DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Secularism but not as we know it

Written by: on January 16, 2020

How (Not) to Be Secular is “a book about a book”.[1] It is a slight book because it pales in size to the monumental work it attempts to interpret. It is an introduction, a summary, and short commentary, or perhaps a ‘literary butler’ guiding the unitiated through the intellectual history of secular modernity found in Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s, A Secular Age.[2] Taylor’s book is not difficult to read and Taylor writes very well, but like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it is very long with intricate ideas necessary to inform his unfolding argument. Like a Character from War and Peace, if one misplaces the face of a particular character, confusion wil reign in later chapters.  Fortunately, Taylor outlines his thesis in the opening pages of the 900 that follow. Taylor makes it clear that his book challenges the “subtraction story” of mainstream secularisation theory, which understands contemporary secularism as the obvious conclusion of a decline in religious belief and global superstitions generated by the Enlightenment.[3] In contrast, Taylor contends that the modern age is not an age without religion; instead, secularisation announces ‘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.’[4] The result is a pluralism which, as well as offering extraordinary freedom, creates new challenges and a lack of social stability. Taylor’s position is rather radical because he posits the notion that modernity’s great disappointment is actually the unforseen formulation of late medieval and early modern “Reform” movements which had unexpected consquences: first, reform undermined religious hierarchies. Second, it simplified religious practice, and third, it generated a new interest in nature and ordinary life.[5] Of course, the authors of that reform had no idea they were catalysing the disembedding of social world views. Taylor calls this a “post-axial” unfolding that enabled a more secular way to think about society and the world.[6] Despite wider politcal aspects of the enlightenment, Taylor finds the roots of modern “exclusive humanism” in the reforming alterations to Christian theology and practice. [7] Simply put, Christianity is a large stakeholder in the development of secularism.

Smith’s book takes Taylor’s thesis as the beginning point for a guide on how to be a person of faith in modernity. That is, How (Not) to Be Secular. Smith is striving to make Taylor’s philosophy accessible mechanics and preachers alike. So instead of opening with a review of Taylor’s taxonomy of meanings for “the secular”,[8] Smith probes secularity through the musings of the agnostic Julian Barnes, who doesn’t believe in God yet, but as the chapter subheading suggests, feels haunted by religion; Taylor refers to this as an “echo” of transcendence.[9] Again, Smith observes how the novels of David Foster Wallace clarify the “cross-pressures” of our increasingly personalsed universe. As Smith writes it, Wallace “documents a world of almost suffocating immanence – God is dead, but he’s replaced by everybody else”.[10] Thus, Smith provides possible questions and applications of Taylor’s book for lay people to ponder while steering clear of easy religious sentiment, arguing for example that contemporary Christian apologetics is little more than what Taylor calls “spin,” “an overconfident ‘picture’ within which we can’t imagine it being otherwise”.[11]

The majority of How (Not) to Be Secular is a brief, clear and comprehensive explication of Taylor’s book. All five chapters mirror the five parts of A Secular Age, attending to main themes without micro-analysing the complexities of Taylor’s argument.

Smith writes very well. I particularly enjoyed his explanation that the modern question is not if we live in a secular (“immanent”) frame but whether we “inhabit it as a closed frame with a brass ceiling [or] an open frame with skylights open to transcendence”.[12]

Smith does move beyond simply clarifying Taylor. He scrutinises the limitations of Taylor’s narrative, observing the clear “tension between creaturely goods and eternal goods” may be “a hangover of … scholastic Thomism.”[13] Again, he faults Taylor’s readiness to “jettison aspects of historic Christian teaching” rather than consider new ways to satisfy contemporary spiritual aspirations.[14] Realistically, however, Smith limits himself to setting forth Taylor’s ideas rather than critiquing them.

I had wondered how to review a book that exposits another book, when I am not fully familiar with the original. However, like biblical commentators, Smith sees his book as most useful when read alongside A Secular Age.  However, for those who will never read Taylor’s beast of a book Smiths work is indispensable.

Having Mennonite and Anabaptist leanings I was most interested in Smiths summary of Taylor’s diagnosis of the tensions of the Protestant Reformation.[15] Given that I come from an Annabapt tradition and also live within a sacramental tradition, I was a little disappointed that Smith followed Taylor in neglecting the Radical Reformation, though it must be said, the book is already long enough. Likewise I have mixed feelings about Smith’s enthusiasm for sacramental Christianity as the antidote for conservative, liberal, and emerging Protestants’ shared captivity to secularisms “immanent frame”.[16]

Smith is a good read and there is here is no requirement to wade through A Secular Age as Smiths work stand on it’s own as commentary and overview. However, a reader will be more better able to understand its importance with a rudimentary understanding of History and Philosophy. And, as a final thought, I think Taylor’s view on secularism is both coherent and encouraging. Knowing Chritianity’s role in secular formation means we have a hand in the game. If we shaped the game in the first place, then we ought to be able to play the game more effectively than we give ourselves credit. If we don’t, then we merely choose to live with the less hopeful theories of secularism that point to the inevitable demise of religion.

[1] Smith, James K. A. 2014. How (Not) to Be Secular. Kindle. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. IX

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

[3] Ibid, 2-3

[4] Ibid, 3

[5] Ibid, 48, 148

[6] Ibid, 146ff

[7] Ibid, 26ff

[8] Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular. 20-23

[9] Taylor, A Secular Age, 20

[10] Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular. 14

[11] Ibid, 95-96

[12] Ibid, 93

[13] Ibid, 59

[14] Ibid 113

[15] Ibid 35-45

[16] Ibid, 92, note 1 and 138, note 10

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

10 responses to “Secularism but not as we know it”

  1. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Lovely write up Digby. It is reassuring that these authors both feel like Christianity still has “skin in the game” in the secular world. My prayer is that, as you say, we learn how to play the game better.

  2. Mario Hood says:

    Awesome post as always. I love your last piece about playing the game. Many times, well at least in America, we blame the world or the devil for the way life is and never take a step back to see if we have help create that world. If we did, then like you said we are able to see where we went wrong or sat on the sidelines too long and should be able to make adjustments to get back in the game.

  3. Good stuff Digby.
    You said:
    “Likewise I have mixed feelings about Smith’s enthusiasm for sacramental Christianity as the antidote for conservative, liberal, and emerging Protestants’ shared captivity to secularisms “immanent frame.”

    What do you think is a better antidote? Curious to know your thoughts on this.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Hi Harry, Tammy asked the same question, so see my response to her.

      I’ll add the following, however. I do think there is enormous strength in sacramental ministry, but it would need a significant rethink regarding structural contextualisation to be broadly accessible to a wider frame of church communities.

  4. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Excellent post, Digby. LIke Harry, I’m interested in your mixed feelings.

    I do hope we engage the game and allow others to play too. If we truly believe we have truth, then what is the Church afraid of? Rhetorical question of course.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Hi Tammy. I haven’t yet replied to Harry, so I’ll offer you both the same response. On one hand the sacramental expressions of faith do lend themselves to allowing a diversity of ‘generous’ orthodoxy, and on the front I agree with Smith and Taylor alike. However Sacramental theology comes with some fish hooks that Taylor refers to, and obviously understands from his deep rooted Catholicism. And that is, episcopacy. Sacramental worship is something of a contained unit which doesn’t allow for a great deal of movement for the priests and community life. There are strength to this of course, but those strength can be weakened in a hierarchical system of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. The reason I was a little disappointed with Taylors limited foray in to the radical reformation, is because Menno Simons and the Hutterites really were the back bone of true political separation and freedom of religion. It was this latter reform which flattened out the episcopacy and attended to religious abuses. Unfortunately there was never a clear path to continuing sacramental theology in a non episcopal system. That being the case, if sacramental ministry is the antidote to secularism, no one has clearly expressed how. Local expressions may work, but it is too easy to turn sacramental ministry into yet another variably used ‘tool’ rather than a way of community life and worship. I’m thinking out loud, but I hope yo get the idea.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Btw, I do think there is enormous strength in sacramental ministry, but it would need a significant rethink regarding structural contextualisation to be broadly accessible to a wider frame of church communities.

  5. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Fascinating. I didn’t know of your Mennonite and Anabaptist leanings. I grew up in a Mennonite church until my parent’s divorced and we had to leave. I was almost 13. But it’s just been in recent church history forays that I’ve learned a bit about the deep roots of the movement. It was quite beautiful. I also appreciated reading your responses about how sacramental ministry can lead to hierarchical structures and am intrigued by what a vision for this could look like…a kind of flat-ish (organizationally), local, healthy sacramental form that isn’t just a church “tool” or fad. Haven’t seen it or experienced but I would love to.

  6. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Digby,
    What a wonder you are, do you ever tire of being so stinking smart? Your humorous communication style both orally and in print enables a lower intellect like me to be carried along on your train of thought. Your Mennonite and Anabaptist background probably connect with your interest and take on how the Protestant Reformation set our current secular age in motion (outside of this post, I would love to know more perhaps over a thinking beverage). Your summation, “Taylor’s view on secularism is both coherent and encouraging. Knowing Christianity’s role in secular formation means we have a hand in the game” gave me language for why I thought Taylor’s work was supposed to be helpful to us as aspiring doctors of the church. My own takeaway would be our current secular age is neither good nor bad, but simply the water our current complex world is swimming in. Thanks again for sharing your humor and your intellect!

  7. mm Shermika Harvey says:

    Digby, I was so encouraged by your last statement. Unfortunately, I was a little disobedient and tried to wade through Taylor’s book and became engrossed in all of it glory. With that said, when I realize that Christianity was at the foundation of the theory of secularism, I had the same thinking as you; “If we shaped the game in the first place, then we ought to be able to play the game more effectively than we give ourselves credit. If we don’t, then we merely choose to live with the less hopeful theories of secularism that point to the inevitable demise of religion.” Let’s play ball!

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