Skip to content

The Presence of the Sacred

"Where once I read philosophy I now see writing on the myriad forms of the divine."

Untitled design  19
In reading Charles Taylor I have become more and more conscious of the presence of the sacred. The prose that once seemed learned, matter-of fact, even technical, now seems veined with poetry. Where once I read philosophy I now see writing on the myriad forms of the divine. 

There is, in Catholicism, a deep respect for the forms the divine takes in the world
 
There is, in Catholicism, a deep respect for the forms the divine takes in the world. When one can see in one’s own hand the lineaments of the hand of God, it is not difficult to see the presence of the saints in the orishas. Taylor’s work, as a scholar, as a citizen, and as a man shows this capacious and imaginative tolerance. In Taylor’s work, tolerance is not the reluctant acceptance of the repugnant, but a reaching toward the divine in the world. We should not expect that the divine will show itself to us as we expect, or only in the forms we have come to expect. 
 
Taylor’s writings on the sacred have been, for the most part, focused on what is called Western civilization or, perhaps more accurately in this context, Christendom, yet he writes of Celestine, the West African girl who walks with the Akan spirit Sowliu, of Kali and Shiva. It is true of course, and has been for a long time, that Kali and Shiva have become familiar in the West, and Akan spirits have found a home in the cities of all the Americas. Yet it is not, I think, an acknowledgement of a familiar multiculturalism that leads Taylor to turn to the orishas and their like. Perhaps it is the recognition of cultural difference as part of divine mystery: the numberless names of God, the depth of the mystery of incarnation. 

The pleasures of the flesh are earthly, but not always or merely or only earthly
 
When one believes that God became man, not only the tribulations but the pleasures of the flesh become moments that touch divinity. Taylor’s work is punctuated by small recognitions of the grace in beauty that opens to the divine. Bede Griffiths remembers the “shock of surprise with which the sound broke on my ears” and how the song of birds at evening called him into the divine presence. The pleasures of the flesh are earthly, but not always or merely or only earthly. 
 
When one believes that the word has become flesh, the divisions between thought and practice, philosophy and poetry, the word and the world became evanescent.  The world is suffused with the divine. The divine is manifest in the world. 
 
Space and time are both present and absent here. Taylor’s concept of fullness gives us a sense not only of subjective satisfaction, but also of the way in which we see that there is more there: more meaning, more dimensions, more presence. The divine presence opens to a time outside of time, but it also informs the moment. The moment passes quickly, but the eternal has revealed itself. The sacred is always there, but not always present to us. The time of the sacred is at once always before us, and always beyond us.
 
In Taylor’s work, there is a democratic regard for the power of the commons

Knowing the incarnation can also open, as I believe it does in Charles Taylor, to respect for practice, for custom, to the well worn ways in which communities find their way through time, remaining bound to one another, to their land, their ways, their living and their dead. I read this in part as a pragmatic regard for the practical wisdom evident in how ordinary people live their lives. There are echoes of Burke here, but also of Wittgenstein, who watched as people made seemingly mute sounds and gestures speak with force and efficacy. “Give me that” or even “That!” can be as useful as a well-handled tool. Here, as elsewhere in Taylor’s work, there is a democratic regard for the power of the commons.
 
In his respect for the works and acts of ordinary people in the course of their lives together, in as his willingness to accept the myriad ways in which people see and represent the divine, Taylor becomes the bridge that lets things be. In his recognition of the presence of the sacred among the dimensions within which we live, Taylor seems to me to make Heidegger’s fourfold real in the world as Heidegger himself could not. 

All learning is revelatory, and all teaching has an element of the prophetic
 
Often this respect for the work of people in time becomes a kind of constraining deference, skeptical of change. That was not true of Burke, who saw how great changes came like water over stone as practice wore convention away. It is not true of Taylor. Certainly many of the changes in our secular age came like thunder, sublime and terrible. Others, and here I would place much of the construction of the immanent frame, are changes made slowly over time, not always visible in their time, not always the products of deliberate choice. All learning is revelatory, and all teaching has an element of the prophetic. Taylor conveys this most effectively in his understanding of forgetting: He reminds us of how much thought is recovery, the revelation of that which is already partly known, once known and forgotten, known without being understood. 
 
This is a philosophy that is at home in the world: given to worldly things, concerned with the ways people live their lives, conscious of the fallibility of thought and the imperfection of institutions. This is a practical philosophy in every sense: one that makes itself useful, a philosophy that is not confined to the mind, a philosophy that is practiced. 

Anne Norton is the Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania.