I’ve been reading an interesting book by James K.A. Smith titled, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. He describes it as a guidebook to Taylor’s scholarly tome, A Secular Age. Taylor’s book looks at our history and how we got here, and proffers that we really haven’t properly understood what the secular age means.
As Smith explains in the video clip below, there’s been this secularization theory, a predictive theory that said we should expect a society that is advancing in technology, advancing in scientific knowledge, becoming increasing capitalist, will become diminishingly religious and, therefore, secularized. But this doesn’t adequately explain what’s been happening.
According to Taylor, the secular age doesn’t necessarily mean there’s been a subtraction of belief. Quite the contrary. Here’s how he defines a truly secular society:
“A secular society is a society in which we all experience the contestability of our belief. What we mean by that is what’s believable has changed.”
Smith elaborates (from the video below)…
“What this means is that on your street you know that there are people who don’t believe what you believe. There are good people, smart people, and you all understand is that what you believe and what they believe cannot be axiomatic and the default for a society anymore. We have to face up to what Charles Taylor calls this fragilization of our belief, we realize that our beliefs are contested and contestable….We’re going to feel tugged and pushed and pulled and pressed by alternative rival stories of who we are and what we’re for.”
But, to the point here, Smith continues by saying that with the rise of secularism there’s the dynamic of disenchantment. To live in a secular age is to live in a disenchanted world in which the cosmos has been flattened, and we are enclosed in what Charles Taylor calls the “imminent frame.”
Smith links this to what happened in the Reformation that is as much a product of the 17th century Enlightenment paradigm as is modern science.
“What happened is we’ve sort of unhooked the cosmos from its creator and in many ways we have to be honest that the Protestant Reformation was one of the engines that drove this disenchantment. Somehow, unintentionally, all kinds of aspects from the fallout of the Reformation kind of flattened the world, left us with the sterility of a naturalism and it evacuated the cosmos of mystery and transcendence. And here’s the problem. It did the same thing to Christianity. It flattened Christianity. It enclosed us in this kind of claustrophobic lecture hall. The church becomes this box where brains on a stick receive information in messages. We’ve flattened Christianity in a dynamic that Taylor calls “excarnation.” We disembodied it. It became less communal, less material, less sacramental.”
What has happened is that we’ve flattened the world at the expense of the transcendent, the mysterious, and a sense of wonder. Hollywood understands this innate human need and exploits it…apparently, we don’t. As C.S. Lewis said, “we’ve cut out our own souls.”
But Smith continues by saying that this is also where an opportunity presents itself because when our neighbors are experiencing the paucity and poverty of a flat and disenchanted world, they’re not going to be attracted to another box. They’re not going to be attracted to another version of a flattened and disenchanted universe. What they’ll be attracted to is precisely an enchanted Christianity.
Julian Barnes, who never grew up in a religious environment at all, said something very telling in this regard: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”
The English poet, William Blake, once wrote that “humanity must and will have some religion. The only question is, which religion?” British theologian John Milbank agrees. A flattened society without religion, or the transcendent, in Milbank’s view, is simply not viable. The only real choice in our time, he says, is between some form of religion and nihilism. This may be why, even though we’ve been tirelessly removing the transcendent from the modern mind, our society still seems haunted.
But what Milbank means is something more than just a private moment with God on a Sunday morning. He means a way of life. This is a critically important point. Christianity, for instance, is not an argument or a philosophical position. It’s an alternative way of living. It’s actually participating in Christ’s life. Religion is inviting God into our life; following Christ is Him inviting us into His.
28-30 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matt.11:28-30 MSG)
I really thought the following statement by Smith was insightful. We should keep it in mind as we continue our sojourn in a pluralistic and secularized culture:
“Our calling in a secular age might be less a matter of securing our status and more a matter of bearing witness to what’s missing.”
Here’s the video.