How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James KA Smith

Summary: The traditional story of how to the world came to be secular (a subtraction of belief) is not the real story.

Starting last year I have been paying a lot of attention to James KA Smith (Jamie).  The first book of his that came across my radar screen was Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation. (I still haven’t actually read that one, it is on my list for this summer.)

But I did read Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works.  And it really did fundamentally change my perspective on liturgy and worship.  Since then I regularly read Smith’s editorials (he is the editor of Comment magazine) and I have slowly been reading some of his other books.

How (Not) to Be Secular is the type of book I wish were more popular.  For important ideas to really take hold, we need good authors to popularize those important ideas into formats that a general public can understand. Charles Taylor’s A Secular age is a massive and important book, but at 900 pages it is too long (and too dense) for most readers.  (And more than a few people have suggested Taylor is not the most readable author.)  So Jamie Smith has put together a 148 page companion that covers the basics of the argument and includes relevant contemporary examples.

The basic idea of A Secular Age is to explain what it means to live in a secular age and how we have come to this place in culture.

“We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike. There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places. Every religion is one among many. The clear lines of any orthodoxy are made crooked by our experience, are complicated by our lives. Believer and unbeliever are in the same predicament, thrown back onto themselves in complex circumstances, looking for a sign. As ever, religious belief makes its claim somewhere between revelation and projection, between holiness and human frailty; but the burden of proof, indeed the burden of belief, for so long upheld by society, is now back on the believer, where it belongs.”

Taylor’s innovation is how he reframes discussion about secularization from what it has lost (belief in God) to how the very nature of belief claims have changed.

“…these questions are not concerned with what people believe as much as with what is believable. The difference between our modern, “secular” age and past ages is not necessarily the catalogue of available beliefs but rather the default assumptions about what is believable. It is this way of framing the question that leads to Taylor’s unique definition of ‘the secular.’”

There is no good way to summarize this book.  Smith already has condensed a 900 page book into 148 pages and I can’t condense that 148 pages into 700 words.  But there are a couple points that really struck me as important.  First, it is a good reminder that our world is not the only possible world.  We have one ‘take’ on the world, that is not the same one that our pre-modern ancestors had, and it is not the only possible one that could have come about.

Second, part of how secularization came about is that God moved from the being that controlled everything, to the being that put everything into place.  So where pre-moderns saw God’s hand in everything, we tend to see God as a step removed.  The sun rises not because God told it to rise, but because God put into place a natural world that makes it appear that the sun is rising. It is probably more important for Christians to understand how our world has changed than non-Christians because our very belief systems now have to take into account not only the reality of God in the world, but the reality of God in a world that has moved God yet another step away.

Third, as has been noted by a number of books I have been reading lately, the real incarnation of Jesus as human becomes even more important (and in some ways more unbelieveable) because of the way that modern culture understands God as other.

And fourth, we cannot turn back.

So shouldn’t an “authentic” Christianity want to turn back the clock? “Isn’t the answer easy? Just undo the anthropocentric turn” (p. 651). Not so fast, cautions Taylor. First, even if we wanted to, there’s no simplistic going back. The anthropocentric turn is in the water; it’s increasingly the air we breathe.31 Not even orthodox Christians might realize the extent to which we’ve absorbed this by osmosis. Second, for Taylor, we shouldn’t want to.

If you are interested in my take aways, Smith did do an interview with his publisher about the book that I think does a very good job introducing the book and giving you are good jumpstart on Taylor.

If you are frustrated with the way that apologetics are done in the church, or with how many seem to be missing the point (both inside and outside the church) of what it means to believe in something this might be a helpful book.  The video below is 25 minutes, but it is well worth your time. (I rewatched it this morning before posting this.)

How (Not) to Be Secular Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

If you are adventurous — A Secular Age by Charles Taylor Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition
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One Comment

I read this recently and discussed it with my father and two brothers-in-law. We all valued the book’s message and agreed that it was a very readable summary of a (presumably) difficult text. I am still processing the implications of the argument and probably need to reread it in a year or so. Like many subjects, I think I can understand most of the concepts but don’t have enough background in philosophy to evaluate how tight the argument is. Next on my list is to read some reviews of A Secular Age.

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