Reflections on Charles Taylor: Authority and the Self

Charles Taylor is highly critical of so-called “subtraction stories” told by modern secularism, namely that once God, superstition, theology, and the Church are outgrown, we are left with an uncontaminated, rational reality. One such subtraction story pertains to authority: once we are liberated from the Protestant authority, God speaking through the Bible, or the Roman Catholic authority, the Church, man is free and no longer burdened by these shackles of external authority.

This is false. Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who visited America, observed that Americans did not merely remove the external authority, they set up the Self as the religious and epistemic authority. (I’m not sure if Charles Taylor explicitly takes up de Tocqueville’s argument, but he would probably agree.) According to de Tocqueville, man did not merely remove all authority (the typical subtraction story); he actively established a new one, that of the Self.

Consider Gary Dorien’s extremely helpful definition of theological liberalism:

“Fundamentally it is the idea of a genuine Christianity not based on external authority. Liberal theology seeks to reinterpret the symbols of traditional Christianity…liberal theology is defined by…its commitment to the authority of individual reason and experience; its conception of Christianity as an ethical way of life; its favoring of moral concepts of atonement; and its commitment to make Christianity credible and socially relevant to modern people” (The Making of American Liberal Theology, p. xxiii, emphasis mine).

In other words, we all have set up an authority to govern our lives. People who say they don’t have an authority are either lying or not yet aware that their Self is the authority. If you are a secular humanist or theological liberal, why is the Self a more legitimate authority than the Bible or the Church? If you are a Protestant, why is God speaking through the Bible the legitimate authority? If you are a Roman Catholic, why is the Church the legitimate authority?

Here is how I would answer the question of authority:

  1. In the Sermon on the Mount, authority is something absolutely attributed to Christ. “He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as one of their scribes” (Matthew 7:29, ESV, emphasis mine). Hating all authority therefore includes hating Christ.
  2. Christ is the God of the Cosmos and the Servant King. When washing His disciples’ feet, He demonstrates His authority through love, service, and humility. Good authority is possible.
  3. Secular humanists are absolutely right to point out when Protestant and Catholic churches are demonstrating poor authority by lacking love, service, and humility.
  4. If a Protestant or Catholic church preaches a false gospel, it disqualifies itself as a spiritual authority (Galatians 1:8).  (Here my Protestant leanings are coming out a little bit.)
  5. Trusting the Self is fraught with peril. Proverbs is brimming with warnings about trusting our own understanding. Jesus thanks the Father that He hides the Gospel from the wise and discerning, yet reveals it to little children (Matthew 11:25). Claiming to be wise, the wise have become fools (Romans 1); God loves us and has mercy on us in our blindness, sin, and folly (Romans 2-11); therefore by the mercies of God (12:1) “never be wise in your own sight” (Romans 12:16).
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4 thoughts on “Reflections on Charles Taylor: Authority and the Self

    1. nickalaos, thanks for chiming in. Are you a secular humanist? If you are, I’m definitely interested to hear your perspective on the relationship between authority, reason, science, and the self. (One of my desires is to avoid making caricatures of secular humanist positions and interact fairly with them as they actually are.)

      You asked the question, “For those who are secular humanists, wouldn’t there authority be rather Reason, Science, and some measure of the Self?”

      Yes, and perhaps it’s not so simple. Charles Taylor points out that most people are not won to secular humanism by the facts of science, but by a narrative that presents secular humanism as mature and faith as immature. (This is a narrative being told forcefully and compellingly by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Neil deGrasse Tyson). This subtraction story is not very convincing to someone like Taylor who is simultaneously grounded in his faith and not threatened by the facts of science. Furthermore, if that subtraction story is true, we have to dismiss Einstein, Maxwell, and Newton as immature since they were men of faith. What are your thoughts about that? Is science the authority, or is materialist philosophy, boosting the idea of maturity with its doctrines and narratives, the authority? Is materialist philosophy scientific, or does one have to have faith that Reason, Science, and Self are legitimate authorities?

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  1. Hi John, I find the arguments of Taylor interesting and thought-provoking. I appreciate you blogging on the book as a point of reflection. It is helpful for me to reflect on it as well and see other interpretations. Plus, I have to say, I only read the first half. To answer your question, yes you could call me a secular humanist, a label I once championed but have simply neglected after living in France for a couple of years where it seemed unnecessary/understood.

    In your post you ask the question “If you are a secular humanist or theological liberal, why is the Self a more legitimate authority than the Bible or the Church?” In my simple response, it seems to me that your question is not fair to the secular humanist who definitely adheres to some sense of outside authority, an authority that is beyond a completely subjective or autonomous self.

    My reading of Taylor was this: I think that he would argue rather that the humanist development created the “buffered self” that caused the western subject to appeal to an authority other than revelation. The buffered self is no longer porous or open to the supernatural or spiritual. It is disengaged because contemporary knowledge and science have demystified the world and explained everything into categories and definitions in an orderly manner. The fear of the unknown (the awe-inspiring spirituality before the questions of existence of earlier people) was replaced by the anthropocentric turn towards liberalism and progress. In the liberal humanist understanding the human being is a social animal dependent on their faculty of reason to organize their moral lives. It is mostly articulated in the Enlightenment that starts with the Deistic turn, when some people rejected organized, revealed religion as sectarian and culture specific that was replaced by a god of Nature who is not an interventionist god but a god who is Nature and the Order of Things. This new perspective was embedded within a liberal economic conception of the self. Each individual was a member of a polite society grounded in commercial society, where each person had their own interests to be balanced by the interests of others. To be sociable and a member of polite society, one had to discipline the self and overcome its failings and faults. This created an ethic of reason and self-discipline in order to realize the deist god’s plan (Max Weber’s theory on Protestantism really). With nature explained by reason and science, mystery and spiritually faded. Without religious authority, this left the secular virtues of sociability, self-improvement, and the goal of human flourishing.

    Deism prepared the way for exclusive humanism.

    This is how I interpreted Taylor’s description of secular humanism. This humanism is not without authority, but rather it is characterized by a buffered self constantly appealing to outside authority–it appeals to human reason (often worked out in debate and deliberation) to work out moral issues while referring to science to explain and pacify their questions and fears.

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