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

Secular to Sacred – Part I

Written by: on February 16, 2017


James Smith has a prophetic voice that captivated me from the first page of the Preface of his book, How Not to Be Secular:  Reading Charles Taylor.  I was the church planter from Terre Haute, Indiana, small-corn town USA that moved to the New York City Metro area out of a call in 1987.  Smith said, “You’ve left your Jerusalem on a mission to Babylon.  You came with what you thought were all the answers to the unanswered questions these ‘secular’ people had.”[1]

I decided to read James Smith as “John the Baptist” preparing the way for Charles Taylor.  This paper is coinciding the principles and prowess of two books and two authors.  The outcome of my exposure, is up to me what I become – secular or sacred, convinced or confused, passionate or passive.  Would the wielding sword of truth from Smith and Taylor challenge me or anger me?  Or both?

Charles Taylor embraces three levels of secularity: “1. Secularized public spaces, 2. The decline of belief and practice, 3.  Consists of new conditions of belief; it consists in a new shape to the experience which prompts to and is defined by belief; in a new context in which all search and questioning about the moral and spiritual must proceed.”[2]

The word “religion” has been a challenge to me.  It represented a set of rules and regulations that were tainted more toward man than God.  In my mind, “religion” was man attempting to organize and structure God.  Taylor uses a totally different spin to the word “religion”.  “So ‘religion’ for our purposes can be defined in terms of ‘transcendence’…It is our relation to a transcendent God which has been displaced at the centre of social life (secularity 1); it is faith in this God whose decline is tracked in those theories (secularity 2).”[3]

Taylor and Smith had me from their Introductions.  They were describing me and the world around me.  They were challenging ministry effectiveness, but with a surgeon’s scalpel that dissected more than feeling and headed to the core and centrality of who Christ is.


Smith makes his claim to the writing of his book very simple:

“On the one hand, this is a book about a book ­– a small field guide to a much larger scholarly tome.  It is about an homage and a portal the Charles Taylor’s monumental Secular Age, a book that offers a genealogy of the secular and an archaeology of our angst…..On the other hand, this is also meant to be a kind of how-to-manual – guidance on how (not) to live in a secular age.  It is ultimately an adventure in self-understanding, a way to get our bearings in a ‘secular age’ – whoever ‘we’ might be:  believers or skeptics, devout or doubting.”[4]

Taylor states his purpose for writing, “So what I want to do is examine our society as secular in this third sense (my observations of Taylors three levels of secularity above- mine) which I could perhaps encapsulate in this way:  the change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, ever for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.”[5]

Smith’s purpose in How Not to Be Secular, is to parallel alongside Taylor’s five-part book and offer his own commentary and challenges all of us to realize how secularized and humanistic we have become.  “So the shift to a secular age not only makes exclusive humanism a live option for us, it also changes religious communities.  We’re all secular now.”[6]


My feeble attempt to embrace two chapters, of the five main chapters, of each book for this paper was daunting.  I was shaken in a good way.  I was mesmerized by what I had missed for so many years.

Taylor’s first chapter is “The Work of Reform” and Smith’s is “Reforming Belief:  The Secular as Modern Accomplishments”.  Charles Taylor asks, “…why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God, in say 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many us find this not only easy, but even inescapable”[7]   Taylor references “bulwarks” that were part of the tapestry of society that have eroded.  We wanted to believe in God, we sought disciplines but time and self-centeredness turned us to long for “modern” more than ancient.
Taylor describes this progression; “Even more important to our lives today is the manner in which this idea of order has become more and more central to our notions of society and polity, remaking them in the process.”[8]  Smith responds to Taylor’s chapter

Charles Taylor, professor emeritus of philosophy at McGill University in Canada, speaks at a conference titled, “Renewing the Church in a Secular Age,” at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome March 5. Also pictured is Mary McAleese, president of Ireland from 1997 to 2011. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See SEEKERS-FRANCIS March 6, 2015.

in a warning:  “The emergence of secular is also bound up with the production of a new option – the possibility of exclusive humanism as a viable social imaginary – a way of constructing meaning and significance without any reference to the divine or transcendence.”[9]

My first response to reading was, “How did we get here?”.  This daunting question turned quickly to “why”?   The resolve was, “What am I going to do about it?”  Fall in line and become secularized alongside the rest of the planet?  Or be a beacon of light and an intensity in my saltiness (Matthew 5:14) that is a change agent to the world I live, pastor, and take up space in?  Taylor and Smith have pushed me to a deeper desire of the divine and transcendent.  The vacuum of society and humanism may have taken its toll, but God always does well with a remnant.

[1] James K. A. Smith, How Not to Be Secular:  Reading Charles Taylor, (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), vii.

[2] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, (Cambridge, MA:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 20.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] Smith, ix.

[5] Taylor, 3.

[6] Smith., 28.

[7] Taylor., 25.

[8] Ibid., 161.

[9] Smith, 26.

About the Author

Phil Goldsberry

12 responses to “Secular to Sacred – Part I”

  1. I tried to do what you did. Nice! I agree that God is always good with a remnant. My hunch is that as we progress down this road of exclusive humanism the prophetic books of the Bible and a call for a “prophetic imagination” above and in spite of “social imaginaries” is going to be key for us. Agree?

    • Phil Goldsberry says:

      I have embraced these books with great interest. Social imaginaries are prevalent and will, more than likely, continue to increase and take a great hold. The challenge is what will the voice of the prophetic be? Will it be doomsday or will it be enlightenment to Truth is the greater question.


  2. Rose Anding says:

    Thanks Phil,
    In your blog was a question,“How did we get here?”. Since the Secular Worldview is a comprehensive view of the world from a materialistic, naturalistic standpoint. Therefore, the Secular Humanist sees no place for the supernatural or immaterial.

    Your blog touch the core of my belief system,which brought me to this point.
    If we don’t really believe and live the truth of God, then our witness will be confusing and misleading. Most of us go through life not recognizing that our personal worldviews have been deeply affected by the world. Through the media and other influences, the secularized American view of history, law, politics, science, God and man affect our thinking more than we realize. We then are “taken captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)

    However, by diligently learning, applying and trusting God’s truths in every area of our lives, we can begin to develop a deep comprehensive faith that will stand against the unrelenting tide of our culture’s non-biblical ideas. If we capture and embrace more of God’s worldview and trust it with unwavering faith, then we begin to make the right decisions and form the appropriate responses to questions on abortion, same-sex marriage, cloning, stem-cell research and even media choices. Because, in the end, it is our decisions and actions that reveal what we really believe.
    The books we are reading are awaking our inner man to where we are and how firm we are standing on truth.
    It’s great sharing Rose Maria

    • Phil Goldsberry says:


      Thank you for your words of encouragement and challenge. I am also concerned with the “voice” that is coming from the church. It seems we have slid to being accepted and politically correct more than allowing His transcendence and universal Truth to take precedent.

      As we have been reading, the last 20+ years with the invention of the world wide web, has brought an increase in knowledge, but not an increase in what is Truth. The call to us as believers is to be Truth carriers that have not “lost our savor” as Jesus warned in his message on the mountain. Taylor and Smith have got my attention.


  3. Jason KENNEDY says:

    Great thoughtful blog. I too was challenged by asking how we got here. Taylor and Smith define it…it has been a slow march. What decisions are we making in the church today that may lead to further secularization? After all, Taylor believes that some decisions out of the Reformation brought about secularism.


    • Phil Goldsberry says:


      Thanks! Your reference to the Reformation were interesting also to me. I’ve been thinking about that. Could it have been the heart of the Reformation was exposure to revealed Truth, but it became a battle cry against an institution – the Catholic Church?

      I’m not defending or deifying the Catholic Church, but was it an antagonism that caused a reaction and separation versus an enlightenment?

      As far as today, the church is more concerned with inclusion than they are with imitating Christ. The teetering of Truth and fable and the acceptance of blatant sin as an alternative lifestyle have pushed the envelope too far. How much further will we go? Taylor references 1500 – 2000. What about 2017 to 2025?


  4. Marc Andresen says:


    Thank you for articulating that your desire for the divine and transcendent has deepened. That is a very helpful response of mind and heart to the challenging material brought to us by Taylor and Smith. Your response offers partnership for us all to do the same. I am seeing the advantage for us as leaders to have read Noll, and to know that we an use our minds in the challenging realities of this secular age. Our minds are being trained to analyze the world around us and to use that training for our own good and, more importantly, for the good of the Church.

    In light of Taylor and Smith, do you have a thought at this point as to how you will shepherd your flock through the complexities of this secular age?

    • Phil Goldsberry says:


      As you know, there is a balancing act of being attractional and being Truth purveyors. We, DMin candidates, are called to be practitioners… but of what? A social, secularized gospel (small “g” on purpose) that is acceptable to a moving target of morality and secularization?

      I have been, and with reading Taylor and Smith, and now more aware of the reality that is NOW, not 500 years from now (Taylor’s reference to 1500 vs 2000). This program has opened my thinking and defined more of what I need to know and how to be an effective practitioner in all areas of ministry – pulpit to business, internet to ethnography!


  5. Phil,

    Once again this is a very pointed post from your past perspective. I have felt the same tug to not let what is happening around me persuade me to give up or to quit trying. What is your one thing that you lean into to keep you on the path of being salt?

    I know there is no quit in you so what do you do with this new information? Become more spiritual in the middle of secular?


    • Phil Goldsberry says:


      Thank you! Salt? The solution for me is refocusing my soul on Him, His Word, His people, and the Kingdom potential.

      Taylor has set a fire in me. The quest that we are on (Dmin) has a couple of potentials: academia and arrogance or intellect and passion. There has been a growth and desire that is fueled with a depth that has been the catalyst.


  6. Garfield Harvey says:

    This was a great blog. You actually pointed out something that I missed but I believe will be beneficial for my essay. You mentioned the challenge with the understanding of how “religion” is interpreted. You said the term tends to “organize and structure God.” I agree wholeheartedly with this perception because without conducting a survey, one of the popular reasons for people not embracing Christianity because of the rules (or structure). I think if we embrace the definition given in the book, we would’ve also evolved in our thinking.


    • Phil Goldsberry says:


      Thank you. This book was quite stirring to me. It seems the church has allowed the secularization to take place under our watch. Hopefully we are on a new track as practitioners, but what are we practicing?


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