James K. A. Smith –How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor
James Smith is a Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the distinguished Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the author of several noteworthy books. In these capacities he enlightens the church with critical thought in its practices and witness to the wider culture.
Smith declares that, “This book is a commentary on a book that provides a commentary on postmodern culture. It is an homage and a portal to Charles Taylor’s monumental Secular Age . . . an insightful and incisive account of our globalized, cosmopolitan, pluralistic present.”  The Secular Age is a guide that aids the reader in understanding the many complexities of our secular age. In the present work, Smith offers a concise outline and summary of Taylor’s arguments and analyses.
Smith informs us that for Taylor there is no undoing the secular; one has to learn how not to live in and not even believe in a secular world. “In classical or medieval accounts the secular amounted to something like the temporal—the realm of earthly, politics or of mundane vocations. This is the secular of the purported sacred/secular divide.” 
In modernity, particularly in the dawn of the Enlightenment, secular connoted nonsectarian, neutral, and areligious. In the twentieth century, secular was understood to mean having no religious beliefs or religious affiliation. “This notion of secular characterizes the secularization thesis and normative secularism.”  The thesis of the secularization theory is that as cultures experience modernization and technological advancement, religious belief would decrease and participation would wither in the face of modernity’s disenchantment with the world.
Taylor’s sense of the secular articulated in A Secular Age is that “A society is secular insofar as religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable and contested.”  His focus is a shift in the condition of belief rather than the expression of belief which secularization theorists are fixated on. Taylor notes, “The shift to secularity in this sense indicates 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, and frequently not the easiest to embrace. It is in this sense that we live in a secular age even if religious participation might be visible and fervent.”  And it is in this sense that we could still entertain a certain secularization thesis. “The emergence of the secular in this sense makes possible the emergence of an ‘exclusive humanism’—a radically new option in the marketplace of beliefs, a vision of life in which anything beyond the immanent is eclipsed.”  This is a purely self-sufficient humanism with no final goals or allegiances beyond human flourishing.
Exclusive humanism as a “viable social imaginary is a way of constructing meaning and significance without any reference to the divine or transcendence.”  The void created by discounting God necessitated exclusive humanists to “imagine significance within an immanent frame, to imagine modes of meaning that did not depend on transcendence.”  Taylor’s overarching question is “how did we get from a time say in (1500) in which atheism was virtually unthinkable to a time in (2000) when theism is almost unbelievable? According to Taylor we have to consider the change in conditions that made it possible for the West to be able to imagine exclusive humanism as a viable vision of significance.” 
For Taylor, the difference between our modern secular age and past ages has less to do with the available belief systems and more to do with the default assumption about what is believable. Taylor states, “Our secular age is the product of creative new options and entire reconfiguration of meaning.”  It’s not enough to ask how we stopped believing in God. We need to explore what emerged to replace belief in God. It is not that our secular age is devoid of belief, it is an age of believing with options. We cannot tolerate living in a world without meaning so in the absence of transcendence that previously gave significance to the world we need a new account of meaning or a new “imaginary” that enables us to imagine a meaningful life within this now self-sufficient universe. Exclusive humanism serves as that replacement imaginary which Taylor is concerned with how it emerged as a live option in modernity in an effort to “escape superstition and the yoke of transcendence.”  Taylor points out that we had to learn to become exclusive humanists, it is not natural.
Smith’s rendition of Taylor’s book on our secular age had a lot to offer the mind in doing “deep work” in engaging the mental faculties to glorify God in learning more about our need for Him as a God who is both transcendent and immanent. This book is not only a guide, it also serves as a tool in understanding the emergence of our secular age and how it is all-encompassing and inclusive in impacting everyone around the world believers, skeptics, non-believers, intellectuals, leaders, the church … We have to come to grips with the fact that ours is a secular world. The book is full of thought provoking questions to help us locate where we are and where we ought to be by asking such questions as: “What does it look like to bear witness in a secular age? What does it look like to be faithful? How do we reach exclusive humanists?
- James Smith, How Not To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing company, 2014), ix-x.
- Ibid., 20.
- Ibid., 21.
- Ibid., 22.
- Ibid., 23.
- Ibid., 26.
- Ibid., 47.