SSRC Salutes Charles Taylor

Courtney Bender

Associate professor of religion, Columbia University

Do you remember when you first started reading Taylor? What was it that drew you in and got you excited?
I encountered Taylor's work early on in graduate school when my advisor Bob Wuthnow suggested that I might write an essay on the social construction of contemporary religious selves. He pointed me toward Sources of the Self and Craig Calhoun's review article of the book. I never wrote the essay, but I read Sources carefully and it turned me toward crucial, important sources and ideas that I would not likely have encountered otherwise so early in my academic career. Looking again at the comments I wrote in the margins of my copy of the book, I am reminded of how I argued with and against Taylor -- and, eventually, with and against myself. How did these ideas matter to the social worlds I observed and analyzed? How could Taylor's narrative be engaged in empirical study? Where did these stories link to social worlds?

Is Sources of the Self your favorite work of Taylor's?
Actually, if I had to pick a favorite, it might be a book I've just re-read: his slender Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited. It is not his most complex work, and there is much in it that I take issue with. Nonetheless, I was captivated once more by the conversation that unfolds between Taylor and James, two social scientifically minded philosophers standing "on the cusp" of their respective centuries and religious-secular epochs.

Has reading Taylor changed the way you view your own work?
I greatly admire Taylor's uses of poetry, particularly in the closing chapters of Sources and A Secular Age. There are few modern scholarly works (outside of literary studies, of course) that invite us with such openness to read and think with forms of language that extend beyond the treatise, the essay, the review. I've been encouraged by Taylor's examples to find ways of writing to scholarly audiences that resonate as well as analyze, and that draw upon language's multiple capacities to convey meaning.

What do you think his latest work on the secular age will contribute?
Taylor covers territory in A Secular Age that many will find familiar, but my guess is that most readers will be surprised and provoked by the twists and spins that he gives to the landscape. Taylor's central interests in narrating the changing conditions of belief in the transcendent presents an invitation to social scientists to become more attentive to how the practices of belief change, and how religious and secular ideologies imagine and confront immanence and transcendence. Taylor's arguments demand to be confronted, challenged, and argued with on a number of levels -- but perhaps particularly in the realm of social science, where concerns about belief, meaning, and transcendence in particular have been eclipsed of late by other concerns. I look forward to seeing how social scientists collectively work to answer and pursue the questions and narratives he suggests, to refine or critique them, or to develop them further. In so doing, A Secular Age could well shape a new generation of social scientific analyses into the social locations and living practices of secularism.

Published on: Friday, June 08, 2007