Archive for the 'Catholicism' Category

Mauriac: The Knot of Vipers

October 24, 2016

The Knot of Vipers
François Mauriac
Translated from the French by Gerard Hopkins
(Capuchin Classics, 2010) [1932]
208 p.

By reputation one of the great Catholic novels of the twentieth century, this is a richly rewarding study of a man whose soul has, on his own testimony, become a “knot of vipers”, and an account of the slow process by which that knot is loosened.

The novel begins with Louis, an aged Frenchman approaching death, writing a last epistle to his family. Many years before, it seems, his pride had been wounded by a passing comment made by his wife, and for his whole life he has nursed a grudge which has caused his soul to fester with barely concealed hatred. Now, in a final act of revenge, he hopes to ruin his wife and children by bestowing his family’s considerable fortune on one of his illegitimate children whom he hardly knows.

Louis writes to explain himself to them — the entire book is the text of his long letter — but in the process he finds that he is explaining himself to himself as well, and, perhaps simply from relief of speaking about his grievances, or perhaps because he gradually sees his own motives more clearly, or perhaps for some deeper reason, hidden from view, he finds in the course of his writing his vengeful delight dissipating, replaced, to his great surprise, by something approaching its opposite.

It is tempting to see the novel as akin to Brideshead Revisited insofar as it traces the delicate action of grace in a soul, but this might be pushing too hard. Although it is sometimes called a “Catholic novel”, there is in fact relatively little Catholicism in it — Louis has little interest in religion apart from its value as a topic on which to taunt his devout wife — and his transformation is a moral conversion rather than an overtly religious one. Even just as such, it is a tricky thing to manage, and on this first reading my main concern about the novel is that Louis’ change of heart, when it comes, comes a little too hastily and without adequate preparation. But this is a provisional judgment, for the psychology of the main character is so subtle and richly developed that the apparent fault may well rest with me, the insensitive reader.

It is hazardous to venture comments on style when reading in translation, but I was impressed by the quality of the writing. I relished Mauriac’s ability to set me down in a particular time and place, giving the story enough space to settle into a moment: looking out a window at night, or awaiting the onset of an approaching rain storm. At times I felt I could almost breath the same air as Louis.

This novel, in the same (and only) English translation, is also sold under the title Vipers’ Tangle. I prefer that title, as being punchier and having more poetry in it, but it seems that the edition I read has given the original title (Le Nœud de vipères) more straightforwardly. Oddly, my edition nowhere gives the name of the translator, Gerard Hopkins (not to be confused with the poet).

Children’s books: here be dragons

September 26, 2016

Beowulf the Warrior
Ian Serraillier
48 p.

A number of authors have distilled Beowulf into a version intended for children, but this is the only one of which I’m aware that does so in verse. Serraillier condenses the original 3800 lines of the poem into about 800 lines of blank verse. All of the essential plot elements of the story are included, and quite vividly depicted. Overall, the writing would be challenging for young children, but I think would be suitable for roughly ages 10 and up. This edition is complemented by interesting illustrations by “Severin”.


St. George and the Dragon
Michael Lotti
(CreateSpace, 2014)
162 p.

This short novel tells the story of Marcellus, a Roman soldier who encounters a fierce dragon lurking on the outskirts of his father’s estate. The story has a two-fold motion: the conflict with the dragon gradually escalates, on one hand, and on the other Marcellus encounters Christians and is gradually converted to the new faith (taking the baptismal name George). The two arcs come together in a final battle between George and the dragon — but of course we knew that would happen.

It’s a first novel for Michael Lotti, and quite a good one, best suited, I would estimate, for children aged about 8-12. The writing is not as supple and convincing as one gets from the most accomplished children’s writers, but the characters are well developed and the story is an interesting one. I would like to know how much of the material comes from the legends about St George, and how much was Lotti’s own creation. For me the most engaging aspect of the book concerned Marcellus’ encounters with the Christians, and especially with an itinerant Christian bishop named Agathon; there is a good deal of inspiring catechesis packed into those conversations, but I never felt that I was being preached to. I will certainly encourage my kids to read the book when they’re a little older.


The Hobbit
J.R.R. Tolkien
(HarperCollins, 2007) [1937]
300 p.

This was my third or fourth time through this book, but my first with the kids, to whom I read it aloud. I have not a great deal to a say about it, apart from reporting that it was a huge success with the older kids (now aged 5 and 7). Actually, the experience of reading it to them was enriching for me too; I do not recall enjoying it on previous readings as much as I did this time.

It is always amusing to see the light-hearted, gee-whiz attitude this book takes to the One Ring, which we know will later prove to be so doom-laden. I used to surmise that Tolkien had not yet worked out the Ring’s significance at the time of writing, but this time I noticed that he returns to the Ring at the very end, emphasizing that it was a secret ring and that Bilbo never spoke of it to anyone. This inclines me to suspect that Tolkien did know its significance after all.

Newman: Loss and Gain

August 25, 2016

Loss and Gain
Bl. John Henry Newman
(Ignatius, 2012) [1848]
432 p.

This was the first book Newman wrote after his conversion to Catholicism at Oxford in 1845, and, given its theme — about a young Oxford man, Charles Reding, who converts to Catholicism — it is natural, and probably justifiable, to see it as an autobiographical novel. It would be interesting to compare it to his Apologia pro vita sua — this is left as an exercise.

Enthusiasts for books about Oxford men named Charles who convert to Catholicism will note the similarities with their other favourite book, Brideshead Revisited. (Indeed, in this Ignatius Press edition an accompanying essay by J.C. Whitehouse uses the phrase “Brideshead Previsited”, which earns full marks from me.) But (not having read that essay) I would say that the similarities between the two books are fairly slight. Waugh’s novel is a character study in which theology hardly registers (that hilarious scene of Rex’s catechism notwithstanding), whereas Newman’s novel, though not without characters — especially in the sense of “representatives of a view” — is deeply and directly concerned with theology. The book is full of conversation set-pieces in which theology and history and ethics are discussed.

John_Henry_NewmanThere is something didactic about this, and the extent to which it is tolerable will depend on how interesting the reader finds the topics of conversation. Speaking for myself, I enjoyed almost all of them. I expect that anyone who has thought much about religious conversion, or, better, who has experienced a long, drawn-out, and at least partly intellectual religious conversion himself, is likely to find the book quite absorbing and insightful about the process.

Charles is an undergraduate as the book opens, and as near as I can determine it more or less covers the period of his undergraduate career. The Oxford of his day differs from the Oxford of ours inasmuch as religion is for him a focal point of campus life, and religious ideas are matters of general discussion and controversy. When Charles visits the room of his friend Willis for the first time, he finds:

there was much in them which shocked both his good sense and his religious principles. A large ivory crucifix, in a glass case, was a conspicuous ornament between the windows; an engraving, representing the Blessed Trinity, as is usual in Catholic countries, hung over the fireplace, and a picture of the Madonna and St. Dominic was opposite to it. On the mantelpiece were a rosary, a thuribulum, and other tokens of Catholicism, of which Charles did not know the uses; a missal, ritual, and some Catholic tracts, lay on the table; and, as he happened to come on Willis unexpectedly, he found him sitting in a vestment more like a cassock than a reading-gown, and engaged upon some portion of the Breviary.

I’m not saying this scene is absolutely impossible today, or that it was usual in Newman’s day — we know from Charles’ reaction that it was not — but it is more the specific nature of the religious artifacts that excites Charles’ attention, whereas today it would be the mere presence of religious artifacts.

For Charles religion is not about feelings or wishes, but about truth (in this he is certainly Newman’s avatar), and his spiritual journey is in significant measure an intellectual one, a journey toward right belief:

He had now come, in the course of a year, to one or two conclusions, not very novel, but very important:—first, that there are a great many opinions in the world on the most momentous subjects; secondly, that all are not equally true; thirdly, that it is a duty to hold true opinions; and, fourthly, that it is uncommonly difficult to get hold of them.

And again, in conversation with a friend, Charles contends that:

“I did not say a creed was everything […] or that a religion could not be false which had a creed; but a religion can’t be true which has none.”

An interesting issue that the book addresses is the paradox of private judgement in Catholic conversion. If one talks to converts from Protestantism, a common rationale offered in favour of the conversion is that the reign of private judgement on religious matters in Protestant circles leads to religious chaos — each man his own Pope. Catholicism is chosen as the antidote to such chaos, for the Catholic Church teaches authoritatively, dividing truth from error with Christ’s own authority. But there’s the rub: for a convert — and, in a religiously contested age like our own, for cradle Catholics too — Catholicism is chosen, which means that private judgement isn’t quite out of the picture, and indeed stands disconcertingly close to the root. Charles ponders this problem at some length:

Now it need not be denied that those who are external to the Church must begin with private judgment; they use it in order ultimately to supersede it; as a man out of doors uses a lamp in a dark night, and puts it out when he gets home. What would be thought of his bringing it into his drawing-room? what would the goodly company there assembled before a genial hearth and under glittering chandeliers, the bright ladies and the well-dressed gentlemen, say to him if he came in with a great-coat on his back, a hat on his head, an umbrella under his arm, and a large stable-lantern in his hand? Yet what would be thought, on the other hand, if he precipitated himself into the inhospitable night and the war of the elements in his ball-dress? “When the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man who had not on a wedding-garment;” he saw a man who determined to live in the Church as he had lived out of it, who would not use his privileges, who would not exchange reason for faith, who would not accommodate his thoughts and doings to the glorious scene which surrounded him, who was groping for the hidden treasure and digging for the pearl of price in the high, lustrous, all-jewelled Temple of the Lord of Hosts; who shut his eyes and speculated, when he might open them and see. There is no absurdity, then, or inconsistency in a person first using his private judgment and then denouncing its use. Circumstances change duties.

And I do think that the apparent paradox has to be resolved in something like this way: a convert’s judgement gets him so far, as it must, for at that point he has nothing else to go on — unless it be grace, about which more below. But once inside it is foolhardy, and certainly counterproductive, to be standing in judgement over every jot and tittle when his attitude ought rightly to be one of docility and receptiveness, for if the Church is what she claims to be then he can only benefit from opening his heart and letting her graces and truths form him. In the process of transition, a good deal of prudential judgement is called for to get this balance right.

And though it seems that private judgement in religion is a part of the conversion process, there is something futile and even comical about it to one whose conversion is further advanced. Commenting on the tendency of Protestants to claim to discern whether and how Catholicism has corrupted the faith, Charles’ friend makes a good point:

Willis said that he supposed that persons who were not Catholics could not tell what were corruptions and what not.

That is very well said.

Yet it would be a mistake, I think, to characterize conversion — conversion to Catholicism, at any rate — as a principally intellectual process that one undertakes on one’s own. Faith is not something one musters up or merely wills; faith is a gift. It comes to us; we are encouraged to ask for it. Charles’ friend Willis makes the same point to him:

“What you want is faith. I suspect you have quite proof enough; enough to be converted on. But faith is a gift; pray for that great gift, without which you cannot come to the Church.”

I have myself cautioned friends not to pray for faith unless they are serious, because in my experience this particular prayer has a startling likelihood of being answered, and then there’s no telling what might happen.

Even when we receive this gift, though, conversion is slow. We may have moments of particular significance along our way, but nobody, I think, can truly be converted in a moment, for it calls for a renewal and re-alignment along many dimensions, and it takes time to discover them all even when we are pliant — and we are not always pliant:

Conviction is the eyesight of the mind, not a conclusion from premises; God works it, and His works are slow. At least so it is with me. I can’t believe on a sudden; if I attempt it, I shall be using words for things, and be sure to repent it. Or if not, I shall go right merely by hazard. I must move in what seems God’s way; I can but put myself on the road; a higher power must overtake me, and carry me forward.

What I like about this passage is the sense it conveys of the convert being accompanied. Can one who truly feels alone be converted to Catholicism? The name of the Paraclete, I am told, means ‘one who comes alongside’, and in my experience this is what a prospective convert actually experiences. One has the sense of being on a road, going somewhere, but also of the road itself having been somehow prepared in advance. To my delight, Charles makes exactly this point:

He could not escape the destiny, in due time, in God’s time—though it might be long, though angels might be anxious, though the Church might plead as if defrauded of her promised increase of a stranger, yet a son; yet come it must, it was written in Heaven, and the slow wheels of time each hour brought it nearer—he could not ultimately escape his destiny of becoming a Catholic.

This is putting it a little more strongly than I would, but I think he is here undoubtedly describing the real quality of the experience that at least some converts have.

For Charles, living in the time and place that he does, the decision to become a Catholic is not without cost. He becomes estranged from his family and from respectable society. “Yes, I give up home, I give up all who have ever known me, loved me, valued me, wished me well; I know well I am making myself a by-word and an outcast.” He can no longer continue at Oxford, so departs for London, not really knowing what will become of him. In the final act of the novel he lodges in London with a friend, just prior to approaching a priest to request reception — at this point, he still doesn’t know any priests! — and Newman stages a kind of parade, as person after person, having heard of his intentions, knock at his door with the intention, apparently on the principle that someone who gives off believing one thing is ready to believe anything, of diverting him to their particular systems of belief. This section of the book is diverting, but not very successful beyond that. The finale is rescued by the final scene, in which Charles is finally received into the Church:

“Too late have I known Thee, O Thou ancient Truth; too late have I found Thee, First and only Fair.”


[Aphorism touching Church authority]
When an oracle equivocates it carries with it its own condemnation.

[Pondering the Anglican and Catholic churches]
“Now common sense tells us what a messenger from God must be; first, he must not contradict himself, as I have just been saying. Again, a prophet of God can allow of no rival, but denounces all who make a separate claim, as the prophets do in Scripture. Now, it is impossible to say whether our Church acknowledges or not Lutheranism in Germany, Calvinism in Switzerland, the Nestorian and Monophysite bodies in the East. Nor does it clearly tell us what view it takes of the Church of Rome. The only place where it recognizes its existence is in the Homilies, and there it speaks of it as Antichrist. Nor has the Greek Church any intelligible position in Anglican doctrine. On the other hand, the Church of Rome has this prima facie mark of a prophet, that, like a prophet in Scripture, it admits no rival, and anathematizes all doctrine counter to its own. There’s another thing: a prophet of God is of course at home with his message; he is not helpless and do-nothing in the midst of errors and in the war of opinions. He knows what has been given him to declare, how far it extends; he can act as an umpire; he is equal to emergencies. This again tells in favour of the Church of Rome. As age after age comes she is ever on the alert, questions every new comer, sounds the note of alarm, hews down strange doctrine, claims and locates and perfects what is new and true. The Church of Rome inspires me with confidence; I feel I can trust her. It is another thing whether she is true; I am not pretending now to decide that. But I do not feel the like trust in our own Church. I love her more than I trust her. She leaves me without faith. Now you see the state of my mind.”

[A description of Rome]
It was so dreary, so melancholy a place; a number of old, crumbling, shapeless brick masses, the ground unlevelled, the straight causeways fenced by high monotonous walls, the points of attraction straggling over broad solitudes, faded palaces, trees universally pollarded, streets ankle deep in filth or eyes-and-mouth deep in a cloud of whirling dust and straws, the climate most capricious, the evening air most perilous. [Ed. — Personally, I don’t recall the climate being all that capricious.]

[On the experience of Mass in the old Rite]
Each in his place, with his own heart, with his own wants, with his own thoughts, with his own intention, with his own prayers, separate but concordant, watching what is going on, watching its progress, uniting in its consummation;—not painfully and hopelessly following a hard form of prayer from beginning to end, but, like a concert of musical instruments, each different, but concurring in a sweet harmony, we take our part with God’s priest, supporting him, yet guided by him.


Yonder and yonderer

August 10, 2016
  • The bump that launched a thousand papers was just a statistical anomaly, says CERN. The world of fundamental physics research may well be finding itself in the nightmare scenario.
  • Damian Thompson critiques the London Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Belief and Beyond Belief’ concert series, arguing that the prejudices of its planners undermines its interest.
  • Ever wonder if there might be something more to Brexit than raw xenophobia? Roger Scruton — make that Sir Roger Scruton — makes a number of good points about the possible motives of ‘Leave’-ers.
  • David Warren writes in brief appreciation of The Cloud of Unknowing.
  • The always wonderful Whit Stillman has a new film, Love & Friendship, based on a little-known Jane Austen novella. Stillman and Austen: it’s a match made in heaven.
  • Speaking of films, rumours are that Terrence Malick’s next project (after this fall’s Voyage of Time and next year’s Weightless) will be Radegund, about the life of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector and martyr under the Nazis.
  • Giving the lie to the notion that the Vatican moves slowly, the modest suggestion from Robert Cardinal Sarah that Catholic priests of the Roman rite return to the customary practice of celebrating the Mass ad orientem received a rapid slap-down from high-ranking Vatican prelates, including the Pope. The reasons for this are worth thinking about — try this or this, for starters — but in the meantime I recommend reading Cardinal Sarah’s full address, which is quite beautiful.
  • Rowan Williams has written a play in which he dramatizes a meeting between St Edmund Campion, a Catholic martyr under Elizabeth I, and William Shakespeare, a possibly-maybe-recusant Catholic. It’s an interesting choice of subject matter for the former Archbishop of Canterbury, to say the least. The play, entitled “Shakeshafte”, is playing in Swansea, Wales, and neither you nor I will get to see it.
  • Orwell submitted his manuscript for Animal Farm to Faber & Faber, and received in response a rejection letter written by T.S. Eliot.

Blessed John of Fiesole

April 17, 2016

I’ve written a short appreciation of the painter Blessed John of Fiesole (aka Fra Angelico) for the 52 Saints series at The Three Prayers. I’ve loved Angelico for years, and, with this opportunity to write about him, I’d really hoped to turn out a thoughtful essay on art, beauty, and holiness. Alas, the best I could manage was to witlessly point at a few of his paintings. If you’re interested, it’s here.

Easter Sunday, 2016

March 27, 2016

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, & th’ East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.

– George Herbert (1633)

Happy Easter!

St André Bessette

February 15, 2016

I wrote a short piece on St André Bessette for the 52 Saints project at The Three Prayers. Janet posted it yesterday.

If you’ve come here having read Janet’s remarks at the bottom of that post and are looking for my Antarctica project, you’ll find it here, broken links and all.

René Girard in conversation

January 28, 2016

When René Girard passed away in November of last year, I neglected to mark the occasion. He was a leading Catholic intellectual, and his thoughts on culture, literature, and the place of Christianity in the West have been influential. (Here, for instance, is an appreciation by Fr Robert Barron.)

I’ve actually not read any of Girard’s books, but years ago I heard a fantastic long-form interview with him on the CBC radio programme Ideas, and I’ve never forgotten it. I’ve discovered that this same interview is available on YouTube. If you’ve 4-1/2 hours to spare, it is well worth your time and attention.

Here is the first part:

And here are parts II, III, IV, and V.

Rise up, my love, my fair one

December 21, 2015

A beautiful setting, by Healey Willan, of the first reading for today:

Smith: How (Not) to be Secular

November 25, 2015

smith-taylorHow (Not) to be Secular
Reading Charles Taylor
James K.A. Smith
(Eerdmans, 2014)
160 p.

It was the toast of many a publishing season: people were seen hunched over it on the subway each morning, others absentmindedly wandered into traffic while poring over its pages, neighbourhood book clubs spontaneously formed so that readers could share their insights, and Facebook was flooded with pithy quotations — I speak, of course, of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Alas for me. As much as I might wish to find my place within that circle of satisfied readers, I have had to take a sobering look at my circumstances and accept that a 900 page text on culture and philosophy is not a realistic ambition for me at present.

And so, instead, I have turned to this attractively slim précis, in which James K.A. Smith takes the reader by the hand and guides him through the various stages of the argument of that unattainable magnum opus.

A Secular Age is, in part, an historical analysis of how Western culture became “secular” during the past five hundred years or so, and, in part, an analysis of what that secularity consists in and feels like for those who are living through it, and, in part, a critique of the secular age and its particular pieties. I have placed “secular” in quotation marks here (but not hereafter) because, as Taylor points out, the word has multiple senses, and he intends it in a particular sense. There is an older sense of secular (which Taylor calls secular_1) which was used simply to distinguish something from the sacred, without necessarily implying any opposition: things of this world, such as politics, agriculture, and friendships could be described as secular_1. Pushing the boundaries a little, people even used to speak of “secular priests”, meaning priests not affiliated with a religious order. But a second sense of “secular” (predictably enough, secular_2) gradually developed which was conceived as the realm of neutrality and objectivity with respect to religious or metaphysical claims. Yet Taylor points to a third sense of secular — secular_3 — which he takes to describe a society in which religious belief has become actively contested, and our age is “a secular age” in this third sense.

To begin with, Taylor wants to challenge the way we think about our secular age. There is a tendency today to believe that secular society is just what remains when religion, superstition, and credulity are stripped away. Its principles are thought to be obvious and clear to any rational person; they are, in some sense, the “natural” principles governing social and intellectual life when those are unsullied by irrational traditions. (President Obama nicely illustrated this in his remarks following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, which he described as “an attack on all of humanity and the universal values we share”. Granted, this was boilerplate liberalism, but that’s just the point: he reflexively described his own values as universal, which, in light of the obvious fact that they are not actually universal, can only make sense if they are conceived of as somehow the natural or default position.)

But Taylor sees secularity in quite a different way, and the first part of his book is dedicated to describing why. He argues that Western secularity is an achievement, a view with a positive history of its own, with its own particular assumptions and values. It is not a default position for rational people, but rather a contingent position that happens to thrive in a particular time and place. I can but sketch the basic outlines of this constructive process by which modernity emerged from the medieval world: whereas for medieval people things in the natural world were experienced as in some sense signs, grounded in a higher reality and full of meaning, the modern view is determinedly disenchanted. For modernity, meaning retreated from things into minds, any intrinsic purposes being expelled. The interior life became impermeable to the natural world or to higher realities (giving birth to what Taylor calls “the buffered self”). Society dissolved into a collection of individuals (what Taylor calls “the great disembedding”). The conception of the good life ceased to be oriented toward the transcendent. This general withdrawal from a world of intrinsic meanings and purposes Taylor, exhibiting a kind of genius for neo-logisms, dubs “excarnation”. But since people cannot actually live without meaning, modernity substituted for the realm of intrinsic meanings a cultural project to locate meaning immanently by reference to moral notions such as “benificence” or “mutual support”, all of which Taylor gathers up under the umbrella of “exclusive humanism” — exclusive of the transcendent, presumably.

The overall effect of all these changes — changes in the way the world is actually experienced — has been a shift in the plausibility conditions for religious belief. For many people it was, and is, no longer obvious that belief in God is compelling or even responsible. At the very least, religious belief and practice are contested in the modern world.

Contested, but not routed, because for Taylor it is characteristic of our age that everyone’s position is experienced as doubtful. Believers realize that their account of things is one option among others. Unbelievers, meanwhile, experience a sense of loss, a feeling that there must be “something more”. We feel the strange pressure of an absence:

“our actions, goals, achievements, and the like, have a lack of weight, gravity, thickness, substance. There is a deeper resonance which they lack, which we feel should be there.” (Taylor)

The origin of this sense of loss is ambiguous on Taylor’s account. It might be an “historical” pressure, simply a residue from old habits, or it might be a real “transcendent” pressure, caused by what Taylor calls “solicitations of the spiritual”. In any event, these “cross-pressures”, which constantly buffet against our sense of secular complacency or religious security, are, in Taylor’s view, experienced by nearly everyone, and the prevalence of such experience Taylor takes to be the defining feature of our secular age.

In his view, cross-pressures arise from three principal sources: the experience of personal agency (“the sense that we aren’t just determined, that we are active, building, creating, shaping agents”); from ethics (the sense that our ethical motives are more than just disguised biological instincts); and from aesthetics (the sense that art has meaning and significance for us). Now, it seems to me that these cross-pressures, so enumerated, pertain especially, or even exclusively, to the secular side, for it is precisely there that determinism, relativism, and meaninglessness are most likely to find a footing, and so it precisely there that the experience of freedom, goodness, and beauty can trouble one’s complacency.

Indeed, if I have understood Taylor’s argument correctly there is an interesting asymmetry between believers and unbelievers when it comes to cross-pressures. For the believer they arise largely because of social factors — roughly speaking, there are atheists and agnostics to contest belief, and a political order has been erected without reference to religion, which unsettles the confidence believers have in the necessity and reliability of their religious traditions and experiences — while for unbelievers the cross-pressures arise directly from the intrinsic features of human experience. It would seem to imply that a religious society untroubled by cross-pressures is a theoretical possibility, but that a parallel unruffled secular society is not. But perhaps this is too simple, for the many transitions that drew the modern world out of the medieval did indeed affect the way that religious believers conceive of and relate to God and to the traditions to which they belong, and the overall tendency of those changes has unmistakably been to undermine or occlude the religious ethos. Religious faith today is more of an achievement, more subject to struggle and trials, than it was for our ancestors, and this is so not just because my neighbour is an atheist. But I am not convinced that the sources of cross-pressure which I listed in the previous paragraph are relevant to the believer’s discomfort.

The next stage of Taylor’s account features another memorable phrase: “the nova effect”. The idea is this: in a secular age, as both faith and doubt become contested, there arises a cultural “explosion of options for finding (or creating) significance”, or what he describes also as “a galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane”. The dynamics of the cultural cross-pressures drive the creation of a host of alternatives to both orthodoxy and unbelief. For the most part, these alternatives seek a remedy for the sense of loss, but do so within the immanent frame (that is, without reference to the transcendent), as in the Romantic notion of “the sublime”. Indeed, the Romantic movement in the nineteenth-century can, I think, be fairly understood as an instance, and a particularly impressive and important one, of this attempt to recover meaning apart from transcendence by investing the arts and human feelings with the highest ideals and significance.

In contemporary society, “spiritual but not religious” can reasonably be understood as a rubric under which the nova effect continues to generate tailor-made substitutes for religion. In a world sundered from transcendent sources of meaning and authority, the spiritual quest is left without referents, and people feel justified in finding their own path to whatever meaning and significance they discern. Hence arises the topsy-turvy notion that one can pick and choose to adhere to those elements of a religious tradition that make a personal appeal, and disregard the rest. “Authenticity” is in the ascendent, and the religious impulse is turned inward to serve the individual, his interests, and desires, adorning them with blossoms plucked from the vineyard of the Lord.

It is also possible, of course, that one of the options produced by the nova effect is a return to traditional religion, as cross-pressures propel one back toward the transcendent. This could be seen, and even intended, as a rejection of the nova effect and all its empty promises. But, as Taylor stresses, things are not so simple, for even those who want to reject this view of things are nonetheless embedded within it, and must contend with it. Given that expressive individualism is an option, it can be rejected only by choosing to reject the priority of choice, which, at the very least, puts one in a paradoxical position. Which is a rather sad thought, but it highlights the difficulty: we cannot escape the disenchanted world; we live in it.


Part of the value of Taylor’s book, it seems to me, is that it introduces a set of terms that can be used to talk about the world we’re in, and among the most useful is a distinction he makes between a “take” and a “spin”. A take is “an over-all sense of things” that “anticipates or leaps ahead of the reasons we can muster for it” (Taylor); I think it would be fair to describe it as an “interpretation” of evidence, somewhat tentative in nature but careful and honest. A spin, on the other hand, is characterized by overconfidence and brusqueness, a dismissal of the complexities of the situation. 

Taylor deploys this distinction to good effect when considering attitudes toward transcendence in our secular age. We can be either open to transcendence, or we can be closed, but in either case we can adopt a take or a spin. Taylor himself has a take on an open frame: he is a practicing Catholic, but he is aware of and interested in the cross-pressures that he feels. But there are others who have a spin on an open construal of the world: they are dismissive of the real difficulties that a religious sensibility faces in our culture; they are perhaps combative with respect to the surrounding culture and uncomfortable with doubt. Similarly for those with a closed construal of things: there are those, as I said earlier, for whom the secular view is “just the way things are”; this is a spin on closure. Taylor argues that it is “hegemonic in the Academy”, and not uncommon beyond. But the fourth quadrant of this little chart is occupied by those who have a take on a closed frame. They are oriented toward the immanent, but are aware of “dispatches from fullness” that hint at deficiencies in their own position. (An honest question: who fits that description?)

Having laid out these distinctions, Taylor devotes a considerable number of pages to interrogating the secular confidence that a closed construal is “obvious” or “natural”. In our culture tendencies toward a closed construal are reinforced by what he calls “closed world structures”, which place constraints or pressures on our construals. These “closed world structures” pretend to be discoveries, but are actually creations, and they are typically value-laden. For example, most of the “closed world structures” of modernity rely on associating modernity with “adulthood” and alternatives to modernity with “infantile” notions like authority and comfort. Such associations coax one toward a modernist affiliation, for who wants to be childish?

Other, deeper, “closed world structures” include a false dichotomy between religion and humanism, philosophical materialism, which denies the existence of the transcendent and claims for itself the authority of science, and modern epistemology, which structures knowledge in such a way that inferences to the transcendent stand at the most remote and tenuous position relative to what can be known with certainty. “The inclination to believe…is no longer the impetus in us towards truth, but has become rather the most dangerous temptation to sin against the austere principles of belief-formation” (Taylor). I won’t go into detail, but I think the idea is clear. We stand at the far end of an immense cultural project to make a closed construal seem natural, and it is little wonder that it succeeds to a great extent.

What is perhaps surprising is that a closed construal still has chinks in its armour. Taylor devotes the final sections of the book to a critique of our secular age, drawing attention to its weaknesses and highlighting those spaces where it is susceptible to “fullness”, which is his term for a kind of rumour of glory, an echo or image within our immanent frame of the transcendent realm beyond it. It is here that Taylor’s Catholicism is most evident, for, as Smith helpfully points out, his critique typically begins with him “levelling the playing field” by describing how both secularism and Christianity face similar problems, and then arguing that Christianity deals more effectively with them.

For example, both Christianity and secular modernity acknowledge that not all is well with the world, but one of the principal transitions in modernity has been from seeing evil as sin to seeing it as sickness. This was supposed to be a liberation from feelings of guilt, but its practical consequence has been that therapy has been translated from the moral plane to the technical plane; instead of submitting to a priest one now submits to a therapist, and personal responsibility has been replaced by a sense of victimization. Which is better?

Or, to take another example: a standard modernist critique of religion is that it suppresses or mutilates human desires in pursuit of some transcendent good. But Taylor points out that the same charge can be made of secularism, which also has moral aspirations which require the discipline and denial of desires. The problem, in fact, is more acute for secularism because all of the pressure is “on us” to succeed; if we don’t, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Having surveyed a number of such cases, Taylor comes around again to the possibility, and desirability, of religious conversion. He considers several notable examples of “those who broke out of the immanent frame”, or at least moved from a closed take to an open one, including Illich, Maritain, Peguy, Havel, and Hopkins — which is a pretty good list. Despite the hazards of this turn to the transcendent, outlined earlier, he finally endorses it not just as a possible course, but as the most fully reasonable one:

“In our religious lives we are responding to a transcendent reality. We all have some sense of this, which emerges in our identifying and recognizing some mode of what I have called fullness, and seeking to attain it. Modes of fullness recognized by exclusive humanisms, and others that remain within the immanent frame, are therefore respondent to transcendent reality, but misrecognizing it. They are shutting out crucial features of it. So the structural characteristic of the religious (re)conversions that I described above, that one feels oneself to be breaking out of a narrower frame into a broader field, which makes sense of things in a different way, corresponds to reality.” (Taylor)

And that, it seems to me, is a good place to stop.


Or nearly so. As I said at the beginning, I didn’t actually read Taylor’s book; I read Smith’s summary, and so everything I’ve said here has been filtered through him. I found his book, which would ideally be read alongside Taylor’s book, to be clear and well-structured. He has an accessible style, and seems to know what he’s talking about. I am grateful for his book, which has allowed me to learn about, and learn from, a rather important contribution to the ongoing conversation about our secular age, and all without breaking a sweat.