James K. A. Smith. How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014. 148 pp. Paperback. $16.00.
Our secular age is “haunted” according to Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his monumental work, A Secular Age. How we came to inhabit such a world, filled with echoes of transcendence amid a “disenchanted” and immanent universe, is a complex phenomenon. Taylor offers a “zigzag account of causal complexity” (41) to explain the emergence of new conditions for belief. His unique third definition of secular (which he identifies with the label “secular3”) rejects the oft posited and tacitly accepted “secularization thesis.” It pushes back against an understanding that requires the subtraction of transcendent faith in the face of modern advances.
Taylor offers an original and prescient narrative that clarifies the clamor of subtle, pressing belief and unrelenting, inescapable unbelief, amid the chaos of the existential pressures of the Western world. He writes nearly 900 pages of sweeping intellectual and cultural analysis to elucidate his alternative narrative, “a genealogy of the secular and an archaeology of our angst” (ix)—900 pages that are at once intimidating, complex, and heavy.
Enter James K. A. Smith, another Canadian philosopher, who, in How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, provides readers with an articulate and accessible entry point into the dense and nuanced thought of Taylor. Smith provides a “commentary on a book that provides a commentary on postmodern culture” (ix). He mediates and condenses Taylor for a broad audience; telling a story about a story. It is an “existential map” (2) for all who live in this secular age. Smith’s work is directed primarily towards, but not limited to, “practitioners”: from the pastor or church planter to the atheist or agnostic, and all manner in between. Smith moves beyond Taylor, reflecting on the importance of Taylor’s work for the church and for ministry, critically interacting with and drawing out pragmatic meaning. Hence the implied-action-required of “how (not) to be secular.” Smith makes practical the intellectual, relevant the historical.
Smith maps out Taylor’s argument, which answers the fundamental question, “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?” (19). Smith begins by using contemporary novelists and popular music to articulate a nuanced sense of the “secular3.” His goal is to show what the haunting immanence and doubting transcendence that presses in on all who inhabit the present feel like. In the messy complexity of a world where what is “believable” has changed, a “society is secular3 insofar as religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested)” (22).
Here, the reader is provided with the first glimpse of Smith’s missional premise. The world has changed, and the church must first understand and then engage this change in order to be effective and faithful witnesses. However, the change that occured is not one we easily recognize, nor acknowledge. It is a change in the conditions of belief, this sense of the secular shaped by historical and cultural forces that undergirds the summary of Taylor that Smith offers. Smith’s Reformed (neo-Calvinist) theological position is apparent throughout this work, most notably in his defense of the Reformation over the more critical perspective offered by Taylor.
The first half of How (Not) to be Secular engages the “existential nature” (71) of significant cultural and philosophical shifts that occurred in the last few centuries. Smith focuses on how the conditions of belief changed, resulting in the emergence of “exclusive humanism” (22) as a viable option. The immense “cross-pressure” of innumerable beliefs caused the eventual “nova effect” (62) of fragilization and fragmentation. The latter half of the book fleshes out the implications of living in our doubting and haunted secular3 age amid the fragilization of belief. For Christians, this fragilization must be embraced in order to be authentic.
Smith’s work is vital to the church and its mission. His understanding of the nova effect and its impact on the contemporary world opens a new field of vision. It allows, argues Smith, for the emergence of the “spiritual but not religious,” which on the one hand is a substitute for faith and belief in traditional religion, while on the other reveals a desperate longing for something more. This can serve well as an entry point for contemporary conversations. Moving beyond the entrenched, standard didactic or evidential and certain response to those who believe differently, a thicker, fluid, and more experiential-based invitation may well offer possibilities. It is perhaps a matter of function over form, for it is often the form (of church or religion or apologetic) that is perceived as not enticing.
We are all secular, insofar as we live in a world where belief is contestable. This account of the present age that is “not concerned with what people believe as much as with what is believable” (19) helps us to understand that we are “caught between myriad options for pursuing meaning, significance and fullness” (62). And as Smith explains, if Christians are caught among these competing options, so too is everyone else. The “secular age” is, simply put, the suffocating air we breathe—the same air of Christians and those who believe otherwise alike.
Smith traces Taylor’s argument that the loss of an enchanted cosmos charged with transcendent meaning “that was open and vulnerable” (27) was replaced by a closed universe. An “immanentization” occurs, which gives rise to a new location of meaning, the individual mind (29). This results in a newly constructed social space, “the immanent frame,” which precludes transcendence and is emptied of intrinsic meaning. We live then in a closed, material world, where meaning and significance are determined by the immanent, the here and now. Smith aptly gives language to the malaise of inhabiting “a self-sufficient immanent order, even if we believe in transcendence” (93) and locates us within it. Christians are haunted by doubt. We feel the cross-pressures. However, if those who still believe in transcendence are haunted by doubt, those who believe differently are haunted by the ghost of a transcendent otherness being lost.
The question for the church and its mission then “isn’t whether we inhabit the immanent frame, but how” (93). This is a valuable perspective as the church seeks to find ways to “interpret” and engage the world, and itself. The faithful witness of the church must be critiqued against the allure of the immanent. Perhaps most significant is Smith’s critique of apologetics. In defaulting to “the modern apologetic,” which “excarnates” (or un-fleshes) Christianity, effectively removing experience in order to answer the new atheists, the church has lost focus. If we are to be faithful witnesses, listening, learning, and storytelling must become a part of our common vocabulary. Believers, and more specifically the church, need to appropriate an embodied narrative. Moving beyond mere acquiescence towards belief systems or argumentative apologetic postures, a contemporary form of “apologetics” must be rooted in experience, feelings, and imagination. Those who believe otherwise just may hear the echoes of transcendence. The secular3 age is existential. It is felt. It is experienced.
Smith’s work is essential. It simplifies the paradigm-shifting thought of Taylor while offering interpretative critique. It raises questions for the church today that relate directly to the church and its mission. How can we (not) be secular? How can we find a voice in a world where many different ways of believing is the norm? What points of contact allow for deeper and more meaningful conversations?
We are reminded through Smith’s practical and challenging questions of the necessity of faithful witness, where apologetics must be re-imagined, grounded in experience and relationship. We are reminded that we must not recoil in fear, but creatively lean into the cross-pressures of desperation and angst that suffocate. The mission of the church today must be grounded in an honest assessment of our social reality, remembering that this secular3 age is not characterized by disbelief but many ways of believing. The church itself must bear witness to transcendence. It must be always-reforming, seeking ways “not” to be secular in the immanent frame. We need to engage those around us with open hands, acknowledging our own doubting, in hopes of offering a glimpse of transcendence in the messiness, and an invitation to journey together.
Adjunct Professor of Theology and Philosophy
Alberta Bible College
Calgary, AB, Canada