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Book Description This book is about a journey: out of the confines of nihilism into the heart of meaning. It presses the question: Does nihilism have the last word? The book addresses a contemporary crisis of faith, a crisis of identity, and a sense of lostness in late modernity. Our companions on the journey are a fine, seasoned group of writers, poets, social reformers, scientists, scholars and public intellectuals. Among the notables are Alvin Plantinga, Miralslov Volf, Jürgen Habermas, David Bentley Hart, Michel Foucault, Calvin Schrag, Jim Wallis, Tom McLeish and Jens Zimmermann. Special mention goes to eminent philosopher of modernity Charles Taylor for his deep, insightful cultural lens. He brings a major contribution to the discernment of our circumstances and our critical choices.
The Great Escape from Nihilism is about a courageous and somewhat dangerous journey, but ultimately it is a path towards hopeful alternatives to the forces that weigh down our spirits, and the tensions that divide us. We must decide whether the quest to escape outweighs the risks. After mapping the contours of nihilism and the immanent frame in Part 1, the story proceeds with diagnosis and then prognosis. The ten substantial conversations that follow in Part 2 are modeled on real, ongoing discussions and lively debates over several years on university campuses across Canada, the United States and Europe. It is also a kind of philosophical history of the Graduate & Faculty Christian Forum. Despite how practical they are, there is more to life than science, technology, business and algorithms. Our journey involves the quest for the Holy Grail of human flourishing, the deeper life, the thick self.
Please join with me in congratulating Gord Carkner on the occasion of the publication of his book “The Great Escape from Nihilism: rediscovering our passion in late modernity”. The book tracks our UBC Graduate and Faculty Christian Forum narrative and the rich contributions of the international scholarship that we have enjoyed over the past 28 years. The book describes the commitment to dialogue and critical enquiry that characterizes the GFCF’s ministry. Through the complex cultural “lens” of our premier Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and the writings of some of the most influential philosophers, scientists, historians, sociologists, cultural specialists and theologians of our time, Dr. Carkner provides wise and persuasive suggestions of ways forward in navigating the landscape of late modernity. The transcendent turn to agape love is the most challenging concept he exposits. This project is a rare and provocative contribution of high integrity.”
~Dr. Olav Slaymaker, Professor Emeritus, UBC Geography
As a graduate student from the Middle East, this book has helped me to understand Western culture better. I highly recommend it.
~Mary Kostandy, PhD student in Education at UBC, from Cairo
Keywords Nihilism, Secular Age, Search for Meaning, Scientism, Radical Individualism, Ideology of the Aesthetic, Recovery of the Good, Agape Love, Incarnational Humanism, Communal Responsibility, the Common Good, Late Modernity
Sampler of the Book
In this discussion, we want to engage the ideology of nihilism. It has taken many captive. Some are passive participants while others are self-consciously involved and have become active promoters. Nihilism is related to how we approach the world, how we choose and how we perceive reality. The interrogation of this outlook promotes dialogue about some crucial issues in late modernity, our current situation at this stage of Western Enlightenment. Working diligently together to decipher the code, we will expose the ideology to critical examination, and we anticipate some pertinent discoveries. We have chosen Charles Taylor as our principle investigative assistant. As one of the great thinkers of our time, he will be of great help to move our discussion onto significantly higher ground. He is one of the top twelve living philosophers, the preeminent Canadian philosopher in the political, cultural and moral realm, and the premiere philosopher of Western modernity. With his help, we hope that through discerning our location within Western culture, we can explore the claim that nihilism does not have the last word.
What follows is a deep structure protest that there are broader horizons and layers of meaning to be explored, researched and discovered. The journey ahead entails an archival rediscovery of lost language, lost potential in relationships, lost perspective on our lives. The discussion proceeds as a committed liberation project, because many today long to escape the confines, addictions and seductions of nihilism. The project is both a cultural probe and a quest. In his landmark book A Secular Age (2007), Taylor offers a monumental analysis of our philosophical and cultural climate, explaining how we have gotten here and where we might be headed. The stakes are high. He traces how we moved from theism through deism to atheism over 500 years, during roughly 1500 to 2000 C.E. But in this substantial, prize-winning tome, he also explores how we can rethink and refresh the current debate about
our identity and the nature of our ‘secularity’. Who indeed are we late moderns? What are the possibilities for dialogue between people of such divergent philosophical and ethical positions? How can we live and work together in a positive way? What are the interpretive keys for unlocking the mystery of our age, its spiritual and cultural imagination? Taylor claims:
“Our language has lost, and needs to have restored, its constitutive power. This means that we can deal instrumentally with realities
around us but their deeper meaning (the background in which
they exist) the higher reality which finds expression in them, is
ignored and often invisible to us. Our language has lost the power
to Name things in their embedding, their deeper, richer and higher
reality. The current incapacity of language is a crucial factor in our
incapacity of seeing well and flourishing. Our language, our vision
and our lives often remain flattened in late modernity.” (C. Taylor,
The discussion that follows is an attempt to recover the richness of language and also the larger horizon of its meaning. In both A Secular Age (2007) and his prior landmark discussion on philosophical anthropology, Sources of the Self (1989), Taylor documents a major change in the social imaginary. That entails its interpretive background, or way things seem to make sense to us. One might also refer to it as the conditions of plausibility. There has been a shift in ethos, one that includes people’s basic sensibilities, their intimate assumptions and perceptions about reality. He strongly encourages us to learn from our historical roots: “Our past is sedimented in our present and we are doomed to misidentify ourselves as long as we cannot do justice to where we came from.” (C. Taylor, 2007, 29). Our philosophical narrative is vital to our present self-understanding and problem-solving capacity.
Taylor notes that human flourishing has become our main focus of life in a period of unbelief in the transcendent or the divine. We have moved from a transcendent to an immanent worldview since medieval times. In the West, God was once the ultimate good for the majority of citizens, and now human flourishing is the dominant good within what he refers to as the “immanent frame” or personal horizon. Every person and every society inescapably lives by some conception of human flourishing (fulfilled life, one worth living, one which we naturally admire). It is often inscribed in ancient moral codes, philosophical theories, or religious practices and devotion. So the definition and parameters of human flourishing encompasses yet another key concept in our quest to discern our age.
Contrary to many, Taylor does not believe in the demise of religion in our post-secular age, but instead claims that we are in pursuit of more, rather than less, spirituality today. This reveals what he calls the ‘Nova Effect’ of multiple spiritual journeys or searches for meaning. We have not given up on spirituality and meaning; late moderns are looking for it everywhere. They are bent on making sense of their existence, even in this age of nihilism. He also speaks of multiple modernities, because we actually experience modernity differently in different contexts and different tribes. We are cross-pressured.
Perhaps this is why some authors like Walter Truett Anderson (1997) speak of people employing multiple selves as a coping mechanism, one for each environment. Late moderns are definitely on a search and no one is quite sure where it will end. Perhaps the very popular Academy Award winning film The Life of Pi is a sample of the complexity and uncertainty of such a journey. The main character explores several religious and secular views to make sense of his adventure and there are indeed many tensions between these viewpoints. He is quite conflicted as he tries to survive, like many people today. The film’s cult popularity shows significant cultural resonance with the ambivalence in the story.