A book sure to make my list of “favorite reads” this year is Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age - a work of philosophy and history that opens a window on the meaning of secularity and its significance for how we live.
I don’t know how I would have had the stamina to persevere through Taylor’s volume if not for a companion book: How (Not) To Be Secular by James K. A. Smith. The companion volume does more than summarize Taylor’s work; Smith adds to it, dissents from it, and explores its relevance for the church today.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve written a number of reflection posts based on Taylor’s work:
- 3 Definitions of “Secular” and Why They Matter for Our Mission
- The Mirage of “Golden Age” Christianity
- Rugged Rationalism and the Church’s Alternative Story
- Discipleship in the “Age of Authenticity”
Today, I’ve invited James K. A. Smith here to discuss his book, How (Not) To Be Secular, and the significance of Taylor’s A Secular Age for understanding our cultural moment and how the church can thrive in this environment. Smith is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College. I’ve interviewed him twice before, about his books Imagining the Kingdom and Desiring the Kingdom.
Trevin Wax: Something that might surprise readers who pick up a philosophical work like A Secular Age is the amount of space Taylor devotes to historical survey. You encourage readers to treat the book almost like a novel, or at the very least, a story to be absorbed. What is the significance of Taylor’s narrative method and how does it relate to his overall argument?
James K. A. Smith: Well, first, Taylor believes that if we are going to understand our present, we have to know how we got here. It’s kind of like when you’re courting a spouse: things are getting serious, and you notice some characteristics and traits that are quirky, or maybe even troubling. And then you meet their parents and you’re like, “Ooooooh, now I get it. I see where this is coming from.”
In a similar way, what you need is a kind of genealogy of late modern culture:
- What’s our family tree look like, so to speak?
- What were the twists and turns that got us to our “secular age?”
- What shifts took place in the realm of ideas?
- What changed at the level of communal practice, material life, and political organization?
If you think “everything changed” in the 1960’s, your purview is too shortsighted. We are the heirs of societal shifts that are 500 years old. It might look like you’re witnessing a revolution, but it turns out it’s been percolating for centuries.
Or think of it this way: we might be witnessing flash fires that catch us off guard, but Taylor wants to show us that the fire only flared up because there’s been a social and intellectual lava flow creeping across culture for centuries.
Second, Taylor is trying to give us a narrative because he appreciates that we are “storied” creatures. I don’t think he quite pulls this off, because he let the project grow to such a gargantuan, overwhelming length. But when you distill it down, as I try to do in How (Not) To Be Secular, you can see that Taylor is trying to tell a story because he believes that we really make sense of the world at an “imaginative” level.
So it’s not enough to convince people with an argument; you have to capture their imagination with a story. (I think this is why Hal Bush has rightly read How (Not) To Be Secular alongsideImagining the Kingdom.)
Trevin Wax: Taylor describes the path from a pre-modern era where unbelief was almost unthinkable to the place we are today, a world that has been “disenchanted” and can now be reordered according to reason. Readers may be surprised to see Taylor attribute at least part of this shift to the religious Reform initiated by Protestants (also impacting Catholics) in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What aspects of this development do you believe were positive? What aspects were negative?
James K. A. Smith: We should emphasize that, in many ways, Taylor affirms this shift. By refusing a kind of two-tiered view of the Christian life, these late medieval Reform movements emphasized what he calls “the sanctification of ordinary life”: that those engaged in the nitty-gritty of domestic life—having families and raising children and making horseshoes and tilling the earth—live their lives just as much coram Deo (“before the face of God”) as those who renounced domestic, “earthly” life (monks, priests, nuns). There is no all-star team in the Christian life; we are all called to holiness and we can pursue holiness in any and all of our earthly vocations. In a sense, then, the Reformation recovered a more affirmative theology of creation, creaturehood, and so-called “earthly” work.
However, one of the other results of the Reformation was a kind of disenchantment of Christian worship, not so much in Luther and Calvin, or at least not to the extent that later Reformers like Zwingli or the Puritans. This disenchantment involved a rejection of sacramentality—the conviction that the Spirit meets us in matter, that material stuff is a channel of grace. As a result, Christianity becomes a kind of intellectualized set of ideas rather than a liturgical way of life.
Taylor calls this a process of excarnation, and in many ways I think it is a lamentable byproduct of the Reformation—and not one that necessarily has to follow from other convictions of the Reformers. Indeed, I would say some of us (like Todd Billings, John Witvliet, Hans Boersma, me, and others) are trying to recover a ”Reformed catholicity” that tries to undo this part of the story.
Trevin Wax: You agree with Taylor that many versions of Christian apologetics not only respond to the Deism or Humanism they confront, but also reflect some Deistic or Humanistic assumptions. Can you explain the critique here, and offer some apologetic methods you believe are more effective in our secular age?
James K. A. Smith: What I mean is that most forms of apologetics (what we often identify as “classical” apologetics) don’t realize the extent to which they have absorbed and assumed the epistemology of an immanent frame, or have accepted the modern expectation that we should be able to make sense of the whole in our ability to explain, for instance, the existence of evil in God’s good world (why should creatures expect to have the purview of the creator?). Too many Christians accept an ontology or metaphysics that is quite content with a disenchanted world—and then try to paradoxically argue for the existence of God from that standpoint. (Obviously I say more about this in the book.)
To put it another way: too often Christian apologists try to convince people’s intellects and fail to realize that many people don’t believe otherwise because of reasons or evidence but precisely because stories have captured their imaginations and they are living out an alternative narrative.
So, a more effective apologetic would not fight skirmishes on the level of the rationalistic debates but would target our “social imaginaries” (as Taylor calls them)—the submerged, tacit, inchoate ways that we imagine the world before we ever think about it. This is why Cardinal Ratzinger, just before he became pope, said that the church’s most effective witnesses were her saints and her art. Both speak to the imagination.
In a secular age, Josh McDowell and William Lane Craig are not really going to pierce the imaginaries in which many people are ensconced. We would do better to give friends a copy of Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic, or the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, or get them to watch the HBO documentary, God Is the Bigger Elvis.
Trevin Wax: Taylor writes about the “malaise of immanence” – feeling the “cross-pressures” of being pushed toward immanence and transcendence simultaneously in our pursuit of meaning and significance. What are some popular films or books that would help us better understand these cross-pressures?
James K. A. Smith: Ah, that’s an interesting question. Obviously I can only suggest some of my own favorites that will no doubt reflect some of my own preferences and tastes.
For my money, David Foster Wallace is a fascinating writer in this respect. Folks might start with his posthumous short story, “All That.” Christopher Beha’s novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, could almost be read as a companion volume to Taylor’s A Secular Age. The recently published Prayer Journal of Flannery O’Connor is also interesting in this respect—giving us a glimpse into the complex life of a believer struggling with doubt in modernity. The poetry of Franz Wright shows us someone working through these same sorts of cross-pressures. And despite the fact that hipsters love to hate on it, I actually think U2’s latest album, Songs of Innocence, inhabits exactly this space, pushed and pulled between immanence and transcendence (not surprising, given the echo of Blake).
Trevin Wax: Taylor describes our current age as one of “authenticity” or “expressive individualism.” How does the church speak compellingly in this kind of society (knowing we too are formed by individualistic assumptions) while also countering elements of this outlook that are not in line with Scripture?
James K. A. Smith: Well, for the most part, I don’t think the church has been at all compelling in this respect, to be honest. The church largely reflects rather than deflects this expressivist tendency. When I look at the sorts of writers who become bestsellers in evangelicalism, my heart sinks. Expressivism sells, and perhaps nowhere more than among those who are “spiritual.”
That said, this is the water we’re swimming in, and it won’t do just to denounce it or rail against it. We need to meet people where they are. That might involve looking at how a biblical worldview uniquely values the individual: we are called into a relationship with the God who knows the very number of hairs on our head. In fact, Taylor would say that this biblical emphasis on Christ’s redemption of individuals is partly what got us to today, though obviously this biblical emphasis on individual dignity becomes something else when it morphs into individualism.
Perhaps starting from there, we can also help folks to name and identify just how and why an individualistic, expressivist orientation to the world is so exhausting and starts having diminishing returns. Do-it-yourself spirituality is actually a lot of work, and can be incredibly isolating. If we can meet people where they are, and perhaps give them space and freedom and permission to be honest about how this “isn’t working,” we can invite them to see why finding oneself in relation to something bigger than the individual can be experienced as a liberation from self-enslavement.
I think this is one of the reasons why I believe Augustine is actually such a contemporary resource for us. Indeed, I think he’s the patron saint of postmoderns. But that’s my next book.
A common thought in our secular age is that religious explanations of the world, however appealing they may be, are inadequate. Religious faith is nothing more than a coping mechanism for a harsh world, a futile attempt to find meaning and sense in the suffering and mystery of human experience.
Those who leave their religious faith and adopt a purely materialist view of the world often give credit to science for their “deconversion.” They see science as the arbiter of truth, and so they trade belief in the “Rock of Ages” for the rock-solid proof of scientific discovery. There are no mysteries in our world, only puzzles still unresolved by scientists. The rationalist perspective may not be as beautiful or appealing as the idea that all wrongs will eventually be made right or that death is not the end. But it’s the truth. It’s solid. There is “proof.”
Does Evidence Make Atheists?
In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor examines this narrative of “conversion to unbelief,” and he concludes that it is based less on scientific proof than the convert thinks. In other words, what is really going on is not that the convert has suddenly discovered proof that God does not exist or that religion must be false. Instead, the convert has already entered another story, one in which the rationalist picture seems more plausible than religion’s appeal to mystery and transcendence. Still, the convert attributes his conversion to “scientific proof.”
But Taylor wonders: what if the subconscious reason for his abandonment of faith is that he is attracted to the rugged appeal of rationalism – the fierce facing of reality, however stark the picture may be? He writes:
What made [atheism] more believable was not our “scientific” proofs; it is rather that one whole package: science, plus a picture of our epistemic-moral predicament in which science represents a mature facing of hard reality, beats out another package: religion, plus a rival picture of our epistemic-moral predicament in which religion, say, represents a true humility, and many of the claims of science unwarranted arrogance. But the decisive consideration here was the reading of the moral predicament proposed by “science”, which struck home as true to the convert’s experience (of a faith which was still childish – and whose faith is not, to one or another degree?), rather than the actual findings of science. (366)
In other words, the person who abandons their “childhood faith” may attribute their conversion to scientific evidence when, in fact, it’s the appeal of leaving behind “childhood” and grasping for maturity, in this case the cold, hard realities of a fierce and lonely world. The freedom of being without God is that we are able to fashion reality as we please, to order our lives and our vision of the world however we think best.
At its heart, then, this journey away from faith is driven by ethics more than evidence. Those who reject faith as “childish” see themselves as growing beyond silly superstitions, choosing instead to accept scientific evidence no matter what conclusions it leads them to.
The Rugged Rationalist
Believers may have a hard time understanding why anyone would make this switch. It seems like such a poorer story, one that robs our fragile humanity and temporal lives of any eternal or lasting significance. But Taylor describes why this rugged rationalism is attractive:
We are alone in the universe, and this is frightening; but it can also be exhilarating. There is a certain joy in solitude… The thrill at being alone is part sense of freedom, part of the intense poignancy of this fragile moment… All meaning is here, in this small speck. (367)
This type of “rugged rationalism” is on full display in the opening lines of Richard Dawkins’Unweaving the Rainbow, a passage often read at humanist funerals:
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”
Taylor argues that the decisive factor in a conversion from faith to unbelief is the trading of one story for another. Only then does evidence enter the picture and confirm the person’s slide toward unbelief. He writes:
What happens is that people are convinced that there is something more mature, more courageous, readier to face unvarnished reality in the scientific stance. The superiority is an ethical one… If I become convinced that the ancient faith reflects a more immature outlook on things, in comparison to modern science, then I will indeed see myself as abandoning the first to cleave to the second. (365-66)
So, what proves decisive is not the latest piece of science but the story science tells, as well as the desired self-image of being mature and rational.
The Church as Community Apologetic
What might this truth mean for our engaging of people who are in the process of abandoning the faith they inherited as children? Commenting on Taylor’s view, James K. A. Smith writes:
If Taylor is right, it seems to suggest that the Christian response to such converts to unbelief is not to have an argument about the data or “evidences” but rather to offer an alternative story that offers a more robust, complex understanding of the Christian faith. The goal of such witness would not be the minimal establishment of some vague theism but the invitation to historic, sacramental Christianity.” (77)
The classical approach of apologetics is to present rational proofs for God’s existence, and then from this point to argue for the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and His resurrection. Classical apologetics is beneficial in the effort to show that Christianity is true, but if Taylor is right, then one is already likely to accept or reject reasons for belief before they ever hear them because the greater story is already conditioning them to accept or reject “proofs” of God’s existence and the truth of Christianity.
Perhaps this is why one of the best ways to engage an unbeliever is simply to invite them to church. Lesslie Newbigin spoke of the people of God as a “community apologetic.” It’s not that the church replaces other, rational strategies and arguments for belief in God. It’s that the church becomes the atmosphere, the teller of a better story, a story whose truth begins to work on the heart of a non-religious person, conditioning them for the moment when the classical apologetics “proofs” are then used by the Holy Spirit to confirm the belief He has already initiated in them.
Christians today should make use of the various tools we have at our disposal in order to persuade people to follow Jesus. But let’s not leave out the world where God’s good news comes alive – the people of God who corporately witness to a kingdom that has no end. It may be that the best apologetic for a secular age is a people who are in this world but not of it, who counter the rugged rationalist with the true story of new world which began on a Sunday morning outside Jerusalem.
Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age skewers the notion that secularism is the result of a straight-shot progression from religious superstition to objective rational belief in science. His historical survey delves into the complexities of the historical record, and along the way, he shows how easy it is to interpret history as a way of justifying our own biases.
The Progressive’s Abandonment of the Past
The non-religious person today who is fully convinced that ours is the era most privileged and progressive and advanced in human history will find it unnecessary to reach into the past and retrieve insights that may be useful for contemporary society. The past is something we are escaping from, not something we would ever turn toward.
“Those who identify totally with our times can easily accept a straight theory of progress,” Taylor says. “We have nothing to learn form past epochs; insofar as they were different from ours, we can set them aside as irrelevant” (745).
This explains why, on a controversial issue such as the definition of marriage, appealing to thousands of years of history or worldwide consensus can so easily be brushed aside with the swoop of the hand.
You’re appealing to tradition and history? There are other things in history we’ve evolved from, including the subjugation of women or the use of slavery. Who cares if history is on your side? The future is on ours.
Whatever we find in the past that does not fit with the contemporary zeitgeist can be swept away without even the slightest engagement.
The Conservative’s Search for the “Golden Age”
The religious person, on the other hand, is more likely to commit the opposite error. Feeling the pressure of increasing alienation from the modern age, and holding tightly to the significance that comes from believing in transcendence, the Christian is likely to pine for the “good old days” when belief in God was assumed, not challenged, when the burden of proof was on the shoulders of the irreligious, not the devout.
The thoroughgoing progressive believes things have been getting better, not worse, and the thoroughgoing conservative believes things have been getting worse, and not better.
As such, the Christian is likely to push for a return to a previous era. Taylor explains:
“They (the Middle Ages, or the seventeenth century, or the pre-60’s America) got it right, and we have to repudiate whatever in modern times deviates from that standard” (745).
Because evangelicals see ourselves tasked with engaging and resisting the culturesimultaneously, we always face the temptation of pining for a golden era of Christianity.
The Early Church
Some believe in the pristine days of the early church and want to return to the simplicity of those times. But a cursory reading of the New Testament reveals that the earliest days were not flawless. Doctrinal crises, moral quandaries, disciplinary actions, and divisive factions often carried the day. There is much good we can retrieve from the early church, but we cannot and must not try to return.
The Great Tradition
In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in the church fathers. I have benefited from the writings of Chrysostom, Augustine, Hilary, and Basil. The recent translations and commentaries on these ancient works offer us spiritual nourishment.
And yet, it is a mistake to think of the centuries of ecumenical councils as a “Golden Age.” These were also the years that gave us an amped up neo-Platonic vision of the body, downplayed the ordinary Christian life, led toward ascetic extremes, and married church and state to the point crusades could be led in the name of the Prince of Peace.
The Reforming Puritans
The gospel-centered crowd today is most likely to look back to the Reformation and the subsequent centuries. We look back with gratitude for the recovery of justification by faith and the Puritan era of personal piety, doctrinal precision, which stirred revivals that shook the landscape of early America.
But even here, we are wrong to spot a “Golden Age.” All the Reformational heroes are marred in one way or another: Luther’s anti-Semitism, Calvin’s egregious treatment of doctrinal disputants, Edwards’ acceptance of slavery, etc. Geneva is a Ghost Town with buried treasure still being unearthed; it is not a home we can ever inhabit again.
“Immediate to God”
In short, there is no Golden Age of Christianity. Taylor quotes Ranke’s famous phrase unmittelbar zu Gott applied to the ages of history. Loosely translated, it means all ages are “directly or immediate to God.”
In other words, these ages “differ because each mode of Christian life has had to climb out of, achieve a certain distance from its own embedding in its time… But far from allowing these modes to be neatly ranked, this is the difference which enables them to give something to each other” (745).
Church History as Treasure Box, Not a Map
What is the takeaway for evangelicals today? In contrast to the progressive’s rosy view of the present and untested view of the future, we may often be standing in the middle of the road with our hands outstretched, saying, “Stop and consider!” as the rushing crowd surges forward to a future unable to fulfill their utopian dreams.
But we must also resist the temptation to see a past era as necessarily “better” or “worse” than our own. Church history is a treasure box, not a map. We don’t honor our forefathers and mothers by seeking to return to their times; we honor them by receiving their wisdom and learning from their victories and failures. We retrieve from the past the elements and tools needed for faithfulness today.
There is no “golden age” of Christianity in the past, only an unbroken line of broken sinners saved by the grace of God and empowered to transmit the gospel to the next generation. One day, we’ll be history and our insights will be in the treasure box too. Let’s make sure we’ve given our best.
Ten years ago this fall, Lost debuted on ABC. It was groundbreaking drama with a premiere that smashed records and garnered a a rabidly devoted fan base.
Six years later, Lost ended as a letdown for many of its most faithful fans. Why did the show draw such attention? And why did it prove ultimately unsatisfying for so many viewers?
How Lost Drew Us In
Lost was at the forefront of “the binge-watching era,” a phrase used to describe the immediate consumption of entertainment through streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Because previous seasons of Lost were available on DVD and later online, viewers could start at the beginning whenever they wished and “catch up” on the show before joining the rest of the country for the new episodes.
And make no mistake, watching the show on television mattered. Audience participation was as vital to the experience as viewing the show itself. Coworkers discussed the show in the office the next day. Fans took to websites and blogs to share their theories, revel in the mysteries, and critique other people’s ideas.
The producers of Lost didn’t talk down to us. They expected us to catch the show’s philosophical bent. They wanted us to look up the famous thinkers Lost’s characters were named after – Rousseau, Locke, Faraday, Charlotte Staples Lewis, etc. They infused the show with religious imagery, ancient myths, and a mix of scientific and political theories.
As a result, Lost raised the bar for TV watching. The show was savvy and smart, with interesting characters and a gripping storyline. In our world today, people are closer than ever in public spaces of multicultural display (i.e. the airplane), and yet we are farther apart in our failure to know and understand the people around us. Lost created a microcosm of human society, a group of individuals united by tragedy, yet utterly divided in their opinions of how they can best battle the elements, resist their evil impulses, and discover the purpose for their lives.
Lost also captured the inner angst of our secular age – the desire to discover something beyond our own lives. The show depicted a world haunted by the echoes of transcendence. That’s why a common theme in the early seasons was the showdown between the “Man of Science” (Jack) versus “Man of Faith” (Locke). There was never any doubt that Lost would end up squarely on the Faith side of the equation, because the island was charged with cosmic grandeur. Even so, the man of faith would come with wrestle with doubt, and the man of science would be drawn to the island’s magic.
At every turn, the writers reinforced the idea that humans are part of a larger narrative, a grand scheme. The crossing of our paths is not accidental. A divine purpose ripples through creation and surprises us in ways the analytical mind cannot fully grasp.
Meanwhile, the sociological part of the show provided the greatest opportunities for character development. A disparate group of people from different cultures and backgrounds inhabit a deserted island. We watch them as they seek to create a society on an island full of ruins of failed experiments and dashed utopian dreams. Lost was gripping because it introduced us to characters we cared about and wanted to survive.
How Lost Lost Us
In Lost‘s later years, fans wondered if the show could answer all its mysteries. We began to doubt the overarching narrative. In order to continue to maintain the audience, the producers had to simultaneously resolve old mysteries and introduce new ones. As the mysterious elements began to pile up, the show began to slide toward chaos. The science fiction elements began to dominate the plot, often at the expense of character development.
In the first season, the island was a backdrop for the characters. Over time, the island’s unique attributes began to upstage the uniqueness of Lost‘s characters.
Then, after six years of promises, the show concluded with a widely watched finale that angered and disappointed the majority of viewers who’d come along for the ride. Lost premiered with a bang and went out with a whimper, a confusing amalgam of spiritual symbols that left viewers scratching their heads.
It turned out that Lost‘s biggest strength proved to be its biggest weakness. Its ambitiousness in creating characters whose lives intersected according to a cosmic purpose couldn’t keep pace with itself. The reason we watched Lost was its bold promise that everything will soon make sense. The reason we were let down was that the “sense-making” turned increasingly inward; the haunting transcendence of the island was reduced to the psychological deliverance of the characters.
The finale shouldn’t detract from Lost‘s many enjoyable moments. We imagined ourselves on the island with Lost‘s colorful cast of characters because we also inhabit a world of individual stories that are connected to a cosmic narrative that makes sense of reality. Lost drew us in because it reflected our own attempts to find meaning and love in a culture caught between science and faith.
But Lost let us down because all it could do was point ever so faintly toward the grand finale we long for in the deepest part of our souls – the last chapter of this present world when all wrongs will be righted, all injustices will cease, and we will finally understand purpose and pain.
Maybe that’s the best takeaway from Lost. Its contribution was to awaken people to the mysteries of the world around us. And with its thirst for transcendence, Lost still points beyond itself in the human search for answers to life’s greatest questions.