Thought's New Regime
How will religious people respond when society at large neither denies nor ignores God's existence, but sees the world in terms completely other than (not just the opposite of) those of theism? What happens when the everyday way of understanding what it means to be a human being in the world doesn't deny theism's terms but inhabits a world in which those terms, whether posited or denied, make no sense? In other words, what happens when neither the theists' nor the old-fashioned atheists' transcendence is understood to order the world?
As much as or more than any other English-speaking philosopher, Charles Taylor has thought about this question. A Secular Age takes the question up at length. Essays such as "A Catholic Modernity?" and "A Place for Transcendence" do so more succinctly. Taylor's argument is that the Christian today finds himself or herself in a position similar to that of Matteo Ricci, Jesuit missionary to China in the 17th century.
Like Ricci responding to Chinese culture and translating Christianity into Chinese terms, contemporary Christians must "respond to what in [contemporary culture] already reflects the life of God and to the doors that have been closed against this life" ("A Catholic Modernity" 37). That is not easy, no easier than it was for Ricci.
We cannot go backward. We cannot reverse things and return to the world of transcendence as it was. We must find a way to return transcendence to the world, and Taylor says that we can do so in part by bringing Christian agape once again to the fore. That is an essential movement for Christianity, a movement that is both a return to Christian roots and a reinterpretation of the Christian tradition.
But Taylor recognizes that is not enough. Making durable meaning possible again is a more difficult part of what must be done ("A Place for Transcendence" 10).
Without transcendence is meaning possible? A number of contemporary philosophers argue that it is (e.g., Jean-Luc Ferry and Giorgio Agamben), but the question remains, and it is particularly pressing for theists. How is meaning possible in thought's new regime? In particular, how is God meaningful in that regime?
Without the traditional notion of transcendence, how do we continue to understand God? How do we continue to find meaning in the world? How do we translate Christianity for the world in which transcendence makes no sense? For every Christian thinker that constellation of questions is the pressing question.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.