaming desire to help the oppressed to an incandescent hatred for all those who stand in the way. 5

Taylor offers what he thinks the solution might be, and herein lies his apologetic:

So is there a way out?

This cannot be a matter of guarantee, only of faith. But it is clear that Christian spirituality points to one. It can be described in two ways: either as a love or compassion that is unconditional–that is, not based on what you the recipient have made of yourself–or as one based on what you are most profoundly, a being in the image of God. They obviously amount to the same thing. In either case, the love is not conditional on the worth realized in you just as an individual or even in what is realizable in you alone. 6

If one were to put this answer biblically, one might say:

Romans 5:1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.


  1. Taylor, Dilemmas and Connections, 178.
  2. Dilemmas and Connections, 179.
  3. Dilemmas and Connections, 179.
  4. Dilemmas and Connections, 183.
  5. Dilemmas and Connections, 184-185.
  6. Dilemmas and Connections, 185.