Usually, as I start planning out a blog post, my biggest hurtle is narrowing my focus enough so that my engagement with the topic is thorough, but not dissertation length. That struggle seemed to be multiplied exponentially this week as I found myself marking a paragraph almost every page of How (not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K. A. Smith as a potential blog focus. When you consider that this book is simply an introduction to and discussion of another book (Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age), this issue of too much going on to process and articulate coherently is a very real one.
Truth be told, for much of the week – even when I wasn’t reading Smith – my head was spinning, as I was thinking through and wrestling with ideas and concepts in Taylor and Smith’s and trying to make sense of it all. This paradox of struggling to grapple with understanding the material and at the same time being almost constantly abuzz with the connections and insights that I was reading speaks to both the complexity and depth of the material, but also, just how relevant – and important – this work is.
As I was working through all of this, I had a moment of clarity when I came to Taylor’s discussion of ‘The Age of Authenticity’ and ‘The Social Imaginary of Expressive Individualism’. Here Smith is trying to unpack Taylor’s history of the last two hundred and fifty years. Taylor breaks the time into ‘ages’: beginning with the ‘ancien regime’, where there is an ‘inextricable link’ between a persons religious and political or national identity(Smith, kindle location 1872); the ‘age of mobilization’, essentially a realization that the world is changing and religion and religious practice, must change with it (Smith, kindle location 1883).
Ours, Taylor (and Smith, quoting Taylor) says is the age of authenticity. In this age of authenticity we see what Taylor calls ‘The social imaginary of expressive individualism’, which might be boiled down to the modern (post-modern ?) phrase ‘true for you, but not for me’. Essentially it is the idea that each of us has our own way of being and relating to the world which is more important (and more true?) that conforming to any existing pattern or model (Smith, 1892).
Smith goes on to further explain the centrality of ‘authenticity’ in our current age:
This contemporary social imaginary is crystallized in terms of authenticity . So the primary — yea , only — value in such a world is choice : “ bare choice as a prime value , irrespective of what it is a choice between , or in what domain ” ( p . 478 ) . And tolerance is the last remaining virtue : “ the sin which is not tolerated is intolerance ” ( p . 484 ) . (Smith, Kindle location 1900)
For a work that is so voluminous, it is amazing and profound to me that our contemporary context could be encapsulated so succinctly, as I believe this gets right at the heart of our current cultural psyche. Beyond just this important insight, Smith has important advice, from Taylor, for those of us that might seek to engage with our culture in meaningful ways: ‘Taylor sees two temptations when it comes to our evaluation of the Age of Authenticity (p. 480): critics can too easily dismiss it as egoism; friends can too easily celebrate it as progress without cost.’ (Smith, Kindle location 1902). Not only have I been guilty of giving into both of these temptations at various times, I believe in many ways that is what we are seeing played out in many of our cultural, political and social ‘battles’ – groups on different sides, based primarily on which of the two temptations they have succumbed to.
Taylor offers a third way of responding to this and that is what I hope to focus on next week as we engage directly with Taylor. For this week, perhaps, it is enough to have diagnosed the condition.