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

Who Makes the Rules?

Written by: on January 10, 2018


If Taylor is right, it seems to suggest that the Christian response to such converts to unbelief is not to have an argument about the data or “evidences” but rather to offer an alternative story that offers a more robust, complex understanding of the Christian faith (p. 77).[1]

 Coming fresh from our study of the worldwide explosion of Pentecostalism, we now tackle what some would say is the “deeper” end of the epistemological spectrum – a “map of globalized Gotham, a philosophical ethnography of our present.” (p. 3).

James K. A. Smith, who taught a senior seminar on Taylor’s work, has written a book to help us with the complexity of Charles Taylor’s 800-page historical narrative and philosophical analysis of our modern world.[2]  Taylor’s book is “heady” stuff, yet Dr. Smith informs us that Taylor also wants us to “feel (italics mine) the suffocating immanence that characterizes late modern existence, even for ‘believers.’” (p. 3) How did we arrive at a time when “exclusive humanism” – a view in which anything beyond the immanent is questionable – is the widest choice for so many?

Though Taylor uses the method of story to answer this question, he is not as concerned with what beliefs are available; he is more concerned with how the shift in what makes some things believable and others unbelievable came about. (Taylor is speaking about our Western, rational societies. Anyone who has been on a foreign mission field can tell you that there is still a prevalent belief in the transcendent in other places.)

Dr. Smith highlights for us the major points of Taylor’s work. In each chapter, Smith poses questions for readers to consider. I have some questions myself that I hope will be answered by Charles Taylor in his book.

  1. Taylor gives us a unique definition of secular. Most people think of secular as a subtraction process – the world minus God. But in the modern world religious belief is just one option among many. Exclusive humanism is the modern take on the world.

Question – Will Taylor show that Humanism is also a religion?

  1. Dr. Smith then summarizes how Taylor uses story to demonstrate how this new imaginary of exclusive humanism came to be. In the late medieval and early modern world there were religious and theological shifts towards immanentization – a closed, material universe in a natural world. For example, higher purpose (historically a transcendental teleology) was eclipsed by a concern with only mundane human flourishing. This life is all there is. There was also a shift in politics. A modern moral order (MMO) defined the ordering of society for the mutual benefit of all. Christendom faded away as the shifts in plausibility structures changed. But not everyone threw God out completely.

Question – Presumably as a Roman Catholic, Taylor is not a Dispensationalist. Will he show in his book why he is optimistic about progress and why he thinks the place where we are is inevitable?

  1. Smith continues to describe Taylor’s feel of a secular age. There is a nova effect of the myriad of options accompanying the search for significance. Belief is cross-pressured with doubt; certitude is cross-pressured with longing. People are pushed (cross-pressured) on the one side with the immanence of disenchantment and a sense of significance and transcendence on the other side. Taylor says that everyone feels this way. He does not offer any proof. I guess this makes sense if “his phenomenology has just named something that’s been haunting you.” (p. 69)

Question – What do we say about all those people who just live day to day in their immanent world and don’t ask questions? And speaking of the trancendent, what room is there in the “buffered self” for the Holy Spirit?

  1. As he moves through history (Renaissance, Enlightenment, Romanticism) to the present age, Taylor touches on subjects such as a change in how we perceive nature, the cosmos, and art. By the time we reach the present age, humans (at least here in the West) live in a world that is predominantly immanent.

Question – In a world where many people don’t think they need salvation how will we address the topic for those who think otherwise? How is (Taylor’s) Roman Catholicism different from Protestantism in addressing the issue of how we perceive Salvation? Jesus Christ is our transcendent God and immanent, incarnated Savior.

  1. After the narrative, historical portion of the book, Taylor delves into the more philosophical theories of secularization. At the heart of “secularization3” (as opposed to “secularization2” – subtracting God) is the move away from either the extreme of materialization (immanency) or the opposite view of transformation, the strong claims about the power of God in our lives. (What does one think of St. Francis of Assisi?)

Question – Will Taylor prove some way other than “feelings” or “sense” that the desire for “the spiritual” (p. 89) still exists?

  1. Taylor describes the present as an Age of Authenticity. Individuals are free to express themselves. The only sin is intolerance. Yet, committed secularists are a minority. We are still haunted by our past. The fact that we continue with rites of passage or prayer after disasters proves that we find ourselves practicing transformation while denying it.

Question – How are we to address this as Christians? Will we take advantage of events like 9/11 to begin a conversation with people about death, evil, the hereafter, etc…?

  1. Dr. Smith gives us a helpful chart to show the matrix of options in a person’s framework. Taylor’s own take on the world is one of openness and transcendence. For example, he does not spin (an overconfident picture which disdains others who disagree with you) transcendence as the fundamentalists do. There is also a take on the immanence (closed) view (most Westerners) and a spin (the Academy).

Question – If Taylor’s position is the correct one, how can we as Christians help people move from their “spin” or “take” on sole immanence to his? As in the question above, can we use subjects like “time” and “death” to “tip” a person into the “Open/take” position of the possibility of an all powerful God Who loves us and intervened in time and space to redeem us?

My Interaction:

Those who live in an immanent framework feel pressures that Christianity has the answers for. In the first place, our God is both far and near; immanent and transcendent. He lives in the hearts of believers. But He is also mighty enough to help us in our times of trouble.

Taylor’s framework is helpful, but how do you make people go along with your position? One limitation seems to me to be no final authority. Even Kant seemed to indicate that you can’t make people obey the rules. Would Taylor go so far as to say that God is the final authority? That the Bible, His Word, gives answers to these questions that we can depend on?

I believe that Taylor is correct when he says that people feel they are living in a ‘waste land’ and might begin to wonder if “‘renunciation’ isn’t the way to wholeness and that freedom might be found in the gift of constraint, and that the strange rituals of Christian worship (Eucharist?) are the answer to their most human aspirations, as if, for their whole lives, they’ve been waiting for Saint Francis.” (p. 139) I believe that Christ Himself is the answer – not the Eucharist.

My final question – What then is the highest good?


[1] All quotes from: James K. A. Smith. How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014).

[2] Charles Taylor.  A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

About the Author

Mary Walker

9 responses to “Who Makes the Rules?”

  1. Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Great questions Mary! I especially liked this one: “what room is there in the “buffered self” for the Holy Spirit?” When we are buffering against the world and others, we can become hard-hearted and not allow the Holy Spirit to work. Is the church helping people to decrease their need for buffering? When people are treated as second-class citizens in church, they need to buffer themselves against the emotional assaults to their spirit. I hope you have your questions answered in our next read.

  2. Lynda Gittens says:

    Okay Mary here you go stirring your thoughts. This is going to be another awesome interaction. I enjoyed your questions, especially the one on “highest good”.
    I believe if we just stuck to the script Jesus prepared Christians would be more effective in this community and world. But we are off script, and people are looking at the damage Christians as something they don’t want any part of God and want to live their lives in peace. They don’t really understand that Jesus is that peace.

    • Mary says:

      Lynda, you are so right. As Taylor said in one place, some unbelievers came to think about Christianity again when the Pope (I think he meant John Paul II) acted like a Christian. Amazing remark from a Roman Catholic, but we know what he means. We don’t have much of a testimony when we don’t really act like Jesus.

  3. Jim Sabella says:

    Mary, what an excellent post. Great questions! “In a world where many people don’t think they need salvation how will we address the topic for those who think otherwise?” This is the challenge of the day in completing the mission of the church. One thing I think that both Taylor and Smith miss is the idea that we do not convince people they need a savior—neither “take” nor “spin” will matter in this case. I believe that that is the work of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes Christians “spin” better than they “take.” That is we often try to “convince” people —apologitically—of the reality of God. But no amount of talk will change the mind of someone who is seriously convinced that there is no God or that they do not need a savior. The “take” is, we live our lives, we work out our salvation every day in front of a secular world and we allow the Holy Spirit to do his work. I believe in this way we become the salt and light! My 2 cents worth!

    • Mary says:

      Jim, I totally agree with you. I just threw the question out there and you gave the answer that I see in God’s Word. It just so happened my devotions this morning were in Matthew 13. Some have “eyes to see and ears to hear” and some don’t.
      I am also going to look for references to the Holy Spirit in Taylor’s book. Want to hazard a guess as to how often he refers to the Holy Spirit as the One Who regenerates us?
      Thanks for your response. You are so encouraging to me!!

  4. Katy Drage Lines says:

    Mary, you’ve asked some excellent questions, many of which I, too, am curious about how Taylor would answer. Here’s my (minimal) two-cents worth:
    1. “Exclusive humanism is the modern take on the world.”– Perhaps I mis-read, but my understanding of Taylor (via Smith) was that exclusive humanism was more of a post-modern expression.
    4. “In a world where many people don’t think they need salvation how will we address the topic for those who think otherwise?”– Are you asking about how to address the topic of salvation with those who don’t think it’s important? What about approaching it more from the perspective of “What is good news?” Or, “what is your deepest longing?”

  5. Mary says:

    Thanks for interacting with the questions, Katy. 1. “Exclusive Humanism” I was referring generally to what Taylor said (I had actually already started to read the book) about “take” verses “spin”. I’m not sure Taylor would call it ‘post-modern’ in the sense we do, but anyway I was only generalizing.
    4. Ok, I think I was unclear. What I meant was that for secular humanists there is no need for salvation intellectually. Taylor makes a good case though that many people know there is “something more” out there. How do we help them? Your responses are great – we can try to open a conversation with their felt needs. I’m wondering if that is what Jesus did anyway?

  6. Mary,
    This is great – but why didn’t I read this before I did all the work of reading for myself 🙂 –
    So I loved the quote that you put at the beginning of your post… and it has me thinking about the gospel passage from the lectionary for this morning from John 1 – Jesus calls Phillip – and he goes and tells his friend Nathaniel, who greets him incredulously with the disbelieving comment, ‘can anything good come from Nazareth?’ What connected to the quote was Phillip’s response – ‘Come and See’…. Not some complex apologetic – but come and see Jesus….

  7. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Mary you always do a great job summarizing our weekly reading. The way you approached Taylor’s questions were very succinct. I would have rather read this post than Smith’s book. I look forward to see what everyone teases out of Taylor now that we have all read Smith.

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