How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K. A. Smith
- Secular1 refers to the mundane as opposed to the religious or sacred. So a minister’s work is mostly religious and a stock broker’s is secular.
- Secular2 is a more modern sense of a-religious, with the attendant assumption that this perspective is objective and unbiased. So we have the debate about whether a secular or “naked” public square is possible for the religious person, and whether it is desirable or possible for everyone else.
- Secular3 is Taylor’s real interest. It is a shared way of imagining the world where religious belief (even belief in anything really transcendent) is not a given, where belief is contested, and where many find accounts for meaning and significance without any appeal to the divine or the transcendent.
Spin is smug and certain. Take is open and vulnerable. It is a fascinating thesis that religious fundamentalists share something deep with the exclusive humanists of the academy. Both have a certain code fixation (“No Dancing”; “No hate speech”). And both have a certainty of their convictions and an unwillingness to see the plausibility of another alternative.
- We say we want to educate within a “framework of Christian faith and conviction.” Taylor helps us see how this cannot be done apart from thinking and addressing a Christian social imagination--that is, a way of experiencing the world together with others in a way that helps us live in the cross-currents of the immanent frame. Worldview must involve the heart and the imagination, not just the reason and even belief.
- For this work, a humble and open and vulnerable posture will do more to help students live as Christians in a secular3 age than an attempt to give them certainty and the right answers. We can give them the right answers, but we know that they will be buffeted by the wrong answers too and that it is futile to try to create a world where they will not feel that pressure. Rather, we want to help them live as Christians with a faith that is strong but also “fragile.” Fragility is not always a sign of weakness; it is a condition of our age. Learn to live well with it.
- Many of our families, both churched and unchurched, will come to us without a strong commitment to the transcendent. Being religious or even “Christian” is no guarantee that people will understand that there is something more important than their own human flourishing. There are Christian versions of Immanent commitment. Our curriculum and teaching needs to address this. This may be one of our greatest challenges, because the fundamental commitment to human flourishing in this world is a strong pull and it will not give up ground easily. It is certain to come in conflict with a fully biblical understanding of God’s purposes in the world, which involve humanity but do not center on it.
- Some of our Christian families will be in the Transcendent Spin category--they will be so sure of their convictions that they will see alternatives as simply wrong and unthinkable, or maybe just straw men to take down. We share a Christian commitment with them, but I agree with Taylor and Smith that this way of being Christian in the world will not lead us where we want to go. We cannot go back to a world where belief is taken for granted. We cannot shout down the other side. Welcome to modernity.
- Apologetics (or the defense of the faith) needs to be as much about listening and learning and hearing stories as about arguing and debating. And the arts are vitally important in this work. People do not move from the immanent to the transcendent because we have argued them into a conversion. Rather, we need to get them to listen for the hints of eternity. Stories, art, movies--these are important apologetic tools for this generation. Smith also has some fascinating comments on the (inordinate?) place of theodicy in modern apologetics to the secular3 world.
- Strange allies. In this crazy secular3 world, there are all kinds of new ways of trying to find meaning and significance. And those we disagree with on one thing may actually share fundamental commitments with us. This has enormous implications for what it means for Trinity to be a school with and for our community, while still being salt and light. Smith shares a diagram from Taylor, parsing out three groups that inhabit the immanent frame of secular3 space: