Charles Taylor: “There is no single religion or ideology which covers everybody”
Andriy Soletskyy (AS): How did you become interested in philosophy?
Charles Taylor (CT): I was studying another subject, mostly history and politics, but I also took some philosophy courses on the side. And I was so dissatisfied with the philosophy I was given, it was very reductionistic, I was so dissatisfied with that that I determined to argue against it, and I got deeper and deeper and I just kept going.
AS: How did religion come into your life?
CT: Well I was brought up Catholic, but then I wandered away when I was a teenager, but there were certain moments when something in the Bible struck me and then I began to think my way back into and of course a lot of influences came to play at that time. The theologians who were the basis of Vatican II, this was before Vatican II, but they were already circulating in my media inQuebec because they were French. So I began gradually to think my way back in, grow my way back in.
AS: You are a well-known critic of liberalism. Why? Do you consider yourself conservative?
CT: No, I think I am some kind of liberal. But the word means so many things. So what I am critical of is a theory of politics that simply accentuates individual freedom, because democratic life requires much more than that, it requires real commitment, a sense of belonging to the whole, a sense of solidarity with the other members of society, and if you are just thinking in terms of individual freedom, you don’t grasp all these very important other goods that are necessary. So I am primarily a democrat, and I consider myself liberal in some respects, I mean certainly some of what passes as conservatism in the West I find absolutely repellent. But the kind of ideology that simply looks at individual liberty as the whole thing, I just can’t accept.
AS: In your book Sources of the Self, you write about the complexity of identity in the modern Western world, what is this complexity?
CT: Because we belong to several different strands, we come from a family, we have perhaps a faith position, we have close friends, even our families are very complex, my parents, my background is part English, part French, so there are many, many different markers that we live in identity, which is pulled together from different sides. That’s the complexity. Sometimes people want to force you to make only one of these things really important, and everything else second rate, and we can’t fully live like that. It’s not respecting what we really are.
AS: How do your scientific views influence your religious beliefs, do you feel any contradictions?
CT: No, I am not a natural scientist of course, but I don’t see the deep contradiction between natural sciences and faith. I think that when people talk about these is based on the too simple idea of the relation of faith and natural science. Natural science is based on factoring out all the human meanings to describe the world just in objective terms, but we don’t live our life in objective terms, we live our life in terms of meanings, in terms of morality, in terms of aspiration, and it’s very often in that we come to see the place of God.
AS: What is ethics for you?
CT: It’s trying to understand what the best possible human life is, there are forms of human life that are higher, better, and fuller than others, and it’s trying to understand that. And it’s not easy, because there are over-simplified views that circulate.
AS: In your opinion, what is the role of religion, particularly of the church, in modern Western society?
CT: I think in modern Western society there are a plurality of faiths and that these have very profound effects, but they are not, not by being the understanding by which everybody it is, because that’s not the case, there is no single understanding, but in our democracies we have these basic principles, and we have to have people who really believe in them and hold to them. And people from different faiths of their own reasons to do that, and the stronger the reasons, the more they will be really good citizens. But there is no single religion or ideology which covers everybody.
AS: As for you, does the modern person need God now?
CT: It depends on what one means. People can live what they feel is fully satisfactory lives without God, you’ll see that, what they feel is satisfactory lives, to me there is a possible transformation that we can only make with God, under God, which is very extraordinarily great, and I think the world ultimately needs. But a lot of individuals manage to live without that. And they sometimes live very good lives in many ways.
AS: So we can live without God?
CT: Yes, I mean we, there’s an ambiguity here. You are talking about each single individual, and living, being, having a satisfactory life, yes they can live without God. All of humanity couldn’t live without God. If there weren’t some people who were trying to come close to God, the fate of humanity would be infinitely worse than it is. So, there’s an ambivalence there. One by one yes, but not all of us.
AS: What mission do Christians have in the modern world now?
CT: Well being, becoming the best Christians they can, and that of course means a whole lot of things. It means helping others, it means understanding others, it means helping us to put together a humane society. Let them become the absolutely best, fullest Christians they’re capable of. And that is what witness means in the world today. Not rushing out and saying listen to me, but living it.
AS: Do you think secularism in its modern manifestations is irreligiousness?
CT: No it isn’t. Secularism properly understood ought to be this principle that there is no single ideology, or single religious view, we have to respect them all. But that can be profoundly respectful of religion, and if it isn’t, then it isn’t really doing what secularism is supposed to do, because then it would be siding with unbelief against belief, and that’s something we have to avoid in either direction.
AS: You spent two days at UCU, what are your impressions of it?
CT: I am very deeply impressed by the real seriousness of purpose, the depth of their understanding, the kind of culture that they want to inculcate, and their determination to all of that, despite all the obstacles, to go on building this remarkable institution. I said earlier that the goal of Christians is to be as fully Christian as possible, so in this situation, an institution that can really help people become that, and I think this kind of institution can, plays a very important role.
AS: What is difference between a Catholic university for example in Canada and Ukraine? Only context?
CT: Well the context is very, very different. There’s a certain amount of issues of building a democracy, building a democracy which is open, what different dangers are posed to that inUkraine and what we find inCanada, so there’s a quite different context in the situation. And really these things are all, the answers to all these questions are always contextually determined.
AS: What could be most important role of a Catholic university for society?
CT: I think that’s too broad a question because I think it’s going to differ from place to place. I mean in general the role of a Catholic university ought to be two things. One is to go on thinking of very deeply what Catholic faith involves, and the other is bringing up people who will understand that and live that. So research and teaching, that’s what it means. And in general that’s always going to be the role of a Catholic university wherever it’s set in the world. But if you go beyond that, then it gets very specific, it depends on the needs.
AS: Maybe you know something about the political situation in Ukraine. What are your comments?
CT: I know there are great difficulties in the building of a more stable, equal, and open democracy, but I wish the society the very best of success in this, but I would prefer not to.
AS: In your opinion, given the political processes now underway in Ukraine, is there another civilized alternative to develop the Ukrainian society?
CT: Alternative to a democratic development? I don’t think there is in the modern world. Morally obviously it is much better to have a society which is trying to be a society for everyone as against for a small group, but I also think that in the modern situation which we find ourselves, the only hope of some ultimate stability is through going through a democratic process, which will yield a very strong allegiance to the society on the part of everyone and that if you try to stop that and retain control in the center, not only is it unjust in many ways, but your buying into continued instability, threats to that, it’s a very bad.. I won’t talk aboutUkraine, but the present role ofRussia is very, very worrying, very unfortunate.
AS: Thank you so much for the interview!