How (Not) To Be Secular – A Book Review of James KA Smith’s review of Charles Taylor

Unknown-1About a month ago we tried to gather the men at the rooftop but were foiled. We ended up in Brian Wilkes’ back patio, and settled in to make pleasant, polite conversation (as I am very apt to do) with Alan Noble. Do you know Alan Noble. He and his family recently moved to Shawnee because Alan has been hired to teach English at OBU. He write for a blog about Christianity and Pop Culture – check it out here:

In the midst of talking about how much I don’t like Cormac McCarthy (sorry), he mentioned to me that I should read the book How (Not) to be Secular, which is a summary of a 800-page history/philosophy book written by Charles Taylor. The book I”m reviewing is only 100 pages and was written by James K.A. Smith, a professor at Calvin College and the author of some other great books I’d highly recommend (Desiring the Kingdom, Imagining the Kingdom and Letters to a Young Calvinist come to mind).

Trying to be nice to Alan, I bought the book. Why not?

It was fantastic. Way to go Alan!

Taylor’s main hypothesis is that we are all secular people. This was a massive shift in thought and culture that took place over time, and he details the how and why that came to be. His main point is that you can’t do anything about it. You are in that shift. You are in that culture. You are in that worldview. All of us are. We can try to talk about it and even fight against it, but we are in it. You are the air I breathe indeed.

Taylor’s insights then give a helpful viewpoint because what he ends up saying is that nonChristians also inhabit this same space. And we all (nonChristians and Christians alike) have problems we have to deal with, namely what to do with our sense that this world is not enough especially in regard to death, time and morality. He calls this a disenchantment and we deal with this often by “buffering” ourselves from the effects of these problems – “”uc”>On the disenchantment and the buffered modern self: significance no longer inheres in things ; rather meaning and significance are a property of minds who perceive meaning internally.” p 29

People didn’t use to “be” this way. Your actions and beliefs had consequences to the larger community (family, town, city). We were unbuffered. “”uc”>The buffered self is essentially the self which is aware of the possibility of disengagement… It also carved out a space for a nascent privacy and such privacy provides both protection and permission to disbelieve.” p 39

People had ways for dealing with this unbuffered self, and the knowledge and realization they were living in a cosmos ordered by God – and they were sinners who needed help. “”uc”>Rhythms and seasons create opportunities to live in tension…. The modern age generates different strategies for resolving (eliminating) this tension.” p 32,33

I found it interesting as he goes over these things, how connected it is and has been to my thinking about the theology of place and time. It’s connected to thoughts about art, about liturgy and about a building. It’s connected to thoughts about how our thoughts/sin/goodness/life isn’t so privatized as we think. When people in our church do well at The Mule or Oak and Ore that affects all of us. When someone confessed pornography, we are all involved in that sin, that confession and that restoration. That feels true, but it also feels lost on us at least somewhat in our current secular age. We long to be more buffered, even though we can’t. 

The church has always – until recently – said that God orders our time and days. That Advent is a time. That Lent is a time. That there are Christian seasons and holidays and songs and creeds and rituals and symbols and a place for art, festivals, grief, confession and a full range of ways even to let off steam. Now the bar seems like it has either been lowered or it’s been raised so high that no one can ever ever ever possibly attain anything close to it so we end up losing out either way. 

I think Taylor’s on to something here, and James KA Smith makes this a very readable discussion. And that City Pres is a new church in this secular age – but we’re aware of a past that we don’t really long for in a nostalgic romantic way, but we are connected to and not ignoring. We’re inviting people into something bigger and deeper than a man-centered Pelagian universe that only we can order and only we are responsible. We can explain some of this, but much of it is truly mysterious still and we embrace that, while still striving to figure it out and communicate it in the grace that Christ alone brings. 

He’s saying that we need to think about this an in fact Christianity has the best explanation for these “cross purposes” that people feel and talk about and try to ignore. I think he’s right.

Now I guess I might even give Cormac another try if Alan can talk me through it over a smoke.