How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K.A. Smith (Eerdmans; $16.00) 20% OFF SALE PRICE $12.80
I suppose it was a long time ago that I became familiar with books that I came to realize were very important, Peter Berger’s Social Construction of Reality,The Sacred Canopy and The Homeless Mind. Dutch Reformed philosopher and campus worker Peter J. Steen, then traveling throughout Western Pennsylvania, insisted that Berger’s notions of “plausibility structures” were helpful not only for Christian apologetics, but to understand how worldviews become ways of life, and how those ways of life turned into what could even be imaginable. “Ideas grow legs” we used to say. One didn’t need to know Walter Brueggeman’s generative The Prophetic Imagination to realize how even in the Bible, social contexts – like, say, the exile – might shape how we lived with socially construed constraints. And what it might take to have the imagination to see otherwise.
Years later, I heard somewhere that Bible scholar N.T. Wright said that before he could fully embrace the Christian faith, he had to grapple with the question of the resurrection. Of course, behind that is a bigger matter: can miracles happen? Do we live in a closed, mechanistic universe, or an enchanted Narnia? Can death ever be undone? To discuss if Jesus rose from the grave seemed insubstantial, if not actually pointless, if, really, we live in a closed, materialistic universe where nothing of the sort ever, ever happens. Interestingly, Tom turned to the logic and imagination of another Brit, one C.S. Lewis and his book Miracles to determine if something like resurrection could even be on the table. Once that was concluded – yes, we live in a cosmos, not just a universe, creation, not nature, and such extraordinary things could, plausibly happen, (Lewis puts it much more elegantly) – then Wright could proceed to wonder if this first-century Rabbi did predict his own death and vindicate his claims by walking out of his tomb.
Maybe I’ve had a bit too much espresso, but it seems I’m already a bit off track, bringing in my Dooyeweerdian mentor, the Boston University sociologist, Brueggeman’s biblical imagination and Wright’s appreciation for Lewis’ Miracles. Except for Peter Berger, none of these are cited in James K.A. Smith’s new How (Not) to Be Secular (Eerdmans; $16.00) the brilliant, learned, tour de force of a teacherly guide to one of the most brilliant, notable, scholarly books of our lifetime, Charles Taylor’s big bad boy,The Secular Age, published in 2007 by Harvard University Press. (We stock this large handsome hardback and it regularly sells for $50.00 although we would certainly honor the 20% off discount announced here.)
And I’ve already blundered a bit as Wright’s study of Lewis prior to engaging the question of whether the resurrection is plausible isn’t exactly what Berger means, let alone what Taylor means, by a “plausibility structure.” But it comes close, I hope, and is a way to help introduce this complicated project, Smith on Taylor on the lack of plausibility for orthodox Christian believe in our hyper-modern, secular age.
For Taylor, it is not that there are or are not more people who go to church these days, or who see themselves as spiritual or not. It is not about the rise of the new atheists, although their backstory is part of the situation. It is about the rise of new beliefs that supplanted previous views of the self grounded in older pre-modern worldviews (or, as Smith prefers, “social imaginaries,” a phrase he gets from Taylor’s very nice Duke University Press book Modern Social Imaginaries.)
Rather, the narrative approach offered by Taylor, accentuated by Smith, is not primarily one of what we no longer believe, although that is how major secularization theories tell the tale, and is also the presumption of the new atheists. Smith explains how Taylor calls these “stories of subtraction” — ways of describing the secularization of the West which feature the modern world “growing up” and maturing, leaving behind older ways, subtracting things from our vision — “shucking the detritus of belief” as Smith colorfully puts it — as we evolve out of religious faith. In this way of telling it, nearly a celebration of the subtraction of belief, Smith explains that “religion and belief withered with scientific exorcism of superstition.”
This is not the most insightful or helpful way to understand our times.
Importantly, again, this isn’t about the “data” of who no longer goes to church or how common-place spirituality may be or even if elite institutions are hostile to conventional faith or not. “On Taylor’s account, the force of subtraction stories is as much in their narrative power as in their ability to give account of the data.” In A Secular Age Taylor is largely offering a counter-narrative, a different story of our times. It is a story that needs to be told in this particular way.
Smith notes that Taylor “is persistently asking and re-asking various permutations” of these kinds of questions:
How did we move from a condition where, in Christendom, people lived naively within a theistic construal, to one in which we all shunt between two stances, in which everyone’s construal shows up as such; and in which, moreover, unbelief has become for many the major default option?
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 is not only easy, but even inescapable?
As Smith reminds us,
these questions are not concerned with what people believe as with what is believable. The difference between our modern, “secular” age and past ages is not necessarily the catalog of available beliefs but rather the default assumptions about what is believable. It is this way of framing the questions that leads to Taylor’s unique definition of “the secular.”
Which is to say this is a book about the notion of plausibility structures. And since disbelief is in the air, even those who believe see it now as a personal choice, their own expression of their own sense of self; what they are “into.” How we believe, those of us who do, is different these days. This is an extraordinary insight, and it pays us to ponder it well.
This is why, as we shall see, such an astute apologist and sophisticated church planter as Timothy Keller thinks that reading Smith on Taylor “could have a great effect on the quality of our communication and preaching.”
Ahh, I love connections between books as pieces of a puzzle start to fit together. It is notable that Taylor wrote a stunning book in 1989 (which of course we carry) called Sources of the Self (Harvard University Press.) I think I was first alerted to its significance by Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio, who is almost always ahead of the curve in discussing the deepest things that shape our way of being in the world. In A Secular Age, Taylor offers a major new contribution to this conversation, by coining a phrase, “the buffered self.” Smith explains it well, and utilizes this view of the insulated sense of one’s “interior” mind. Taylor contrasts this with the ancient and medieval views where the self is open and vulnerable to the enchanted “outside” world, and therefore susceptible to grace, unlike the plausibility experienced by those with a secularized buffered self. (He calls this sort of self and self-awareness “porous.”)
Page 45-46 of How (Not) to Be Secular which summarizes this is worth the price of the whole book.
On Taylor’s account, these aren’t just idle metaphysical speculations; these shifts in the social imaginary of the West make an impact on how we imagine ourselves – how we imagine “we.” The “buffered” individual becomes sedimented in a social imaginary, not just part of some social “theory.” What emerges, then, is “a new self-understanding of our social existence, one which gave an unprecedented primacy to the individual.” It’s how we functionally imagine ourselves – it’s the picture of our place in the world that we assume without asking. It’s exactly the picture we take for granted.
Smith then explains how Taylor describes this shift, in which society comes to be seen as a collection of individuals, as “the great disembedding.” As Smith wryly notes, “we can only make sense of this claim about disembedding if we appreciate the embedding that it’s dissing, so to speak.”
This disembedded, buffered, individualist view of the self seeps into our social imaginary – into the very way we imagine the world, well before we ever think reflectively about it. We absorb it with our mother’s milk, so to speak to the extent that it’s very difficult for us to imagine the world otherwise.
(An aside, but a good one: you may recall that I recently reviewed the new release by CPJ founder, James Skillen, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction. Skillen goes to great lengths to explore the ways in which social contract theory developed — from these very changes in our view of the self — and moves forward to the extraordinary significance of John Locke and social thinkers like John Stewart Mills and even the contemporary political philosopher John Rawls. If you think this stuff doesn’t matter, think of the controversies raging this season around things like the Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court. Skillen’s book about the history and development of our views of governments, offered so we might be more active and wise citizens in our pluralistic culture, owes much to these very sorts of insights so profoundly explored by Taylor and so ably explained by Smith.)
Smith is a master at explaining Taylor on this — and so many other fascinating details, all loaded with new ways of thinking about the nature of our times and how people experience themselves in our current context. He has worked through Taylor’s book with undergrads (granted, some very smart ones from Calvin College) and his “book about a book” has emerged from several years of teaching it.
In fact, Mr. Smith has been talking to a lot of people about this book. After meeting pundit and author David Brooks at the Q conference in DC a year ago (read the great transcript, here) he was quoted in one of Brooks’ The New York Times columns; that a Calvin College professor would get to talk about such a world-class philosopher in a Times column read around the world is pretty nifty, and those of us who knew Jamie were proud and glad for The New York Times link to Comment magazine. Brooks starts his piece admitting it is mostly a book report. You can read it here.
So it is important. Complex, but important. And Smith helps us get it.
This “buffered self” in contrast to a “porous self” is just one example of how Taylor offers what Smith calls “a lexicon of cultural analysis and understanding” and thinks that some of his unique terms and phrases could be introduced (“as helpful shorthand”) into our common vocabularies – “including the vocabularies of engaged practitioners.” He says this can be “a wake-up call to the church” and even gives hints on how we might “cultivate resistance” to the ways of the world. (You will understand Smith’s much-discussed, two-volume “cultural liturgies” project — Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom even better if you read this, I am sure!)
Taylor helps us see into our times, and gives us words and concepts by which we can more deeply realize what’s going on. And that matters to many of us, should matter to the church, and I am confident will be helpful for many friends of Hearts & Minds.
So, this is all very timely, especially for those of us who care about the common good, human flourishing, or, to put a more zealous spin on it, who want to make a difference in the world being fruitful salt and light and leaven, agents of reconciliation, useful to God for Christ’s redemptive purposes in the world. Knowing our missional context, especially in the West, is vital, and if you’ve even whispered that M word, you simply must know why this volume and its window into the world, is so very, very important.
Smith, you see, as I explained in the last BookNotes post reviewing his other new book, is a neo-Calvinist, catholic, postmodern philosopher, and, as such, he (among many other things) is interested not only in explaining this extraordinary account of secularization offered by Taylor in his acclaimed, magisterial book, but also is very interested in how Christian contributions to the common good might renew things like our social architecture. (See this great piece written when he took over the editorship of Comment magazine if you’d like to hear a bit more about what that sort of public theology sounds like, and this great little piece on institutions. They are both worth reading!) In other words, Jamie, as his friends call him, wants to help build signposts pointing to the new Jerusalem, he wants to see God’s Kingdom come “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” He’s a Kuyperian, after all, and we all know what Kuyper said about Christ claiming “every square inch” of His own creation. We all know what Lewis said about Jesus being the Rightful King, returning to claim His contested territory. We all know about the Death of Narnian Winter working backwards due to the Deeper Magic. We know the apostolic call to be ambassadors for Christ. We’ve recently heard the Maundy Thursday mandate to serve others.
Yes, yes, we want a Christo-centric sense of social and cultural transformation. From Kuyper’s polemic to Lewis’ fiction to the reforms of Wilberforce or Martin Luther King, just for example, we are inspired to care about the creation, to bear witness to the Kingdom coming, to serve God in this world, messy as it is.
As I commonly say as I try to sell books on this or that topic, to be effective in our lifetime we must be “sons and daughters of Issachar” (I Chronicles 12:32) who have an understanding of the times, even as they “know what God’s people should do.”
And that is exactly what philosopher Charles Taylor helps us do. Understand the times.
And that is exactly why Jamie Smith – himself a much-published, serious scholar – wants us to understand Taylor well. This is not just a specialized study for those in the philosophy guilds. This is a matter of realizing the “unintended consequences of the reformation” as one important author put it recently, and how our modern age has shaped us to inhabit the world the way we do.
How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor is a very serious, often quite readable, and sometimes even entertaining guide to Taylor’s heady magnum opus. The great gift of this, the brilliance of even the idea, is truly wonderful — amazing, when you think of it. Just imagine if a faithful, helpful Christian leader wrote an explanatory, critical conversation with and introduction to some of the other major works of our time shortly after they were written. How good it would have been if, a few years after The Origin of the Species or Das Kapital or Civilization and Its Discontents such an orthodox interpreter would have helped people of faith understand and appreciate (and critique) these seminal works.
But even this way of commending Smith isn’t quite right as it is Professor Taylor who is the robust Christian (he is Roman Catholic) who has given us (if Smith and so many others are to be believed) one of the most astute and insightful accounts of the quandary of our modern times yet written. He is the master guide. A Secular Age is the illustrative, major study and critical analysis of the eclipses and shifts and intellectual and social and culture history of the West and its worldviews — or, as Taylor and Smith put it “imaginaries.” How (Not) to Be Secular is Smith’s guidebook to the guidebook.
I could never review in these pages the nearly 1000-page tome that is A Secular Age (not least because I have not read more than a chapter of it, back when I was in some embarrassingly idealistic mood.) I am not sure I can even review Smith’s slim book very well.
But I know this: Taylor is very, very important, and I understand him a bit better now having read Smith. And (okay, I admit it) I’ve skimmed through a few of Smith’s more dense pages and disregarded a few of the charts (sorry, Jamie.) Give me props, though, for wanting to understand some of the heady stuff so badly that I’ve read some of it more than once. I’ve taken notes. And I have read carefully every single footnote, and each of the helpful definitions in the glossary. I even had a book-marker there so I could quickly turn to the definitions; in the preface we are advised to pay attention to this dictionary. Smith nicely has those words bolded in his text, words that have particular and sometimes idiosyncratic meaning for him and Taylor. If you are not used to reading philosophical texts, you will be glad for this glossary and other teacherly additions to this book.
And then there is the music and the discussion of modern novels. I do not think that Smith’s use of literature, indie pop music, and the occasional film is merely to make the big ideas more palatable, or merely as illustration, as if he puts in a cool quote to reach the kids. (Or, for that matter, as he said to me recently, the dads (ahem) who like the indie-scene songs that their kids listen to.) No, Smith truly likes serious novels and cool songs; he took in The National show at Calvin College just a few days ago, after all! And, as I suspect most BookNotes readers realize, much of our best contemporary popular art (literature, film, music) is very aware of the very situation that this book illumines. We are, to harken back to an older novelist, Flannery O’Connor, Christ-haunted — “fraught” as Smith puts it (despite “the areligious, de-transcendentalized universes created by Ian McEwan or Jonathan Franzen.”)
In an age when immanence has been squeezed upon us, we still long for meaning. The deep complexities of this Taylor explains as “the nova effect” and you’ll have to read Smith to appreciate it. Artists and poets give voice to the ennui that most of us know: they feel it. Smith’s brilliant third chapter is, indeed, called “The Malaise of Immanence: The Feel of the Secular Age.”
And so, I am hooked by the first great pages of this handbook to reading Taylor. Smith starts by explaining why we’ve got this angst, our cultural hauntedness, and how said scholarly Canadian philosopher helps us name it. But first, he frames the matter – offering ways into this conversation – by explaining the novelist Julian Barnes (yay) and contrasting two very different readings of David Foster Wallace. Early on he names a few important musicians, such as The Postal Service and describes a Radiohead concert he experienced. (He also offers an allusion to The Garden State on the first page!) This is really interesting and very helpful.
“Could we imagine,” Smith asks, “an existential map of our secular age that would actually help us to locate ourselves and give us a feel for where we are?”
He is right that such a map must include artists. As my friend Steve Garber used to say, artists “always get there first.”
Smith persuades us that we ought not trust those who offer certain kinds of maps (he means the fundamentalists, both the secular and religious ones.) “Their maps are just flat, and we feel like they’re hiding something. We feel like there are whole regions of our experience they’ve never set foot upon– as if they claim to have mapped Manhattan because they’ve visited Madison Square Garden. Who’s going to buy that map?”
He writes really well in this section. Listen to this:
Both of these sorts of maps are blunt instruments. They are road atlases that merely show us well-worn thoroughfares, the streets and interstates of our late modern commerce. They do nothing to map the existential wilderness of the present – those bewildering places in which we are beset by an existential vertigo. These neat and tidy color-coded road atlases are of no help when we find ourselves disoriented in a secular age, haunted by doubt or belief, by predawn fears of ghosts in the machine. These road atlases of believe versus disbelief, religion versus secularism, faith versus reason, provide maps that are much neater and tidier than the spaces in which we find ourselves. They give us a world of geometric precision that doesn’t map onto the world of our lived experience where these matters are much fuzzier, much more intertwined – where “the secular” and “the religious” haunt each other in a mutual dance of displacement and decentering.
Rather than a ham-fisted road atlas, what we need to get our bearings is a detailed topographic map of our secular age – a relief map attuned to the uneven terrain whose contour lines help us find ourselves in the wilderness of our doubts, and even the wilderness of our belief. An existential relief map would give us a feel for this ground that sometimes seems to be shifting beneath our feet.
Such a map, he says,
has room to acknowledge those hauntings of transcendence that sometimes sneak up on us in our otherwise mundane disenchantment. At the same time, such a contoured existential cartograph should also help us feel the suffocating immanence that characterizes late modern existence, even for “believers.”
Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is a book which provides that kind of a full-bodied map.
I am an unabashed and unapologetic advocate for the importance and originality of Taylor’s project. I think A Secular Age is an insightful and incisive account of our globalized, cosmopolitan, pluralist present. Anyone who apprehends the sweep and force of Taylor’s argument will get a sense that he’s been reading our postmodern mail. His account of our “cross pressured” situation – suspended between the malaise of immanence and the memory of transcendence – names and explains vague rumblings in the background of our experience for which we lack words.
Whether or not you have, as Smith puts it, “absorbed mental maps from Death Cab for Cutie and David Foster Wallace” this book is a great resource for you as you try to understand our times.
I do not mean to suggest that this is a book of apologetical tricks (there is a small section called “How Apologetics Diminishes Christianity” and Smith makes it clear that those foundationalist apologists offering defenses and evidences have given up the game by making arguments on the playing field of those who have eroded the plausibility of faith.) The book is about gaining a big picture analysis and a vocabulary to talk about our the our disenchanted, decentered times, but there are bits that just seem so helpful, practical to realize.
A bit random, perhaps, but ponder this quote – keeping in mind all that is implied by “immanence” and “transcendence” and open vs closed (minded?) frames/ imaginaries:
Taylor is most interested in considering (and contesting) the “spin of closure which is hegemonic in the Academy.” This is the spin that is dominant amongst intellectuals and elites who would actually see the “open” take on the immanent frame as “spin” and see their own “closed” take as just the way things are. For these secular “fundamentalists,” we might say, to construe the immanent frame as closed is to just see it as it really is, whereas construing it as “open” is a mode of wishful thinking. In effect they say: we “closed” framers are just facing up to facts of the case; it’s the “open” framers who are interpreting the world as if it could be open. The immanent frame is really closed even if some persist in construing it as open. For those adherents of the closed reading, it’s not a reading.”
It reminded me of the part of Presbyterian urban church planter Tim Keller’s excellent book (if somewhat unhelpfully titled) Reason for God when he invites skeptical readers to doubt their doubts, which he suggests are all based on “a leap of faith.”
Tim Keller, importantly, says of How (Not) to Be Secular, “I highly recommend this book.”
And here Keller says why he thinks it is so valuable:
Charles Taylor’s crucial book on our secular age is inaccessible for most people, including the church leaders who desperately need to learn from its insight. Jamie Smith’s book is the solution to the problem. As a gateway into Taylor’s thought, this volume (if read widely) could have a major impact on the level of theological leadership that our contemporary church is getting. It could also have a great effect on the quality of our communication and preaching.
Here another reviewer (T.M. Luhrmann of Stanford) exclaims about it:
This is a brilliant, beautifully written book on the dilemma of faith in a modern secular age. It introduced the reader to the material in Taylor’s dense book, of course, but it does more. It invites the reader on a journey through the experience of the spirit in different centuries, and how our conceptions of mind and person shape belief in ways far more intimate than we usually imagine. How (Not) to Be Secular is a gem.
Rather than a systematic review – I am beyond my pay grade, here, I admit – allow me to offer a few impressions of How (Not) to Be… by way of citing just a few bits I found intriguing, or that I thought might be alluring to you. I agree with Keller: Christian leaders should know some of this stuff. And Smith is a great, vibrant teacher, guiding us through it.
And I really love how the preface and long introduction invite all kinds of readers to the table – believers or skeptics, anyone who senses some confusion, some loss, something haunted about their lives and our culture. I hope that you find this interesting, or maybe can think of somebody for whom it could be a great gift.
Smith explains why – it is good to be reminded of this, I think – a study of the medieval world and the large reform movements from the Renaissance to the Protestant Reformation and more are
like the underground river of our secular age….these developments in the late Middle Ages unfurled possibilities that wouldn’t come to fruition until later in the twentieth century. So Taylor’s foray into this foggy past (for most of us) is not an arcane detour; it’s the family history we need to make sense of the 1960’s – the decade we’ve never left. As Rusty Reno quipped recently, it’s always 1968 somewhere. And Taylor suggests we won’t understand 1968 – or 2018 – without some chronological archaeology that takes us back to 1518.
And, again, Taylor explains and explores three different sorts of the use of the word secularization (and why the standard secularization theories are so very inadequate –shades, I think, of Peter Berger, again, it seems.)
As an astute academic I suppose that Smith would not often recommend the overview offered by Francis Schaeffer in his popular-level study of the rise and fall of Western civilization How Should We Then Live:The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture? Still, for non-scholars reading along still (God bless you, my fellow commoners!) I think it is worth noting that there is at least some general sort of overlap here.
Schaeffer, as I trust you know, wrote his own summary of the flow of ideas and genealogy of philosophies that worked themselves out from the early medieval world, the renaissance, the Enlightenment, the rise of science, into the industrial ages and some of the faith-based reform movements such as those fighting dehumanization in the Wilberforce-era England and the US civil rights movement. Schaeffer, with his affinity for the counter-culture kids, warned against cold technology and faceless bureaucracy and seemed to understand the ennui of our secularized times — he had read Camus, after all. He looked at modern art and what it often seemed to cry out against (he was very good friends with Dutch art historian Hans Rookmaaker.)
Schaeffer and his L’Abri community warned against an evangelical renewal that didn’t take seriously a concern for ideas, culture, social action and the real experiences of real people. I don’t quite know if his railing against a sacred/secular dualism – the “upper story” vs the “lower story” as he put it – has much to do with what Taylor describes as the loss of meaning when immanence is idolized (that is, the ordinary, “this-worldly” stuff of nature) and transcendence eclipsed. But I thought of Schaeffer when I saw the chapter in Smith with the subtitle “the Secular as Modern Accomplishment.” And I thought of Schaeffer – misunderstood and co-opted, eventually by the Christian right, I realize – when I read Smith explaining what the preeminent Taylor calls “exclusive humanism.” Schaeffer talked about that, too, albeit in a less exhaustive and nuanced way.
Listen to Smith and how he opens the important chapter in How (Not) to Be… “The Religious Path to Exclusive Humanism: From Deism to Atheism” as he writes,
How, in a relatively short period of time, did we go from a world where belief in God was the default assumption to our secular age in which belief in God seems, to many, unbelievable? This brave new world is not just the old world with the God-supplement lopped off; it’s not just the world that is left when we subtract the supernatural. A secular world where we have permission, even encouragement, to not believe in God is an accomplishment, not merely a remainder. Our secular age is the product of creative new options, an entire reconfiguration of meaning.
So it’s not enough to ask how we got permission to stop believing in God; we need to also inquire about what emerged to replace such belief. Because it’s not that our secular age is an age of disbelief; it’s an age of believing otherwise. We can’t tolerate living in a world without meaning. So if the transcendence that previously gave significance to the world is lost, we need a new account of meaning – a new “imaginary” that enables us to imagine a meaningful life within this now self-sufficient universe of gas and fire. That “replacement” imaginary is what Taylor calls “exclusive humanism” and his quarry is still to discern just how exclusive humanism became a “live option” in modernity, resisting typical subtraction stories that posit (and here Smith quotes Taylor) ‘once religious and metaphysical beliefs fall away, we are left with ordinary human desires, and these are the basis of our modern humanism.'”
Again, “modern exclusive humanism is just the natural telos of human life. We are released to be the exclusive humanists we were meant to be when we escape the traps of superstition and the yoke of transcendence. On such tellings of the story, exclusive humanism is “natural.” But Taylor’s point in part 2 of A Secular Age is to show that we had to learn how to be exclusively humanist; it is a second nature, not a first.
Which leads Smith to explain Taylor’s hugely important notions of “enclosure and immanentization: relocating significance.” I cannot even paraphrase this important portion, but he has a very important question to ask of many evangelicals who are recently reacting to “dualism” and focusing on “this worldly” mission and cultural engagement. It is really interesting and I think quite important.
And – to circle back to the start of this digression – it sounds a lot like Francis Schaeffer, although much more academic. There, I said it.
I know, this is risky – some think Schaeffer light-weight and misguided and others still find him obtuse and heady. I trust that readers of BookNotes and those who follow our Hearts & Minds columns will know that we value Schaeffer’s popularization of philosophy, how he realized the importance of the Romantics, and the counter-culture’s attraction to modern art. He listened to early rock music – Sergeant Pepper and Dylan – and hosted showings of nihilistic Fellini films when places like Wheaton College were still debating the propriety of screening The Sound of Music! I think that Smith may be playing a Schaeffer-esque role here for our generation, not just for the philosophically astute who naturally know to pay attention to his work (including his other brand new book, Who’s Afraid of Relativism? which studies the likes of Wittegenstein and Rorty and is pitched to postmodern church folk, missional and emerging villages) but for all of us.
We need to know what is going on in our world, how we got here, and be reminded to reflect on how we think and feel within it, and, if possible, about it. We are facing – as Taylor insists, and Smith underscores – “cross pressures.” “We moderns,” Smith suggests, “are not entirely comfortable with modernity.” The “modern moral order” leaves us with a generalized sense “that with the eclipse of the transcendent, something may have been lost.” It is this lack, loss, and emptiness that – in and by the absence of transcendence – press on the immanence of exclusive humanism, yielding what Taylor calls ‘the malaises of immanence.'”
This sounds like Schaeffer to me, and any number of other important and lively cultural critics. Geesh, I think, of the very, very important pair of books The Transforming Vision and Truth Is Stranger Then It Used to Be, by Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton. Smith cut his teeth on these books (he studied under Walsh and with Middleton at Toronto’s Institute for Christian Studies where he got his Master’s) and the hints of this fundamental critique of the roots of Western culture in those works (even as they were hinted at by Schaeffer) come to fuller fruition here. Much fuller.
Which I mention so that some readers will nod their heads and say to themselves that this does indeed sound familiar and is urgent, vital stuff. Not just because Jamie quotes the sadness of a Fleet Foxes songs (playing in the coffee-shop even as he was writing about the sadnesses of our age) but because this is part of a broader conversation and analysis that has been going on for decades. Roman Catholics and mainline denominational folks have had some influences akin to this as well (although less so, due to profound cultural accommodation of the sort Niebuhr predicted and the likes of Hauerwas even now critique) but I name Walsh and Middleton and Francis Schaeffer to call to mind this broad discussion for those wanting to be sons and daughters of Issachar.
It may be that some of this has been said before. It certainly is also the case that those I trust most as guides and mentors and scholars and prophets have insisted that Charles Taylor is extraordinary. My own dipping in assures me of that, but it also makes abundantly clear that I need some help – a bit more than Cliff Notes, but something like a companion to walk me through it all. I need a teacher and a guide.
Smith is that teacher, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor is that guide. It is not simple, but it is worthwhile, a veritable class in the history of Western civilization and an example of profoundly Christian scholarship.
This is very important material — ending with a lovely and perfect allusion to Eliot’s The Waste Land and a hope for spiritual and cultural renewal, especially among the young. We here at Hearts & Minds are very glad to commend it to you.
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