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Living together in diversity: a conversation with Charles Taylor.

Charles Taylor, philosopher and author of A Secular Age, (reviewed in the October 2012 issue) participated in a community education event organized by Prof. Norman Cornett in Montreal last November. Rev. Dr. Barry Mack was present at the event and had an opportunity to share in the dialogue.

At 81, Charles Taylor is still a handsome and impressive figure. Impressive also is his generosity of spirit and contagious optimism about the possibilities of interfaith and intercultural dialogue. Clearly, he is concerned about the potential of a "clash of civilizations" in Canada, and hopes Quebec society will not succumb to the deep-seated social alienation so evident in the banlieues of Paris.

His academic interests have always been linked to political engagement. He ran for the NDP against Pierre Trudeau in 1965 in the riding of Town of Mount Royal. More recently, he was appointed, along with Gerard Bouchard (brother of the former premier) by the Quebec government to chair the 2007 Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences. More popularly known as the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, it held hearings throughout the province on the subject of the "reasonable accommodation" of immigrants.

Taylor's refrain during several hours in which he effortlessly fielded questions in English and French was the importance of the dialogue that grows out of personal friendships with our neighbours. They are, above all, other human beings in all of their rich complexity and variety rather than members of a group labelled as "the Other." He recalled the Montreal of his youth in the 1930s, a city of multiple solitudes in which ethnic and religious groups stuck to their own. He draws strength and encouragement from how much has changed over his lifetime--a development led by the artistic community--and hopes Canadians will avail themselves of the rich possibilities for friendship. That was the challenge left in the air at the end of the evening. Legal and constitutional arrangements are not a sufficient basis for civil society to flourish. They need to be supplemented and underwritten by a web of social relationships and shared understandings.

BARRY MACK: If dialogue is essential to creating solidarity in diverse societies like ours, where do you see concrete examples of such constructive dialogue? Where are people or communities really getting through to each other?

CHARLES TAYLOR: In some schools in Montreal there are people from all sorts of different backgrounds. Where there hasn't been any cause for one group to have been raised up against the other, students just end up having friends who are Muslim or Sikh or whatever. Just in the course of normal living they feel that as human beings they can relate to them.

The society which has a high proportion of that kind of side-by-side living is a society which is largely immune to the mobilization of hate or distrust by groups who want to do that, because they just can't see their friend All or Fatima as a dangerous person. When they are told that all Muslims are dangerous they say, "Those people are crazy." That is what can defend us against the growth of absurd stereotypes that can easily circulate and which stand in the way of our being able to live together.

You can't mandate friendship. You can't pass a law: "Get a friend." Such relationships can't be engineered but they can be encouraged. You can take small steps in the right direction to promote opportunities that just might spark something and help out.

[The political question is] to what extent do people become mobilizable behind absurd stereotypes in order to direct them against Muslims or other groups? Kids who have been to school together will say, "Forget it." They will never be mobilized. How can we reduce the number of people who are mobilizable [in hate campaigns]? The image I have often used is that of the fire break. When a prairie fire breaks out, somebody builds a ditch so that the fire can't jump over it. Any friendship across these differences is a kind of mini fire break in your society. The more you have, the more you are proof against these irrational prairie fires that constitute these mobilizations against the Other. We need to find a way of creating these fire breaks.

MACK: But authentic dialogue is very difficult, is it not? In Christian-Jewish dialogue, for example, it is very hard to talk honestly about the political situation in Israel, West Bank settlements and so on. Even people who have known each other for years and who can discuss many things find that very hard and awkward. Even impossible. Maybe it is also a Canadian thing. Nobody wants to be impolite. My Dutch wife says that Canadians are going to die of niceness.

TAYLOR: It is true that people often don't say what they really think about the Other. Dialogues where that happens are what I call minimal, pacifying dialogues that we use to convince each other that we are not total enemies. [Such conversations may have their uses] but they aren't enriching or revealing. Nor do they lead to any deeper sort of friendship. That can only happen when you can say, "I find that belief of yours very perplexing;" "I don't understand why you want to say that;" "I think it a very questionable moral position that you guys are taking." All these things can be said in a tone of voice that indicates you really want to understand and are not just trying to score points in a debate.

What is be devilling Christian-Jewish dialogue today is the fact that many Jewish organizations have slid into being apologists for the Israeli government as it now exists and that makes it impossible to talk frankly. It is very regrettable. It is a mystery to me how it happened, because I think the majority of American and Canadian Jews are rather dovish and open, but somehow their organizations managed to take this very strong apologetic stance on behalf of the present Likud government, which I think is doing terrible things for the future of Israel and Israelis--apart from his sort of thing will get you stuck, because if anyone is carrying the can for the official line then it is very hard to talk. (As a Catholic, I couldn't talk to people if I felt that I had to defend the present Pope all the time.)

The really fruitful dialogues, the ones that make these fire breaks are the ones in which nobody is carrying the can, officially, for any position. "I am a human being, I'm a Catholic. Here's my faith. If you want to know why, we'll talk about it." That's the kind of [dialogue] that really works. There is actually something tremendously rewarding about it, and that's why [feel that we are missing these great opportunities, humanly speaking, in our kind of society. People are walled off from each other because they have so much suspicion. It is tremendously rewarding for atheists and Christians to be able to sit down and talk, but if you have the sort of attitude like [Richard] Dawkins then there is no possibility of discussion. And there is a corresponding attitude on the part of certain Christians who say, "You can't be a moral person if you are an atheist." Then we miss out on tremendous spiritual enrichment.

MACK: How would you compare your understanding of secularity with Dawkins's militant secularism?

TAYLOR: Well, there are two traditions of secularism in the West. We can identify one with France that arises out of an historical situation in which a church that had been dominant and had imposed itself on the whole society was challenged by a republican democratic movement. The thought was, we have to fight back against this Catholic outlook which (at the end of the Third Republic) was still largely monarchist. Secularism involved putting religion in its place and stopping it from overbearing the rest of society. And, of course, in that sort of situation secularism has an anti-religious or anti-clerical bias that is quite understandable.

The other tradition is the American, which starts off with the fact of tremendous variety among Protestants. Different denominations were established in each of the states or colonies. How do you set up a federal government? The first amendment to the American constitution states: Congress shall pass no law to establish any particular church. They were still going to allow various states to keep their established churches, and they didn't want one forced down their throat from the federal government.

This [Protestant matrix] expanded. The Catholics were let in, then Jews and now, we hope, Muslims. Finally, what you got was a notion of secularism in which all possible views could be accommodated. So one basic historical experience involved fighting back against a powerful religious force, the other evolved out of the question, "How do we live together in diversity and fairness and in a way that everybody can accept?" Our view in the [Bouchard-Taylor] Commission is that we have arrived at a point in Western societies where the first, originally French, motivation doesn't really make sense. There are no potentially dominant religious forces that are trying to push society back. (I'm not talking about elsewhere in the world, Egypt or Saudi Arabia, I'm talking about Western society.) So we have to think in terms of the kind of secularism that suits us, which is a secularism of how to live together in diversity, not the secularism of defending ourselves against religious tyranny.

Because Quebec has recently emerged from a situation not dissimilar to the French experience, there are some who want to cleave to this earlier Third Republic sort of secularism. I think that is a mistake in the world in which we now live.

MACK: Part of that evolution in Quebec society involves the new compulsory course in ethics and religious culture mandated by the Ministry of Education. It would seem to be an attempt to foster the sort of dialogue you are taking about within the school system. But some parents object to the non-confessional perspective from which the course is to be taught. Comments?

TAYLOR: It all depends on how such a course is taught. You need to teach the faith of others with respect. It is possible to teach things that you don't personally believe in and to treat the material with deep respect. I was very lucky as an undergraduate at McGill. There was a guy called Wilfrid Cantwell Smith. [A Canadian Presbyterian minister then recently arrived from teaching at the Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan.] He was my teacher and he blew my mind. This guy was extraordinary. No rhetoric; he wore a gown and would walk up and down and almost mumbled. It was inspiring because this guy understood. He had this fantastic understanding of Islam in particular. He'd studied and taught in India and managed to make [other faiths] live for us. They were not his own position but he managed to make them living so we could understand why someone might believe in such a way and have such a faith.

That is what an education in the humanities is really about. What I find greatly missing around universities today is the inculcation of this sort of understanding of other positions, positions that you don't hold yourself. But a good teacher, a good education can make them real for you. You understand why. It's that sort of thing, which is the really rewarding part of the humanities. History, philosophy, social science ought to inculcate that. So how to promote this? Well, in each of your departments you work against the narrowness that exists in that discipline. I have frequented several disciplines in which there is lots of narrowness. So you have to work against that. It is an intellectual task--showing up the poverty of those people who, for example, have never read the Bible but just know it is all a bunch of nonsense, or clergy who hold that everything outside the Christian church is relativism. I can think of a particular cleric in Rome ... (Laughs.)

Rev. Dr. Barry Mack is minister at St. Andrew's, St. Lambert, Que.
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Author:Mack, Barry
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1CQUE
Date:Feb 1, 2013
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