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Understanding a Small Portion of a Giant Book

Written by: on January 17, 2019

To paraphrase our lead mentor Jason Clark, Charles Taylor’s tome A Secular Age is too big to read in one week.  Some would say it is “much too big!”

In reading around this book, it is clear that it is a respected, seminal work that has been reviewed appreciatively by both academic and popular sources, as well as religious and “secular” ones.  Charles Taylor is an Emeritus professor at McGill University in Montreal and a recipient of the Templeton Prize, among others.

One of the best ways to engage with Taylor’s writing and ideas is through one of his chief interpreters, James K.A. Smith.  His book How (Not) To Be Secular is a companion and help for anyone interested in this topic.  One reviewer describes Smiths’ book as “an accessible exposition of Taylor’s magnum opus.”[1]

With a book of this size and scope, which seeks to “chart the historical development that led to the main option that makes our secular age possible”[2], it is more than necessary to get some help in understanding.  James K.A. Smith writes, “buried in the long historical narrative and philosophical analysis is an existential map of our present.”[3]  Many of the reviewers and explainers around this book identify just how big, dense and thick of a book this is.

One of the core ideas in this book is based on a question that Taylor poses at the outset, “why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?”[4]  Taylor goes to great pains throughout this book to examine this question and to interrogate the term “secular” itself.  He describes the way that there have been multiple “secular” ages.  The first was from the period after 1500, as an outgrowth of the Reformation along with the beginning of the Enlightenment. That first secular age was marked by a kind of “deism”.

The second secular age, in Taylor’s way of thinking is marked by a “subtraction story”, which means that as science and technology advanced and explained more and more about our natural world, that people became more secular because there was less space for God to exist or make any sense.  Perhaps the “new atheists” are those who believe this is the place in the story where we are now.  As science continues to push further into explaining the world, religion fades away. But, Charles Taylor doesn’t buy it.

Taylor’s response is that we are indeed in a third secular age, which he refers to as “secular3”.  As Keyes explains, “rejecting the usual definition of ‘secular’ as the simple arithmetic of ‘public square minus God’ (which he terms ‘Secular2’), Smith takes up Taylor’s more accurate definition (Secular3).  The defining feature of Secularis not what we believe, but that our options for belief are more numerous…”[5]

So, rather than allowing the subtraction theory to stand, Taylor (according to Smith) is suggesting that in Secular3, we “find ourselves caught between myriad options for pursuing meaning, significance, and fullness.”[6]

In one way, Secular2is kind of like the “God of the gaps” theory.  Where, the more science advances, God is kind of relegated to the gaps or to those small places that remain as yet unexplained or figured out. Or maybe it is like this cartoon, where faith plays some kind of “magical” role in how the world works, but is not taken seriously.

The surprise about living in Secular3, is that while “the trappings of religion may be on the decline, ‘spirituality’ as such is not… Secularism encourages ‘expressive individualism’ as the chief means of finding meaning in our age, but this quest might just as well and often does lead secular people into the embrace of traditional religion.”[7]

The bottom line seems to be, that the “secular” age we are in is paradoxically more filled with the possibilities for discovering meaning and belonging and faith than in previous eras. To Taylor’s way of thinking, there is a kind of openness to this time period that people of faith should embrace.

The good news within all of this may be that the age-old questions that seekers have always asked about life, identity, purpose and meaning, are still being asked today.  In Secular3, we are all seen as seekers of different sorts, and the challenge to the church in this context will be how to make space for the other seekers that we meet.  The resources of the Christian faith offer depth, insight and unique meaning for people’s lives.  And true seekers, especially those in this so called secular age, may find them in a new and renewed way.

Charles Taylor is trying to explain or explore big ideas and James K.A. Smith has done a great service in helping to bring these ideas forward.  Even to understand a little bit more about this is mind-expanding work!

[1]Sam Keyes, “How (Not) to Be Secular: A Review,” www.bethinking.org, accessed January 17, 2019, https://www.bethinking.org/culture/how-not-to-be-secular-review.

[2]Michael L. Morgan, review of A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews(August 10, 2008): Book Reviews, https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/a-secular-age/.

[3]James K.A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: A Review (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014), 3.

[4]Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 25.

[5]Sam Keyes, “How (Not) to Be Secular: A Review,” www.bethinking.org, accessed January 17, 2019, https://www.bethinking.org/culture/how-not-to-be-secular-review.

[6]James K.A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: A Review (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014), 62.

[7]Matthew J. Claridge, “Review of James k.a. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor,” Books at a Glance, December 8, 2014, https://www.booksataglance.com/book-reviews/review-of-james-ka-smith-how-not-to-be-secular-reading-charles-taylor/.

 

About the Author

Dave Watermulder

12 responses to “Understanding a Small Portion of a Giant Book”

  1. mm M Webb says:

    Dave,
    Welcome back and good use of the work “interpreter” for Smith and his work on Taylor. I’m glad you found the paradox between Taylor’s 3 secular eras helpful. While Taylor thinks there is a kind of “openness to this time that people of faith should embrace” I wonder why we could not say that about any era of time since the first century church was launched by Jesus Christ?
    Taylor talks about the Scripture-derived framework for understanding the world. He says, “the world around us is God’s speech act,” but then throws his apologetic position under the bus because the Bible story is just not enough to answer all the questions of the 21st century advanced natural humanist (Taylor, 324).
    I do not support the notion that secularism is “ok” or that we must embrace it in our theology. Sin is sin and God will judge based on His righteousness, now we say or think it should be. I want to understand the secular phenomenon and find Biblical ways to respond in God glorifying ways. Good post Dave, made me think!
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

  2. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Great post Dave. So I have a question for you. If, as you suggest, the present age is paradoxically more filled with possibilities where do you think our fairly traditional PCUSA fits into that? While it may be one of myriad options it is unlikely to be the one picked up by most in the emerging generations and thus likely spells its continued decline and eventual demise. How can our tradition adapt to the surrounding culture in a way that helps people find transcendent meaning and connect with Jesus? Or should it even attempt to adapt? Maybe we maintain the status quo recognizing that our tradition was better suited to a different age. What do you think?

    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Dan,
      This is a great question. I think that if we accept the notion that “this secular age” is actually full of potential for gospel work, then, what will that mean for the ministries of PCUSA/mainline churches? I suspect if we “do nothing” (i.e.: don’t change or adapt), we will just fall by the wayside. I think that is some of what we are experiencing now. I also think that some of our easy answers/solutions (“hire a young pastor!” or “bring in the guitars!”) probably won’t bring deep change either. So, what is needed… strong leadership to help frame the problem for church folks… creative, spirit-led initiatives that seek to bless, love or serve the community… the ability to tell the story, share the good news about Jesus and about what following him looks like within the particular place… those are a few things that are in my mind, but there will certainly be more. It think we all need to wake up to the present situation– it isn’t easy, but there are ways in which we can be more faithful and effective than we currently imagine. That’s my brief answer for now 🙂

  3. mm Jean Ollis says:

    Dave,
    Interesting thoughts….since you live in California, what some would describe as the mecca of secularism, how do you find your balance as pastor and keeping options open to spiritualism? I don’t disagree with your thoughts just curious how you apply it in your community?

    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Thanks, Jean,
      So, my perspective here in the Bay Area of California is to take the post-Christendom reality very seriously. Where I live, it is seriously dead, and I suspect many in our cohort experience this as well. At the same time, “spiritual seeking” is alive and well. One thing that we focus on is that community is the context for a rich spiritual life (over against the individualism that runs rampant)… So, we are invited into the spiritual community of the church. I can acknowledge that everybody is on their own journey with God, so the church is seen as coming alongside those on a journey, rather than trying to mass-produce Presbyterians 🙂 I hold some of this lightly, as I’m constantly surprised by things my church members say they believe, including many of my leaders. But over time, walking with them, praying with them, studying scripture with them, doing service with them, just doing life together, I think they are framed and shaped more than they know. To those outside the church, it is the witness of this experience on the inside that opens things up. I have intentional relationships with neighbors, friends, and others who are either seekers or who are just people– and that often doesn’t relate at all to the ministries of my church, but it is part of my larger ministry in this place. Anyway, this is a rambling response, but one thing I would say is that all of this is held in God’s hands and within God’s providence. So, I think we are called to faithfully do our part, to bring our best selves to the field of play, but also to trust that God has things well in hand. So without anxiety or fear, we’re freed to seek the seekers. And to know ourselves as also those in need of ongoing encounter with God.

  4. Good insight, Dave!

    I agree. After reading Charles Taylor for a few hours, my eyes started to cross. Lol Taylor and Smith challenge us to understand the concept of secularity and then apply their ideas to our own context. They present us with a lens that allows us to view our society with more clarity.

    You observe, “To Taylor’s way of thinking, there is a kind of openness to this time period that people of faith should embrace.” I would highly agree. We live in such a pivotal time. There is a duality and compelling skepticism that is invading our churches because we have come clean about our own doubt in front of others. We’ve removed the idols of our facades and elevated Christ as the only hierarchy of our faith.

    How have you seen this play out in your own life? Have you noticed the changing shift toward transparency influence people’s desire towards Christ? How can we create safe places of doubt within our church services and ministry events?

    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Thanks Colleen,
      Yea, I just think in the places where you work (New York metro region) and where I am working (Bay Area) that the reality of secularity as the norm is just what it is. It isn’t really being contested. So, within that context, how do people of faith respond, or how to churches and ministries reach out– that’s the real question. It’s too long a topic for here, but this is the work we have to do! 🙂

  5. Dave,

    By coincidence I am in Montreal as I write this in the middle of a blizzard. I had lunch today with Glenn Smith, the friend I mentioned who interviewed Taylor in the video posted on facebook. I asked him about Taylor, and he called him a “philosopher of the history of ideas”. I will post a paper Glenn wrote on doing urban mission – I think you would appreciate it, especially for its concluding fourfold agenda for the local church.

  6. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Dave,

    You have started out this semester with a bang! Well done, and I appreciate you getting right to the point with, “The defining feature of Secular3 is not what we believe, but that our options for belief are more numerous…”

    Nailed it! Thanks for taking over 800 pages and getting right to the core.

    As our other classmates have already basically said, you done good. Keep it up. We need your insights and intelligence.

  7. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    good job Dave. You seem to have navigated this very well! the 500 years ago question is a great point. It makes me wonder now how much believing there are more possibilities can really make on an entire person. It doesnt seem that significant, but imagine what our conversations would be like if we talked to a man from 1500.

    This something that bugs me in movies based in other time periods. They might be in the dark ages in europe, the protaganist will always be the one with the modern/secular/postmodern ideas.

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