Charles Taylor matters

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • April 27, 2007
Maybe it’s a trifle unCanadian, but let’s give a cheer of national pride on May 2 when Charles Taylor arrives at Buckingham Palace to attend a private ceremony with the Duke of Edinburgh. The Prince Consort will formally bestow the 2007 Templeton Prize for Progress or Discoveries in Spiritual Realties on Professor Taylor.
It’s a much-deserved honour and one as a nation we can and should celebrate. Taylor himself admits that much of the work he has done over the decades as a philosopher and public intellectual was made possible by being born in this country.

The professor emeritus at McGill University in Montreal is one of the world’s foremost thinkers about identity, multiculturalism, peaceful cohabitation and pluralism in all its manifestations. He thinks long and hard about how we acquire identity and how we create societies where many identities can live in peace together, regardless of how different.

He is the quintessential public intellectual. He’s taught and lectured at numerous universities. He’s written nearly a dozen books and hundreds of essays, both academic and for the popular press. He has delivered some of the most prestigious lecture series: The Massey Lectures at the CBC, the Gifford Lectures, the Marianist Lectures and he frequently appears in the mass media addressing some of the most important and pressing issues. In February, after a series of incidents in Quebec involving immigrants and how different cultures and religions best merge with mainstream society, he accepted a government appointment to lead a commission exploring reasonable accommodation of cultural and religious minorities.

This rigourous Catholic philosopher is at the cutting edge of the public moral and religious quandaries of our time. While atheists such as Richard Dawkins with his biological imperatives denounce religion as the root of all evil, Taylor fires back that the chasm between matters of science and the domain of the spirit are crippling each other to the detriment of society at large. When uncritical defenders of faith reply to Dawkins that atheism in the form of Stalin and Hitler were the forces of evil in the 20th century, Taylor argues that we all need to understand why religion can inspire people to acts of saintly goodness and vile evil. After all, Taylor has spent a lifetime asking tough questions and forcing the rest of us to ask tough questions of ourselves.

This ability to explore all the dimensions of an issue comes to him truly as a birthright. As he has remarked, Canada invented multiculturalism. As a nation we were forced from the very beginnings to confront what has become the key question of our own day: how do people of different cultures and religions live together in peace and harmony? 

What we all seem to lose sight of in these days of screeching rhetoric from all sides of the religious/cultural wars is that dialogue is the essence of peaceful relations. Taylor stresses in all his work that we need to do three things. We need to understand why we believe what we believe. We need to understand why others believe what they believe, and do so from their perspective not our projection of their beliefs. And finally we need to be open to the idea of dialogue and question without assuming from the get go that some questions are by their very nature not on.

The world needs the Templeton Prize and Taylor deserves to receive it. We live in an age when dialogue seems to often consist solely of one-liners, insults and definitive statements brooking no contradiction. The Templeton Prize places a premium on a more substantive conversation, one that digs deep into the spiritual domain and gives value to those aspects of humanity too often lost in all news all the time: reflection, belief, communion and respect. By associating the prize with a nearly $2 million award, the Templeton Foundation ensures that a jaded media sphere sits up and takes notice.

(Kavanagh is a senior producer at CBC Radio in Toronto. He has worked with Taylor on a number of broadcasts over the last 10 years.)

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