Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Common ground in a plural world

Written by: on April 2, 2013

The week before Easter I called a friend in France, who works as a teacher there.

        „Hey, are you enjoying your Easter holidays?“

       “Easter holidays? Are you joking? They are still coming up. I still got to work 2 more weeks.”

       “What? But then Easter is already over.”

       “Yeah, actually they’re called spring vacation. On Easter we have days off. Actually, when is Easter again?”

       “This week. Tomorrow is Maundy Thursday, then Good Friday and then Easter Sunday and Monday.”

       “What’s Maundy Thursday about again? Crucifixion? But what happened on Friday then?

I was shocked. About a French laic school system that provides vacation for the kids, but not on the particular religious holidays (“Vacances de printemps”) and about a society that lost the knowledge about religious basics. When a highly educated teacher is not capable of explaining the difference between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, how lost might a regular French school kid be?

After reading a book by James D. Hunter on the role of Christianity in American culture (To change the world) I am following that topic with Charley Taylors “Modern Social Imaginaries”. And I am asking myself, is it possible to transfer the ideas of a Canadian philosopher into the European context – especially in regards to the inner-European differences (see above).

Yes! They can be roughly transferred, since Charles Taylor offers a concept of multiple modernities.

To divide between the different modernities, Taylor sets out his idea of the social imaginary, a broad understanding of a given collective social life people imagine. Re-telling the history of Western modernity, Taylor traces the development of this distinct social imaginary. Starting with the idea of a moral order based on the mutual benefit of equal participants, Taylor characterizes the Western social imaginary with three key culture forms – the economy, the public sphere, and self-governance.

The social imaginary is elusive and vague set of self-understandings, background practices, and horizons of common expectations that are not always explicitly articulated, but that give a people a sense of a shared group life. According to Taylor, the interplay between the social imaginary, moral order and self-awareness gave rise to a new type of social space where people could exchange ideas. This “public sphere” became a point for interaction that enabled society to form a common mind – a collective opinion that subsequently emerged as a new political force.

The final form of the modern social imaginary is popular sovereignty, the invention of the people. Drawing primarily on examples from the American and French revolutions Taylor shows that in both cases the people understand themselves as self constituting groups that exists prior to, and independent of, any formal political constitution.

American and French systems and modernity concepts can be compared here (especially through the last books like Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion or Vincent J. Miller’s Consuming Religion – Christian Faith and Praxis in a Consumer Culture) but leave the questions on the feasibility on Non-Western contexts open.

Taylor enfolds the concept of multiple modernities very detailed in his book, but provides very little — nothing in fact —about non-Western societies, or their paths to modernity. Instead, what he offers us is a method for a more precise investigation of its development in the West.

It’s never made clear exactly what the implications of his thesis might be for understanding the modernization of central Africa or India. Taylor provides a theoretical and philosophical perspective on the evolution of Western modernity that interweaves issues related to economics, politics, religion, science, and societal life and argues that Western modernity cannot be rationalized as a singular phenomenon but as concept of multiple modernities.

In this plural world of multiple modernities (that focus on various different westerns contexts and does not even cover Non-Western settings at all) it is important to focus on the social imaginary and the public sphere:

Where are the places in our society(s) for shared group life to agree on the common ground, especially for Christians and their questions?

Charles Taylor on the history of American secularism

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