How (Not) To Be Secular Reading Charles Taylor by James K.A. Smith is a fascinating “cliff note” version of Charles Taylor’s classic: A Secular Age. In this concise book, Smith interrupts and unpacks Taylor’s ideology from key terms to consolidating Taylor’s concepts. In the preface, Smith defines Taylor’s book as a “different map”; “a philosophical ethnography for the world”; “a genealogy of the secular and an archaeology of our angst.” (Smith, vii-ix) Therefore, Smith’s book is a “field guide…a commentary on a book that provides a commentary on postmodern culture.” Smith’s goal in his writing is “commentary identifying the thread and logic of Taylor’s argument.” (Smith, xi)
In the introduction Smith outlines Taylor’s argument and overall position. He likens it to a map, a brilliant analogy, of a globalized Gotham or a haunted present age. It is haunted, not because it has spiritual overtures or supernatural explanation, but because it is completely devoid of such nonhuman activity.
Smith walks the reader through Taylor’s ideology of the secular world. First, “secular age is not a descriptive what, and even less a chronological when, by rather any analytic how.” (Smith, 18). Smith decribes the journey of secular: medieval where it is secular verses sacred; modernity where “public” non religious space is observed; secular where God is one option among many. Smith then walks the reader through Taylor’s method of the use of story in order to communicate his truth. Smith continues to unpack the God devoid world that is haunted not because of paranormal or supernatural phenomena, but because humans rule and deity does not exist. He shows how the secular view point exists to influence not just religion, but all parts of our society.
This book was troubling to me to say the least. It was not that I disagreed with Taylor or Smith, but that it shook me from my protected Protestant perspective and exposed me to a reality that I fear is all too real. It is a world where God is not insulted or assaulted (because that would at least support His presence), but one where his presence does not even exist. It is a Garden of Eden with no father walking with his children in the cool of the day, or tree of knowledge of good and evil, no one to join the two flesh into one. This is like children, that have been abandoned and they do not even realize it.
The second troubling realization is that there is no going back. The most sobering part of this book is the following statement: “While Taylor will complicate that last flourish of individualism, the diagnosis and description are the same: there’s no going back…cannot undo the shift in plausibility stud tires that characterizes our age. There’s no undoing the secular; there’s just the task of learning how (not) to live – and perhaps even believe – in a secular age.” (Smith, 11). This reminded me of St. Luke’s Church in Liverpool. The church was built in 1832 as a center for Anglican worship. In 1941 it was severely bombed in a World War II attacked called The Blitz. All that was left of the church was the outer walls, so the city purchased it as a war memorial. It was never a house of worship again. St. Luke’s reminds me of how Taylor describes God and His church. It was built as a place to worship God, but due to horrible attacks and war in the world, it was reduced to a memorial of what was and there will be no going back.