Review: How (not) to be Secular - from Jerusalem to Babylon

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I’ve been looking forward to James K.A. Smith’s latest book, How (Not) to be Secular, and it landed on my desk yesterday.  Mind you I could have been reading it sooner if I’d bought the Kindle version.

Why would I encourage you to read this book?  I think Tim Keller gives reason enough when he says, “As a gateway into (Charles) Taylor’s thought, this volume (if read widely) could have a major impact on the level of theological leadership that our contemporary church is getting. It could also have a great effect on the quality of our communication and preaching. I highly recommend this book.”

I have the theology students I teach read Taylor, or at the very least I suggest to them that if there is one book on the secular they must read it is Taylor’s ‘A Secular Age’.

Taylor’s book is 900 pages long and is very academic.  Brilliant but a lifetime of reading to digest and understand.  In fact I am still reading it page by page, and plan to re-read for the next few years.  It is worth every moment I spend in and with it.

This is where James K.A Smith comes in.  We get the genius of Smith, who distills, and shares with us the key insights of Taylor, and does with critical engagement.  

In other words this book by Smith is now ‘The’ essential companion to Taylor’s work.

As Smith puts it at the beginning of his book, you might move from a predominately Christian location in the US to a more secular location, from Jerusalem to Babylon so to speak (or in the UK you might move from the relatively Christian landscape of North Ireland to London).  

When you get to those secular locations you will find people are not looking for answers to missing parts of their lives, with questions about God just waiting for you talk about Jesus.  

Instead they have a way of life to make meaning that provides for all they need.  The secular world is not like the Mars Hill of St Paul, with people worshipping false Gods, open to the idea of worshipping the true God.  Instead we find that in the secular, people have created a world in which there are no God’s and no need to consider the divine at all.

So how do we bear witness in a world like this?  That’s the question James K.A Smith seeks to answer with Taylor as his primary guide.

Smith in an interview gives us a taste of how is work overviews Taylor:

What is Taylor’s thesis on secularism?

Taylor offers a different taxonomy for understanding “the secular,” secularism, and secularity. Most of us, including those who touted “secularization theory,” identify secularization with a-religiosity. In other words, something or someone is “secular” in the sense that they “don’t believe,” are not “religious.” I think this is one of the reasons why outlets like the New York Times or The New Republic can just talk about about religious people as “believers,” whereas everyone else—that is, the editors of NYT and TNR!—are not.

If you buy this sort of notion of secularization, then modernity is what Taylor calls one big “subtraction story”: modern Enlightenment rationality is what’s left over when you subtract the superstition of religious belief. Subtract religion, and what you’re left with is “secular” rationality.

Taylor doesn’t buy this because, as he tries to show, modernity was not just about the subtraction of God and religious belief; it also required the substitution of something to take its place—what he calls “exclusive humanism,” the belief that one can find meaning and significance without any recourse to the gods of transcendence. For Taylor, even though he ultimately disagrees with it, this is the productive accomplishment of modernity: exclusive humanism is a remarkable feat of addition, not the remainder of some subtraction.

You’ll note what’s embedded in his point: exclusive humanism is something you have to believe. So the world is not carved up into “believers” and “secular” rational knowers. It’s a complicated array of different sorts of believers. And that’s why Taylor calls ours a “secular” age: not that we are a-religious or no longer believe, but that we live in an age in which no belief system is axiomatic. Our beliefs are contestable, and we know it.

Then with regards to how and why Smith wrote his book:

What motivated you to write this book about a book?

I taught a senior seminar on A Secular Age with a group of intrepid Calvin College philosophy majors who ploughed through the book with me. In the course of our discussions, it was clear that something in Taylor’s analysis struck an existential chord for them: it helped them make sense of the fraught world they inhabit. As I spent more time with Taylor’s book, I also realized that this would help lots of pastors and church planters better understand “secular” environments like New York or Seattle or Austin. But I realized—and completely understand!—that pastors and practitioners don’t have the time to wade through Taylor’s huge book, so I wanted to try to crystallize and compress his analysis and tie it to some contemporary cultural hooks in a way that could help those who find themselves immersed in such contexts.

I’ve talked elsewhere about the necessity for pastors to be ethnographers; I think Taylor’s argument—and hopefully my book—can equip them to do that a little better. I also hope it reframes what it means to engage a “secular” context. If Taylor is right, this shouldn’t be seen as a battle. Instead, we should recognize all the persistent longings for transcendence that characterize our secular age. To proclaim the Gospel in such a context is not a matter of guarding some fortress; it’s an opportunity to invite our neighbors to meet the One they didn’t even realize they’d been longing for.