For the Book Club I’m leading at my church, we’re reading James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular (a summary of a much bigger, denser book, A Secular Age by Charles Taylor). To begin, we turn to the opening pages to get our bearings and become acquainted with the general contours of the pages to come.
Honestly, if the Preface and Introduction were all there was, this would be worth the price of admission. It is such a helpful 50,000-foot view of the ideas unpacked in the rest of the book.
Smith’s account begins with an attempt to narrate some of what our day and age “feels” like. He speaks of the disconnect between typical American Christianity and the way the rest of the world experiences reality. He points out that nonbelievers in the Christian faith are actually able to find meaning, fullness, and significance without appealing to any divine Being. And yet, even those without belief can’t seem to shake a certain “hauntedness” to our world.
In short, neither adherents to religion nor those that don’t find much usefulness for it can construct a way of experiencing reality that takes into account all of what it means to inhabit humanity today. We’re all sort of stuck in this liminal space, this limbo, seeking distraction of reductionism to break the tension. We’re all “suspended between the malaise of immanence and the memory of transcendence”.
The rest of the book serves to take us along the contours of the journey that brought us here. But before we move forward, there are a few of Taylor’s key ideas that Smith says we need to understand.
The Immanent Frame is how Taylor describes the boundaries within much of our contemporary human lives unfold. As humans have grown in finding ultimate meaning in this empirical, material world, it has in a sense “closed off” transcendance to us. This means the frame that holds our lives is one of nearly complete immanence. All that we need for the “good life” is found in this “secular” world, with or without God.
This, in turn, has created a cultural situation ripe for both Exclusive Humanism (humans can find ultimate meaning as exclusive entities, without a God), and Expressive Individualism (to “be human” means to express your “truest inner self”, rather than conform to outer models of life well-lived).
Secular 1, 2, 3
Taylor talks about 3 different ways “secularity” has been understood through history. This is one of the most important ideas to get when reading through this book. In the Introduction, Smith does a masterful job explaining it to us, but he then goes on to rapidly use these terms throughout the book without reminding us exactly what’s being meant. So it’s best to get these ideas firmly in your head now to avoid confusion later.
Secular1: This is the earliest, and most basic definition of “secular”. It refers to whatever is not typically considered “sacred”. A priest had a “sacred” job; a baker had a “secular” job. Bach’s Bm Mass was “sacred music”; while he wrote a series of “Secular cantatas” which were largely lost to history. This attached no moral or existential significance to the term “secular”.
Secular2: When people talk about “secularity” today, they typically mean this. The “secular” in this sense is a more or less “neutral” or areligious space in society or discourse which is seen as an objective blank slate where all people can have a voice. When we talk about a “secular democracy”, this is what we mean. It assumes that religion (the “non-secular”), eliminates freedom of choice, and so we need to assert “security” in the public square for freedom to exist. This is the basis of the separation of church and state.
Secular3: This is the important one for our purposes. In the titles of both Smith and Taylor’s books, this is what is meant by “secular”. For the vast majority of human history, most humans did not have the mental categories to even think about not believing in God. For most societies, God’s Existence was as stable and as sure a fact as the existence of our parents or our local King we may never meet.
In Taylor’s view, a society becomes Secular3 when belief in God becomes just one option among many. When disbelief in God becomes a viable option for a particular society, that society has become “Secular” in this third sense. They may still be a “Religious” nation that fights against the idea of some “neutral, secular public space”, and yet still have both feet firmly planted in a Secular3 way of thinking.
Stories of Subtraction
I’ll end with this, which is probably the most succinct summary of Taylor’s thesis. On our way towards this Secular3 world, the story is usually told to us as one of “subtraction”. As we learned more and more “stuff” about the world, we had less of a need for fairy tales and myths, so we “subtracted” them from our view of reality. As science and “reason” has progressed, we have subtracted more and more until we finally take God himself out of the equation.
Taylor, however, thinks it is more of a story of addition. It’s not that as we become more “rational”, we become less “religious”. Rather there are other ingredients that had to be added to the cultural water in order to give us the mental categories to imagine life, meaning, and beauty without a God. And these extra added ingredients have very little to do with the number of facts we know about the natural world around us.
A lot of ground has been covered in just this book’s Introduction. At the very least, at this point, we have someone who has given name to the suspicion we carry within us that the explanations we have about the world are insufficient to describe reality as we experience it. The rest of the book will take into the story of how we got here, and where we might go.
[image credit: “The Giant” by Francisco de Goya]