Not Going Back
How (Not) To Be Secular Reading Charles Taylor by James K.A. Smith is a fascinating “cliff note” version of Charles Taylor’s classic: A Secular Age. In this concise book, Smith interrupts and unpacks Taylor’s ideology from key terms to consolidating Taylor’s concepts. In the preface, Smith defines Taylor’s book as a “different map”; “a philosophical ethnography for the world”; “a genealogy of the secular and an archaeology of our angst.” (Smith, vii-ix) Therefore, Smith’s book is a “field guide…a commentary on a book that provides a commentary on postmodern culture.” Smith’s goal in his writing is “commentary identifying the thread and logic of Taylor’s argument.” (Smith, xi)
In the introduction Smith outlines Taylor’s argument and overall position. He likens it to a map, a brilliant analogy, of a globalized Gotham or a haunted present age. It is haunted, not because it has spiritual overtures or supernatural explanation, but because it is completely devoid of such nonhuman activity.
Smith walks the reader through Taylor’s ideology of the secular world. First, “secular age is not a descriptive what, and even less a chronological when, by rather any analytic how.” (Smith, 18). Smith decribes the journey of secular: medieval where it is secular verses sacred; modernity where “public” non religious space is observed; secular where God is one option among many. Smith then walks the reader through Taylor’s method of the use of story in order to communicate his truth. Smith continues to unpack the God devoid world that is haunted not because of paranormal or supernatural phenomena, but because humans rule and deity does not exist. He shows how the secular view point exists to influence not just religion, but all parts of our society.
This book was troubling to me to say the least. It was not that I disagreed with Taylor or Smith, but that it shook me from my protected Protestant perspective and exposed me to a reality that I fear is all too real. It is a world where God is not insulted or assaulted (because that would at least support His presence), but one where his presence does not even exist. It is a Garden of Eden with no father walking with his children in the cool of the day, or tree of knowledge of good and evil, no one to join the two flesh into one. This is like children, that have been abandoned and they do not even realize it.
The second troubling realization is that there is no going back. The most sobering part of this book is the following statement: “While Taylor will complicate that last flourish of individualism, the diagnosis and description are the same: there’s no going back…cannot undo the shift in plausibility stud tires that characterizes our age. There’s no undoing the secular; there’s just the task of learning how (not) to live – and perhaps even believe – in a secular age.” (Smith, 11). This reminded me of St. Luke’s Church in Liverpool. The church was built in 1832 as a center for Anglican worship. In 1941 it was severely bombed in a World War II attacked called The Blitz. All that was left of the church was the outer walls, so the city purchased it as a war memorial. It was never a house of worship again. St. Luke’s reminds me of how Taylor describes God and His church. It was built as a place to worship God, but due to horrible attacks and war in the world, it was reduced to a memorial of what was and there will be no going back.
7 responses to “Not Going Back”
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Wow Aaron what a thoughtful sobering, sometimes poetic, reflection of Smith and Taylor.
You had me at the Garden. The picture of God walking with humanity in the cool of the day is maybe the promise that will move us forward. I say forward not back because as you so aptly say, we can not go back. Maybe that bombed out cathedral is still a place of worship, just not a house of worship to Jesus but someone/something else?
In this blog you have two of the most poignant statements you have written to date:
“It is a world where God is not insulted or assaulted (because that would at least support His presence), but one where his presence does not even exist. It is a Garden of Eden with no father walking with his children in the cool of the day, or tree of knowledge of good and evil, no one to join the two flesh into one. This is like children, that have been abandoned and they do not even realize it.”
“All that was left of the church was the outer walls, so the city purchased it as a war memorial. It was never a house of worship again.”
I have heard that the opposite of love is not hate; it’s apathy. This is what I think of when I read, “It is a world where God is not insulted…” It is particularly painful for those of us who know God is real and who love Him. Plus, our hearts break for the irreversible loss for those who do ignore God, or who barely have that nostalgic sense of what was, even when they can’t identify what that is. How tragic for those who are haunted by what is not longer there for them.
What is your first thought regarding how to make God known to those who don’t even know they should care about the existence of God?
I found myself in the same position after reading Taylor and Smith. The truth was hurtful but is it a rally call? As a practitioner of truth, what do you feel are the essentials that need to be established or re-established in the church?
If the “philosophical ethnography” has changed, as Taylor has said; do you believe the ethnography can be rewritten?
Thanks for your challenging post. What do you think we have in the AG that is the “no going back” part? What do you see that has been a landmark in the past but could with a new breath become something again?
I would propose that there has to be more of the power of the spirit in what we are doing to make us salt and light.
As you said, reading the book was an eye opening experience. It helps us realize the apathy towards God yet the long for the transcendent in this secular world. I watched a lecture in which Smith was explaining his book. Despite the despair about secularism, Smith things of it as a hopeful sign. He thinks that a secularist is closer to finding God than a Deist, because at least they are in touch with their spiritual longing (“I’m spiritual but not religious”). So he challenges us to think of the angst in secularism as something to build upon. I guess that will come up in part 2 of the book. Yet, as I heard him speak and as I read your blog, I kept thinking about the question Jesus asked in Luke 18:8. “When the Son of man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”
Great thoughts AC. While this book is utterly discouraging, I found encouragement in it. Here’s how. I try to view it as an opportunity to paint on a new canvas. The rise of secularism leaves it haunted. Therefore, we have the opportunity to repaint the Gospel for people who have lost their way.
Great perspective in this blog. You mentioned how we’re living in a world where God’s presence is often non-existent. I agree with this perception, and this is evident in many of our churches. Naturally, I won’t list denominations are churches to suggest personal biases, but I do believe that secularism has hit the church in ways we haven’t imagined. One of the terms we use at my church is “passionate spirituality” to describe how we’re supposed to behave in our worship of God. Many of our churches has lost its spiritual ferver as they attempt to become culturally relevant. Since we can’t go back, we should find ways to engage God while maintaining relevance.