How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K. A. Smith



Jamie Smith has written a book about a book, and now I am writing a blog entry about Smith’s book.  That makes this something like the Spark Notes on Spark Notes about a book by a man named Charles Taylor.  But if ever there were a need for translation and popularization, Taylor’s work would be at the head of the line.  I tried my hand at his Modern Social Imaginaries a few years ago, and it nearly did me in.  Still, I had a strong sense that the fault in understanding was mine, and so when I saw that Smith had written a slim (but dense) primer on Taylor’s A Secular Age, I bought the book right away.  

I started it months ago, but put it away until my study leave, knowing I wanted to savor it and take a deep dive.  

I tried summarizing Taylor’s thesis to my wife the other night at dinner, and that did not go well.  So this blog is an attempt to redeem myself in some way.  I'll make sure she reads it before I post it.

One reason it is hard to wrap words around Taylor’s thesis is that he is talking about a feeling and a sense, something that is impossible to prove or establish.  It is like he is saying, “I smell something.  Do you smell it too?”  I do.  I smell it all the time.  And I am always amazed when others don’t.  But how do you describe that smell that others can’t smell?  And--harder still--how do you get them to smell it?

What Taylor smells he calls “the secular.”  Like a good philosopher, he defines his terms, and he actually has three definitions of secular.  (Smith’s glossary at the back of his book is one of the most helpful features of his book.)  
  • 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.

So far maybe nothing new?  Well try this: Taylor says we are all Secular3 in some significant sense.  None of us has the option/privilege/possibility of living in a shared understanding of the world that is not battered by cross-currents of the tide surge of immanence (nothing but what we see here and now) and the undertow of transcendence (the notion that there is something else).  This means that believer and unbeliever alike live what Taylor calls “fragile” lives: our way of imagining the world is constantly challenged and dubitable.  For a Christian believer, this means that our faith in a Transcendent God is constantly battered by the clamor of a materialism that has no room for anything beyond, a “social imaginary” that is defined completely by this world and by expressive individualism.  For the unbeliever, this means that life defined entirely by the here and now is not free of the “haunting” of transcendence, the sense or feel that construals of significance without any transcendent reference are hollow and futile.  Smith paraphrases Kurt Cobain here: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they are not after you.

To use some Taylor jargon (and he has lots of it), everyone today lives within an “immanent frame.”  Imagine that the world you see is framed in such a way that you can't see anything other than the material and the here and now.  There is no way to view the picture in another frame.

But clearly not everyone experiences the world in this way.  Here Taylor’s distinction between take and spin is important.  A take is a construal of life that is open to the viability of other takes.  A spin is a construal of life that does not understand itself as a spin and has no capacity to grant plausibility to another alternative.  So there are two primary differences: The way one imagines the world (transcendent/open to Other or immanent/closed to Other) and the way one construes one’s imagined world (take and spin).  This creates a fascinating quadrant of possibilities, which Taylor charts in this way:


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.

Taylor thinks (and I tend to agree) that that is not where most of us live.  We are either transcendents who “get” how our neighbors are so unreligious.  Or we are agnostics, atheists, and nominally religious people who wonder if there is something else.  As an example of the former, I think of even C.S. Lewis who said that after his conversion he was tempted to disbelieve in God mainly when he stayed in strange hotel rooms.  And as an example of the latter, Smith cites the novelist Julian Barnes: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

There is much more to say about Taylor’s account of what it feels like to live in a secular3 space, but I will stop summarizing and start applying this.  What does all this matter?  What possible significance for a school like Trinity?  I think that there are enormous implications for how we deliver our Christian mission (“to teach within the framework of Christian faith and conviction”).  Here are a few incipient thoughts, which need much more baking:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. 
  5. 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.
  6. 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:


In this scheme, Transcendents and Humanists share a concern for Transformation and stand against a will for power that is the Nietzschean commitment.  Humanists and Neo-Nietzscheans share a commitment to no Transcendence, which Christians would deny.  And Neo-Nietzscheans and Transcendents share a belief in human depravity and darkness, which Humanists gloss over.  “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  Our alliances are likely to be complicated moving forward.

In closing, I have imagined a sort of Preface to Our Christian Beliefs, one that is influenced by Taylor’s book.  It would go something like this:

We tell you what we believe in an effort to be clear and transparent about our beliefs and commitments as a Christian school.  We believe that it is both wise and charitable to communicate in this way, especially in a time of contested belief both within and outside the Christian church in general and the evangelical community in particular.  

At the same time, we recognize that our beliefs could easily be construed as smug, legalistic, or oppressive to some, and we want to acknowledge and respect the fact that Trinity lives and teaches in an age of contested belief.  This is true within the church--consensus on some of the matters we affirm cannot be taken for granted.  And it is certainly true outside the church, where faith in anything transcendent is no longer axiomatic.  Because we are a non-covenant school, one that stands open to our community at large, we know that we serve families whose way of imagining their lives in fullness and thriving has no reference to anything beyond the here and now.

We who affirm Trinity’s Christian faith share the same frame of reference as those who disagree with us and take exception to some of these claims.  We all feel the crosswinds of other beliefs and ways of imagining the world.  This means that anyone who is honest will hold beliefs in a fragile way, sensing the echoes and tugs of other ways of being in the world.  We who affirm Trinity’s Christian beliefs do so with an openness to the plausibility of other views.  We might be wrong, but it is good for us to say what we believe, holding our interpretations with humility and openness.  We hope that this take on our beliefs will make Trinity a place where those who disagree will continue to feel welcome and will experience Trinity as their school.  

We are not interested in fighting about our beliefs, though we know that they will be offensive in different ways to different people. We believe that holding them authentically and living into them with humility will be the best way we can acquit them to those who disagree.  Honest dialogue, good listening, and wise questioning will help to promote the kind of community Trinity has been and will, by God’s grace, continue to be.

Finally, we would not affirm our Christian beliefs if we did not believe that they embody a way of flourishing that transforms the human person in Christ, beyond the possibilities which this world offers.  

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