Last month, I led a Book Club through James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular, itself a summary of the much larger book, A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. There were so many lessons culled from those pages–most of which I am still processing and will be in the months and years to come. And yet, the biggest takeaway for me was how Taylor described the “feel” and cause of our current secular existence.
Taylor challenges the story of our cultural and philosophical moment, affirming that we did not stumble or trip into our secular age. Secularity is not the “neutral” space of human existence once all forms of power, influence, control, and superstition are done away with. Rather, secularity is a cultural and philosophical achievement. The gravity of human progress does not necessitate secularity. We’ve had to build it.
Secularity: A Fall or Climb?
We first need to remember that when we talk about “secularity”, we’re not talking about some sort un-religious, “neutral” public space. A society is “secular” (in our sense) when disbelief in God becomes a viable option. We take for granted that the vast majority of humans in history (and even in the non-Western world today!) have no comprehension of such a world. Continue reading
How (Not) To Be Secular
by James K.A. Smith
For those of us that are Christians, we come to church on Sundays to get re-grounded and re-oriented in the rhythms and truths of the Christian life.
Many of us also try and live life in various small groups and Bible Studies throughout the week in order to press these truths all the more deeply in our hearts and communities.
But still, some of us are wired to wrestle with big ideas in a different way. That’s why at my church we’re starting the Liberti Theology Book Club: a way to walk with others through different perspectives and insights on theology, the Bible, and Christian thought.
It’s been designed to take up as little of your time as needed, while also letting us really work through some deeper and harder parts of faith. Also, because of the decentralized nature of it, anyone across the country can join in!
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”.