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James K. A. Smith, How Not to be Secular, Reading Charles Taylor

This is a book about a book. Canadian philosopher wrote an 896 page treatise on the development and nature of the secular in our current age. Smith wrote a 143 introduction, overview and “guide” to Taylor’s work.

Taylor’s work concerns our social imaginary: the sort given rubric through which we understand the world in which we find ourselves. This is not precisely a worldview, which is a developed set of ideas; it is rather a framework in which we live. The initial trajectory for the book is the movement in the West from a situation where it was almost impossible not to believe in God to the current “secular” world:

 a situation of fundamental contestability when it comes to belief, a sense that rival stories are always at the door offering a very different account of the world (10).

This is not what we usually mean when we think of “secular”. Taylor breaks the usage of the word down into three types. First, “secular” as opposed to “sacred” — as the word was used in the Medieval period. Second, secular as overt lack of religious affiliation (secular 2). Third, the primary concern of Taylor, the circumstance where belief in God is contestable (indeed all beliefs are contestable); this is secular 3.

 In our current circumstance has lead to the option of “exclusive humanism”: “accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything that is beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true. 23

A great part of the book concerns “how did we get here.” Taylor rejects the simplistic “subtraction stories” for explaining exclusive humanism: those stories which say that atheism is a maturity, a willingness to accept the world “as it is.” With the advent of “science” we became able to dispense with myth and superstition and walk in the light of reality. While that story is appealing to those who embrace exclusive humanism, because it makes them the hero of the story, the grown-up; it suffers from reality.

To work through this story, Taylor begins with medieval imaginary which Taylor notes includes three elements:

  1. A cosmos that pointed beyond itself to that which was more than nature.
  2. A society that saw itself grounded in a higher, a heavenly reality.
  3. “In sum, people lived in an enchanted world, a world ‘charged with presences, that was open and vulnerable, not closed and self-sufficient.” (27).

Taylor (and Smith) work through a series of historical and philosophical twists and turns which result in the modern secular age. Two things where necessary, first, these elements of the social imaginary had to be lost and a new basis had to be gained in order for meaning to continue. You see, modern secularity requires a loss and a construct:

[Rather than a mere subtraction], Taylor’s account of disenchantment has a different accent, suggesting that this is primarily a shift in the location of meaning, moving it from “the world” into “the mind.” Significance no longer inheres in things; rather, meaning and significance are property of minds who perceive meaning internally. The external world might be a catalyst for perceiving meaning, but the meanings are generated within the mind — or, in stronger versions (say Kant), meanings are imposed upon things by minds. Meaning is now located in agents. Only once this shift is in place can the proverbial brain-in-a-vat scenario gain any currency ….

To sense the force of this shift, we need to appreciate how this differs from the “enchanted” premodern imaginary where all kinds of nonhuman things mean -are loaded and charged with meaning — independent of human perception or attribution. (28-29).

The modern self is “buffered”, meaning is sealed inside:

 In the shift to the modern imaginary, minds are “bounded,” inward spaces. So the modern self, in contrast to the premodern porous self [open to meanings] is a buffered self, insulated and isolated in its interiority, “giving its own autonomous order to its life”. (30).

Chapter One of Smith’s book traces Taylor’s thesis on how the medieval imaginary was lost. Chapter Two explains how the imaginary of exclusive humanism was created: a process of locating meaning within the “universe” (as opposed to a meaning cosmos). The god of the deists eventually became utterly superfluous.

However, this loss of the transcendent, the enchantment has not worked as well as planned. The buffered self finds itself at cross-pressures, disenchantment and enchantment, transcendence and immanence press in on the self, creating a sense of loss and malaise:

 Sealed off from enchantment, the modern buffered self is also sealed off from significance, left to ruminate in a stew of its own ennui. (64)

So where does one now go for significance, seeing that the transcendent has been lost? We are forced to look for this significance within immanence, which pressures the immanence. “If the immanent self is going to be self-sufficient,, as it were, then the material has to be all there is” (72).

Since we are cross-pressured, we move about between options, we hold inconsistencies. Only the most sealed persons (the most devoted atheists and the “fundamentalist” religionists) who try to seal themselves off from all of the influence of this current, find themselves affected by the pressure.

An example, here, from the devoted Christian side may help. Imagine a Christian who suffers from some trouble, say a sad marriage. Rather than aiming at the transcendent purposes of marriage, which very well may mean the marriage in some ways does not improve (the Scriptural direction on marriage seems to even presume that one spouse may very well be difficult: how then must we live?), the couple wants only their marriage to be better. The highest goal is immediate human flourishing. While no one should look for suffering and while no one desires suffering, Christianity has almost pointed to something greater than immediate human flourishing. Consider this language from John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding:

I never knew what it was for God to stand by me at all turns, and at every offer of Satan ‘to afflict me,’ &c., as I have found him since I came in hither; for look how fears have presented themselves, so have supports and encouragements, yea, when I have started, even as it were at nothing else but my shadow, yet God, as being very tender of me, hath not suffered me to be molested, but would with one scripture and another strengthen me against all; insomuch that I have often said, Were it lawful, I could pray for greater trouble, for the greater comfort’s sake (Ecc. 7:14; 2Co. 1: 5).

The strangeness of Bunyan’s words to modern Christians shows the extent to which even devoted Christians feel the pressure of the secular age.

Likewise, all sorts of secularists hold inconsistent positions when it comes to meaning and the mechanical universe. The number of people who hold to superstitions and astrology is striking. I once spoke with a science professor at a world-renowned institution, his colleagues where women and men at the absolute peak of “science”. He offhandedly said, “Oh my colleagues are very superstitious.”

Smith ends with a discussion of how the positions of the secular age play out in practice. We have the religious, the humanist and the Nietzschean who all have powerful critiques of one-another and often in surprising combinations (such a Taylor using a Nietzschean critique of a humanist position to great effect).

Smith’s book is excellent. While I have not read through Taylor’s work, I do have a good understanding of the basic thrust. For a work so detailed and profound, a guidebook (such as Smith’s) is more than welcome before I wrestle with Taylor directly.

As Smith works through Taylor, he does not passively recount everything. He explains, develops and often pushes back against Taylor (particularly Taylor’s reading of Reformed Christianity). I found Taylor’s questions and Smith’s help of great value in thinking through the age in which we live. Often times our current circumstance is invisible to us; only some perspective (such as the historical and philosophical perspective provided by Taylor) gives us sufficient room to think and respond.

Smith helpfully includes a glossary of Taylor’s special terms (such as “buffered self”, “fragilization” “fullness”, et cetera).

Buy and read the book. It is well-worth the time.