Secularism, Spirituality, and Witness in a Haunted Age

The author of "How (Not) to Be Secular", explains why secularism is misunderstood and exclusive humanism is not winning

Dr. James K. A. Smith (website) is professor of philosophy at Calvin College, where he also holds the Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He has written several books, including works on postmodernism (Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?), worship and liturgy (Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works), and hermeneutics (The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic). He has also written articles for magazines such as the Christian Century, Christianity Today, First Things, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, and others.

His most recent book is How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Eerdmans, 2014). Dr. Smith recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about the thought of Charles Taylor, what “secularism” is and isn’t, the challenge of witnessing in a secular culture, how we live in a haunted age, and why exclusive humanism is not winning.

CWR: How is it that a professor of philosophy at Calvin College ends up writing a short (and fascinating) “field guide”—a commentary, really—about a long (and rather daunting) book by a Catholic philosopher—A Secular Age (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007) by Charles Taylor?

Dr. James K. A. Smith: Well, of course, while Taylor’s work is informed by Catholic intuitions, it’s not parochial. He has garnered wide interest from people of faith and those with none. Furthermore, I would encourage folks to remember that there are Protestants who see themselves as Catholic—not “Roman,” of course, but very much tied to, and indebted to, the Catholic tradition. I’ve described the Protestant Reformation as an “Augustinian renewal movement within the church catholic,” and so see lots of overlapping concern.

I’ve been interested in Taylor precisely because he is a philosopher who has made the transition from narrow disciplinary conversations to a wider, interdisciplinary project. He has also long intrigued me as a Christian scholar who has functioned wisely and winsomely as a public intellectual. So he’s really been an exemplar for me in a lot of ways.

But the more immediate catalyst for turning this into a book was a wonderful teaching experience. A couple of years ago I taught a seminar on A Secular Age, which was an opportunity to walk through this massive tome with 12 serious, curious undergraduates in philosophy. I saw that Taylor’s analysis was really helping them make sense of their own experience—it was existentially illuminating for them. I sensed that a lot of people could benefit from this, but might not be able to wade through a difficult, 900-page book on their own, so I thought I’d write something of a little “companion” volume.

CWR: You state that you are an “unabashed and unapologetic advocate for the importance and originality of Taylor’s project.” In what ways is his book and larger project important and original? What do you hope your book accomplishes, first, as a “stand alone” book and, secondly, as a commentary on Taylor’s monumental volume?

Smith: In both Sources of the Self (1989) and A Secular Age, Taylor undertakes a unique sort of “philosophically inflected history” that helps us understand our present. In doing so, he calls attention to—and is critical of—the often unstated assumptions of “secularist” (i.e., naturalistic) accounts of secularization. So, perhaps paradoxically, Taylor offers an account of secularization that is informed by his religious commitments. But he doesn’t think that makes his analysis parochial or sectarian, because he thinks all accounts are informed by some sort of faith commitments, some “social imaginary.” So he first shows that there are no neutral accounts, and then tries to show why a religious account actually does a better job making sense of the “data” of our contemporary experience.

For example, standard secularization theory has trouble accounting for the continued role of faith in late modern life. It should be gone by now, they expect. But Taylor suggests: maybe religious faith endures because reality includes a transcendence that continues to call and haunt us. If that’s the case, then a “secular” account of secularization has already decided to shut itself off from part of the reality it’s supposed to explain.

I do think How (Not) To Be Secular can be read as a stand-alone book, especially since many won’t have the time or inclination to read a 900-page volume. But I also hope my book can function as a portal of sorts to the more detailed account.

CWR: The first questions you pose, in the Preface, include, “So what do it look like to bear witness in a secular age? What does it look like to be faithful?” Do Christians, by and large, simply assume that they know what “a secular age” and “secularism” are? And if so, are they are usually right or wrong in their definitions and explanations?

Smith: This is a crucial part of Taylor’s original thesis: we tend to associate or equate “secular” with “a-religious” or even “anti-religious,” and with good reason: new atheists and others tend to trumpet a “secular” perspective as if that were a “neutral” perspective. But Taylor, as a hermeneutical philosopher, is always suspicious of such claims to neutrality, and even a-religiosity.

So instead he says we should think of a “secular” age not as an age of unbelief but as an age in which there are many modes of believing. A “secular” age is an age in which no one belief system is axiomatic or uncontested. We live after Christendom. But that means secularism can’t be some uncontested, dogmatic perspective either. A secular age is an age in which everyone needs to own up to the fact that their faith stance is contested and contestable. That’s not synonymous with some sophomoric relativism; it doesn’t mean that no one’s faith perspective is true, or that all faith perspectives are valid. It just means the plausibility conditions have changed such that no one’s belief system is just self-evident to everyone.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Taylor for Comment magazine and he said the driving question behind A Secular Age grew out of his experience as a Christian in the academy. So he was trying to answer the question, “Why do I see the world so differently?

CWR: How is our age “haunted”? What is an example of this haunting? And what does it suggest or say about the secular world in which we live?

Smith: Our age is “haunted” to the extent that people really can’t let go of a sense that there is something “more.” Despite all the drive toward naturalism, and the emergence of what Taylor calls “exclusive humanism,” we are not seeing some kind of atheistic great awakening sweeping the west or the United States. To the contrary: we continue to see a hunger for the spiritual. While those of us committed to institutional Christianity as embodied in the Church might be puzzled and frustrated, we should realize that when people say they are “spiritual but not religious,” in fact that’s a kind of opening and opportunity. It shows they can’t settle for a purely naturalized existence.

In the book I consider some examples from literature (particularly the work of David Foster Wallace), film, and music. But once you start listening for this—for these “cracks in the secular”—you start to hear it everywhere. That’s why we have reason to be hopeful. I don’t think exclusive humanism is winning.

CWR: Taylor, like some other philosophers and historians, argues that secularization could not and would not have come about without Christianity. Why is that the case? What is different about his argument in that regard?

Smith: Yes, in some ways, secularization was a bit of an unintended byproduct of the Protestant Reformation which overcame a dichotomy between the “earthly” and the “heavenly.” As Calvin and the Reformers emphasized, all of creation is “holy;” thus they emphasized the sanctification of ordinary life, the sacredness of all vocations, not just “religious” ones. The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker live their lives just as much coram Deo as the priest and nun. As a result, there was a new affirmation of this-worldly existence, of creaturely life.

However, when a few other historical shifts happened—including Deism and a certain trajectory of the scientific revolution—this-wordly existence became a kind of end in itself. The result, as Taylor puts it, was an “eclipse of transcendence,” an “eclipse of heaven” that left us with only the earth. That was the set-up for what he calls the “immanent frame” of a naturalized worldview and the advent of exclusive humanism—the notion that one could have a life of meaning and significance without any reference to transcendence or eternity.

Now Taylor emphasizes that this was not the necessary conclusion of Reform (unlike, perhaps, Brad Gregory [author of The Unintended Reformation; see CWR review]). But it was sort of a Frankensteinish effect where by consequences outstripped good intentions.

CWR: Finally, what are some ways in which Christians can not be secular? What is necessary?

Smith: Well, with Taylor, I’d say the Christians today need to own up to the fact that we live in a “secular” age of the sort he describes: our faith is not just self-evident to our neighbors, and we need to appreciate how it is contestable. Doing so would also help young believers understand why they grapple with doubt and questions. It shouldn’t be surprising. However, that’s not reason to abandon the faith: to abandon faith because of doubts seems like treating your doubts as if they were certain.

But we should not be secular in the sense of adopting a merely this-worldly, “immanent” perspective, or falling into the trap of exclusive humanism, as if meaning and significance could be adequately found apart from transcendence and eternity. One of the really interesting aspects of Taylor’s account is how he sees that the shift to a “secular” age also impacts religious communities. We end up absorbing these assumptions without even realizing it. We perhaps underestimate the extent to which we are, effectively, “secularized” Christians.

In that sense, I hope How (Not) To Be Secular is a wake up call for the church to take stock of whether, and how, it is fostering a way of life that is ultimately oriented to kingdom come, forging communities that don’t only fixate on an earthly Jesus but an ascended King.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.