JKASJames K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, has written a book entitled How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Eerdmans, 2014), interacting with and applying Charles Taylor’s magisterial volume, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007).

Of Smith’s book Tim Keller writes, “As a gateway into 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.”

Professor Smith was kind enough to answer a few questions.

Who is Charles Taylor and why should we care about what he has written?

Taylor (b. 1931) is a Canadian philosopher who taught for decades at McGill University in Montreal, though he also held appointments at Oxford and Northwestern over the years. Over the past several years, his work has made a significant impact on my own. I think this is because he sort of “contains multitudes,” as Whitman might say. He is a unique blend of scholar. Taylor is a philosopher who is equally at home in both “analytic” and “continental” camps. But he also puts his philosophical expertise to work on cultural analysis, ranging into history, theology, psychology, economics, and more. Of course, this also gets him into trouble with the specialists, but that’s the price one pays for being a fox and not a hedgehog.

Finally, Taylor is a serious Christian public intellectual. He is a Catholic philosopher who is willing to take a stand for his faith, and also willing to argue that his faith perspective makes a difference for theorizing. Indeed, Taylor is an “apologist” of sorts, one who is nuanced, complex, humble, with right-sized expectations of what one can hope to accomplish. Lots of evangelicals are quite fascinated with “apologetics”; I wish more of them were interested in apologists like Taylor.

What makes his writing inaccessible for many readers?

Ha, good question! I think it’s a combination of things. First, there is just the sheer daunting size of big books like Sources of the Self and especially A Secular Age (900 pages!). Not for the faint of heart. Second, in later books like these, Taylor’s “method” is essentially narratival: he’s helping us make sense of our present by offering an account of our past. He’s kind of a genealogist. So his arguments wend and wind through nooks and crannies of cultural history that can often be foreign to us.

I have a couple of my own idiosyncratic hypotheses about his difficulty. For example, I wonder if there’s something about Taylor’s bilingual fluency that actually generates English prose that is kind of tortured. (I find the same experience reading Dutch philosophers for whom English was a second language.) And, to be honest, I think Taylor’s editors at Harvard University Press were just somehow too intimidated by him or something (or maybe Taylor was stubborn!). Because A Secular Age could have been a much better book if it was 2/3 the length.

That said, it’s not like he’s unreadable. I suggest reading him while listening to Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs.” There’s something mutually illuminating in the Quebec connection and their shared sense of “the malaise of modernity”! If that doesn’t work, trying reading some Derrida for a while, and then pick up Taylor. That’ll make Taylor seem clear as day!

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.

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.

How does Taylor, as a Catholic, understand the Reformation in light of his thesis on secularism, and what do you think about his understanding in light of your own Reformed theology?

This is an important question. The answer is, “It’s complicated.”

On the one hand, Taylor is quite laudatory about the Reformation and deeply sympathetic. On his account, the Protestant Reformation is part of a broader, late-medieval “Reform” movement that calls into question versions of “two-tiered” Christianity that devalued the faith of laypeople. In Taylor’s formulation, part of the Reformation’s renewal was “the sanctification of ordinary life”—a sense that all of life would be lived coram Deo, before the face of God. So it wasn’t just priests and nuns who had “sacred” vocations; the same could also be true of butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. Domestic, family life was just as “sacred” as cloistered celibacy, and so forth. For a Kuyperian like me, this sings of “every square inch,” if you know what I mean.

On the other hand, Taylor also argues that the Reformation introduced trajectories that would later lead to the “disenchantment” of the world. The story here is “Frankenstein-ish” in the sense that he sees this as an unintended outcome of what were good motives. (Dr. Frankenstein had the best of intentions!) While the Reformers rightly sought to reject superstition, the result was that they sort of de-sacramentalized creation and Christian worship. The world become ontologically “flat” rather than, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “charged” with the grandeur of God. In other words, we’re all Zwinglians now. (Taylor is not the only one to make point this out; consider also the careful argument of historian of science, Peter Harrison, in his important book, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science.)

As a Protestant, I take this criticism very seriously, even if I might ultimately disagree. But before I defend Protestantism, I think it’s important to hear this and consider in what ways it is true. It should occasion some self-reflection for us. I think the work of J. Todd Billings, for example, is an example of a Reformed, Protestant theologian who, in some ways, is sympathetic to Taylor’s point, but then who shows that the Reformed tradition has resources—right there in Calvin—to counter this picture.