Knowing What You Know
Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and James Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor are two books combined into one LGP8 post. Taylor’s masterpiece is massive in historical size and philosophical scope on the topic of secularism from the 18th century forward. Smith’s book is a companion field guide that condenses Taylor’s nearly 900-page book into a readable and approachable examination of present day secularism versus spiritualism. I hope to leverage the Taylor-Smith ideas on secularism as part of my research into spiritual warfare. I will use an Elder style approach to these works and analyze if people really know what they know with the goal of improving ministry-mission leadership. Finally, I will ask a question about what certainty do believers versus un-believers have in their lives?
Whether you are a believer tempted by unbelief or an unbeliever tempted by faith, these books have a lot to say about the current condition of Christianity versus secularism. Smith, in an essay published around the same time he published How (Not) to Be Secular, presents his research problem and describes the phenomenon surrounding secularism. He says, “Religious views have become less and less plausible in sectors of cultural influence in contemporary North American society.” Further, he contends that “as societies advance, religion withers; as production and consumption increase, faith decreases.” I wonder if Elder might classify this type of North American social thinking as egocentric on the personal level and sociocentric on the cultural level? One reviewer, Klassen, says that Smith argues for an “open take on the immanent frame.” The immanent frame, according to Taylor, is a form of exclusive humanism where people disregard the “God question” and believe the world offers them “significance without any ascetic moral burden.” Smith goes on to define it as a “constructed social space” that focuses on the “natural (rather than the supernatural) order.” My space, in contrast, is influenced and constructed by the Holy Spirit and I can say that my thinking, approach, bias, paradigm, and analysis is heavily focused on the supernatural order of life and the resolute belief in the Son of God, which is my testimony, witness, and claim to the secular world.
I really connected with Taylor’s description of evil spirits in the context of one’s lived experience. My lived experiences that focus on preparing, training, and equipping others to wear the full armor of God and successfully defend and overcome the influences of spiritual warfare is real. The threat of evil in our midst is real for me and Taylor says such evil creates a “compelling fear,” so much so, that it is only possible to imagine the evil as real. He equates this type of lived experience as an “immediate reality; like stones, rivers and mountains.”
Through Christ, I know what I know. What do the seculars know? So, after reading peer-reviews on Smith and reading around Taylor I think unbelievers are so desensitized from the illusion and draw towards the self-sufficing humanistic pattern that they do not know what they know. I agree the Taylor-Smith analysis that there is so much secular-vs-transcendence clamor out in the world that it is hard for anyone, on their natural own, to know what they know. Smith describes the notion of the “buffered self,” which suggests people are somehow “insulated” in their minds from both demonic and transcendent influences. I disagree with the buffered self-illusion but am glad that Smith highlights this secular condition. I wonder why Smith, as author and Catholic apologetic, does not call out and name the source of all the evil powers in high places? Sadly, Taylor describes the secular self as one who believes “there is no room for Lucifer” and that any problems experienced are more “like a disease that befalls me than a disorder for which I am responsible.”
Additional reviewers have the following comments on Smith. For example, Erdozain says that “clarity and accessibility” are not one of Smith’s virtues in his book. He argues that history is not our “back story” as Smith describes and suggests that when seculars disregard the Biblical history that got us here, they point to the defects in their secularization theory. Next, Cantirino critiques Smith’s work as a book that “functions less as an exegetical commentary than as a set of particularly well-composed seminar notes.”
After distilling almost 750 pages of Taylor’s analysis of the influence of secularism in the world, Smith points out that Taylor yields to the undeniable forces of the “transcendent beyond that continues to press upon us in the immanent frame.” I was encouraged with Smith’s final remarks and theological conclusions that seculars, whether they know it or not, can find “the answer to their most human aspirations” in Christianity.
In summary, do unbelievers really know what they think they know? Sadly, I suspect they do not know. Only God knows who really has the changed heart for Christ. As Taylor and Smith both point out in their books, there is a lot of noise and confusion in the world that ministry leaders must carefully consider. I pray that LGP8 leaders will successfully prepare, train, and equip believers to resist evil temptation while at the same time reflect the image of Christ to unbelievers to tempt them towards faith. Lastly, I am thankful for the Taylor-Smith analysis of secularism because this post helps me reflect, examine, and humble myself before the One who has all power, presence, and knowledge. We, as believers in Christ as the Son of God, know what we know and rest in the eternal confidence and assurance of our spiritual transcendence. Welcome back and Happy 2019 to the Elite-8!
 Linda Elder and Richard Paul. The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools. Kindle ed. (Tomales, CA: The Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2009) Kindle Location 29.
 James Smith. “CRACKS IN THE SECULAR.” Policy Options 36, no. 1 (2015): 16.
 Elder, Critical Thinking, 280.
 Justin D. Klassen. “How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.” The Journal of Religion 96, no. 3 (2016): 427.
 James K.A. Smith. How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014) 74.
 Ibid., 92
 1 Jn. 5:10-13.
 Charles Taylor. A Secular Age. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007) 10.
 Ibid., 19.
 Smith. How (Not) to Be Secular, 140.
 Taylor, A Secular Age, 618.
 Dominic Erdozain. “How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.” Political Theology 17, no. 3 (2016): 306.
 Ibid., 307
 Matthew Cantirino. “How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, no. 246 (2014): 63.
 Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular, 137.
 Ibid., 138.
3 responses to “Knowing What You Know”
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There you go again, connecting your research topic to our current readings. You may be the best in our Cohort on doing that…
I am not well versed on secularism, but you helped me with quoting, “as societies advance, religion withers; as production and consumption increase, faith decreases.” Thank you for that!
And in response to your question, “…do unbelievers really know what they think they know?” I agree with you, no they do not, but worse yet for me to think about, they don’t care. Apathy is a tool of God’s enemy!
Great start to the new semester my Brother.
Hey Mike thanks for this thorough review of Taylor and Smith. I especially appreciated reading what Erdozin wrote in response to Smith! Great to get a sense of one our mentors on this book. I’m curious about your contribution on the self and self-understanding, etc. Are you concerned that the church has become too humanistic? And what do you think of Paul’s description of Jesus as ‘kenosis’ or self-emptying as we read in Philippians 2. How do we hold the command to “empty ourselves” while in need of self-awareness?
I concur with your conclusion that many (if not most) people do not know what they think they know. I would contend though that they don’t really care that much. I believe that is the greatest tragedy of the secular age in which we find ourselves. In my work with emerging generations I find them frequently unmoved by their supposed ignorance to spiritual things. The challenge for those of us who have seen and experienced the spiritual reality is not confirming the negative assumptions that many have of our faith. We need to find ways to engage them that affirm them as children of God, though they do not yet know it, and frame the message based on their worldview and not the one that we wish they would have.