‘Coming to God without freedom is not coming to God’: Philosopher Charles Taylor on seeing God in church decline

"One of the extraordinary things about this figure for people around him was that he saw me," Taylor says of Jesus. Photo: Angelika Kauffmann/Wikimedia Commons
By on January 13, 2020
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Taylor is one of Canada’s most recognizable philosophers. Photo: McGill University

For a professor of political science and philosophy, Charles Taylor was already unusually widely known by the turn of the millennium. Taylor had taught at his alma mater, McGill University, from 1961 to 1997 and written several books—on the German idealist philosopher G.W.F Hegel (HegelHegel and Modern Society); the modern ideas of personality (Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity) and of self-fulfillment (The Malaise of Modernity) and other topics. He had involved himself in public affairs also, serving on the Quebec government’s advisory council on the French language and as vice-president of the federal NDP. Taylor had even run four times for a seat as an MP—once, in 1965, against Pierre Trudeau.

In 2007, however, Taylor’s prominence, especially among people concerned with religion, increased with the publication of A Secular Age, a tome whose 874 pages attempt to explain how secularity arose in the Western world, and what that might mean for us today. The same year, Taylor won the Templeton Prize, an award—worth $1.8 million at the time—granted by a U.S. foundation to recognize people who have contributed to “research or discoveries about spiritual realities.” Other prestigious accolades have followed. This fall, Taylor was named co-recipient (with Father Paul Bere, a Biblical scholar from Burkina Faso) of the Vatican’s Ratzinger Prize, honouring theological studies. Taylor’s writing “allows us to deal with Western secularization in a way that is neither superficial nor given to fatalistic discouragement,” Pope Francis said in presenting the award.

Now 88, Taylor is one of Canada’s most recognizable philosophers. The Anglican Journal spoke with him on why so many congregations in Western countries are shrinking, and what the future might hold for the Anglican and other established churches. Taylor’s tone was jovial and the conversation interspersed with laughter, which has been noted in this piece.

This interview has been edited for length.

Why are fewer people going to church?

It’s very hard to put your finger on this, but this is what I’m trying to work out: that there’s another kind of spiritual life, spiritual searching, going on to a great extent in our contemporary West—sometimes it’s in totally different religions, or totally non-religious—and that this somehow is taking off at the expense of an earlier way of expressing one’s spirituality, which involves being members of national churches or in the case of a very diverse country like Canada, at least a church which you know is very big and solid in some parts of the country.

It’s not that religion is disappearing, or spirituality is disappearing; it’s taking different forms. If you put yourself in the mindset of people, in particular of younger people, who are concerned about the meaning of life, concerned about becoming better people, more loving, more open, etc., and are seeking in some way some discipline—it could be meditation, it could be various things—if you put yourself in the mindset of these people, when they go to the pews the least bad thing is that they don’t feel it’s very relevant! The worst thing is they feel that their whole way of approaching this is not really appreciated and it may be seen as threatening the people in the pews. Now of course this is perhaps more the case—I’m a Catholic—in the case of the Catholic church [laughs], where you have these very backward-looking people who are screaming abuse at [Pope] Francis and so on [laughs]!

That’s the extreme case, where you actually feel, “I’d better rush out of this place [laughs]! Or I’m going to be badly treated.” But the least worrying or problematic [for those outside the church] is just that this is not a concern that people [in the pews] recognize, this searching concern. “Everything is all settled, and we’re all together in these pews affirming it.”

So there’s a feeling among people that churches don’t recognize this searching concern that comes out of their individuality?

“Coming out of individuality” is not the way I would put it. It is an individual search, but you can find yourself alongside many, many, many other people who are on a search too, and what is peculiar about this new culture, new religious/spiritual world of searchers, is that they not only appreciate associating with people on the same wavelength but they’re actually interested in talking to people who are not. There’s a lot of inter-talk between people on these different lines. If a Christian meets a Buddhist, there’s the same kind of searching goal, right? They’re interested in talking to each other, exchanging and learning from each other and so on. It’s not necessarily highly individual—simply my search, and so on—though it can be that, if people don’t find like-minded other people who are on similar tracks. But if they do find people who are on similar tracks there’s quite a willingness to meet together, exchange—they’re curious about each other, right? So a different kind of sociability, if you like, is arising in this culture.

Is it that there’s a spiritual restlessness, and to people who are restless, the church seems to represent fixed answers?

Yes, that’s certainly true. One of the great things that put me on to this idea was an experience. You know what I mean by Taizé, this community in eastern France? One of my daughters was working there for a while, and I was really deeply impressed with it, because they have Bible study and things like that, but their approach to all these kids is, “What are you looking for? What are you struggling with?” They listen. And the effect is tremendously positive. Of course, a lot of these kids have a certain affinity for the Christian faith in order to go there, but there’s a lot of people who are on the fringes of, “Do I really want to? How far do I want to go?” And they’re not asked to sign anything, they’re not asked to go anywhere, they’re just given a response to their questions.

And there are other kinds of sociabilities that are going on. What I belong to is the World Community for Christian Meditation. Do you know [Fr.] John Main? This is something he actually started in Montreal [laughs], which we all believe is the centre of the universe! It was started by an Irish Benedictine. [Former Archbishop of Canterbury] Rowan Williams has very strongly recommended this, and has talked to our group several times. But it’s the same kind of thing—its core was Catholic, but there are a lot of non-Catholic Christians in there, and there are even people in there who feel themselves to be searchers. And it’s a practice of meditation which comes from Christian traditions. So this is another [instance] of where people who are on a search are happy to be part of this sociability—but not the other kind. If I’m right about this, it would explain why there’s a steady decline in standard church attendance and a tremendous growth in these other kinds of religious or spiritual gatherings.

Because people prefer a type of gathering where there can be free range to express their—

That, but also where they feel that they’re getting enriched and helped on their journey, you see. Many other people in this meditation group think it’s not incompatible to be a member of a given confession and to think of your religious life primarily as a journey. You know, we have [St.] Gregory of Nyssa, [laughs] St. Augustine, and a few other people like that! But for people who don’t sense themselves firmly within a certain church tradition, to walk in and just join the people in the pews, hear the sermon, etc.—there can be a sense of, “They’re not really talking about me.” Or else even hostility. But even if there’s no hostility, they feel that, so instead of going to the Anglican service and so on, they may well strike out on one of these other modes of meeting other people, where they feel, “I’m really being helped along.”

Where does this modern spiritual restlessness come from?

Well, I think there are two sources here, and I keep rethinking this [laughs]! But I’m not sure of any of this, right? This is just my take on it. We have a tremendous feature of modern Western culture which I call the ethic of authenticity—the idea that everybody has their own path, [wants] to seek their own path and not simply conform to existing models. It’s something that starts with the Romantic period—then it was really very alive among, if you like, cultural creators. Interestingly, from the Romantic period on, you’re not considered to have made a great work of art unless it has originality, right? Whereas if you go back to [medieval icon painter] Andrei Rublev—“Originality, what do you mean [laughs]?!”—and then in the post-Second World War it becomes something in the general culture in the West—“Do your own thing,” and that kind of slogan. It encourages people to search for what their model of life really is.

The second thing is that—this is where the standard atheists have a point, but they haven’t understood the point very well [laughs]—in a certain sense, our churches were established in a world in which the cosmos had metaphysical meaning. If you go far back enough there were actually magic forces, etc., in the world, and we have a world now which most people see as a big machine with very mysterious [laughs]—with no necessarily obvious purpose. Their idea of our societies is not that they’re modeled on the order of the cosmos—it’s [that] societies are set up in human history, contingent on some revolution, etc.—so it’s a cold background compared to what it used to be in any of the great religions. Where the atheists are obviously wrong is that there’s deep hunger in human beings to find this kind of meaning, and even in some sense transcendence, and the idea that that’s going to disappear tomorrow [laughs]—you’d have to be very unobservant [laughs] about human life to think that! But it doesn’t mean that these big changes in our understanding of our position in the cosmos haven’t shaken a lot of people loose.

How do you mean they’d have to be very unobservant to think that?

Well, I mean, just look around you [laughs]—I may be in a particular position because I taught university for a long time and I meet a lot of young people, and it’s just evident. There’s a great deal of searching going on among lots and lots and lots of them, but this [spiritual] searching is also among a very substantial proportion of them. One of the ways that you can see that is that they get very turned off by people like [British atheist Richard] Dawkins. Even if they’re not themselves subscribing, they say, “This is really somebody pounding away, because he has no ear for what is bothering people.”

Is it possible the “ethic of authenticity” you speak of could have arisen ultimately from Christianity itself?

Oh, definitely, definitely. It’s a kind of mutation of the idea that there are many vocations, right? That’s something very deeply into the whole Christian tradition, right back. There are these different vocations, different life paths that make up the communion of saints, if you like, in the end. So it’s definitely a mutation of that, but a mutation which started off in this not necessarily religious movement, which is the Romantic period.

“Mutation” strikes me as an interesting choice of word, with a possible negative connotation. Do you mean that something bad happened?

No, no, no [laughs]—the theory of evolution tells us there are happy mutations! Musically, it’s like a change of key.

It seems to me that in the Gospels, the individual through Jesus has what you could call a direct conduit to absolute truth. So it sounds like a demand for authenticity could come almost inevitably from that.

Yes, I think that’s my reading of the New Testament. One of the extraordinary things about this figure for people around him was that he saw me. It’s told in a slightly different form, but this is what I get out of it. He’s in Samaria and he’s saying, “Give me a drink at the well,” and it turns out he knows all about the woman’s life.

[Austrian philosopher] Ivan Illich [says] that this capacity to really see people is one of the things we’re most missing, particularly in a modern, bureaucratic, very large-scale society. We operate in large categories—you’re a welfare recipient, or you’re an old age pensioner or something of that kind, and we have to set up rules, etc., to deal with this. Big bureaucracies are inevitable [in] their great failing—that they don’t recognize how different people are. And this is a very striking thing to me. Maybe I’m speaking as a modern who is very concerned with this over-bureaucratization in society. But I think that the whole sense we get that we’re missing something when we just operate with those categories comes from the gospel.

Jesus sees people in all their individuality.


Is it possible for Christians to see the will of God in this trend of declining church attendance?

Well, yes. I admit I’m not a theologian. But I want to introduce the concept of an itinerary, of a way that people come to God. And there is an immense amount of different itineraries in our past—I mean, all the different saints have very different life courses, and there are very different things that trigger off their going ahead in the faith, and so on. And maybe the whole way in which humanity is going to be, if you like, penetrated with this relationship is if we go on acting out new itineraries which are necessarily new because the situation changes, right, but it takes all of these together to bring about a fullness of contact between God and humans. This is maybe too short and too telegraphic to be very clear!

Are you saying that, in a way, God wants people to live out this restlessness?


Is that because he wants people to experience freedom?

Well, yes, I think certainly freedom is an essential part of it, because coming to God without freedom is not really coming to God. But I think there’s something about the whole sweep and development of history, that in order for the spirit of God really to penetrate very deeply into the human condition we have to have more of these itineraries or tracks coming from a different way of being human to the faith. That’s what ought to be going on in missionary territories, right? I think the genius of the early Jesuits was—with [Italian Jesuit] Matteo Ricci in China—that you find a route from this non-European culture to the faith, and it’s not going to be the same as what it was like in Spain, or Italy or anywhere in Europe.

Taylor cites the approach of Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who worked to indigenize Christianity in China. Photo: Public domain

Now, you could say the good of that is just that you have more members. No. I think the good of that is that the relationship between humanity as a whole and God is strengthened and deepened when these very different starting points find a route to the faith. Don’t feel that there’s something totally clear here [laughs]! I’m very much just struggling.

Do you mean that if God wants people to be free, he wants them to find their own way to him?

Yes. that’s certainly true. But it may also be true that there’s something like—okay, I’m going to introduce another concept. It’s very vague, but the degree to which the spirit of God has penetrated the interhuman milieu in general—that there is such a thing seems to me to be evident from our history. Take things like the great axial changes, you know what I mean, that great epoch, I’m using [German philosopher Karl] Jaspers’s concept—are you familiar with that, the big changes—that somehow these occur at roughly the same period? There’s a way in which, I believe—this of course is the greatest leap of faith, and scientific minds just shriek in horror—there’s a way in which there’s a deep communication between human beings even where there’s no visible diffusion going on, contact, etc. And it’s that human milieu which is something that gradually gets changed and more and more penetrated by the spirit of God.

And one of the things that makes that penetration more powerful and profound is connections from very different starting points that get made in places that didn’t have any connection before—so that the whole penetration of the gospel into the human community has been greatly changed by the fact that there are now Christians in China, India, etc. That’s something people can accept, if you put it geographically like that, but how about putting it temporally—see, that you have here another civilization and another context which is growing up for the reasons I mentioned earlier: the disappearance of the magic universe, and the meaningful cosmos and so on. It’s like Ricci going to China, okay? And when Ricci goes to China he doesn’t expect they’re all going to say, ‘Oh yes!’ There has to be some back-and-forth in which you can discover a way in which they could accede to the faith.

I wrote something on this called A Catholic Modernity? in which I tried to make the comparison between these Jesuit missions in the 16th century and moving into the modern epoch. Consider it as the faith arriving in a totally new predicament. You have to help people find a way from where they are to that, and it seems to me that this great widespread culture of searching is the route by which this can come about.

So people are reaching God through an ever-greater variety of itineraries nowadays.


Could you perhaps say that because of this, the glory of God is being revealed in a new way?


But is all this searching actually going to lead to God?

Some of it will. Yes. The nature of searching of this kind—some of it will lead all over the place. But then we could easily imagine—I see this happening—that Christians would enter into contact with Muslims and others who are also searching and find a lot in common, right? Find a lot that they could learn from each other. And find a way of living together. The interesting thing that is also feeding me is the following observation: that almost all the great religions are a little bit divided between people who are looking at their faith as a kind of journey and those who are very fixated on certain rules. Think of Islam—the very tight, narrow Shariah interpretations on one hand, versus various forms of Sufism on the other. There’s obviously more to it, but there’s a kind of parallel to our own situation in what you could call Christendom now. The interesting thing is that people who are very much into those rules are just a lot of the time itching [laughs] to get at the other guys, and are either very anti-Christian or anti-Muslim. And the people who are not—who are into the other kind—are really interested in listening, talking. So in a certain sense this culture of searchers can help produce a new kind of ecumenicism, which is not simply the ecumenicism of, “Let’s not fight,” or the ecumenicism of, “Let’s stop hurling insults,” but an actual ecumenicism of friendship, openness and so on. And I can’t help feeling this is part of what the gospel is calling us to.

Why do you say that?

Well, because this kind of openness to the other—trying to understand the other, trying to communicate with the other, not twisting their arms, not putting a priori, “You’ve gotta be—, before we start talking,” seems to me to be central to the gospel.

And the idea is that if there’s a greater interchange between these religions it wouldn’t just result in a kind of bland spiritual porridge, but perhaps it could stimulate members of each religion to more deeply understand their own tradition?

Yes, absolutely. And the idea of there being a porridge here is impossible. That’s not what religious faith is like—not just in our religion, but anywhere. It’s a set of practices, it’s a set of very powerful images, it’s a set of attempts to achieve relationship with something very different. And so we recognize that we’re not the same, we recognize we’re never going to be the same. The Dalai Lama has this wonderful expression, “You can’t put a sheep’s head on a yak’s body [laughs]!” The practices of being a Christian are very different from those of being a Muslim. There ought to be some overlap, but it is something different and you can’t run ’em at the same time, right? You’re going to be one or the other or some third thing or fourth thing or fifth thing, right? So the idea of them coming together is a chimera, it’s never going to happen, right? So in the end it’s such a kind of ineffectual generalization that it can’t be anybody’s religious or spiritual practice. So there are always going to be differences. The question is, what do we do with them, how do we face them, how do we relate to people across them?

What do you think might happen to institutional religion in this atmosphere of searching? Do you think the churches are likely to close in the coming decades?

No, no, no, not at all. Because the practice of Christianity, when you get really deeply into it, involves congregations, it involves churches, it involves sacraments and so on, that you can’t just reinvent or do on your own. But you could have a situation in which the number of people actually there and practicing is relatively small in the society, but the impact is great because it’s one of the broadcasting centres through which people, with their antennae out to get some kind of direction and spiritual growth, could be attuned, and will be attuned.

Think of how, in our respective churches, there are lots of people who are very much into this culture of searching, but for whom the sacraments or whatever are important, so they belong to a church. What’s happening in our church, and I’m sure this is happening in the Anglican church—I’m not sure, but I guess—that some people find distressing, but I think inevitable—[is that] “affinity parishes” come into existence. So in St. X, a lot of people are cursing [Pope] Francis—I’m talking about Catholics here—and saying, “Let’s have no artificial contraception,” etc., etc., etc., and in church St. Y, something quite different is going on—it’s more open, it’s Taizé-like, but people are together around the sacraments, which is important. But this is the way the thing is going to work out. The problem is in our church—and I think probably in your church too [laughs]—the problem is to stop the possible civil war between St. X and St. Y, you see. That is the big conundrum.

Are you saying there will always be churches because there will always be people who are able to reconcile their need to be authentic and their need to be seekers, with belonging to an institution?

Yes, because if you have some sense of the importance of the sacraments, for instance—if that’s part of your path—then there’s got to be a church for you. Not necessarily a building, but there’s got to be some kind of community where they say mass, or whatever the ritual is.

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  • Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.