Templeton Award: Professor’s spiritual hunger pays off

Over five decades, philosopher argued the need for a religious dimension in discussions of public policy, history and social sciences

For nearly a half-century, Charles Taylor has sought to change the conversation about cultural conflict, saying it cannot be solved by economic or political analysis alone. Such clashes, he argues, often spring from hungers of the human spirit.

On Wednesday, the Northwestern University law and philosophy professor was richly rewarded for his intellectual endeavors with a monetary award that exceeds the amount given to Nobel Prize winners.

Taylor, 75, will receive $1.5 million in May from the John Templeton Foundation, which awards cutting-edge research in science and spirituality and progress in the marriage of the two.

His work spans a number of topics, including legal ethics, multiculturalism and secularization, but he is best known for critiquing the spiritual poverty of modern academia. Fellow philosophers often explain away spirituality by attributing it solely to materialistic or biological forces, he said, skewing their understanding of human behavior.

“We don’t understand what’s going on unless we understand that as human beings we are spiritual beings,” Taylor said in a telephone interview. “Our preoccupations are not simply social, economic, power or pride. They’re also concerned with finding meaning to life, dignity, and being recognized also in the sense of being fundamentally good. You can call them spiritual hungers.”

A strictly secular point of view can impede conflict resolution, Taylor said, citing peacemaking figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose spirituality was central to their agenda of social change.

The Templeton Award was created in 1972 by philanthropist Sir John Marks Templeton, who stipulated that its monetary value always be larger than the Nobel Prize. A native of Montreal, Taylor is the first Canadian to win the prize, of which five of the last seven winners have been scientists.

“It’s a creative move on the part of the Templeton Foundation to select somebody who is not like Mother Teresa or somebody who has inquired into the origins of the universe,” said David Martin, an emeritus professor of philosophy at the London School of Economics who nominated Taylor. “In this case it’s somebody who has inquired into the nature of human existence.”

Templeton Foundation President John M. Templeton Jr. praised Taylor for inserting a spiritual dimension into discussions of public policy, history, linguistics, literature and social sciences.

“The divorce of natural science and religion has been damaging to both,” Taylor, 75, said in accepting the award Wednesday in New York. “But it is equally true that the culture of the humanities and social sciences has often been surprisingly blind and deaf to the spiritual.”

In his speech, Taylor took aim at Nobel laureate cosmologist Steven Weinberg, who once said: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

“On one level, it is astonishing that anyone who lived through a good part of the 20th Century could say something like this,” Taylor said.

“We urgently need new insight into the human propensity for violence … [that] must take full account of the human striving for meaning and spiritual direction, of which the appeals to violence are a perversion,” he said. “But we don’t even begin to see where we have to look as long as we accept the complacent myth that people like us–enlightened secularists, or believers–are not part of the problem.

“We will pay a high price if we allow this kind of muddled thinking to prevail.”

Taylor traces his unorthodox approach to a novel he read as an undergraduate at McGill University, Feodor Dostoevski’s “Devils,” which explored the spiritual motivations of a group of revolutionaries. Today Taylor applies this thinking to modern-day conflicts, including acts of violence in the Middle East by people he regards as wounded in spirit.

As a Rhodes scholar, Taylor received master’s and doctoral degrees at Oxford University. Along the way, he encountered like-minded philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre who rejected American ideals of individualism and modernity.

Taylor added his own sympathetic spin to MacIntyre’s ideas. In his book “Sources of the Self,” he defended the modern notion of soul-searching while noting that human beings also must recognize some things are important beyond the self.

As a research adviser for Northwestern University’s Center for Transcultural Studies, he challenged the view that all cultures need to embrace modern Western ideals by arguing that other contemporary world views are equally valid.

Taylor joined Northwestern’s faculty full time in 2002 after three years as a visiting professor. He has done most of his writing at home while raising five daughters–a lively environment with infectious energy that he said also fed his work. He now has five grandchildren.

A practicing Roman Catholic, Taylor has dabbled in theology but said he feels more at home in philosophy circles.

“If I had a few more lifetimes, I would read huge masses of theology and even more history and sociology,” he said. “I think you need all these things to answer these kinds of questions. Just give me another hundred years.”

Sidebar: About Charles Margrave Taylor

Born: Nov. 5, 1931.

Family: Married Alba Romer, an artist and social worker, in 1956. The couple had five daughters. His first wife died of cancer in 1990, and Taylor married Aube Billard in 1995.

Religious affiliation: Roman Catholic.

Education: Received a bachelor’s degree in history from McGill University in 1952 and a bachelor’s degree from Balliol College, Oxford University, in 1955 as a Rhodes scholar. Received master’s and doctoral degrees from Oxford by 1961.

Books: The most influential of his dozen books is “Sources of the Self,” which defends modern-day soul-searching with a caveat resembling the phrase “no man is an island.” His newest book “The Secular Age” is due out this year.

Quote: “We don’t understand what’s going on unless we understand that as human beings we are spiritual beings.”

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