Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Secular Issues

Written by: on February 16, 2017

James K. A. Smith –How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor


James Smith is a Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the distinguished Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the author of several noteworthy books. In these capacities he enlightens the church with critical thought in its practices and  witness to the wider culture.

Smith declares that, “This book is a commentary on a book that provides a commentary on postmodern culture. It is an homage and a portal to Charles Taylor’s monumental Secular Age . . . an insightful and incisive account of our globalized, cosmopolitan, pluralistic present.” [1] The Secular Age is a guide that aids the reader in understanding the many complexities of our secular age.  In the present work, Smith offers a concise outline and summary of Taylor’s arguments and analyses.


Smith informs us that for Taylor there is no undoing the secular; one has to learn how not to live in and not even believe in a secular world. “In classical or medieval accounts the secular amounted to something like the temporal—the realm of earthly, politics or of mundane vocations. This is the secular of the purported sacred/secular divide.” [2]

In modernity, particularly in the dawn of the Enlightenment, secular connoted nonsectarian, neutral, and areligious.  In the twentieth century, secular was understood to mean having no religious beliefs or religious affiliation. “This notion of secular characterizes the secularization thesis and normative secularism.” [3] The thesis of the secularization theory is that as cultures experience modernization and technological advancement, religious belief would decrease and participation would wither in the face of modernity’s disenchantment with the world.

Taylor’s sense of the secular articulated in A Secular Age is that “A society is secular insofar as religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable and contested.” [4] His focus is a shift in the condition of belief rather than the expression of belief which secularization theorists are fixated on. Taylor notes, “The shift to secularity in this sense indicates a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace. It is in this sense that we live in a secular age even if religious participation might be visible and fervent.” [5] And it is in this sense that we could still entertain a certain secularization thesis. “The emergence of the secular in this sense makes possible the emergence of an ‘exclusive humanism’—a radically new option in the marketplace of beliefs, a vision of life in which anything beyond the immanent is eclipsed.” [6] This is a purely self-sufficient humanism with no final goals or allegiances beyond human flourishing.

Exclusive humanism as a “viable social imaginary is a way of constructing meaning and significance without any reference to the divine or transcendence.” [7] The void created by discounting God necessitated exclusive humanists to “imagine significance within an immanent frame, to imagine modes of meaning that did not depend on transcendence.” [8] Taylor’s overarching question is “how did we get from a time say in (1500) in which atheism was virtually unthinkable to a time in (2000) when theism is almost unbelievable? According to Taylor we have to consider the change in conditions that made it possible for the West to be able to imagine exclusive humanism as a viable vision of significance.” [9]

For Taylor, the difference between our modern secular age and past ages has less to do with the available belief systems and more to do with the default assumption about what is believable. Taylor states, “Our secular age is the product of creative new options and entire reconfiguration of meaning.” [10] It’s not enough to ask how we stopped believing in God. We need to explore what emerged to replace belief in God. It is not that our secular age is devoid of belief, it is an age of believing with options. We cannot tolerate living in a world without meaning so in the absence of transcendence that previously gave significance to the world we need a new account of meaning or a new “imaginary” that enables us to imagine a meaningful life within this now self-sufficient universe. Exclusive humanism serves as that replacement imaginary which Taylor is concerned with how it emerged as a live option in modernity in an effort to “escape superstition and the yoke of transcendence.” [11] Taylor points out that we had to learn to become exclusive humanists, it is not natural.


Smith’s rendition of Taylor’s book on our secular age had a lot to offer the mind in doing “deep work” in engaging the mental faculties to glorify God in learning more about our need for Him as a God who is both transcendent and immanent.  This book is not only a guide, it also serves as a tool in understanding the emergence of our secular age and how it is all-encompassing and inclusive in impacting everyone around the world believers, skeptics, non-believers, intellectuals, leaders, the church … We have to come to grips with the fact that ours is a secular world. The book is full of thought provoking questions to help us locate where we are and where we ought to be by asking such questions as: “What does it look like to bear witness in a secular age?  What does it look like to be faithful? How do we reach exclusive humanists?



  1. James Smith, How Not To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing company, 2014), ix-x.
  2. Ibid., 20.
  3. Ibid., 21.
  4. Ibid., 22.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 23.
  7. Ibid., 26.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., 47.
  11. Ibid.

About the Author

Claire Appiah

9 responses to “Secular Issues”

  1. Marc Andresen says:


    I love your comment regarding the deep work of engaging our mental faculties…and the reality that God is both transcendent and immanent. Wonderful mystery in which to stretch the life of the mind.

    You wrote, “Exclusive humanism as a ‘viable social imaginary is a way of constructing meaning and significance without any reference to the divine or transcendence.’”

    Where would you say Rwanda is, relative to the United States, on this continuum of secularization? Is it evident, or acquiring any kind of toe-hold? Do you see evidence of “exclusive humanism” in Rwanda?

    Alternate question: How do you think the poverty of Rwanda affects this secularization process? Was there anything of secularization in the horrific genocide we saw in Rwanda a few years ago?

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Let me see if I can answer your questions with my limited knowledge of Rwanda. My opinions and observations are going to be somewhat skewed because I only interacted with Christian organizations and churches and the youth affiliated with them. I didn’t observe any evidence or tendencies toward exclusive humanism in Rwanda. In comparison to the United States on the secularization continuum, I would say that the Rwandan Christians in general adhere much more to orthodox Christianity than their counterparts in the United States. After over two decades of post-genocide conflict the country is still experiencing the aftermath of the devastation, socially, politically, economically, and culturally. The Christians I encountered are propelled by a spirit of forgiveness, love, reconciliation, and solidarity as the most viable and sustainable way to move forward for the restoration and unity of the country as a whole.

  2. How do we set ourselves apart from exclusive humanism? If Smith is correct that Taylor says we are all in this thing, how do I make sure I am not an exclusive humanist?

  3. Claire Appiah says:

    You ask a valid question, “How do I make sure I am not an exclusive humanist –since we’re all secular now?” For the answer to that question I would say take the litmus test for an exclusive humanist and see how you measure up. In other words do you:
    1. construct meaning and significance without any reference to the divine or transcendence (p16)
    2. imagine significance within an immanent frame that does not depend upon transcendence (p16)
    3 see any indication of how secularism has changed your religious community and communion by rejecting God’s personhood and agency (p28) (p57-58)
    4. relocate meaning to the point that you can embrace exclusive humanism as thinkable in an insulated and isolated buffered self with its own autonomous order to its life (p30)
    5. ascribe to the developments of de-sacramentalization, generalization of sanctification and spiritual disciplines, and the resultant excarnation (p43) (p58)

  4. Phil Goldsberry says:


    Thank you for the reflection back to “Deep Work”, but from a different aspect. This book was an alarm clock to we practitioners that are leading the charge (at least shouldn’t we) toward the transcendent God that we follow, worship, and embrace.

    What are a couple of areas that we can reignite that will turn this massive shift toward ambivalence of the sacred?


  5. Claire Appiah says:

    Thanks for replying to my blog. You ask, “What are a couple of areas we can reignite that will turn this massive shift toward ambivalence of the sacred? I don’t think I have anything to add to your incisive treatment of the subject in this asynchronous discussion on Taylor/Smith. What you say pertains to all believers and the church at large. You have put things in proper perspective regarding secularization by your introspective stance: “What am I going to do about it?” In seeking your personal role/responsibility in the matter, you rightly discern that you have to be a beacon of light and an intensity in your saltiness. In other words, a purveyor of Truth; “A change agent in the world I live, pastor, and take up space in—a deeper desire of the divine and transcendence.” You have made the Main thing the Main thing by following the template of Christ.

  6. Aaron Cole says:


    As always, great writing! I really liked your connection of this book with Deep Work, great connection. In you lifetime and experience have you witnessed a transition from sacred to secular such as what is desribed by Smith and Taylor?


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