How (Not) to Be Secular
by James K. A. Smith.
Paper, 152 pages, $16.
In early August I went backpacking in the Glacier Peak Wilderness of the North Cascades. The terrain was unfamiliar to me, and I knew very little of what to expect other than what I could glean beforehand about the weather. But this was calculated unpreparedness. I knew one of the friends who accompanied me had spent significant time planning the trip, studying the route we would take, thinking through what was needed for a successful, enjoyable journey. He knew, for example, how far we needed to travel each day, where the best campsites were located, and which day hikes would prove most sublime. The rest of us trusted him to guide us through the Washington backcountry, and without him, we’d have quickly lost our way.
James K. A. Smith, Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, sees Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age as a kind of existential map for our time, and in How (Not) to Be Secular, Smith wants to help us understand the map and get a feel for the layout of the land. In an always engaging and at times delightful way, he guides us through Taylor’s nine-hundred-page tome; the five chapters of Smith’s book match the five parts of Taylor’s, while the sections of Smith’s chapters roughly track with the chapters of A Secular Age.
But How (Not) to Be Secular is more than mere summary, and more, too, than an entryway to Taylor’s larger work. While he has several audiences in mind, Smith writes primarily for “practitioners”: teachers, pastors, Christian leaders, yes, but also anyone who feels, deep down,
that our “secular” age is messier than many would lead us to believe; that transcendence and immanence bleed into one another; that faith is pretty much unthinkable, but abandonment to the abyss is even more so; and that they need to forge meaning and significance in this secular space rather than embracing modes of resentful escape from it.
In other words, Smith writes with a kind of pastoral concern. He wants to help the religious and secular alike navigate the tensions of our modern time honestly, and he wants Christians, especially, to reflect on what faithfulnesslooks like here and now. The dense and daunting work of this Canadian, Catholic philosopher, Smith believes, is an indispensable resource toward these ends.
Already in previous books Smith has proven himself adept at translating difficult philosophical and theological ideas for the broader church and culture. How (Not) to Be Secular continues in this trajectory. It is part cultural analysis, part philosophical ethnography, always accessible, and always with an eye toward the implications of Taylor’s insights for the practice of Christian faith.
There’s a common story about secularization, which we all know by heart: As cultures modernize, advancing in technological and scientific prowess, religious belief and practice continue to fade until, eventually, we will only remember them as unfortunate features of our unenlightened past. This familiar story is entirely inadequate, of course, not least because it ignores the hauntedness of our time. Despite the proclamations of the most strident new atheists, most of us live with at least some inkling of transcendence. We sense there’s something more, regardless of how we choose to make our way in the world as religious or secular people. We experience the world as a kind of tension-filled environment, in which we are surrounded by a variety of spiritual options and possibilities. This tension—not a measurable decline in religious belief and activity—is the most salient feature of our secular age. “A society is secular [in Taylor’s sense] insofar as religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested).”
A large part of Taylor’s project is telling a different narrative about how we got here. How did we move from a time in which transcendence and religious belief were taken for granted to a time in which it’s possible to live happily as an “exclusive humanist,” for whom meaning and significance are understood as purely immanent? The old story frames this as a process of subtraction; exclusive humanism is the result of our shedding the superstitions that plague us. Taylor and Smith are dissatisfied with this simplistic tale, and they aim to tell a truer, more nuanced story.
The first chapters of Smith’s book trace Taylor’s retelling of the historical narrative, explaining how Taylor makes sense of the process of disenchantment that has led to our secular age. This is a fascinating and provocative read, especially as Taylor identifies the Protestant Reformation and some of the theological shifts flowing from it as crucial forces in making way for exclusive humanism. It’s worth reading the book for this alternative narrative alone.
In the second half of How (Not) to Be Secular, Smith follows Taylor in a transition from history to critical analysis. Here, Smith unpacks Taylor’s concept of the “immanent frame”—“a constructed social space that frames our lives entirely within a natural (rather than supernatural) order.” It’s not that some (say, naturalists) inhabit this space while others (Christians) live and move and have their being elsewhere. No, this is a reality for the entire modern West, whether we believe in transcendence or not. “So,” Smith writes, “the question isn’t whether we inhabit the immanent frame, but how.” Thus some inhabit the immanent space as if it were self-sufficient and total, while others see the cracks and feel transcendence seeping in.
Taylor and Smith are interested in what accounts for the difference. Why do some tend to take it for granted that the immanent frame is closed, while others live as if it were open? Moreover, “[w]hy do some not recognize that their construal of the frame as open or closed is just that—a construal, a ‘take’ on things?” Smith/Taylor answer these questions and make an important distinction between “takes” and “spins.” There is a way of living in the tension of our secular age that recognizes the contestable nature of our ultimate convictions and sense of the way things are. Whether we experience the immanent frame as open or closed, we can at least acknowledge that the frame itself is legitimately open to other interpretations—that nothing about it compels us toward religion on one hand or exclusive humanism on the other. But not everyone sees the takes as takes. Both religious and secular fundamentalists will often opt for “spin,” insisting that the way they perceive and experience the world is simply the way it is—failing to see that theirs, too, are construals that require a certain kind of faith.
Much of the remainder of the book explores ways in which we experience the tensions (the “cross-pressures”) between the pull of narratives that construe the world as closed on one hand, and the deeply felt inadequacy of those narratives on the other. Here, Taylor’s project takes a more explicitly apologetic turn as he shows that, while both Christianity and exclusive humanism face real difficulties, a Christian take might offer a fuller account of our experience where closed takes are more obviously lacking. Taylor is not attempting a knockout argument against exclusive humanism but instead trying to level the playing field so that a nuanced Christian account might receive a hearing.
Smith’s evaluation of Taylor’s project is by and large positive and appreciative. At times, however, Smith offers his own challenges to Taylor. Some of these arise from Smith’s more Reformed and evangelical sensibilities. So, for example, he questions Taylor’s reading of Calvin’s sacramentology and sees the overall legacy of the Protestant Reformation in a more positive light. At other times, Smith criticizes Taylor for not being Catholic enough (e.g. for his willingness to “jettison aspects of historic Christian teaching if he thinks doing so will help [strengthen the faith against a particular line of critique].”
Helpful features of the book include a glossary of Taylor’s key terms and phrases (also bolded throughout Smith’s text)—quite helpful given Taylor’s penchant for creating his own vocabulary as he makes his case. Smith also includes numerous sidebars in which he suggests ways that Taylor’s insights might provoke, correct, and begin a conversation with the aforementioned practitioners.
Throughout, Smith writes with the skill and care of an experienced teacher—anticipating questions, clarifying difficult concepts, and suggesting practical application for Christian life and ministry. Those familiar with Smith’s other books know that he takes up his pen with passion. How (Not) to Be Secular is no exception, and I found Smith’s excitement about Taylor’s project contagious. I was initially thankful for Smith’s book primarily because it was (considerably!) shorter and significantly less expensive than A Secular Age, which I had no intention of ever reading (did I mention it’s nine hundred pages long and costs $45 on Amazon?). By the time I’d finished How (Not) to Be Secular, Taylor’s book was on my desk, and I was eager to begin the journey with my trusted guide close at hand.
Kevin W. Germer lives in Richmond, Virginia, where he serves as pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church and teaches theology at Veritas.