by James K.A. Smith
Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich. 148 pages
Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age” is one of the most important books of the last 30 years. Unfortunately, it is also likely the least read. For nearly 900 pages of dense historical, cultural and philosophical analysis, Taylor explores how we arrived at what he names as a secular age. Originally offered as the prestigious Gifford lectures, he probes the question of how we moved into an era when belief in God is rare, contested or ignored, a reality that would have been unthinkable 1,500 years ago. “How, in a relatively short period of time, did we go from a world where belief in God was the default assumption to our secular age in which belief in God seems, to many, unbelievable?” What cultural, philosophical, economic and theological trends have occurred that have contributed to this dense new cultural atmosphere? He explores all of these trends and even more in this sprawling book. Along the way, Taylor uncovers the unintended consequences of the Reformation that made space for the plausible conditions necessary for unbelief.
What makes this book particularly important for religious leaders is that Taylor is not content with a standard accumulation of facts and information to solidify his argument; his purpose is more profound. He wants to describe an experience: “what secularity feels like from the inside.” In “How (Not) to be Secular” author James K.A. Smith puts it, “Ultimately Taylor wants to try to communicate what it feels like to live in a secular age, what it feels like to inhabit the cross-pressure space of modernity.” What this means for the reader is an experience of knowing the cross-pressures (Taylor’s word) of our time. This is not an apologetic book in defense of Christianity. Rather it is an erudite attempt to show how Christianity is positioned as one option among many in a secular universe and why this occurred. The recognition of this change of position is crucial for going forward as people of a faith tradition.
Taylor’s work is brilliant but not readily accessible for many people, including those who want to understand the growing numbers of “nones” (religiously non-affiliated people). Several years ago I spent a sabbatical reading it and am still working on the implications of its insights. James K.A. Smith’s book is the answer to the dilemma one faces with the daunting challenge of Taylor. He has done a remarkable job of guiding the reader through the vast terrain of Taylor’s analysis and pointing to the most important insights of each section. His purpose is not to keep people from reading Taylor, but rather to be a helpful guidebook for those who enter that project. Think of this book as one might think of a guide for those making a journey into an unknown wilderness.
Smith taught an undergraduate class on “A Secular Age” and this book is the map for that project. Taylor employs a very nuanced vocabulary that is essential to his argument. For instance, “A Secular Age” is described in three different ways; the distinctions are essential. To address this, Smith not only carefully lays out the distinctive vocabulary, but also includes a helpful glossary of terms. If one wants to understand the roots of our current cultural condition, Charles Taylor’s book is essential. There is no better guide to it than James K.A. Smith.
ROY W. HOWARD is the pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in North Bethesda, Maryland, and the book editor of the Presbyterian Outlook.