Chapter 17: Dilemmas 1

In this chapter, Taylor looks at some of the tensions and dilemmas that play out between aspirations to transcendence and ordinary human flourishing. Some of the cross pressures between “open” and “closed” spins. He begins by describing the “triumph of the therapeutic” over the older moral/spiritual perspective: “One of the most striking fruits… has been the transfer of so many issues that were formally considered moral into the therapeutic register. What was formerly sin is often now seen as sickness. This is the “triumph of the therapeutic.” The therapeutic sees ‘evil’ as a simply a social reality, brought on by “society, history, patriarchy, capitalism, “the system” in one form or another” and sees no room for any kind of individual choice or guilt. Indeed, we, in our ‘normal’ state, with our normal desires and goals, are perfectly alright as we are, and its only when we get sick that we need help. By contrast, on the moral/spiritual picture, the normal human condition is to be under the grip of Sin, and only by a powerful spiritual transformation, or act of moral heroism, can we escape. What was formerly called ‘sin’ is now ‘pathology,’ the affliction not of sinners, but of the sick. These pathologies have to be removed in some way, through some regimen or therapy, we have to be “manipulated into health.” What’s missing in this perspective, is the ‘dignity’ that “Sin” affords. There is a powerful allure to Sin, it is a powerful spiritual force that attracts us, captivates us, and we make a conscious decision to peruse: “It is a kind of search for the good, but deviated by catastrophic, culpable error. Ultimately there is nothing to this, it is wrong; its glory and prestige turn out to be empty, tawdry, but within the error, there is a certain appearance of greatness, glory.” Sin, contrasted with “pathology” gives the agent a greater dignity, there is personal culpability, but also the sense that there is a powerful attraction; rather than just some sickness he or she was afflicted by. Taylor summarizes the difference: “evil has the dignity of an option for the apparent good; sickness does not.”

The difference in perspective becomes crucial we consider the different reactions to “our experiences of unease, anguish, emptiness, and the like.” For the therapeutic perspective, these are seen as simple pathologies, to be treated with a regimen of drugs or therapy. For the spiritual perspective on the other hand, these could be telling us something true about our spiritual selves: “what were formerly seen as fruits of spiritual misdirection: anguish, spleen, melancholy, emptiness, and on and on, continue in our therapeutic age. But now they are often read, not as signs of such misdirection, or of our lack of contact with spiritual reality, but simply as pathologies.” This issue becomes crucial in the midst of our contemporary meaning crisis: how are we to respond to the growing sense of malaise, alienation, depression? With more therapy and drugs? (Of course, this can be part of the solution.) Or should we read these symptoms as pointing to some spiritual lack or disfunction of our age? In drawing the contrast between the therapeutic and the moral/spiritual perspective, Taylor is, of course, not suggesting that we must choose one over the other. Instead he wants us to be aware that a reductionistic ‘therapeutic’ reading of our spiritual predicament, ends up hollowing out our existence: “The therapeutic revolution has brought a number of insights, approaches. It is just as a total metaphysic that it risks generating perverse results: its attempts to treat our ailments can end up further stifling the spirit in us; and fastening other incapacities more firmly on us.” 

Taylor now turns to look at two major objections made against Christianity. On the one hand, there is the charge that Christianity mutilates human nature and desire by setting the bar too high, and attempting to “transcend humanity.” This is the charge that comes from the Romantic perspective. On the other hand, there is the charge that Christianity has too facile and naive a picture of reality, that it tends to obscure the more tragic elements of the human condition and cannot face the cold hard facts: “that we are products of evolution, with a lot of aggression and conflict built into our natures; that there is also much which is horrible and terrible in human life which cant be wished way. Religion tends to bowdlerize reality.” There is, Taylor notes, a tension, though not a contradiction, between these two critiques. On the one hand, the charge is that Christianity asks too much of humans, that it mutilates. On the other hand, there is the charge that it ignores the tragic elements of the human condition. Its almost as if we have two horns of dilemma: 

“I interpret the two, seemingly contradictory accusations against religious faith, that it respectively, leads to a mortification of ordinary human life, and that it bowdlerizes or sanitizes human nature, as really pointing to this dilemma. The combined accusation is: you have conceived our highest aspirations in such a way that to realize them you will have to mutilate humanity (the mortifying reproach); so naturally, you are induced surreptitiously to scale down your demands, and also to hide from yourselves the full power of human sensuality and aggression, so that ordinary and redeemed humanity can be brought within hailing range of each other—you thus merit the bowdlerizing reproach. In reality this sets out a dilemma: you only escape one horn by impaling yourself on the other.

Taylor explores both of these critiques in turn. First, the mutilation charge. The charge here is that our aspirations to transcendence and higher goals, are rooted in a fear and disgust of our finitude. This ends up robing us of our humanity, causing us damage and alienating us from the normal, everyday pleasures of life. Taylor concedes the force of these critiques, the dysfunctional transcendence you see in a sort of ‘platonized’ Christinaity, does end up alienating us from the ordinary, from our bodies, the normal everyday pleasures. However, we cannot just slide into the opposite extreme and declare “a pox on all transcendence,” this would be an even greater mutilation. Taylor points to Saints in the Christian tradition who lived lives of celibacy in order to make possible a greater openness to God and Humanity. Should this kind of higher ideal be rejected on the grounds that this is a mutilation of ordinary life?: “I confess that this to me would be an even greater mutilation of the human than the cramped modern Catholicism which [the critics] may be parodying.” Taylor does not attempt to fully acquit Christianity of the mutilation charge, but instead turns the tables and argues that exclusive Humanism faces the same dilemma. Exclusive Humanism with its buffered, disciplined self, would assume that it does not run into the mutilation charge, that it does not set the bar to high, but simply expects “normal” behavior. This is yet another subtraction story, the ‘normal’ civilized self has been disciplined into a certain mold of behavior. Much of the behavior that civilizations past would have regarded as ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ has been suppressed, disciplined away, or made taboo. This “normalizing” subtraction story leads to a particularly harsh treatment of those ‘pathological’ ones who cannot comply, they must be made to submit to what is normal. They are the freaks and the social order is just the natural order of things:

To declare the disciplines of civilized life, under the rule of law, and in conformity with the moral order of freedom and mutual benefit, as “normal” in the sense of non-pathological; or to see the aspiration to this mode of life as an “internal” transcendence; this is to class the various resistances to these disciplines: the impulses to violence, aggression, domination; and/or those to wild sexual license, as mere pathology or under-development. These are simply to be extirpated, removed by therapy, re-education or the threat of force. They do not reflect any essential human fulfillments, even in a distorted form, from which people might indeed be induced to depart through moral transformation, but which cannot simply be repressed without depriving them of what for them are important ends, constituent of their lives as human beings. This is the stance behind the paternalistic psychic engineering which Anthony Burgess pilloried in A Clockwork Orange. 

This is once again the contrast between the therapeutic and the moral/spiritual perspective, the difference between sin and pathology. The sinner has made a choice to be led into the powerful allure of evil. His perceptions, desires and goals are twisted in a form of idolatry, he needs conversion and transformation, to be brought back into communion with God and have his mode of being altered. There is a dignity afforded to the sinner here, that is missing for the pathological deviant who needs reprograming. 

Taylor now turns to the second dilemma, the charge of obscuring the more tragic elements of the human condition. Many of these critiques are directed at the modern moral order; that it voids heroism, suppresses humanity with its disciplined view of normalcy, and that it ignores the irreducible fact of violence, hierarchy, gender roles, etc. in the human condition. Christianity is seen as the naive precursor to humanism, the ultimate cause of this suppression of our humanity, the reining in of paganism, the “pale Galilean” who is behind it all etc. There is a major tension here, obviously exclusive humanism cannot give up on the values of universality, benevolence, equality and so on, but the critiques are powerful. On the other hand, going the Nietzschean rout and renouncing these goals as “slave religion” and perusing the “will to power” instead, runs into the opposite problem. It remains to be seen whether exclusive humanism can meet what Taylor calls “the maximal demand”, be responding to both of these dilemmas. Christianity on the other hand, does promise fullness, that we can be transformed by the Love of God in such a way that our violent, selfish selves can be made over. However, there is no “global solution”, only fragments of transformation, and the ultimate hope of a transformation of all things in the eschaton: 

Christianity looks to a much fuller transformation of human life, such that it be- comes possible to conceive of transfiguring even the most purblind, self-absorbed and violent. But this is a transformation which cannot be completed in history. In the nature of things, Christianity offers no global solution, no general organization of things here and now which will fully resolve the dilemma, and meet the maximal demand. It can only show ways in which we can, as individuals, and as churches, hold open the path to the fullness of the kingdom. So Christians don’t really “have the solution” to the dilemma, in the sense that we usually take this, and that for two reasons: first, the direction they point to cannot be demonstrated as right; it must be taken on faith; and second, related to this, we can’t exhibit fully what it means, lay it out in a code or a fully-specified life form, but only point to the exemplary lives of certain trail-blazing people and communities.

Another facet of this second dilemma is the question of the ‘wilder’ aspects of human behavior and how to reconcile that with the demands of higher virtue or civilizational order: “The other locus of tension, [is] between the demands of the pacific moral order and aggressive affirmation, the desire to break our of the narrow confines of discipline, even the love of violence and wild sexual license.” For the modern moral order, this is a particularly acute problem, for the reasons we have already discussed, it tends to see these desires reductively, as mere pathology to be rooted out. At the same, time, those Romantic axis, such as the Nietzschian, do not have as reductive a picture of the ‘wild’ side of human nature. In reaction to the reductionistic view of “the wild” as pathological, the Romantic perspective sees the “power of the primal” the numinous nature of violence and deviant sexual behavior:

And indeed, this inadequacy has provoked reactions and protests which resonate throughout modern culture, as we have already seen. In face of the merely clinical, disengaged, desiccating view, the Romantic axis of critique has sought a way of affirming again what is powerful and comes from deep down within us. Something which comes from the depths has its own kind of numinosity in the Romantic age, and in those who write and create in its aftermath. The primitive has power, on which we need to draw, or before which we stand in awe, even as we may have to limit it, resist it. In Schopenhauer’s transposition of Romantic depths as the Will, these are the site of wild and formless striving, of violence and unrestrained sexuality. These are the depths invoked in Conrad’s heart of darkness; in early Stravinsky; in the whole age of the Primitive. These illustrate the immense power of the post- Romantic, Schopenhauerian influence on art and thought at the turn of the twentieth century. In different ways, the search was to recover a sense of the numinous in the human depths, including sexuality and aggression, a power which could be tapped through aesthetic presentation. 

However, this is an inadequate response because these Romantic positions in various ways seem to decry the possibility of transformation: “But herein lies the difficulty. These explorations of the depth of meaning of violence tend either to yield an affirmation, even glorification of it; or else show how ineradicable it is.” 

Modern Christian consciousness, however does not escape the dileama either. Having gone through the Anthropocentric shift it is is not as comfortable simply decrying these desires as degenerate:

 “But modern Christian consciousness is no longer so quick to solve its problems with the label “depravity”. It is aware of the tensions between (fallen) nature and the demands of God, but also sees how inextricably interwoven human self-affirmation is with its distorted forms, how to recur the Biblical image—the wheat and the tares are together until harvest, and how long is the process of reaching this harvest.” 

How can Christianity answer these dilemmas? Before offering his own take on this question, Taylor points at some versions of Christianity that run headfirst into the horns of dilemma. Some features of Christian belief are complete non starters in a Secular Age. Having gone through the Anthropocentric Shift and now seeing the centrality of human flourishing and the goodness of ordinary life, its hard to maintain the belief in divine violence and wrath. Taylor points here to the “decline in hell,” the way in which belief in eternal punishment has not only lost its purchase among unbelievers, but has become increasingly hard for believers to maintain as well. How could a God who wills our good and wants us to flourish, damn us eternally to hell? In the wake of the anthropocentric shift, this is difficult to believe. This seems like the ultimate suppression of humanity, a sort of totalitarianism which enslaves us with tactics of fear. Religion, seen from the vantage of modern exclusive humanism, seems to sacrifice “real, healthy, breathing, loving human beings enjoying their normal fulfillment on the altars of false gods.” Religion with its suppression of desire and belief in an eternal hell, is “ultimately Moloch drinking blood from the skulls of the slain.” Along with this, is the revulsion at Penal Substitutionary models of the atonement, the notion that God poured out his wrath on his son to appease his own sense of justice. This seems strange, bizarre in our Secular age:

To celebrate such a terrible act of violence as a crucifixion, to make this the centre of your religion, you have to be sick; you have to be perversely attached to self-mutilation, because it assuages your self-hatred, or calms your fears of healthy self-affirmation. You are elevating self-punishment, which liberating humanism wants to banish as a pathology, to the rank of the numinous.

The answer to these dilemmas might sound obvious: “Just undo the anthropocentric turn; recover the insight that God has a purpose for us beyond just the best human flourishing we can manage in our present condition.” This embrace of a good beyond flourishing has been part of Taylor’s answer from the beginning, but it is alone insufficient. We cannot fully move beyond the Anthropocentric shift, and neither do we want to. The critiques levelled against Christianity are powerful, and the recognition of the goodness or ordinary life is not something that we can reject. For many, unbelievers and believers alike, a return to the status quo of the “hyper-Augustinian, judicial-penal” framework is not an option. Taylor sees himself in that group, and deals with these dilemmas by arguing for a hopeful universalism and alternative understandings of the atonement. However, this does not put him comfortably within “modern humanism.” The “modern Christian consciousness” is “lives in a tension,” it cannot endorse the hollowness of immanence in A Secular Age, and yet, also endorses some features of the Anthropocentric shift. There is have one foot in the past, and one in the present:

This modern Christian consciousness thus lives in a tension, that may feel at times like a dilemma, between what it draws from the development of modern humanism, and its attachment to the central mysteries of Christian faith. It endorses the decline of Hell, the rejection of the juridical-penal model of the atonement, and any hermeneutic of divine violence, as well as affirming the full value of human flourishing. But it cannot accept the self-enclosure in immanence, and is aware that God has given a new transformative meaning to suffering and death in the life and death of Christ. God’s initiative has given a new sense to renunciation, which has to be recovered beyond the deforming encrustations of religious anti-humanism.

For those Christians who cannot follow Taylor in his embrace of a hopeful Universalism and a rejection of the Penal Substitutionary model of the atonement; they must still recognize the difficulty of mantaining belief in those doctrines in a Secular Age. If Christians want to get a hearing in a Secular Age, we must find ways of navigating these tensions, finding creative ways of articulating the ‘hard beliefs,’ while also being honest about own doubts and cross pressures with say, a belief in Hell.

Beyond these versions of Christianity than are hard to maintain in a secular Age, Taylor sees versions of Christianity that are simply “wrong.” In the first place are “platinized” versions of Christianity that see the natural world or the human body as evils to be transcended. The biblical dichotomy between “flesh” and “spirit” is turned into a dualistic one between “soul” and “body”, where the ultimate goal of Christianity is to transcend our bodies into a heavenly realm. NT Wright has done much to critique this. As Taylor points out, the Christian transformation is not one that voids what is essentially human in us, but rather, transforms us our of our fallen state, making us truly human:

Arguably, in a Christian perspective, the saint will have lost interest in the egosoothing homage of praise and admiration, which we normally crave, or in the display of macho power. The Platonizing error is to draw the distinction between what can be well lost, and what is essential to us, around the dividing line of our desire as such, and particularly bodily desire. (Of course, the real Plato of the Republic doesn’t propose that we lose these desires, only that they become and remain perfectly docile to reason.) In the Christian perspective, by contrast, the agape which will ultimately sideline and make irrelevant the satisfactions of ego-boosting is itself bound up with a compassion which is itself incarnate as bodily desire.

A closely connected “misprision” that Taylor identifies is notions of sacrifice which see what is renounced as something evil, so that there is no real loss: “We renounce certain life fulfillments because they are “lower”, because in the final analysis they are not what human life is really about, but ultimately obstacles to our real goal. What is sloughed off doesn’t really matter.” To Taylor, this is a misconstrual of the Christian notion of sacrifice, what is given up is of great value, and this is what makes it a sacrifice. He makes a fascinating comparison here between the agonized death of Christ , and the cool, dispassionate death of Plato, for one, what is renounced is of great value, for the other, it is immaterial:

A contrast between the deaths of Socrates and Christ brings this point out with great clarity. In
one case, the serenity of the philosopher about to drink the hemlock, assuring his friends that he was going to a better place; in the other, the agony in the garden, the prayer to Father that the cup might pass, only then swallowed up in the affirmation that “thy will be done”.

Finally, our tendency to dichotomize our desires, some as bad, others as good. The bad, such as our propensity to violence are to be eradicated, while the good desires are to be encouraged: “We tend to see certain desires as good, such as love of our neighbour, generous sentiments towards others, etc.; and others as bad, such as pride, a propensity to violence, and the like. The goal must be to eradicate the bad ones and encourage the good.” However, what Christian transformation wrecks, is not the eradication or suppression of certain desires, but their transformation into a new key. To give the cliché example, the bully becomes a knight, and the energy is channelled into a positive direction.

In response to these dilemmas, Taylor puts forward a Christian “hypothesis” of what it means to be made in the image of God, given these violent aspects of our nature. If we cannot simply ignore our propensity to violence as deviating from the “normal” as Exclusive Humanism might want to do, but do not want to affirm it either; where can we stand? Taylor, drawing on Irenaeus, sees a “pedagogy” of God in history. We begin as violent animals to be guided by God: “humans are born out of the animal kingdom to be guided by God; and the males (at least the males) with a powerful sex-drive, and lots of aggression. As far as this endowment is concerned, the usual evolutionary explanation is the correct one.” So we begin in this ‘fallen’ state, with God seeking to move us towards transformation, transforming—rather than eradicating—our powerful drives towards agape. Evil, on this perspective, is not only the untransformed human nature, but the channeling of these drives towards something other than God:

 “Evil is capturing this for something less, other than God This is a tremendously powerful temptation. It is constitutive of human life as we know it that it has felt and succumbed to this temptation. Modes of life are built around this succumbing. The untransformed is endowed with some higher, even numinous power. So the self-feeling of power becomes pride, philotimo; but also the wild frenzy of killing, or sex, can be endowed with the numinous.” 

As God works his patient pedagogy, and starts to transform human nature, even that pedagogy can be misappropriated and channeled towards evil. Pedagogy is not just occurring on God’s side, at the same time, “educating is occurring in the field of resistance.” So the struggle is ongoing, through history. But God doesn’t just work through sort of general, slow pedegogy to transform humanity, he also works in “Leaps”, God steps into the story and reveals a higher path. The paradigm example for Taylor is the revelation to Abraham, and the rejection of human sacrifice. This doesn’t make us “leap to the end,” the human situation shifts into a new key, but violence continues to have its place. Then, with Christ, there is a new Leap: “There was a further revelation with Christ, and a new gift of power. The victimhood of God, and the change it wrought, transforms the relation of violence and holiness.” Yet, we “slid back into Christendom,” and continue to tie together holiness and violence against heretics, deviants ect., but now, there is a new ambivalence an “unease in Christianity about this violence.” And the pedagogy continues. Taylor gives is the image of God as a sort of Tennis Player, constantly responding to our “bad moves” with good serves to bring the ball back into the court. The question for Taylor is whether it is possible that ultimately, God can transform all: 

Dante’s Hell was made not only by divine power and supreme Wisdom, but also by primal love. There is a truth in this latter view, but it is not incompatible with universalism; because the refusal does breed violence, condemns us to live in violence. And the relations of violence precipitate out at any one time victims and persecutors, sheep and goats, those guilty of inflicting harm and those who suffer it. Must there thus be damned, as well as saved? The question is, whether this distinction between harmers and harmed is God’s last word, whether the transforming power can go farther, can chase the violence into its ultimate lair, and conquer it. We might see God as the supreme tennis player, who responds to our bad moves with new ways of countering them

For Taylor, the Christian relationship to violence must have two prongs. On the one hand, the collaboration with God in the transformation of violence, on the other “damage control,” punishing the violent for the sake of peace and the victims, and so on. Can Taylor’s Christian perspective escape these dilemmas? Yes and no. The Christian answer, and the transformation it offers is one that can only be hoped for, and accessed by faith. So it has no universal agenda or solution. Furthermore, dysfunctional varieties of Christianity abound which ignore the ambivalence of human life, lumping humanity into good and evil buckets. So, at the end of the day, we see that in some ways, Exclusive Humanism and Christianity are in the same boat, caught by the same dilemmas. This is not accident:  “But it’s not an accident that “Christians” fall into similar deviations to those of “secular humanists”. As I have tried to show throughout this book, we both emerge from the same long process of Reform in Latin Christendom. We are brothers under the skin.” 

5 thoughts on “Chapter 17: Dilemmas 1

  1. Difficult Chapter! Like trying to herd a bunch of cats. Julian, you write that Taylor represents Sin as being somewhat more dignified than just having a pathology. To sin seems to imply for Taylor a conscious choice; that we know what we are doing when we sin. If that is what Taylor is asserting I’m not sure I understand. Sounds to me like he’s cherry pickin here. Sometime sin is a conscious choice, but there are other cases, I believe, where we might sin and not even realize what the wrong decision was or why we took “the wrong path”. This has happened to me, at least once.
    I feel like he’s tying too neat a bow around the “therapeutic Movement”. I understand what he’s getting at by “Exclusive Humanism” ( as Qoheleth said “everything under the sun” ) No sooner than Freud thought he had someone who could carry on his empirical legacy his student Jung broke his heart and went all metaphysical on him. It seems that Taylor is shortchanging the plurality of modalities of the “Therapeutic” and the fact that some have adapted religious concepts (like AA). These are not the real meat of the “Dilemma” but these just occurred to me first.


    1. Thanks Richard,

      Yeah, concious choice would be one part of the difference between sin and pathology, the sinner has a degree of moral culpability, the sick person is just sick. You’re absolutly right that sin is not always a concious choice, thats part of Taylor’s account as well: Evil/Sin has a certain allure, it pulls us in, there is a attraction to evil. On the other hand, sickness/pathology is just pure negativity, pure sickness, there is no moral weight attached to it at all, the person is just sick. Another key difference is that on the moral/sinner model, your afflictions, depression ect. TELL you something true about your spiritual condition… on the tharapeutic model they are just meaningless symtoms. The sick person has to be treated and diciplined back into health, the sinner has to be forgiven.

      I guess maybe one way of thinking about this is to wonder wheather our tharapeutic model doesn’t leave a lot of people who are suffering, depressed and guilty hanging high and dry. Our tharapeutic culture would see these people as “sick”, in need of treatment, their feelings of depression/guilt tell us nothing about their spiritual situation, but only signify pathology. What if these people are sinners who need absolution rather than treatment?

      I wouldn’t want to dismiss the tharpeutic for the moral/religious, we probably need both.

      Not sure if that helps, these are some very quick thoughts.


  2. Thanx Julian. Any reply you give will be helpful to me. What really was helpful here though was to go back and re-read your short summary of the first part of the book with a glossary. I get the dichotomy he is putting down between models of “pure immanence” and development of reductive systems of thought ( in this chapter the “therapeutic model” ) that attempt to substitute a new language game, and self-understanding that is totalizing and hegemonic. One that has pretensions for substituting itself for any traditional modes of transcendence of religious origin. It just seemed to me , in this chapter, he was using his own “substitution theory” on the “psychoanalytic movement” as a whole and just viewing something he called the “therapeutic model” with one monochromatic lens. I was just wondering why he made this move, and he went further in the next chapter in addressing some of the many questions about this chapter along with your excellent summary, and glossary. These “All and Everything” metanarratives are really difficult for me these days. The more I consider these chapter synopsis the more I regret that I will not have the time or energy to fully digest the primary source.
    I understand better what Taylor is getting at concerning the “dignity” afforded by the moral/religious model. The thing is that it sometimes takes therapeutic help to get people to the point where they can take the next step to be responsible ( able to respond ) for their thoughts and actions, whether or not they are fully to blame for their “belief conditioning”. All thru this chapter I thought of Kafka’s “The Trial”. This, to me, is where the possibility of “spiritual transformation” might be realized and able to be practiced. Where one is able to exercise responsible agency. I may be wrong.
    But I can tell you: some of the issues and insights your expressing here are starting to ping some of the things I have started be drawn to, but they’re not strictly apropos to the text at hand.

    P.S. I found your reflections on your own Hutterite community and experience particularly enlightening in all this. I hope you keep using these as illustrations. Taylor’s tome is a metanarrative!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.