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The Engaged Philosopher

Charles Taylor is renowned for his belief in the importance of spirituality in our secular world -- and for his personal involvement in social issues.

by Daniel Cattau

When Hungarian students in October 1956 revolted against the country's Stalinist regime, Charles Taylor, then a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, took off for Budapest to help, much like a firefighter responding to a burning house.

"I felt very engaged by the whole thing, like a lot of people on the left," says the 76-year-old Taylor in a telephone interview from his home in Montreal. "I felt it was a horrible mode of dictatorship."

Taylor was unable to enter the country after the revolt was suppressed in early November of that year.

Instead he went to Vienna and set up a field office for World University Service of Canada. He helped resettle hundreds of Hungarian refugees, mostly scholars, in Canada and the United States. "I felt a real sense of solidarity with them," he recalls.

For those familiar with Taylor, his humanitarian work is consistent with his life as of one of the most important — and engaged — philosophers living today. Taylor, who was Board of Trustees Professor of Law and Philosophy at Northwestern from 2002 to 2008, is the author of more than a dozen books, on subjects ranging from Hegel to multiculturalism, and scores of scholarly articles and popular writings, on such topics as individual and group rights and the roots of violence and civil conflicts.

In March 2007 Taylor, also emeritus philosophy professor at McGill University in Montreal, received the prestigious $1.5 million Templeton Prize for the advancement of and research in spiritual matters. Taylor was cited for his work in seeing the importance of faith in resolving conflicts and addressing society's greatest problems.

"We urgently need new insight into the human propensity for violence," Taylor said at the time. "But we don't even begin to see where we have to look as long as we accept the complacent myth that people like us — enlightened secularists or believers — are not part of the problem."

As an example of how religion can help resolve these conflicts, Taylor in an interview with Northwestern magazine praised South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which heard testimony from victims of human rights abuses after the end of apartheid in the mid-1990s, as one of the "great moments of teaching we have had."

Taylor is the rarest of academics: a public intellectual who asks the big questions and eschews polemics and easy answers to today's problems.

"He is a public figure who wants to have an impact on the culture he's reflecting on," says Christina Lafont, a professor of philosophy at Northwestern. "Philosophy has become very specialized because it has been cut off from the culture."

Taylor, more widely known in Canada than in the United States (except in academic circles), writes from the standpoint of a devout Roman Catholic and politically engaged citizen of the world and, more specifically, his native Quebec, where he once ran unsuccessfully against Pierre Trudeau for a seat in the Canadian Parliament.

This past year Taylor co-chaired a commission, along with sociologist Gerard Bouchard, that was established to study the politically charged issue of "reasonable accommodation" for Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities in Quebec.

"He [Taylor] had to go through a lot of meetings and listen to a lot of people shoot their mouths off," says Storrs McCall, a longtime friend and McGill University philosopher. The final report struck a balance by saying there was no grave threat to Quebec posed by immigrant religious minorities, but rather there is the "perception" of a crisis largely fueled by the news media.

The widely anticipated report, which was released in late May, received much praise but also had its critics. The problem of accommodating minorities in Quebec is complicated because the French-speaking province is itself a minority in Canada. Quebecois nationalists accused the report of not protecting the rights of the "majority." (Read more on the Bouchard-Taylor Report.)

From the interviews and reviews of Taylor's work, it seems all the attention he receives — four scholars have written academic books on him — is more than justified.

Humane, balanced, patient, humble, optimistic, kind, generous and multifaceted are words often used to describe Taylor. "When I have lunch with him, there's no predicting where the conversation is going to go," says Andrew Koppelman, John Paul Stevens Professor of Law and professor of political science at Northwestern. "It would be intimidating, except he's not an intimidating man."

Taylor himself once described William James (Varieties of Religious Experience) as a "philosopher of the cusp," meaning that James operated nimbly in the space between belief and unbelief. Lindsay Waters, Taylor's editor at Harvard University, said at the Templeton ceremonies that the same phrase describes Taylor and how "his passionate philosophy allows him to zero in on the most distinctively human issues of our time and not be afraid."

In 2007 Harvard Press published Taylor's A Secular Age, which drew praise for its deft discussion of how the last 500 years in "Latin Christendom" have brought us from a time when unbelief would have been almost unthinkable to the modern age, when belief itself is questioned. Taylor accepts the reality of a secular age, rejects the idea that it excludes belief and understands that both faith and unbelief have their own dilemmas.

"We have to reinvent things that have been totally forgotten," Taylor says. "One of post-Christendom's great disadvantages is that people don't get universally educated in the Bible."

A Secular Age is a highly nuanced "master narrative" of philosophy, history, ideas, literature, science and religion that stakes claim to a middle ground where Taylor uncovers the complexities and "fragilization" of modern life. There is, he notes, good and bad among secularist humanist camps and the wide array of religious beliefs. On the latter, he writes on page 754:

"None of us could ever grasp alone everything that is involved in our alienation from God and his action to bring us back. ... Instead of reaching for some weapons of polemic, we might better listen for a voice which we could have never assumed ourselves. ... Our faith is not the acme of Christianity but nor is it a degenerate version; it should rather be open to a conversation that ranges over the whole of the last 20 centuries (and even in some ways before)."

Robert Bellah, a highly respected sociologist of religion, said in an interview that A Secular Age is one of the "three most important books in my lifetime."

"Taylor succeeds in no less than recasting the entire debate about secularism," Bellah says in a blog. He adds that Taylor "is clear from the beginning that he writes as a believing Catholic: He believes that the Christian effort to reinvent itself as part of the new secular world is a positive event. Yet he is merciless as to its many failings."

Taylor's work continues to garner praise. Last June, Taylor, who says he hopes to continue to lecture at Northwestern, won the Kyoto Prize, an honor often referred to as the "Japanese Nobel" that carries a monetary award of almost a half-million dollars.

The award noted that Taylor's concept of mutual recognition is at the base of his approach to multiculturalism. "In putting forth this principle, [Taylor] has provided rational grounds for the dignity of human beings living a deep diversity and for their demands for recognition," according to the award citation.

Daniel Cattau is a Chicago-area freelance writer.

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Charles Taylor
Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age, won the 2007 Templeton Prize for seeing the importance of faith in resolving conflicts.Photo by Ruby Washington/The New York Times/Redux
A Secular Age
Taylor's book