Secularism, Spirituality, and Witness in a Haunted Age | Carl E. Olson | Catholic World Report
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?