Taylor and Transfiguration
I first posted on Charles Taylor’s massive A Secular Age some months back. A project I’m working on has led me to re-read Taylor’s book, especially his crucial final chapter, “Conversions,” where he indicates possible paths beyond the “unquiet frontiers of modernity.”
A key figure in the chapter is the French poet who re-converted to his boyhood Catholic faith, Charles Peguy. Taylor writes regarding Peguy:
the point here is to underline the carnal, the notion that the spiritual is always incarnate, and that in chains which cut across time. It reflects how, for Peguy, his Christian faith is animated by his profound rejection of modern excarnation. That is, as it were, the path by which he rejoins the faith of the Incarnation.
And the crucial concept here is communion, the “joining of hands,” in other words, the communion of saints to which we are all connected.
What emerges as central for Peguy (and for his interpreter, Taylor), what counters modernity’s fall into “excarnation,” is the communion of saints, a joining of hands across the centuries: a central feature of “the faith of the Incarnation.”
Where I would push Taylor further is to reflect on the roots of the pathology he terms “excarnation,” among whose symptoms is “the exaltation of disengaged reason,” and (I would add) the exaltation of the imperial disengaged self.
One name that does not appear in Taylor’s encyclopedic index is that of Ernest Becker. Becker’s extraordinary book, The Denial of Death, shows the roots of our perennial fall into excarnation in our denial and flight from death. And the perennial temptation, from the days of Cain and Abel, is to inflict violence on the one perceived to embody the threat of death, whether physical or spiritual, whether man or God: the crucified incarnate one.
Taylor sums up what he perceives to be the challenge facing believers in a secular age as the need “to recover a sense of what the Incarnation can mean.”
Allow me to suggest a further precision to that. The challenge facing us is to recover a sense of what the Transfiguration of Jesus can mean. Here past, present, and future meet, the communion of saints in which we are all connected is embodied. And, importantly, life is affirmed, not by death’s denial, but by its acceptance and transformation. As Luke’s account of the Transfiguration reminds us: bathed in transfigured light, they spoke of his exodus which was to take place in Jerusalem.