Inescapable Frameworks of Meaning

by Robin Lovin

At the time this was written, Robin W. Lovin was dean of the Theological School at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, March 6, 1991, pp. 263-265. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Herb and June Lowe.


In theological education, experienced voices are calling for a more central role for the practical disciplines – preaching, counseling, education, and the like. This may be seen as a return to an earlier effort to develop a comprehensive, integrated understanding of the life of faith in contemporary society. The central task of seminaries, however, must be to sustain pastoral leadership that is truly practical and truly theological — able to continue in the churches the creative conversations sparked in the seminaries.


Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, by Charles Taylor. Harvard University Press, 601 pp., $37.50.

Pastors and theologians are fond of insisting that everybody lives by some sort of faith. The point of this claim is to force people to think about the goods and goals in their lives and where they come from. Charles Taylor, professor of political science and philosophy at McGill University in Montreal, has written a book on this theme that should make preachers and theologians take notice. Those who tackle Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Harvard University Press, 601 pp., $37.50) will have heavy reading ahead of them, but they will understand themselves and their vocations better for the effort.

Sources of the Self expands the historical studies in philosophy for which Taylor is best known. Through his earlier books on Hegel, Taylor has introduced a generation of students to one of the most important modern thinkers. Sources of the Self takes a broader view of Western philosophy, beginning with Plato and proceeding in detail through the works of Descartes, Locke, Kant, Schiller, Kierkegaard and others who have shaped our understanding of ourselves.

Sources of the Self is also a penetrating criticism of the history it reviews. In his first hundred pages Taylor argues that the modern effort to formulate objective truths about human identity has led philosophers to ignore the frameworks of lived experience in which facts become meaningful to persons. They have concentrated on the minimal agreements necessary for human cooperation and overlooked the intricate web of beliefs by which individuals shape their lives and understand themselves. Philosophers, in short, have studied a narrowly defined morality at the expense of human spirituality. As a result, we have become speechless about the ways in which we identify the important goods and goals in our lives. We continue to have them, of course, but we are unable to talk about them. Taylor's broadest aim is to articulate these fundamental affirmations.

Taylor's first contribution to theology is this philosophical account of why the frameworks of meaning by which we attempt to order life as whole are important and worthy of study. Before we can explain why persons might be persuaded by Christian theism rather than, say, Romantic harmony with nature or Nietzsche's defiant assertion of the self's powers, we have to understand how any of those systems could articulate ways that persons actually live. We also must be capable of separating the key elements of our faith from the host of other attractive ideas that we would also like to affirm. Taylor's explication of the "inescapable frameworks" of our moral and spiritual lives clarifies what the intellectual task of contemporary theology is, even before he provides any specific help in the understanding of Christian theism.

The central portion of Sources of the Self traces in detail the emergence and development of some of these frameworks in European thought. Taylor begins with the "affirmation of ordinary life" that marks the modern focus on the individual and displaces the ancient emphasis on heroic public actions. He then traces how this inwardness developed through Christian, Deist and Enlighten-ment forms, until the Romantic movement tried to reconnect individual consciousness with the world of nature.

Taylor acknowledges that it becomes more difficult to follow such large-scale movements as we approach our own time, but chapters 22-24 provide an illuminating study of recent literature and philosophy that is in itself a rich resource. This summary can hardly convey the detail or the depth of Taylor's learning. On the parts of this history I already knew well, I was impressed by Taylor's concise, accurate summaries and illuminating new perspective. I am awestruck by how much more he covers, apparently with the same erudition.

To be sure, Sources of the Self is an intellectual history. It is a record primarily of what went on in the minds of European men who wrote books and in the minds of other men who read them. In Taylor’s hands, however, these ideas are not simply old systems of philosophy. He shows us how they have become part of our own consciousness. He does not show us exactly how they got there. That would take a study of cultural history that traces philosophical ideas into popular movements. But Taylor does enable us to recognize in the works of these philosophers clearer statements of our own identity and aspirations. We share the Reformation’s affirmation of ordinary life and the rationalists’ confidence that God’s world is both orderly and understandable; and though it does ot preach as well, we also share the Romantic conviction that nature’s colors and changes express the realities of our own feelings and the Nietzschean defiance that refuses to settle for the little lives and daily duties to which our churches, families, and colleagues have assigned us.

That’s the problem, of course. The identities we have inherited are not consistent with one another, and it is difficult to have them all at once. That is what Taylor finally wants us to understand as we work our way through his masterful survey of modern thought. The development of the modern identity is lot a straight-line, cumulative process that leads from a fairly simple, premodern self to the complexity of today's personality. The process is more one of fragmentation and division. Answers to questions about our relationships to the world, to the good and to one other develop in ways that exclude other answers, yet each of the frameworks we accept appears on close inspection to be only part of the answer we want. We are not sure that we are able to believe the things that would answer our questions, and we are not sure that the things we do believe are able to answer them. "The nagging. question for modern theism is simply: Is there really a God? The threat at the margin of modern nontheistic humanism is: So what?"

Taylor, in the end, makes a case for "Judaeo-Christian theism," and for "its central promise of a divine affirmation of the human, more total than humans can ever attain unaided." He does this with unusual sensitivity to the arguments for the other side, and with an acute awareness that his own case can never achieve the status of an irrefutable demonstration. "The belief in God . . . offers a reason not in this sense but as an articulation of what is crucial to the shape of the moral world in one's best account. It offers a reason rather as I do when I lay out my most basic concerns. In order to make sense of my life to you." Such an account, Taylor suggests, offers a kind of reason for belief to others, but it helps at the same time to define one's own identity.

Taylor's attention to the "inescapable frameworks" that define our identity will remind many readers of Alasdair MacIntyre's emphasis on the role of traditions in the moral life in After Virtue (1981) and, recently, in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988). For Taylor as for MacIntyre, our traditions are not so much a system of beliefs for which we can make an argument as the language in which we must frame questions and answers for ourselves. We do not so much assert them as we are shaped by them.

Taylor, however, is far more positive than Maclntyre about the achievements of modern traditions of tolerance and political freedom. More important, Taylor understands that the competition between traditions goes on within each of us. We are often powerfully drawn to more than one way of understanding the world. This is the result of that fragmentation and division in the modern frameworks which we have already noted. All modern frameworks,, including modern theism, have become partial answers. When we formulate them into explicit systems of philosophy or theology, they tell us less than we want to know. We find ourselves able to say less than we had expected about who we are, and why the world makes sense to us as it does.

As a result, those who still seek their answers in great historical tradition have a double burden. They must not only deal with the failures of those traditions and the horrors they have perpetrated in the past - like the pogroms, inquisitions and oppressions that make some ask whether it would not be better for humanity if Christianity were forgotten. They also have to deal with the limited and incomplete grasp of human goods that is apparent in every modern version of the tradition. It is easy to caricature rival understandings: liberationists insist that realists are all closet neoconservatives, and traditionalists proclaim that feminists have all started down the slippery slope that leads to goddess worship. It is even easy, given a modicum of self-critical awareness, to see the painful truth in others’ caricatures of one's own stance. What is supremely difficult is to articulate a version of Christian theism that provides a full account of the moral life, informed by the tradition as a whole and at the same time responsive to the full range of human goods that we have learned to experience in modern life.

Taylor is confident that theism is equal to this challenge. "Theism is, of course, contested as to its truth. Opponents may judge it harshly and think that it would be degrading and unfortunate for humans if it were true. But no one doubts that those who embrace it will find a fully adequate moral source in it"

Nontheistic reviewers are alternately perplexed and infuriated by this claim. Nothing about the moral adequacy of theism seems as obvious to them as Taylor's bold statement makes it' and they are sufficiently mindful of the atrocities committed in the name of God to suggest that whatever moral hope there is for the human enterprise. must be grounded elsewhere.

Most readers of the CHRISTIAN CENTURY will be more sympathetic to Taylor's claim. If it is not obvious that theism is "a fully adequate moral source," pastors will at least share Taylor’s intuition that it is true. For them, the more important question is how that case can be made. That takes us back to the task of articulation with which Taylor begins the book. The case that can be made is not a deductive proof, but a bringing to awareness and formulating in speech the connections between morality and spirituality that have been suppressed in modern thought.

Contrary to some more sectarian versions of Christian theology that are currently popular, this is not a matter of drawing everything out of the Christian tradition. Articulation is different from the interpretation of a distinctive Christian narrative. It involves building connections between the traditions of Christian faith and the aspirations and values that emerge as many traditions and philosophies test the limits of humanity and community in contemporary experience. But articulation involves more than arriving at consensus on a set of values that we just happen to have. Taylor's fundamental point is that we cannot expect those shared values to change our lives or make real claims on our neighbors unless we can connect them to an ultimate good-Taylor calls it a "hypergood" - that orders and judges these proximate claims and may

Taylor acknowledges, with a rueful nod to his secular critics, that this articulation is a dangerous undertaking. It can impel a self-sacrificial dedication to justice, but it may also ignite a crusading zeal against those who do not see things our way. An objective observer sometimes finds it difficult to decide, in any given case, which orientation prevails.

The theologian comes to the end of Sources of the Self with a more complex uneasiness: not just that the task is morally dangerous, but that it is theologically difficult. During the 20th century, Christian theology has emphasized God's transcendence of any human good. The theologian's task has been to maintain that transcendence against all ideological pretensions and political expedients. God's judgment falls equally on every party platform. The theologian's primary public word must be this message of unrelenting judgment.

As a result, contemporary theology -- especially contemporary Protestant theology -- is often as devoid of judgments about the human good as the liberalism it professes to despise. Where concrete, practical guidance is required, this theology provides "middle axioms" that set out a broad program of action, or even "biblical principles" that help Christians choose which policies they should support, without explaining why. Pastors and church leaders informed by this theology are often very good at working forward from these touchstones to specific courses of action. They are not so adept at working back from the middle axioms and the biblical principles to the human good of a life lived before God.