James K. A. Smith. How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014. 161 pp. $16.00.
Christians navigate a world dominated by secularism. Christendom has seen an end, but is that the final end? What do we mean by secularism? How did we get here? Do Christians embrace this environment? Combat it? How? Why? Why not? What are the implications of secularism in everyday life? How do Christians navigate a secular world?
For a pastor to ignore these questions would be foolish. He can’t just sweep the Church under a sacred rug and hide it in the secular room it occupies. But how does a pastor address these questions? Where does he start? To whom does he turn for counsel?
An excellent conversational partner is James K. A. Smith’s recent book, How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. This 150-pager is an accessible commentary of Charles Taylor’s seminal work on post-modernity. Smith, a philosophy professor at Calvin College, distills Charles Taylor’s, A Secular Age, to one-tenth its size, helping readers to interact with and process Taylor’s observations.
Who is Charles Taylor? Taylor is a Catholic philosopher who has made significant contributions to interpreting post-modernity. Taylor’s 900 page tome, A Secular Age, explores the rise of secularism during the last 500 years. It studies the shift from a worldview of transcendence, humanity looking beyond to a supernatural realm, to a worldview of immanence, humanity locating itself in a natural realm devoid of supernaturalism. As focus shifts from one to the other, we see the decline of sacred and the rise of secular, the decline of superstition and the rise of science, the decline of corporate structures and the rise of individualism. It’s a story of reform, leading to deism, leading to secular humanism, leaving secularists with what Taylor calls lives under cross-pressure – “expressions of doubt and longing, faith and questioning” (14).
Smith interacts with Taylor’s work, corresponding each chapter to each successive part of Taylor’s, A Secular Age. Smith does not just tell you what Taylor says, he explains the significance of it, commenting on what he agrees or disagrees with, and adding nuances or implications of Taylor’s reading of secularism. Smith’s work is not just Cliff Notes; it’s critical interaction with Taylor.
Smith contextualizes Taylor’s observations with pictures we can relate to, such as examples from Fleet Foxes, Arcade Fire, Seinfeld, and a smattering of other pop-culture references. These references are punchy. He is not detailed in explaining them. Rather, they’re like solid one-liners that, if we know the context, end up being powerful connections for readers.
If you’re going to read this book, do so with dictionary at side, and consult Smith’s glossary of Taylor’s verbiage. It follows the conclusion. I’m not saying How (Not) To Be Secular is a difficult read. You’ll simply want help along the way.
Benefit for Pastoral Ministry
Every pastor is a theologian who must engage rigorous reads. Though this one is not extremely heady, it will press you. Yet, it is practical. As you read, you’ll find yourself muttering, “So that’s what’s going on!” or “That’s why that person walked away from the Faith!” or “That’s why it is so difficult to defend Christianity against anti-theists!”
For me, How (Not) To Be Secular, helped process my story from conversion to today. It caused reflection on why I am enamored by pietism (the historical period, people, and movement). I saw chinks in secular humanism’s armor. It trained me to point those flaws out and interact confidently with secular humanists. How (Not) To Be Secular, synthesized history, philosophy, sociology, and theology as if I were the blind man in the gospel seeing blurry trees and then blinking to take in humanity for the first time.
Four critical contributions that I found in How (Not) To Be Secular include Taylor’s three definitions of secular, his sense of social imaginary, the significance that reform plays in the secular story, and his discussion on subtraction stories.
Though you may not parade as an intellectual theorist, it does not mean you are not pondering meaning, purpose, and transcendence. It does not mean you are not seeking God or coping in light of the supposed “death of God”, which secularism presumably conceived. This is not just true of pastors; it’s true of congregations. Therefore, equip yourself to give an informed response by reading How (Not) To Be Secular by James K. A. Smith.
Essential — Recommended — Helpful — Pass It By
How Not To Be Secular negotiates the post-modern narrative, makes sense of the secular malaise, and gives a fresh take, which dispels the myth of secular spin.