What We Believe
i

How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K. A. Smith

Susan M. Felch

Ordained Servant: June 2015

Ecumenicity

Also in this issue

The Path to Ecumenicity

L’chaim: An Invitation to the Blessedness of Ecumenical Life

A New Heaven and a New Earth: A Review Article

The Digital Divide, edited by Mark Bauerlein

The Church-floor

How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, by James K. A. Smith. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014, xi + 148 pages, $16.00, paper.

In How (Not) to be Secular, James K. A. Smith offers an atlas to Charles Taylor’s 800 plus page tome, A Secular Age (2007). Taylor’s book itself is a richly detailed topographical map that charts the journey of Western culture from near universal belief in God to our contemporary age where it is possible to “to account for meaning and significance without any appeal to the divine or transcendence” (141). Despite its erudition and detailed analyses, Taylor’s book, Smith claims, might better be read as a novel (24), which is a useful way to approach its diagnosis, critique, and prognosis. One need not subscribe to all the particularities of Taylor’s theory to appreciate his description of our current malaise. What Smith helps us to see is not an abstract philosopher, but a Christian thinker whose work has “existential import,” because, as Taylor insists, “we’re all secular now” (28). To be secular means that we live in “an age of contested belief, where religious belief is no longer axiomatic. It’s possible to imagine not believing in God” (142).

It is that imagining which affects both believers and unbelievers alike. Our secular age is not just a world with God neatly subtracted from the equation, as many would have us think; rather, it is a world of rival stories and rival claims to how meaning can—and should—be made. It is not so much an age of disbelief as “an age of believing otherwise” (47). In this contested “cross-pressured” space, Christians may find themselves unwittingly succumbing to a pernicious individualism and to arguments for God that circumscribe his transcendence. Smith and Taylor make the point, for instance, that modern concerns with theodicy are based on the presumption that, like God, we can see everything and therefore can “now expect an answer to whatever puzzles us, including the problem of evil. Nothing should be inscrutable” (52). On the other hand, those who are not Christians, especially musicians, writers, and other artists, may be haunted by a profound sense that there is “something more,” despite their commitment to understanding all of life within the “immanent frame” of this present, tangible world.

Smith points us not just to Taylor’s diagnoses, but also to his two-fold constructive agenda: to show unbelievers that their dismissal of God is itself a “construal,” not a neutral, unbiased, objective stance and to tell them a better story, a story that more fully accounts for the richness, beauty, and heartbreak of this world. The language here is inflected by phenomenology and Taylor’s Roman Catholic faith, but it resonates with Kuyper and Van Til’s critique of neutrality and the biblical mandate to proclaim the gospel. Because Smith wants us not merely to understand the arguments in A Secular Age, but also to learn from it How (Not) to be Secular, he goes beyond Taylor to urge readers to restore the centrality of communal worship, Word, and sacrament to their own lives.

With a book as long, complex, and suggestive as Taylor’s A Secular Age, it is handy to have a knowledgeable and articulate guide. Like all good maps, Smith’s book has a key, the very useful glossary of terms at the back. In fact, the serious reader may wish to begin there, in order to familiarize him or herself with the basic terrain.

At times, Smith’s atlas shows signs of its genesis in an undergraduate classroom (he wrote the book after teaching Taylor in a senior seminar). The occasional assumption that all readers are philosophy majors, some name-dropping, and references to 1990s popular culture may strike the reader as helpful, tangential, or slightly annoying, depending on age and preference. But these creases in a serviceable road map can be overlooked.

Susan M. Felch is a professor of English and Director of the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is a member of New City Fellowship (OPC), Grand Rapids, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, June/July 2015.

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Ordained Servant: June 2015

Ecumenicity

Also in this issue

The Path to Ecumenicity

L’chaim: An Invitation to the Blessedness of Ecumenical Life

A New Heaven and a New Earth: A Review Article

The Digital Divide, edited by Mark Bauerlein

The Church-floor

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