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THE CATHOLIC HERALD NOVEMBER 23, 2007

Literary Editor: Stav Sherez Tel: 020 7448 3603 Fax: 020 7256 9728 E-mail: stav@sherez.freeserve.co.uk

13

BOOKS

How religion learned to live with its competitors

Charles Taylor recently won the $1.5 million Templeton Prize. Jonathan Wright says his brilliant guide to the rise of secularism shows that he is worth every cent

A Secular Age by Charles Taylor, Harvard University Press £25.95 Whenever I visit a city for the first time I prefer to do my own exploring: map-less, in the early hours before the tourist hordes descend. Occasionally, however, I have been bullied into signing up for that bêête noire of the independent traveller: the guided tour. When I first fetched up in Florence, for instance, I put myself in the hands of the charismatic, moustachioed Signor Rossi. His historical knowledge was breathtaking, and whenever we finally reached a noteworthy destination he delighted us with his erudition. The trouble was, he took forever navigating his way through Florentine streets, taking wrong turns, doubling back on himself, showing us things far outside the advertised itinerary. What should have been a onehour excursion took up most of the afternoon and we emerged utterly exhausted and disoriented. Still, in retrospect (also known as the hotel bar), we sensed that ideas and vistas beyond the imaginings of a conventional cicerone had been opened up. The experience had been infuriating but enlightening, and I like to think that this is precisely what Signor Rossi intended. Reading Charles Taylor’s meandering new book brought these memories flooding back. There are many delights within these pages and the workings of an outstanding mind are constantly on display. But, goodness, Taylor takes his time getting to his many insightful points. Whenever there is an opportunity to launch into a digression, Taylor seizes it. The structure of the book seems almost wilfully confused. It is crammed with reassurances that the reader is now back on the trail of the main argument and littered with promises that the author will return to an idea in a few chapters’ time. There are two possible conclusions. Either Taylor could have done a better job of arranging his book or he is deliberately manipulating his readers in order to convince them that a linear route through the book’s subject simply isn’t available. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Sometimes Taylor’s narrative antics are exquisitely well-judged; sometimes he just gets lost in thickets of his own devising. That a philosopher of Taylor’s calibre occasionally loses his bearings only demonstrates that his topic is extraordinarily unwieldy. Most of us would concur with his diagnosis

Bruegel’s ‘Tower of Babel’: An allegory of the splintering of ideas and man’s usurpation of God’s remit

of modern western secularism. We inhabit a public sphere in which fully fledged political engagement can blossom without any reference to God. Political institutions are usually divorced from ecclesiastical institutions in ways that would have flabbergasted people living five centuries ago. There has, unquestionably, been a decline in traditional religious belief and practice, and what Taylor refers to as the “conditions of belief” have been utterly transformed. In the year 1500 the existence of God was, essentially, a cultural given: this was a cosmos saturated by notions of transcendence. Today, however, belief in God “is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace”. A robust alternative, defined by Taylor as “exclusive humanism”, now exists: moralities can flourish and the world can be understood without once invoking the concept of a supreme being. How, Taylor asks, did we get here? In many ways, the trajectory of his argument is uncontroversial and all of the usual suspects make an appearance. We hear about the process of disenchantment, whereby new scientific paradigms took hold and nature became comprehensible on its own terms. The Reformation, in Taylor’s account, provided damaging critiques of a magically enchanted (sacrament-driven) world, and (apparently) introduced

the abiding notion of individual responsibility for moral conduct. The natural law theorising of Grotius, Locke, et al soon entered the mix and, during the 18th century, the tenets of Deism –not least the rejection of an interventionist creator and a dismantlement of traditional notions of Providence –created a bewildering philosophical landscape. Old news, you might be tempted to suggest. What singles Taylor’s analysis out, however, is his painstaking interrogation of such familiar historical developments. He constantly rebukes simplistic analyses: he derides what he calls subtraction theories, according to which various religious assumptions simply fell away to be conveniently replaced by secularist alternatives, and he offers a spirited assault on the glib idea that the rise of modern science simply supplanted religion. Things, as Taylor opines, were never quite that uncomplicated. In the second half of his book, Taylor refers to the state of flux that emerged from these earlier developments as a cultural supernova. Things exploded. Suddenly, an unprecedented range of alternative philosophical postures was available, and Taylor’s survey of the polemical squabbles that defined the modern age is masterful. Unbelief matured and produced the splintered moral universe we all inhabit. The philosophical concerns of an intellectual elite began to

permeate the wider populace and what Taylor calls our “age of authenticity”, in which there is an almost obligatory duty to seek out one’s own, idiosyncratic moral code, arrived. Not that Taylor is a fan of teleology or of some grand march towards an entirely secular age. He offers ample proof that intimations of transcendence (easily construed as the hallmarks of a religious sensibility) are still very much in evidence. It would seem that religion is neither dead nor moribund: it has simply had to learn to live with its competitors. This philosophical work sometimes recruits woefully reductive analyses of entire historical periods to bolster its arguments. The charitable conclusion is that, in order to provide his thesis with cogency, Taylor had little choice. After all, he is simply positing a speculative theory which obliges us to revisit a seemingly straightforward historical process. On that level –and it is a lofty one –the book works very well. It will charm and aggravate you in equal measure and, along the way, you will be forced to think very hard –which is why, all of my cavils aside, Charles Taylor is worth every cent of the $1.5 million Templeton Prize he was recently awarded. I only hope he invests part of his windfall in a trip to Florence where he might encounter Signor Rossi, who shares his love of intellectual mischief.

Might and right

Garry O’Connor on a timely and innovative contribution to the age-old Just War debate

Just War: The Just War Tradition: Ethics in Modern Warfare by Charles Guthrie and Michael Quinlan, Bloomsbury £10 Even when the reason is palpably obvious and unjust, leaders have always tried to justify going to war by finding the “just cause”. About the underlying reason for the Iraq War (prepared long in advance but kept a secret), Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, stated recently: “It is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” To back up this point, it has been calculated the projected cost of the USled invasion is one trillion dollars, but the value of Iraqi oil is estimated at $30 trillion. In terms of supply of a dwindling resource, this would make the war justifiable in its cost, assuming a cynical US government keeps its hands on the oil with military bases well into the future. But will it ever make it just? Charles Guthrie and Michael Quinlan, the authors of this timely and well-reasoned book, answer with an innovation in the age-old controversies over justifications for going to war: “Simply to have,” they argue, “the balance of right clearly on our side is not on its own a good reason for taking up arms.” There has to be a margin of benefit, “big enough to warrant incurring the risks and penalties of armed conflict –and not just the penalties to ourselves”. There is also a duty to “weigh the costs to everyone”. Their margin of benefit is not trillions of oil revenue. To apply their reasoning to Iraq, the problem of benefit can be simplified: do you punish a whole country and its people just because it has a cruel and corrupt leader who needs removing? In 2002 and 2003, before the invasion, no one asked questions about disproportionate suffering. Then, the tenuous and subsequently unconvincing possibility was that Iraqi weapons of mass destruc

Alan Greenspan: ‘The Iraq war is largely about oil’

tion might one day come into the hands of international terrorists, who might use them to inflict terrible damage on the US heartland. It was 9/11 that gave the US “just cause” to invade Afghanistan, and then its follow-up, Iraq. Dwindling numbers still find arguments to justify the invasion of Afghanistan but, with the passing of time, far fewer people are justifying the foray into Iraq. As President Chirac said to Blair before the invasion: “Leo [Blair’s infant son] will not thank you in the future if you lead Britain into war.” And here we have perhaps the main value of these authors’ thesis, keeping as they do to strict impartiality. Had the leaders any notion beforehand of the criteria for fighting a just war, and a sense of the recent military and political history of the regions involved –and what would happen in making these regions theatres of war – they would have seriously mitigated their involvement, by making reasonable follow-up plans. T E Lawrence, writing in Revolt of the Arabs of the 1919 capture of Damascus from the Turks by irregular Arab forces (supported by the British) said: “Rebels, especially successful rebels, were of necessity bad subjects and worse governors. [King of Iraq] Faisal’s sorry duty would be to rid himself of his warfriends, and replace them by those elements which had been most useful to the

Turkish government.” Citing examples from recent experiences of war, the point Guthrie and Quinlan convince you of is that you cannot have just one good reason to go to war. You need all six good reasons they put forward. So even if there arguably was “just cause” for the Iraq war in the first instance, then there was still not “sufficient and proportionate cause”, “right authority” (the UN motion failed), while the “last resort” principle also failed –there could have been other means of resolving the issues at stake. It fails on three counts of the six. Not only the politicians, in their worked-up states of mind, but many others, such as George Weigel and Lord Alton, still argue from a Catholic viewpoint with “just war” justifications for the Iraq invasion. They should consider these new criteria. Inquiring, as I did, into the authors’ present views, Lord Guthrie told me: “History will confirm one way or another whether it was unjust and a great mistake, as many people judge it today.” Quinlan is unequivocal: he said his own position, both before and since, was that the invasion was “criminal folly”. For a lucid display of the issues at stake The Just War Tradition: Relic or RoadMap? should be read by everyone who wants to get straight his or her thinking about war.

Unfathomable power

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Exit Ghost by Philip Roth, Jonathan Cape £16.99 Nathan Zuckerman, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s latest novel, has lived in isolation for 11 years. Holed up in a rural retreat 100 miles from New York, he focuses his energies entirely on his writing. He doesn’t read newspapers; he doesn’t watch television. Two or three days can go by when he speaks to no one. At the age of 71 he has almost managed to eradicate the distraction of other human beings. The novel begins with Zuckerman back in New York. He has returned to have an operation on his bladder and does not intend to stay. But, after enduring a muted, solitary existence for so long, he finds it difficult to resist the exhilaration of being back in the city, and agrees to a year-long house swap. The decision, he believes, is a foolish one –his habitual caution swept aside by the giddiness of the moment. Within days he has developed a desperate infatuation for a young married female writer and been drawn into a savage scrap with an aspiring biographer. The pleasant equilibrium of his former life has been shattered. His return to society has another consequence: it makes him feel old. His attempts to assert himself again in the world expose

Philip Roth: Forceful

his frailty, his weakening memory, and –most painfully –his incontinence. So Zuckerman is not just a disinterested ghost paying his last visit to the land of the living. His long deprivation has not resulted in wistful detachment, but has instead heightened the trauma and excitement of the return. All through the novel I kept on asking myself: what makes Roth’s prose so good? Some of the sentences, I thought, were clumsy; some of the language was strangely flat and anaesthetic. He generally avoids metaphor, or at least metaphor that is obtrusive. Despite all this, his prose has the kind of intensity that makes most other writers feel bland and insipid. But while the writing itself is exhilarating, some of the novel’s preoccupations are not so wildly exciting.

Zuckerman’s frustrated infatuation with 30-year-old writer Jamie Logan leads him to compose long scenes of dialogue between the two of them; these scenes allow him to imagine an intimacy that is never achieved. He even gets her to laugh flatteringly at his jokes. The project, to me, seems quite silly and adolescent, but Zuckerman elevates it to lofty heights. At one point he questions the value of such “fictional amplification” when it only adds to the pain, and answers: “For some very, very few, that amplification, evolving uncertainly out of nothing, constitutes their only assurance, and the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most.” The sentence is breathtaking, yes; but surely Zuckerman’s situation is actually rather comic. There is also something annoyingly alpha male about Zuckerman. He notes that returning to the human world means once again being “trapped” in “vainglorious self-assertion” –an endless struggle to conquer women and fight off younger men. Yet the force of Roth’s writing still makes Exit Ghost a terrific novel. He breaks all the rules of good prose –using boring adjectives like “small” and “large”, and packing sentences full of mundane details –but his words still hold an unfathomable power. Mark Greaves

The Kindly Light

John Henry, Cardinal Newman

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