A Conversation Between Charles Taylor and Akbar Ganji On April 11th and 12th, 2007 in Chicago, Illinois, an Iranian journalist, political dissident and radical democrat, Akbar Ganji, sat down with Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher and former politician.
Unauthorized, Samuel C. Porter, Ph.D. edited the original 74-page pdf file interview transcript for readability (http://www.ssrc.org/blogs/immanent_frame/wp-content/uploads/2008/12/ganji-taylor-interview3.pdf; accessed 1/3/09). The table of contents, headings and footnotes are Porter’s. Page numbers after headings in the body of the interview refer to original transcript.
Religion, pp. 1-3
Criticizing Modernity, p. 27
Secularism as Separation of Religion and State, pp. 3-5
Radical Enlightenment, pp. 28-29
A Self-Limiting State or Religious Legitimation, State Implementation of Religious Law and a Particular Right of the Clergy to Rule, pp. 5-6
Liberalism and Rawls, pp. 29-31
Legitimation – Religious or Political, pp. 6-9
Consensus, p. 31
Discerning God’s Will and the State, pp. 9-12
Human Rights, pp. 32-33
William James’ Contribution to Today’s Religious Situation, pp. 12-13
The State and Civil Society, pp. 33-34
A Post-Durkheimian World, pp. 13-15
Communitarians, pp. 34-35
Shallow Spirituality, p. 15
Distinguishing Communitarians from Fascists, p. 36
Neo-Durkheimian Identities, pp. 16-17
The State and Criticizing Democratic States, p. 36
Fundamentalism, pp. 17-18
Civil Disobedience, p. 37
Religious Texts and Objective Literal Truth, pp. 18-19
Revolution, pp. 37-38
Islam’s Transcendent God and Christianity’s Human Messiah, pp. 19-20
Politics of Recognition, pp. 39-43
Religious Belief and Rationality, pp. 20-21
The African American Situation, pp. 43-45
Non-Rational Elements in Religion, p. 21
Tradition, p. 45
How Ought We to Live?, pp. 21-22
Iran, Sittlichkeit and Articulating Background Understandings, pp. 46-48
New Religious Movements, p. 23
The Feminist Movement, pp. 48-49
Authentic Intuitions and Superficial Rituals, p. 23
Individual Rights and Community Rights, pp. 50-51
Interpreting Traditions with Reference to Modernity, pp. 23-24
Biographical Sketches of Akbar Gangi and Charles Taylor, pp. 56-58
Religion (pp. 1-4)
Akbar Ganji (AG): I have many questions in several areas, including modernity, secularism and religion. Let’s start with religion. Your book, Varieties of Religion Today,1 combines two different discourses: the philosophy of religion and the sociology of religion. Do you agree and if so which one is dominant? Charles Taylor (CT): Neither. And we have a third discourse, which is history. But in the end, only one discourse is adequate. As sociology can’t get to the important issues without history and if you don’t have a deep consideration of the philosophical issues, you can’t do good historical sociology.
If you want to talk about the development of religion, for example, you have to look at both the change in the position of religion in society and the degree of retreat of religious belief and practice.
Let me say parenthetically that in both Varieties of Religion Today and A Secular Age,2 I claim to be talking only about religion in the West as it has developed in the last 500 years as I try to develop a theory of secularization – which means many things, including religion’s change in position as well as retreat.
People sometimes confuse these two kinds of secularization both of which have happened in the West. The change in the position of religion in society has been general in the West. But the retreat of religion has happened differently in different contexts.
In the United States there has been virtually no retreat. But in Sweden and East Germany significant retreat has occurred. The U.S., on one hand, and Sweden and East Germany, on the other, seem to be the two poles between which a variety of degrees of retreat occur.
In order to come to grips with these movements, you have to have a certain understanding of human motivation. What is the human motivation in religion? What motivates people in their religious life?
The motivations are different in different times and places. We might miss this point because a lot of powerful religions today – Islam and Christianity, etc. – are close to each other in many respects in their driving motivations.
But if you look more widely – at Hinduism, Buddhism, earlier forms of religion – you realize there is an immense difference.
That’s why you can’t write a general history of secularization. Even writing one about the West may be too ambitious.
But the philosophical dimension is essential when considering post-war mainline secularization theory in sociology. In the early writings of Peter Berger and the contemporary work of Steve Bruce, for example, there is a simple story that the more modernity progresses – for example, industrialization, the development of the modern state, social mobility, markets – the more religion declines.3
Although they never discuss it, this assumes that religious motivation is shallow and that religious life is tied to certain pre-existing sociological forms. And when modernity destabilizes these sociological forms religion disappears.
But I disagree – and that’s a philosophical point that needs to be at the core of historical and sociological study. In other words, if you have a different view of religious motivation, you’ll have a different theory about the development of secularization.
I’m attacking a mainline theory that claims there’s a linear movement of secularization as modernity advances. As modernity progresses so does secularization and vice versa. It’s a simple functional relationship.
But, according to my underlying theory, we can expect something different. We can expect certain developments of modernity to destabilize earlier forms of religious life. For example, the idea of monarchy embedded in the cosmos connected to God – for instance, the French monarchy – is not going to survive certain changes in society that come with modernity.
But if human religious motivation is not as shallow as mainstream social scientific theory assumes, then what would happen in many cases is religion would be recomposed in new forms that meet the new situation.
And that is, I argue, what has happened in the modern West.
This is, I think, a more adequate theoretical understanding of social and historical reality but it requires a deep understanding of the place of religion in human life.
So I would say that, in this sense, there’s a single discourse made up of elements that appear to be drawn from three disciplines but, in fact, cohere together as a single discourse.
The three discourses would be philosophy, history and sociology. But you can’t do sociology without history, or history without sociology, and you can’t do either without a proper philosophical understanding of human motivation.4 So the whole thing hangs together from those three sources.
Secularism as Separation of Religion and State (pp. 4-6)
AG: Secularism has several meanings, including decline, privatization and differentiation. In the 1960s, Peter Berger and others – following Max Weber5 – predicted decline. Privatization means religion withdraws into the private sphere from the public sphere and becomes merely a private matter. What’s important is my relation to my God. Differentiation means the institutional separation of the state and religion. You disagree with the decline thesis and debate [Jürgen] Habermas6 about whether privatization is a good thing. But isn’t the separation of religion and state a pre-condition for democracy? Do you disagree? CT: No. But it’s a different kind of concept because it’s a normative concept. The first two concepts – decline and privatization – are supposed to describe what’s been happening in the world. But the third concept is a normative issue. Do we need to have, in that sense, a neutral state, or a laic state, or a secular state, in order to have a democratic society?
Certainly, certain kinds of modern democratic societies, namely, ones very diverse in people’s religious and philosophical views, function better with a state that is neutral or equidistant. So that norm fits.
But, historically, there have been other kinds of democracy. The early American Republic is neutral among denominations but strongly marked by a Christian deist understanding of society.
The danger of this kind of democracy, which we see developing in U.S. history, occurs when different populations enter. At first, the United States is primarily Protestant. So, when Catholic populations begin to enter from Ireland, Italy and elsewhere, they are discriminated against severely.
What you have in America is a happy evolution in that this understanding gradually extends to Catholics, Jews, all theists, and beyond. And while some struggles still go on, in general and in principle this understanding seeks to embrace everyone.
So it’s plain to see that in modern democratic societies – with increasingly mobile and diverse populations; conditions virtually unavoidable – it’s better to have the kind of regime where the state is neutral.
But I think people make a mistake to think it is utterly impossible to have a democracy at all in a condition where this kind of neutrality isn’t met.
For example, this problem arises in many Muslim societies. Can you define the state as totally separate from Islam? It may be difficult to get a consensus for that. In that case, what is needed is a kind of understanding of the necessity of a self-limiting state in the religious domain.
There’s a precedent for this idea in the United States because when the United States was de facto a Christian state, no one considered the state to have an important role in religious life. People left it to the churches to have an important role in religious life. So, although it was a Christian state, it was a self-limiting state.
This kind of self-limitation of the state is, I think, an essential condition for the development of democracy in the Muslim world.
Sometimes this comes easiest when you have a conflict, for example, Turkey. In this case, you have a state that is secular but not neutral under Ataturk because it is a militantly secular state trying to drive religion back. Then you have the slow development of Islamic oriented political parties culminating in the present ruling AK Party, which develops a notion of Islamic democracy where the government is self-limiting in that respect. The government will not try to intervene and persecute Alevis or any other minority group. By playing the rules of democracy, the AK Party forced the secular Kemalists to retreat in the sense that the secular militant party respects the right of the Islamist party to hold the highest government office.
So you get these two ideologies, we hope, to come to a kind of equilibrium of understanding in which both accept that the state is self-limiting. The government will neither impose secularism nor any particular brand of Islam. There are, of course, important minorities in Turkey. There are the Alevis, for example, and it would be catastrophic if Sunni Islam was imposed on them. Thus, we arrive at the idea of a self-limiting state.
It’s easier when you have two powers grabbing for the power of the state and where there is a balance of power, as in the case of Turkey.
In the Iranian case, I imagine it would be harder because you have a very strong Shia majority. But it’s not impossible that the bad experience of being ruled by an Islamic non-self-limiting state, under which you now live in Iran, might induce people to think there may be another way.
A Self-Limiting State or Religious Legitimation, State Implementation of Religious Law and a Particular Right of the Clergy to Rule(pp. 6-8)
AG: I don’t think the separation of religion and state is a hundred percent normative simply because it has a normative aspect. You say we should have a historical point of view. But when we look at history we realize all historical cases of democratic states are secular in that religion and state are separate. This may mean three things. First, the state does not derive its legitimacy from religion. Second, the state does not implement religious law. And, third, the clergy do not have a particular right to rule. All democratic states share these attributes. I’m not saying where there is secularism there is democracy. I am saying the reverse: where there is democracy there is also secularism in the aforementioned three meanings.
CT: Not quite. But we’re not that far apart because some of the things you’re describing are what I call a self-limiting state.
Take, for example, Argentina today. To be president of Argentina you have to be Roman Catholic. Although he converted, Argentineans elected Carlos Menem, a Muslim, to be president. But you’re right. In the long run, this religious provision will be eventually voided.
So you have these historic links between religion and the state. The early United States, a Christian state, carried the idea it was following the will of God as part of its self-justification. So, to your first point, democratic secular states founded in religion are not always absent. As to the state applying religious law, that also existed in the early Puritan beginnings of the American colonies, for example, in Boston. But that has become rare. As for a special role for the clergy, I could quibble and say there are bishops in the British House of Lords, though this is one of those vestigial leftovers from history that does not affect democracy today.
But you raise a very interesting thing because, from out of a different experience, you’re forcing us to rethink the concept of the secular. In the West, a lot of these things ran together and you’re splitting them up into three different categories.
One of the things I think can continue and has continued is the idea of some link between the state and religion. Until about 50 years ago, even the United Kingdom was generally understood as somehow linked to the Anglican Church – the Christian religion – and that exists vestigially today in the queen’s crowning and so on. But it becomes more and more vestigial.
So, religious legitimacy of the state lingered on a long time in Western democracy.
But the state ceasing to implement religious law and the clergy ceasing to have a particular right to rule are part of what I’m calling the self-limitation of the state and go back farther because they are essential parts of the growth of Western democracy, which happened in the context of tremendous conflict.
That conflict includes conflicts between Catholics and Protestants and among lay ideologies in the Catholic Church, etc.
So, in all these cases, you have the legacy of a self-limiting state. Even when it remains, as it were, under the umbrella of a certain religion, it is understood that the civil power should not intervene by, for example, applying religious law, because that would lead to conflict.
Legitimation – Religious or Political (pp. 8-9)
AG: Since you believe the first principle lingers on while the other two wane, what examples can you give where a modern democratic state derives its legitimacy from religion?
In Iran, the state says God grants the power to rule to the Supreme Islamic Jurist and that the state is legitimate because God allows the Supreme Islamic Jurist to rule. State legitimacy is not derived from a vote of people. By contrast, all democratic states say they derive their legitimacy from the peoples’ vote.
Different shades of social contract theory exist in all democratic theories. From Locke to Rawls,7 all democratic theories are based on social contract theory the premise of which is human beings create government. The state is legitimate only as long as it serves the public. But religious government has nothing to do with the peoples’ vote because it derives its legitimacy from God. In this sense, it is not a democratic state. CT: Yes and no. Consider, for example, John Locke who believed we should follow natural law, which dictates that the only legitimate authority is created by a social contract. But from where does natural law come? He clearly believes God creates human beings in a state of nature where natural law holds. According to Locke, it is God’s will that we have a social contract.
In the Declaration of Independence, the founders of the American Republic wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”
So there are two ways in which legitimate democratic rule can derive from God. One is that the actual formula of democratic rule is God-given. The other is that certain people, certain clergy, have a mandate directly from God to order society. In a sense, Western history is the struggle between these two understandings of God-derived authority.
AG: I don’t accept the second one. The one in which God creates national order and then derives democratic society from a reading of that national order is nominalism.8 You may call it divine but it is not divine. CT: When we talk about Locke?
AG: Richard Rorty9 says religion aims at secularization; and that God ordains secularism and accepts that government derives its legitimacy from the people and that people have rights. I don’t disagree with this at all. Do you know what this is like? The God of the Abrahamic religions is a personal one? CT: Yes.
AG: The God of other religions is impersonal. CT: Yes.
AG: Then we have to ask a Buddhist what is his God. Is it the whole universe’s God? If so, then God becomes just another name for the world. This is just naming something something else. It’s a God that doesn’t speak to, contact or inspire us, doesn’t send prophets or react in any way to our actions. This is just naming. Government marked by the claim that it derives its legitimacy from God? I rule over you because God endows me with this right? In modern times, we can’t accept that God gives anyone the right to rule on this basis. When we allow someone to rule us that person will rule. But you name this something else. You say God also accepts this. Then, you say, in this sense, government derives its legitimacy from religion. But you also say democratic systems derive their legitimacy not from religion but from peoples’ votes. If you say God also wants this I have no argument against this. In that case, God is following us. CT: Yes, many distinctions need to be made. The first point about God being the same as the Impersonal Order is very much Spinoza,10 not Locke.
AG: I was referring to Buddhists. CT: I know but Spinoza is a close representative. And Locke and Spinoza are very different. I mean I agree with you.
AG: This is like simply saying we give the name of God to the world but in this case we call our choice God’s acceptance. CT: That is also a much earlier theory in the West but it’s not the same theory as Locke. In the European High Middle Ages [11th-13th centuries], the theory is we should obey the king because God, in general, blesses earthly power as necessary for our well being. So whoever is the legitimate power – it can be a king or a republican government – you ought to obey them.
But Locke is saying something very different. There is a certain regime that is the right regime willed by God. That’s what the early American Republic thought, that is, American democracy is the only godly regime.
AG: What does God want? CT: God wants this order in which natural right is respected.
AG: How do we know this? CT: In Locke’s case, he derives that knowledge differently. Some theorists get it out of the Bible. But, Locke argues, if you simply look at human beings you can see God designs them to preserve themselves and therefore we should never take life, even our own life. There’s an interdiction on suicide and then Locke proceeds to derive it all from here.
AG: Locke doesn’t concern me. CT: I’m not a fan of Locke’s either.
Discerning God’s Will and the State (pp. 9-16)
AG: How do we know what God wants insofar as the state is concerned? How are we going to find out what God wants? CT: That is a much more complicated question because, first, we have a certain sense of what God wants from human beings and, second, then we have the very concrete particular situations in which we find ourselves.
We somehow have to make a judgment of how the first fits into the second.
We cannot easily make general judgments without looking at a particular situation.
If you ask me directly, I’m a Christian and a Catholic Christian. I have a certain conception of what God wants human beings to become and where they are now and what the next best move would be to get there.
Then I put this together with a very particular judgment of where I am now in the situation, and so on.
So if you ask me should we go on in this direction or that direction, I’ll say this direction. But I have to admit that I could be wrong about this. While being right about what God wants, I could be wrong about this issue.
So there is no way I could say with certainty that this is what God is telling me what to do unambiguously. I couldn’t say that. Locke thought he could. The founders of the American Republic thought they could. But I don’t think anyone can. Because I think we live in specific, unrepeatable situations and we have to judge well what God wants us to do.
Nader Hashemi11: His question is about the state – the political state. How do we know what kind of political state God wants from us? CT: You can make a general argument that, other things being equal, when it’s possible, a democratic regime is superior in terms of doing what God wants because you have in its ideal form – we never live up to this ideal but I’m referring to – minimum exploitation, violence and coercion; and maximum possibility of people developing their lives as they see fit. This political regime is where such things are most possible while not crushing some other important demand. So, this kind of democratic regime is obviously superior, in general.
Ahmad Sadri: Therefore it is superior and divine? CT: In a certain sense, according the will of God, yes.
But unlike Locke and a lot of other people, I’m very weary of saying this is divine because I realize I’m saying this not only because I share a belief in the Christian revelation but also because I have a particular judgment about how these regimes work. I mean if you show that democracy produces other terrible things that I’m not noticing at the moment then I may have to change my mind – I recognize that.
So if anybody – clergy, laity, the ulama (Muslim religious authorities), the Supreme Islamic Jurist (vali faqih) – says, “God’s will is this,” I say to them, “You should have a little bit more humility ladies or gentlemen.” Nobody can say they know God’s will with absolute certainty. What they can say is, “As far as we can see, this seems to accord with the will of God.” Now I’m speaking as a Christian but who do these people think they are? They are just human beings like the rest of us who share revelation.
AG: A fundamentalist would respond by saying God decrees that we should rule. We have fundamentalists in all religions and some actually believe God prefers violence. How do we know whether you or the fundamentalist is right? CT: That’s a very interesting question – how do you know?
AG: I want to discuss Rawls more later, but I’m pushing the argument in the direction of a Rawlsian solution where political liberalism separates metaphysical, religious and moral teachings from the state. Many people claim to know or intuit God’s will. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Shiites, Sunnis, and Bahais – all say God inspires them. That creates a problem. CT: Yes, Rawls has a good idea here but Rawls is not the answer to this problem.
AG: But there is, I claim, no way for us to understand what God wants. Many people claim God gives them a mission. Bush says God told me to invade Iraq. Mr. Khamenei12 attributes his actions to God and Bin Laden says the same thing. So since we’re confronted with different solutions the best thing is to separate religion from the state. CT: Yes, that’s a good solution to the problem of religious pluralism. But Rawls assumes, or wants to take for granted, different religious believers – who disagree with Bin Laden, Khomeini and so on – because they see their religious life as living in a state of peace, cooperation and mutual respect with others and have strong religious grounds to be and act like that and are therefore willing to accept this kind of political regime.
So to have a Rawlsian state requires a large number of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and so on who understand their religious obligations or their religious life as met by living in this kind of condition of mutual respect. So we can’t, as it were, finesse the religious problem.
Do you see what I mean?
We who believe in this idea have to convince others – I have to convince other Catholics, you have to convince other Muslims and so on – that we need to respect the same rules in order to have this kind of regime. It’s the best kind of regime we can get today because we live in a state of diversity and we have to get rules we can all accept from different perspectives.
AG: But when everyone agrees, is there one interpretation? Can we have a kind of co-existence of democracy and religious interpretations? But when does the Rawlsian solution come into play? When we have different religious beliefs? CT: Absolutely. Legal scholar Andrew Koppleman writes about a judge in 1925 in the United States called Storey.13 He repeats a kind of Rawlsian idea but with a narrower focus. He says there are all sorts of Christian denominations in America so we cannot justify founding a court decision on Anglicanism, Presbyterianism or some other denomination. But we’re all Christian. So, he argues, we can draw on some general Christian understandings to make a certain judgment in court. And he did that. There, you had a Rawlsian overlapping consensus but within a narrow limit of all being Christian.
Historically, what we’ve done is move the borders and boundaries of the overlapping consensus out to include, in fact, every possible position willing to work within such a system of overlapping consensus
But that consensus cannot accommodate people who, like Ataturk, think secularism should be enforced. Nor can it accommodate people who, like certain Catholics in the Basque provinces of Spain, think Catholicism should be enforced. These people cannot be part of that consensus.
But what you have is a consensus nourished by all these different views that tell people this is how, or the way, to live. In other words, I owe it to God to live with these other people – who don’t believe in God – in a condition of mutual respect. And that’s an essential underpinning of this kind of regime.
William James’ Contribution to Today’s Religious Situation (pp. 16-18)
AG: I’d now like to move beyond secularization to questions about your book, Varieties of Religion Today.14There, you say James mis-describes humanity in three respects, though on everything else he is right. My question is what is James’ contribution to the religious situation today? CT: I want to stress that James15 contributed much to the understanding of religion today in the West. He is very insightful but partly because he was living in the United States. There, already certain features of religion in other western societies are being pioneered. And the feature of religion today in the West that James understood so well is fracturing into a number of different affinity groups of quite different kinds where people strongly follow their own spiritual intuitions.
The West has gone through a massive evolution. In 1500, everybody lives in a single, big – I’m talking about Western or Latin Christendom – Catholic Church. Every society is in a Catholic society. Belonging to the state and belonging to the church are the same thing or the same two organizations growing out of the same population.
We’ve passed through a series of intermediate phases and come to an era in which religious life is more and more centered on or powered by the particular spiritual search and needs of groups and individuals.
The notion that belonging to the state and belonging to the church are linked is no more. Not absolutely, but that kind of joint belonging has dwindled very much.
More and more, religious life is led in ways that don’t connect to the whole society. Rather, religious life is led in ways that connects you to other people with the same affinity.
That is the major feature of religious life today in the West on which James picked up. I want to stress that qualifier.
AG: That what has changed is that individuals are no longer part of these totalities?
CT: They may belong to a large totality. They may be Catholic, as I am, which is a very large totality. But they don’t see that as connected to their belonging to the state in which they are citizens.
It’s not everywhere. People in Poland still do see the connection, or still did until very recently.
At a certain point in the United States, people thought Protestant Christianity was part of being American. People in Britain thought Protestant Christianity was part of being British. People in Spain thought Catholicism, etc. etc.
There are ways of living a religious life by connecting to large-scale national identities – and we have moved away from that.
My description exaggerates because a lot people still lead their religious lives in ways that make connections between, on the one hand, their participating as members of a church in a larger cosmos or totality and, on the other hand, belonging to a state by participating as citizens in the democracy in which they live.
But the West has slid from a world in which everybody belongs to a state church or a church aspiring to be a state church. Rather, churches struggle with other movements to take over the state.
The move from a connection to state power to living much of one’s spiritual life in a way that is unconnected to the larger political society marks a shift. So, it might be a large international church, as in my case, but it no longer connects to the political structure in the same way.
A Post-Durkheimian16 World (pp. 18-20)
AG: In Varieties of Religion Today, you say we live in a post-Durkheimian world, which has the following attributes: 1) one’s religious affiliation has nothing to do with one’s national identity; 2) the varieties of religious conviction fracture and multiple; 3) one’s religious life depends on one’s own experience, not on a church or clerical order; and, 4) religious convictions are not transmitted from one generation to the next; rather, each generation has its own convictions that may differ from the those of their fathers and mothers. How are these four attributes related and what is specific about this post-Durkheimian world that James could or did not understand? CT: James understood lots but I don’t quite agree with your formulation of the third attribute. Today, much of religious life is driven or determined by people’s sense of their own spiritual affinities. But spiritual affinity can be with a larger church or a clergy –that’s my case – or it can be with a small organization of friends or a meditation group.
So, in other words, people don’t say anymore – I mean people never said this but, in a sense, unconsciously – I’m a Pole so I’ve got to be a Catholic. They are spiritually moved by something. It can be the Dali Lama, Pope John Paul II, etc. Western society now completely legitimates following your own religious instinct.
A big change occurs around the 1960s when large segments of whole populations begin to follow what is previously an elite ethic of authenticity17; now everyone following their own sense becomes a mass cultural phenomenon.
You can’t exaggerate this development by describing it as an almost cataclysmic cultural change.
But, again, this is something in the West. It influences a small stratum of highly educated and mobile people working in the globalized economy. Even if they come from India they are to some extent influenced by this big change. But as a mass phenomenon, it is a Western phenomenon.
AG: The question is: are these four different attributes related to one another? CT: Yes, in a sense. The key is the importance of my own religious affinity because that’s what post-Durkheimian means, that is, I won’t be connecting myself. I won’t be connecting my religious allegiance and my political allegiance; the number of options will multiply; and the idea that I ought to follow my father and mother because they were religious doesn’t necessarily follow. So these things all hold together as facets of a single cultural shift.
AG: You say one of the attributes of what has happened is the varieties of religious belief have multiplied. CT: Yes.
AG: Can we find among these varieties a distinction between what is good and what is better or what is bad and what is worse? And if we can make this evaluation, on what criteria can we make such judgments?
CT: I certainly make such judgments – but based on criteria that make sense to me. But we will not agree.
For example, I am an orthodox Catholic Christian. I think we have to grow to the point of opening ourselves to God and see that we are simply made by and emanate from God.
We have to go beyond a focused sense of ourselves as totally self-sufficient.
Yet, much of the culture of authenticity tells us to liberate, assert and free ourselves and so on. But, for me, this misses an immensely important dimension of reality. But the people into that culture of authenticity will not believe me. So we have to live together and find a way to co-exist.
Shallow Spirituality (pp. 20-21)
AG: You believe today’s spirituality is superior to the spirituality of the past, which is associated with hypocrisy, boredom, a kind of rebellion against existing religious forms, and confusion between belief and power. But you see two problems with modern spirituality. You say it’s shallow and doesn’t make any demands or require asceticism. What do you mean when you say today’s spirituality is shallow and that it doesn’t make any demands? CT: These formulations don’t get me quite right. Much of today’s spirituality is shallow but Mother Teresa’s spirituality isn’t shallow.
So I could put it this way: in an earlier dispensation there is the imposition of a powerful religion with a deep aspiration to spirituality. It makes a demand of great dedication and devotion. Many people make up for it by more or less conforming outwardly and not being dedicated inwardly. So there is a certain amount of hypocrisy and pretending involved.
Now the people who would have been hypocritical in the past can practice a less demanding spirituality.
But I wouldn’t say the spirituality of today is superior to the spirituality of yesteryear or the other way around. There will always be people with a deeper or more devoted faith and people with less deep faith. But these manifest themselves differently.
It may belong to the religious development of humanity that we can come to an era where, in the phrase of the Qur’an, there is no compulsion in religion. That is something we had to come to. I mean, in Christian terms, I see we had to come to that.
Neo-Durkheimian Identities (pp. 21-24)
AG: You say the post-Durkheimian identities are important in the modern world. And you give examples of Irish and Polish post-Durheimian identities. CT: These are really neo-Durkheimian identities.
AG: What do you mean by neo-Durkheimian? Please explain and tell us why the neo-Durkheimian identities have become so important today.
CT: This term was an attempt to find an ideal typical case – a language of ideal types18 – that would capture the big evolution in Western society between an earlier understanding of society as Christendom and a later one. For example, the paradigm case of the earlier understanding is the ancient regime of the French monarchy. Here you have the idea of a king as a kind of sacred figure of the order of things – of the social order as being cosmically grounded – and a number of other features of that kind.
The development of modern equality, mobility and individualism destabilized and rendered impossible this earlier understanding. A new way of linking society to God arose from this destabilization. Modern societies are all societies where people are mobilized around a certain idea of themselves.
A mobilized society has to have an idea around which to mobilize. Around what idea are we mobilized? For instance, a paradigm case in the modern world is the nation. We are Canadian, French, etc.
A number of mobilized modern societies have a religious marker. The United States is the first good case of this. The United States mobilized around the idea that God created human beings. British nationalism mobilized around a Protestant identity against Spain and France. Poland and Ireland mobilized for independence or freeing the society from a foreign invader, around a sense of being Catholic.
I call this a Durkheimian identity because it weaves together political and religious allegiance. But it’s neo-Durkheimian when this weaving together is done in the context of modern, mobilized societies. It is not paleo-Durkheimian as in the case of the traditional French monarchy.
This is very important today in a world where a great deal of mobilization takes place. For example, Islamism is an attempt at a mass mobilization around a certain version of Islam and to make that the foundation of political life, overthrowing an existing regime. Wherever this happens it profoundly modifies religious life.
It’s important because modern identity mobilization enters a new kind of space where considerations such as defeating or liberating yourself from a possible enemy, defending yourself from a dangerous threat of an enemy, and considerations of pride and dignity with reference to potential humiliation from another, are important.
If you listen to the language of national and other mobilization in the world it is full of this.
So another set of considerations become primary – pride, power, resistance against the enemy – and this leads, I would argue, to a de-centering of religious faith from what it should be.
Take, for example, the kind of right wing Protestant Christian American identity. It’s a certain identity not shared by all Americans but a lot of Americans do share this identity.
One could argue – and a number of my Protestant friends very strongly argue – that this de-centers their religious faith because it is now heavily invested in pride in America and American power. Bush is a perfect example.
So, from a Christian point of view, I would argue that this is a deviation from religion and Abdulkarim Soroush has a wonderful line when he says, “We don’t want an Islam of identity, we want an Islam of truth.” I think that says it very well.
When you get the kind of thing you hear from Ahmadinejad today, it’s all mobilized around the community and power.
And we now face the danger of a clash of civilizations,19 which is not yet here. But we’re in danger of mobilization and counter-mobilization. A mindless Islamophobia is developing in the West, which feeds off the mobilization from Islamism and identifies all Muslims with that Islamism. This creates terrible rifts within Western societies among Muslim minorities in certain cases and then is reflected in international media and international relations. So this has become a very dangerous phenomenon we have to fight against strongly.
Fundamentalism (pp. 24-25)
AG: How do you account for Christian, Jewish and Muslim fundamentalism? CT: I suppose there are different causes. But one thing is relatively the same and it crops up again and again. In my general theory of secularization, modern developments destabilize early forms of religion, which then have to be recomposed or reformed.
One way of carrying out this reform is based on a sense of threat. Somebody is depriving us of our traditional religion so we have to rally. One way to rally is to try to reach back to the origins and reproduce a kind of Salafist movement. There is a terrible pathos here because they never do reproduce [the past] because you can’t.
Protestant fundamentalism in the United States is an example. This movement is the first to take on the name fundamentalism. It draws strongly on the Protestant idea that the Bible is the ultimate source of truth. This Protestant movement came out of an encounter with modern science, which mounted various challenges, including challenging the biblical account of creation. Protestant fundamentalists respond to these challenges by claiming the Bible is all literally true.
But this is something new in Christian history because it requires making a clear distinction between literal, scientific truth and metaphorical truth. Fundamentalist Protestant Christians in the United States make this sharp distinction only in reaction to the arrival of modern Western science.
AG: When is the difference obliterated? CT: Only now, in modern times, do some people make a clear distinction between literal truth, on one hand, and images, metaphors and so on, on the other. The idea is that these are two totally different kinds of discourse. In other words, the idea is that literal scientific discourse is very different than mythical imagistic discourse – and that one is much superior to the other. That is an idea of modern, scientific culture. And so, the defensive response is to say we are also speaking the language of literal scientific truth.
Danny Postel20: I’d like to add a little amendment with reference to when Protestant – or any – fundamentalists oppose science. When creationists say, for example – before intelligent design – Darwinians are wrong about the origins of life, they oppose specific claims modern science makes. But they accept, whether they realize it or not, the epistemological validity, legitimacy and authority of the scientific way of looking at the world insofar as they insist on the literal truth, rather than backing off and simply saying this is a different kind of knowledge. When they say things like Darwinians are wrong, fundamentalists actually reproduce, legitimize and participate in the specifically modern scientific episteme [knowledge]. CT: Yeah, and that’s why they taught creation science. You said it much better than me.
Religious Texts and Objective Literal Truth (pp. 25-26)
AG: So, you do not contend that all contents of religious texts have objective, literal truth? CT: Not if you oppose literal truth to the truth you can carry in images. If you oppose that then, of course, they don’t all have literal truth. They have another kind of truth.
AG: So, for instance, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, that Jesus arose from the dead, didn’t actually happen? CT: Yes. I mean I think He did but by that I mean something very different: He is living fully in another kind of time. So if you try to understand the resurrection without understanding the notion of another kind of time, which can gather times together, times that are now separate from each other, if you see resurrection outside of that transformation in our whole relation to time – then you always distort [the meaning of the resurrection].
To take another biblical story, for example, it’s not like Lazarus rising from the dead, which was simply coming back from the dead to be alive again and then dying later on. It’s another kind of thing. So you have to put the meaning of the resurrection in the context of a quite different understanding of time.
AG: So, in other words, do you believe Lazarus was actually brought back from death to life in literal truth? CT: The story implies Lazarus was taken for dead and came out. I don’t know whether he was actually clinically dead or not.
AG: What about the virgin birth? Was it a gynecological truth or a metaphorical one? CT: These cases are hard to judge. There are cases central to the faith – like the resurrection – and other cases that are not. Who knows [with absolute certainty] about these cases? But you have to understand something like the resurrection in the Christian tradition – which has varying parallels in the Muslim religion and Judaism – as central.
Islam’s Transcendent God and Christianity’s Human Messiah (pp. 27-28)
AG: We Muslims believe in a transcendental God. God is free from any physical attributes. The Qu’ran rejects the notion that Jesus is God. So we have two different conceptions of a phenomenon. A transcendental God, on one hand, and a God who becomes a man in the Messiah, on the other. Is this a symbolic or real event? CT: Yeah, for Christians it’s real. We believe there are two natures in one person.
AG: Can you defend this position based on rational arguments? CT: That sounds as though you understand clearly what the rational entailments are of God. You can understand the rational entailments of a particular conception of God, which is both Jewish and Muslim, where the rational entailments are such that this couldn’t be otherwise.
But a Christian question to you would be is your conception of God correct?
And this is where we disagree.
For instance, you start by saying God is something beyond the physical. In a sense, God is certainly beyond being. But if you start by saying there is physical existence and something beyond physical existence then you’re talking about a certain metaphysical view of different kinds of being. God can’t be identified with either of those.
So, we’re dealing with deep matters that none of us properly understand about the nature of God. Whoever speaks of rationality here already assumes certain fundamental definitions of rationality. But one can challenge these – and it’s not irrational to challenge them.
Religious Belief and Rationality (pp. 28-29)
AG: You are a religious man, some say deeply religious. How do you reconcile religious belief and rationality? Let me give you two different concepts of religion and rationality. In rationality, we say, “If a is b and b is c, therefore a is c.” This is syllogistic reasoning. CT: That’s right.
AG: How does religion look at this? We take religiosity as a form of following a text – the Qu’ran, the Bible or the Torah – or as a form of slavishly following people such as Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and the Imams in the Islamic Shia tradition. In the first, we have an autonomous syllogistic reason. In the second, one slavishly follows texts or people. If you ask why do I say this it’s because the Qu’ran or Mohammed said this, etc. But in rationality, we are led by reason. Do you think we can reconcile these two different modes of thinking? CT: Reconcile? Of course. You started by defining and if you define you already lost the argument. If you define reason, semi-syllogistic reasoning, from where do the premises come? They can’t come from further syllogistic reasoning.
Understanding rationality properly requires seeing it as inclusive, but not exclusively made up, of deductive or syllogistic reasoning. In other words, it includes but is not exhausted by syllogistic reasoning.
So, the premises have to come from somewhere. We have insights, try to formulate insights, get them clear, put them into words, and then start making deductions.
So, there’s another function of reason – what I call articulating deep insights, bringing them up and putting them in words.
Plato knew this because the Greek term logos21 includes this element of formulation or formulating.
So you can’t define reason as just syllogistic reasoning. It needs premises. And from where do they come? Some come from God, perhaps. So that’s not slavishly following.
AG: Can religion be completely rationalized? CT: No, because that means we could totally articulate everything about God and that is so far beyond us. So we can only, to a minor degree, get a rational grasp of God.
Non-Rational Elements in Religion (p. 29):
AG: So how can we accept religion when it cannot fit entirely within rationality? I’m not saying religion is against rationality. But there are elements that are not rational. How can we accept something that has non-rational elements in it? CT: It seems evident that if you wait around until you have a view of the world of which you understand everything before you act, you’re going to be in a state of paralysis for the rest of your life. We’re never going to understand the depths of human existence, of the cosmos, etc.
AG: Do you think Heideggar – who did not believe in God – did not understand existence? CT: I’m not sure if either of those are true. I’m not sure he didn’t believe in God. Although it isn’t my conception, he had a strong conception of God. But he certainly didn’t think you could totally understand God.
His whole point is there’s something radically incomplete about our understanding. We get some things clear; but in doing so we cover up, obscure or make difficult other things.
How Ought We to Live? (pp. 29-31)
AG: He has two questions about contemporary humanity. First, what has happened to contemporary men and women? What is our actual situation? What have we become? And second, what ought contemporary men and women to do? What is our ideal goal or telos?22 What should be our purpose?
CT: I don’t know if I can answer the first question as it is because it seems to me that we’ve become lots of different things in the modern world. We live in a set of fixed orders: for example, legal, ethical and political orders; and, a sense of total order in the cosmos. And these orders exclude – they screen out or make it hard to see – a lot of features of our reality.
These socially constructed orders make it especially hard to see the potential and power of personal relations to transform the situation between human beings.