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Coming to religion in the 21st century
On November 10, the theology department’s Rev. Robert Imbelli joined in a public conversation with the philosopher Charles Taylor before an audience of some 200 faculty, students, and guests in the Heights Room. Taylor is a professor emeritus at McGill University and the author of, among other books, A Secular Age (2007), which Peter Steinfels has called in the pages of Commonweal “simply the most comprehensive account of the process and meaning of secularization.” He is also the 2007 recipient of the prestigious Templeton Prize, in recognition of his insistence “on the inclusion of spiritual dimensions” in discussions of every “facet of humanities and the social sciences.” Taylor’s two days at Boston College included meetings with faculty and graduate students (his work is the subject of several dissertations-in-progress) and a presentation of the Fitzgibbons Lecture, in which he addressed the evolution of secularism. His visit was sponsored by the Church in the 21st Century Center, the philosophy department, and the Alumni Association.
How do you understand the Catholic intellectual tradition?
Well, I would prefer to speak of it in the plural. There is, of course, the mainline philosophical-theological tradition that comes through Aquinas. In the 20th century, which is the century we come out of, there were other avenues into Catholic thought: Maurice Blondel in France, for instance, or the engagement of Catholic thinkers such as the Dominican Fergus Kerr with Wittgenstein and with the phenomenological tradition.
These crossovers, or rather these conversations between different ways of conceiving Catholic philosophy, are what I think should be fostered, because this is where the most interesting and fertile work can be done.
There is in the Orthodox Church, Russian particularly, the idea that we Westerners are totally deviant because we so clearly separated secular thought from religious thought, when they must be in a kind of symbiosis. There are fertile possibilities in examining this, as well.
I wonder if there is a sort of basic grammar that identifies the different traditions as nonetheless pertaining to the tradition.
Let’s take the Nicene Creed. I think we have there a pretty clear idea of what the basic common ground is. My point is, the tradition has been very differently lived and conceived in different eras. And the reason I brought in the Orthodox is that I have a sense that sometimes we need to be jolted out of old habits of thought, which are sometimes, in the West, confined to our argument with Protestantism, or our argument with secularism.
The people who were part of the background of Vatican II did some of that jolting. Instead of hacking at the old issues about modernism and non-modernism and anti-modernism, people like the Dominican Yves Congar and the Jesuit Henri de Lubac went back to the early Church Fathers—this is the idea of resourcement—and they came up with new ways of looking at some issues that had been lost.
So that’s why I see the Catholic traditions as plural, as starting from different points, as retrieving some things that can give us new insight.
This may follow from that in a more personal vein. You’ve spoken of yourself, in one instance that I found, as “a believer again”?
Yes. When I was young—actually, before Vatican II—I was influenced by Yves Congar. His great idea, which I think inspired a lot of the writing at Vatican II, was that the Church has constantly to renew itself in the face of a new generation, a new world, new concerns, and really speak to these. The idea that the Church mustn’t change at all, that it has to keep its message absolutely in the terms of before, is destructive and in the end a denial of its vocation.
I read a very interesting book by a Protestant evangelical, Roger Lundin. Published in 2009, it’s called Believing Again, a line he got from Auden. These two thoughts connect in my mind. There are certain people who are “believing still,” in the sense that they are carrying on the faith as it was given to us by our fathers, in exactly that way. And there are certain other people who have, in a way, been unhooked from that, even alienated from that, who may even have passed through periods of rejection, although it needn’t go that far. These people come back, by this new direction. They come back by a new itinerary, through the 20th century, through the age that Congar identifies as the age of subjectivity. They come back to the faith. They reconnect with it. That’s what I mean by believing again.
So, you see, the ultimate model is not unchanging faith. Some things are unchanging—the Incarnation. But just as we have, in the same moment, different ways of living the Catholic faith in different parts of the world—in Canada, in Latin America, in Europe—so, across history, we have different ways of living. It’s important to hang onto this, not just because we have to read the signs of the times and live our own way, but because we can and should be inspired by these others.
We’re all in this Church together. And we can get immense inspiration from other ages and their differences. But it requires that we be relevant to our own age.
That’s what my heroes Congar and de Lubac did. They found a way of being more present in the 20th century. The same must go for the 21st century.