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

The value of choice or no quarter for intolerance

Written by: on January 12, 2018

Usually, as I start planning out a blog post, my biggest hurtle is narrowing my focus enough so that my engagement with the topic is thorough, but not dissertation length.  That struggle seemed to be multiplied exponentially this week as I found myself marking a paragraph almost every page  of How (not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K. A. Smith as a potential blog focus.  When you consider that this book is simply an introduction to and discussion of another book (Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age), this issue of too much going on to process and articulate coherently is a very real one.

Truth be told, for much of the week – even when I wasn’t reading Smith – my head was spinning, as I was thinking through and wrestling with ideas and concepts in Taylor and Smith’s and trying to make sense of it all.  This paradox of struggling to grapple with understanding the material and at the same time being almost constantly abuzz with the connections and insights that I was reading speaks to both the complexity and depth of the material, but also, just how relevant – and important – this work is.

As I was working through all of this, I had a moment of clarity when I came to Taylor’s discussion of ‘The Age of Authenticity’ and ‘The Social Imaginary of Expressive Individualism’.  Here Smith is trying to unpack Taylor’s history of the last two hundred and fifty years.  Taylor breaks the time into ‘ages’: beginning with the ‘ancien regime’, where there is an ‘inextricable link’ between a persons religious and political or national identity(Smith, kindle location 1872); the ‘age of mobilization’, essentially a realization that the world is changing and religion and religious practice, must change with it (Smith, kindle location 1883).

Ours, Taylor (and Smith, quoting Taylor) says is the age of authenticity.  In this age of authenticity we see what Taylor calls ‘The social imaginary of expressive individualism’, which might be boiled down to the modern (post-modern ?) phrase ‘true for you, but not for me’.  Essentially it is the idea that each of us has our own way of being and relating to the world which is more important (and more true?) that conforming to any existing pattern or model (Smith, 1892).  

Smith goes on to further explain the centrality of ‘authenticity’ in our current age:

This contemporary social imaginary is crystallized in terms of authenticity . So the primary — yea , only — value in such a world is choice : “ bare choice as a prime value , irrespective of what it is a choice between , or in what domain ” ( p . 478 ) . And tolerance is the last remaining virtue : “ the sin which is not tolerated is intolerance ” ( p . 484 ) . (Smith, Kindle location 1900)

For a work that is so voluminous, it is amazing and profound to me that our contemporary context could be encapsulated so succinctly, as I believe this gets right at the heart of our current cultural psyche.  Beyond just this important insight, Smith has important advice, from Taylor, for those of us that might seek to engage with our culture in meaningful ways: ‘Taylor sees two temptations when it comes to our evaluation of the Age of Authenticity (p. 480): critics can too easily dismiss it as egoism; friends can too easily celebrate it as progress without cost.’ (Smith, Kindle location 1902).  Not only have I been guilty of giving into both of these temptations at various times, I believe in many ways that is what we are seeing played out in many of our cultural, political and social ‘battles’ – groups on different sides, based primarily on which of the two temptations they have succumbed to.

Taylor offers a third way of responding to this and that is what I hope to focus on next week as we engage directly with Taylor.  For this week, perhaps, it is enough to have diagnosed the condition.

This man has just realized that he only has one week to read, process and respond to Charles Taylor’s ‘A Secular Age’



About the Author

Chip Stapleton

Follower of Jesus Christ. Husband to Traci. Dad to Charlie, Jack, Ian and Henry. Preacher of Sermons, eater of ice cream, supporter of Arsenal. I love to talk about what God is doing in the world & in and through us & create space and opportunity for others to use their gifts to serve God and God's people.

10 responses to “The value of choice or no quarter for intolerance”

  1. Mary says:

    The temptation is definitely there to dismiss our “me first” society as so much egoism, or to jump for joy that we can choose whatever we want to do and it’s right just because I chose it. No one can tell me that my choice is either moral or immoral.
    What a world! So, like you I am waiting to see what Taylor’s third way of responding is. You and I are Reformed Protestants. Taylor is a Roman Catholic. I’m thinking his response may not be the five sola’s.
    But more importantly, how do we as Christians of whatever denomination respond with the Gospel, if that is what we believe, to a world that is lost but in our day does not know it is lost? I’m looking forward to great discussion on this!
    God bless you, especially as you have so much to do in the next couple of weeks and God give your wife extra grace!!!

  2. Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Chip, this sentence from your post is the one I resonated most in our latest read: “…my head was spinning, as I was thinking through and wrestling with ideas and concepts in Taylor and Smith’s and trying to make sense of it all.” Truly, I have nothing more to add.
    I’m hoping for more clarity in the next read but don’t hold your breath. Thanks for your humorous pic- again, I can relate. I am here.

  3. Lynda Gittens says:

    Get blog on “How to prepare to Read a book by Author Smith and Taylor.”

    It was a challenge for me to focus on the other chapter beside the Introduction. There was so much information int he Introductionl

  4. Jim Sabella says:

    Enjoyed you post Chip. When you used the words or phrases, “my head was spinning,” “wrestling with ideas and concepts,” “paradox of struggling to grapple with understanding,” It almost feels like you were expressing—would you mind if I say “prophetically”—the feelings that the church is facing in this secular age in which we live. Though you were speaking in the context of Smith and Taylor, there is a sense that the church too is struggling with Taylor and Smith, who have brought to light what may be the greatest challenge to the church in the last 100 years. But with the great challenge, comes great opportunity for the church and its leaders.

  5. Katy Drage Lines says:

    Ha! You hit precisely the challenge of Smith/Taylor– so many rich paragraphs/topics to focus on. I, too, underlined and starred that quote as key to understanding Taylor’s secular3 thesis. And a key challenge that we are seeing with global politics (I’m thinking specifically of ISIS) now is the clash of ages: secular3 (choice, “you be you”), NOT with the secular2 of modernity (secular = a-religious), but with secular1 (religious identity is assumed/inherent).

  6. Kristin Hamilton says:

    Well said, Chip. I have about 10 pages of notes from Smith’s “little” book.

    I’m so glad you brought up the ‘true for you, but not for me’ aspect of our society. In the early 90s I went to a workshop on post-modern thought and realized that a) I am post-modern, and b) people only care about my “truth” as far as it benefits them or their passion – especially in the Pacific NW. Have you noticed this in the Boston area? How do you think it will be different in Lafayette?

    I am also planning to focus on Taylor’s 3rd way. I didn’t really even get too far into it this week. I hope to walk away with at least a bit of clarity. Here’s hoping…

  7. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Chip I totally understand the challenge of reading Smith. Your found some great insights. I think we all have fallen into either temptation as we try to understand how to respond to this “age of authenticity”.

  8. Stu Cocanougher says:

    “each of us has our own way of being and relating to the world”

    I have more questions than answers when it comes to this above statement.

    What realities and truths does God want all of us to be in agreement about?

    Why is there so much disunity among followers of Jesus. So many radically different ways of seeing the world?

    How can I be “salt and light” in my culture unless I agree that my culture is dark and in need of salt?

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