Chicago Studies Fall/Winter 2023

Page 32

The Crisis of the Buffered Self and the Call to Friendship, Community, and Witness: A Response to Bishop Barron By Patricia Pintado-Murphy, S.T.L., Ph.D.

Bishop Barron offers a powerful analysis of the human condition in contemporary culture by relying on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. My brief response will first offer an overview of Taylor’s terms to further illumine the question of what the buffered self is. Second, I will address Bishop Barron’s diagnosis of the human condition to answer the question of why this self is in crisis. Finally, I will offer some complementary suggestions to answer the question of how to help our buffered selves. The Constitution of the Buffered Self According to Taylor, the cultural shift from an enchanted to a disenchanted world gave rise to exclusive humanism: the self becomes the buffered self who is closed off from outside forces and focuses exclusively on the immanent world as opposed to the transcendent world. Taylor calls exclusive humanism the attitude that allows the buffered self to create or find meaning through its own means. This self inhabits the immanent frame, “a constructed social space that frames our lives entirely within a natural (rather than supernatural) order.” 1 But within this immanent frame the person still senses a longing for transcendence, a desire for the spiritual, and “this often springs from a profound dissatisfaction with a life encased entirely in the immanent order. The sense is that this life is empty; flat, devoid of higher purpose.” 2 In our postmodern world we are living in what Taylor calls the Age of Authenticity where spirituality is alive as a quest and one has to “find” one’s faith, yearning for experiences of fulfillment. 3 MacIntyre explained emotivism in his critique of the modern self as “the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expression of attitude or feeling,” 4 that shape our personal choices and convey meaning. How we think and what we do are determined by what we like and thus what we choose. This is what Bishop Barron also refers to as the culture of self-invention which consists in one’s capacity to determine through freedom the meaning of one’s own life. Taylor argues that such a view implies that “[a]ll options are equally worthy, because they are freely chosen, and it is choice that confers worth.” 5 This assessment coincides with Bishop Barron’s awareness of how unlimited choice is a must to the generation of the “nones,” an expression referring to religiously unaffiliated people. The Crisis of the Buffered Self And so the key question posed by Taylor is whether or not one can find fulfillment without God. 6 Having elucidated Taylor’s understanding of the buffered self, I will briefly turn to Bishop Barron, highlighting some of his key insights. The most central views involving the buffered self are the following, which I directly quote from Bishop Barron: 7 1. The culture has given rise to the loss of religious commitment. 2. The good life can be had apart from any relationship to a transcendent reality.


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