Featured Reviews, VOLUME 7

James K.A. Smith – How (Not) To Be Secular [Feature Review]

[easyazon_image add_to_cart=”default” align=”left” asin=”0802867618″ cloaking=”default” height=”160″ localization=”default” locale=”US” nofollow=”default” new_window=”default” src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51fsDCEvKEL._SL160_.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”107″]Page 2: James K.A. Smith – How (Not) To Be Secular

Smith explains that Taylor attempts to tell the story of how we got from “Christendom” to a secular “Age of Authenticity” typified by expressive individualism (the notion that each individual needs to find some form of authentic self-expression). It involves a series of theological, philosophical, and social convergences and zig-zags that were contingent, i.e., they did not have to happen. They are therefore not necessary, natural, or inevitable.
The end product is immanentism, the belief that we can explain everything without recourse to transcendence. For Taylor, however, even a staunchly immanentist worldview will usually have or ought to have some concept of “fullness.” Fullness attempts to name in a philosophical register what is really a spiritual concept, i.e., significance, meaning. We all still want to feel like this is worth something. In my experience, most atheists and agnostics will affirm sometimes experiencing a “sense of awe” in the face of nature’s grandeur or a scientific discovery, and they’ll say that’s transcendence enough.
Now, Taylor doesn’t go so far as to say that immanentist theories of “awe” will fail to provide fullness, but he doesn’t really have to. Smith frequently emphasizes that Taylor is describing how it feels to be secular; his goal does not seem to entail justifying or critiquing it as such. But if expressive individualism doesn’t offer an adequate account of fullness, it may eventually self-destruct.
But what about the “(not)” of Smith’s title? Well, prepare to feel a little tricked. Neither Smith nor Taylor want to turn back the clock on secularity; the gains in human freedom and dignity and in individual and social moral development are too valuable. Instead, Taylor critiques those fundamentalists, especially atheist ones, who do not recognize that we all have a “take” on the world and theirs is only one of them. Whereas fundamentalist atheists make bad secularists, reflective Christians can make pretty decent ones. The trick is to have a critical humility about your beliefs.
That said, Taylor is not necessarily quibbling about the truth of Christianity (though Smith feels he can be vague on this), but he does believe it’s a good thing that the church is not in the game of state power anymore (which I kinda like, too). The name of the game for the Christian is twofold. One: tell the story with integrity to make faith an attractive alternative. Two (and here Taylor’s Hegelianism emerges): bide our time as history makes a countermovement towards transcendence, absorbing the lessons of immanentism.
This may feel anticlimactic, but part of the point is that we have to live our lives as believers without the comfort of a society that shares our commitments. Smith has not left us entirely on our own in this. Throughout his gloss, he occasionally employs sidebars to raise practical questions for church leaders. For example, Taylor describes an early modern “eclipse of heaven” in which Enlightenment thinkers revised providence anthropocentrically, from an ultimate plan for God’s glory to an ordering of this world for human flourishing. Smith asks whether contemporary Christians who reject their fundamentalist heritage as “so heavenly minded it’s no earthly good” in the name of an emphasis on the goodness of creation aren’t themselves replaying this eclipse of heaven. It’s a challenging question that perhaps Smith asks of himself, though it rhetorically cautions us to maintain a balance between our present and future orientations.
There is a lot to chew on in this book, and for some people it may in fact get a little philosophical at times. However, if you can grasp this small volume, you’ll have achieved significant insight distilled from the source. Still, I think you’ll find yourself wanting to read not only Taylor but a half-dozen or so other books that James K.A. Smith references. This is philosophy with feet, a thick theology that will get your heart beating because it meets you in the complicated world we all share.

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities
and the life of the church." 

-Karen Swallow Prior

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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