Charles Taylor on Catholic and Orthodox Christianity

“What can Orthodoxy learn from the Catholic intellectual tradition,

and what can Catholics learn from the Orthodox,

specifically in light of the secular cultural condition we find ourselves in,

and given the vast heritage that we share?”

During his 2011 appearance at Boston College, after the final Q&A session was over, I hustled straight over to the podium, and asked Charles Taylor this question after he finished packing to leave.

His answer was interesting: he said that modern Catholics were very good at the active life, going going going, but that they often forget that it’s not all there is to the Christian life (the way he said this almost suggested to me that he may have been inclining, at least in that moment, toward suggesting that the active life was somehow properly subordinate to the contemplative life). He seemed to be suggesting that Orthodox should learn the active life better. I replied that “when it comes to works of charity and social justice, you have us beat there hands down.” He laughed, seemingly charmed, but also seemingly in agreement.

Contemplation, he continued, especially as this is seen in iconography, is something that Catholics need to recover. He pointed to Pavel Florensky and Sergius Bulgakov as two models for how this should be done. He said that Roman Catholic thought is perhaps too juridical, and that we Orthodox can enrich it by emphasizing this organic and contemplative dimension. I could not tell if he was suggesting the opposite was true, but I didn’t get that sense.

He also suggested, as I recall, that we must not react to the secular world we live in by seeing our faith as somehow separate from our secular life, or the vision of our faith as separate from our secular vision, but that the two should overlap, and be synchronous. He again mentioned Florensky and Bulgakov in this regard.

Unfortunately, some priests peeled us away from each other before I could ask more questions. I then cornered him again at the end to get him to sign a copy of Sources of the Self that I bought at the book-display case. He spoke to me with great interest, perfect attention, not a hint of condescension, and delight. Remarkable man.

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