James K. A. Smith. How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014. 152 pp. $16.00.

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has been the topic of much discussion among theologians, philosophers, New York Times columnists, and more. Weighing in at about three pounds and 896 pages with tiny print, hundreds of footnotes, and its own nuanced sub-dialect, it is, to say the least, a daunting book to behold. Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, speaking about secularism last April, sighed and said, “It’s an important book, but Charles really could have used an editor.”[1] If it’s long for an intellectual like Volf, it’s safe to say it’s long for most of us.

Enter James K. A. Smith.

A formidable philosopher in his own right, Smith is the author of numerous books and academic publications on Christianity, culture, liturgy, and spiritual formation. Taylor has been a frequent reference point for Smith’s writing, and in his most recent book, How (Not) to Be Secular, he provides an introduction and guide to Taylor’s work. Written with the clarity of a gifted teacher, Smith’s 148-page book takes Taylor off the top shelf and walks us through his argument in broad strokes. But this is far from being a CliffsNotes version of Taylor’s book. Smith’s own intellect, humor, and theological convictions emerge, at times making Taylor’s concepts clearer and at times taking issue with Taylor’s views.

Massive Cultural Shift

Taylor’s book considers the massive cultural shift of the past several centuries, from an age in which belief (in God or at least the transcendent) was natural and normal to an age in which such belief is unnatural, opposed, and difficult.

Smith begins by focusing on the idea that our secular age is nonetheless “haunted” by transcendence. Drawing on the work of novelists Julian Barnes and David Foster Wallace, he argues that we don’t live in a world dominated by confident atheists and confident fundamentalists. On both sides, we find people troubled and spooked by the difficulty of belief and the still-present power of the transcendent—a state of being Taylor calls “cross pressured.” As Smith adds, “It is my sense that more of us live in worlds like those portrayed by David Foster Wallace than those mapped by either new atheists or religious fundamentalists. It is this sort of contested, cross-pressured, haunted world that is ‘secular’—not a world sanitized of faith and transcendence, flattened to the empirical” (17).

Taylor’s questions, then, “are not concerned with what people believe as much as with what is believable” (19, emphasis original). How did we move from a world that was dominated by belief to an age when belief is difficult, fragile, and unstable?

For Taylor/Smith, secularism is about more than just ideas: it’s about our “social imaginary,” which Taylor defines as the way “ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings, and this is often not expressed in theoretical terms, it is carried in stories, legends, etc” (Taylor, as cited by Smith, 143). Secularism didn’t arise because modernism stripped belief away from society; our social imaginary has been transformed: our “feel” for the world, our way of perceiving and reacting to the world without thinking about it has changed, because the formative stories of our culture have changed. Modernism “disenchanted” our world, flattening what once had spiritual depth, what was once “sort of haunted—suffused with presences that are not natural” (27).

Smith highlights several aspects of disenchantment, two of which particularly shape much of the book:

  • The Buffered Self: Our understanding of the self transitioned from porous—open to the spiritual world, to blessing and cursing, and influenced by social bonds—to a buffered self “insulated and isolated in its interiority” (39). This new way of understanding ourselves allows us to feel safe in rejecting God and retreating to the safety and security of our protected minds. (Think: Descartes.)
  • The Shift from Cosmos to Universe: Modernism shifted our perspective on the universe from a “cosmos” (a well-ordered and hierarchical universe made by God with meaning and purpose) to a universe (a massive, chaotic, and yet-unfolding reality in which we are but a small, chance part). (Think: Galileo.)

It would be tempting to attempt a neat and tidy step-by-step description of how we got to where we are, but the rise of secularism didn’t develop because of any single concept, nor did it come about as a kind of coordinated progression of changes. Instead, Taylor offers a “zigzag account of causal complexity” (41), insisting it “could have been otherwise” (43). Each of these factors had motivations and ends of their own, and only their intermingling led us to where we are now.

In the chapters that follow, Smith traces Taylor’s narrative for how these shifts evolve over 300 or so years of thought. Modernism allows us to see the universe “‘as a system before our gaze, whereby we can grasp the whole in a kind of tableau’ (Taylor, 232). . . . Nothing should be inscrutable” (Smith, 52).

Once the cosmos became a universe, and once the universe became a tableau we could see and comprehend from a distance, our vision of God began to shift from the creator and caretaker of the cosmos to the god of Deism—an architect content to let the universe run its course. And once this happens, Smith says, “the gig is up” (53). Exclusive humanism is already on the horizon. “In short, we’re all masons now” (57). The personhood and agency of God in a vibrant, active sense has evaporated from our social imaginary.

Always Haunted

This shift doesn’t result in psychological triumphs. Taylor argues that “our secular age is haunted, and always has been” (61). Dried of transcendence the world leaves us with a thirst, a sense of “malaise,” a sneaking suspicion that we are missing something. We hunger for transcendence and cling to it wherever we can find it, like in the arts. I love Taylor’s description of the way the arts move us “because they are moved” (75): they are alive with the expressive weight of someone else’s experience of transcendence, and we thrive on what they encapsulate.

It’s on this point that Taylor (and Smith) move toward an apologetic: “We might be haunted because, well, there’s a Ghost there” (76). Or, as C. S. Lewis said, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Maybe there’s a better explanation for the world than the account given by our secular age. Smith puts it like this: “Taylor’s phenomenology speaks into that contested space and simply says, 'Try this account on for size. Does it make sense of something you feel'” (76, emphasis original)?

Taylor goes on to make more pointed critiques to the apologists for secularism, which Smith summarizes:

What pretends to be a “discovery” of the way things are, the “obvious” unveiling of reality once we remove (subtract) myth and enchantment, is in fact a construction, a creation: in short, this wasn’t just a subtraction project. (99)

In other words, secularism remains just as much a construction, what Taylor calls a “take” on the world, as faith. In some ways, this is the end-game of Taylor’s argument. It’s not that he's trying to construct a proof for the existence of God. Nor is he trying to prove an exclusively materialistic worldview false. Instead, he wants to disrupt the way we assume materialism’s intellectual superiority and honesty. He does this by calling into question the “obviousness” of the materialist take on the world—a take, Taylor/Smith point out, we've imbibed in part by conversion stories that tell us that by accepting this take, we’ve taken a position of maturity, “honesty,” and realism. Taylor doesn’t buy this narrative, and he points to a broad experience of malaise and dissatisfaction as part of his evidence—a feel for the world that isn’t satisfied with the given explanations or that finds moments of transcendence for which materialism can’t account. As Smith says, referencing Taylor’s reflection on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “If ‘dappled things’ names something that reverberates for you on a crisp fall day, naming what had hitherto been only a vague ‘sense,’ and inkling—then you’ll find Taylor’s account (and Hopkins testimony) suggestive. If not, there’s not much more that Charles Taylor can offer you, because he doesn’t think he can prove his point” (137).

For pastors and Christians generally, this approach offers a different way to think about apologetics, one Tim Keller often engages in his own preaching. Rather than pounding away about “evidence that demands a verdict” or facts about the reliability of the canon, Taylor’s work invites us to poke and jab at the experiences of exclusive humanists. “‘Don’t you feel it? Don’t you have those moments of either foreboding or on-the-cusp elation where you can’t shake the sense that there must be something more?’” (137)

Which brings me to Star Wars.

Disenchantment and the Star Wars Prequels

Recently, I had the chance to re-watch an original 1977 cut of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. It is remarkable how much different that movie appears after seeing almost two decades of revisions and additional effects and, of course, the awful prequels. What made the original so good? What drew people (like me) and turned them into geeks for 35 years? Likewise, what made the prequels so horrific?

It isn’t lack of action. The prequels are packed with lightsaber duels, dogfights in space, and pod races. It isn’t just that Jar Jar Binks was one of the worst ideas in movie history. And it isn’t just that the dialogue was more wooden than a lumberyard. “Cult” movies and their sequels have survived far worse. There was something else lost in the prequels—a charm, a mystery.

One can begin to see this even in the gap between the 1977 edition of A New Hope and the subsequent revisions. Starting in the 1990s, Lucas began taking advantage of new technology to “update” the film with additional CGI animation, cleaning up certain effects, and adding a scene with Boba Fett. By the time the prequels come around, the technology of special effects had developed so much as to make everything possible. The scenes became digitally dazzling, and everything, it seems, got dialed up to 11: creatures became more fantastical, lightsaber duels more acrobatic, space fights and starships more elaborate. It was, technologically speaking, everything all the time. If the original trilogy was Led Zepplin, the prequels were Spinal Tap.

But in all the elaboration, in the detail, in the shine and shimmer of digital effects, something vital was lost. There was an air of mystery in the original trilogy, a sense of something unknown. Even the primitive special effects served this purpose, leaving space for the imagination to fill in the gaps.

And then there were the midi-chlorians.

Perhaps nothing else in Star Wars history managed to erode the mystery more than the addition of midi-chlorians to Episode I. If you’ve forgotten them, they come into the story when Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan meet young Anakin and test his midi-chlorian count. We come to find out these are a life form that live inside humans symbiotically and, in high enough numbers, allow the person to use the force. Jedi aren’t “gifted,” so to speak, and the phrase “The force is strong with this one” is rendered meaningless; Jedi are infected with a microbe that allows them to do their thing. Goodbye enchantment.

Why go on this long tangent? Because I actually think it illustrates Taylor/Smith’s point. The original trilogy, in all the ways it left questions open and invited imagination, in the way it used effects in a sparing way, was enchanted. It was an open world with questions to explore and a sense of the unknown. The prequels, then, made the mistake of disenchanting the world. The mysteries all had answers. Even the overwhelming presence of CGI has a “secular age” parallel: the overwhelming culture of production and consumption. When every moment is a visual feast, nothing is worth celebrating. It was just too much. Like so many others, I left the theaters with a sense of malaise, wondering, Is that all there is? Is that what we’ve been looking forward to for almost two decades?

And while the whole series is a product of a secular age (the concept of the Force has many parallels in the deistic, “human flourishing” theology Taylor outlines), the gap between the two installments of the series seems to illustrate something lost between a world where the transcendent is possible and mystery hangs in the air and a world where it isn’t—where rational, materialist explanations exist for everything.

In Smith’s excellent introduction to Taylor’s work, we’re encouraged to notice the elephant in the room: that modernism’s disenchantment of the world hasn’t left it a better place. We’re encouraged not to cede any ground in the debate, to take courage in knowing the exclusive humanist take on the world is just that: a take. A perspective. A constructed world. And given the evidence of a broadly felt spiritual malaise, perhaps it’s worth taking a hammer to a few of the stones at its foundation.

[1] From his plenary address “The Ends of Our Lives” at The Festival of Faith and Writing, April 12, 2014.