James Smith has a prophetic voice that captivated me from the first page of the Preface of his book, How Not to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. I was the church planter from Terre Haute, Indiana, small-corn town USA that moved to the New York City Metro area out of a call in 1987. Smith said, “You’ve left your Jerusalem on a mission to Babylon. You came with what you thought were all the answers to the unanswered questions these ‘secular’ people had.”
I decided to read James Smith as “John the Baptist” preparing the way for Charles Taylor. This paper is coinciding the principles and prowess of two books and two authors. The outcome of my exposure, is up to me what I become – secular or sacred, convinced or confused, passionate or passive. Would the wielding sword of truth from Smith and Taylor challenge me or anger me? Or both?
Charles Taylor embraces three levels of secularity: “1. Secularized public spaces, 2. The decline of belief and practice, 3. Consists of new conditions of belief; it consists in a new shape to the experience which prompts to and is defined by belief; in a new context in which all search and questioning about the moral and spiritual must proceed.”
The word “religion” has been a challenge to me. It represented a set of rules and regulations that were tainted more toward man than God. In my mind, “religion” was man attempting to organize and structure God. Taylor uses a totally different spin to the word “religion”. “So ‘religion’ for our purposes can be defined in terms of ‘transcendence’…It is our relation to a transcendent God which has been displaced at the centre of social life (secularity 1); it is faith in this God whose decline is tracked in those theories (secularity 2).”
Taylor and Smith had me from their Introductions. They were describing me and the world around me. They were challenging ministry effectiveness, but with a surgeon’s scalpel that dissected more than feeling and headed to the core and centrality of who Christ is.
Smith makes his claim to the writing of his book very simple:
“On the one hand, this is a book about a book – a small field guide to a much larger scholarly tome. It is about an homage and a portal the Charles Taylor’s monumental Secular Age, a book that offers a genealogy of the secular and an archaeology of our angst…..On the other hand, this is also meant to be a kind of how-to-manual – guidance on how (not) to live in a secular age. It is ultimately an adventure in self-understanding, a way to get our bearings in a ‘secular age’ – whoever ‘we’ might be: believers or skeptics, devout or doubting.”
Taylor states his purpose for writing, “So what I want to do is examine our society as secular in this third sense (my observations of Taylors three levels of secularity above- mine) which I could perhaps encapsulate in this way: the change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, ever for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.”
Smith’s purpose in How Not to Be Secular, is to parallel alongside Taylor’s five-part book and offer his own commentary and challenges all of us to realize how secularized and humanistic we have become. “So the shift to a secular age not only makes exclusive humanism a live option for us, it also changes religious communities. We’re all secular now.”
My feeble attempt to embrace two chapters, of the five main chapters, of each book for this paper was daunting. I was shaken in a good way. I was mesmerized by what I had missed for so many years.
Taylor’s first chapter is “The Work of Reform” and Smith’s is “Reforming Belief: The Secular as Modern Accomplishments”. Charles Taylor asks, “…why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God, in say 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many us find this not only easy, but even inescapable” Taylor references “bulwarks” that were part of the tapestry of society that have eroded. We wanted to believe in God, we sought disciplines but time and self-centeredness turned us to long for “modern” more than ancient.
Taylor describes this progression; “Even more important to our lives today is the manner in which this idea of order has become more and more central to our notions of society and polity, remaking them in the process.” Smith responds to Taylor’s chapter
in a warning: “The emergence of secular is also bound up with the production of a new option – the possibility of exclusive humanism as a viable social imaginary – a way of constructing meaning and significance without any reference to the divine or transcendence.”
My first response to reading was, “How did we get here?”. This daunting question turned quickly to “why”? The resolve was, “What am I going to do about it?” Fall in line and become secularized alongside the rest of the planet? Or be a beacon of light and an intensity in my saltiness (Matthew 5:14) that is a change agent to the world I live, pastor, and take up space in? Taylor and Smith have pushed me to a deeper desire of the divine and transcendent. The vacuum of society and humanism may have taken its toll, but God always does well with a remnant.
 James K. A. Smith, How Not to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), vii.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 20.
 Ibid., 20.
 Smith, ix.
 Taylor, 3.
 Smith., 28.
 Taylor., 25.
 Ibid., 161.
 Smith, 26.