If Taylor is right, it seems to suggest that the Christian response to such converts to unbelief is not to have an argument about the data or “evidences” but rather to offer an alternative story that offers a more robust, complex understanding of the Christian faith (p. 77).
Coming fresh from our study of the worldwide explosion of Pentecostalism, we now tackle what some would say is the “deeper” end of the epistemological spectrum – a “map of globalized Gotham, a philosophical ethnography of our present.” (p. 3).
James K. A. Smith, who taught a senior seminar on Taylor’s work, has written a book to help us with the complexity of Charles Taylor’s 800-page historical narrative and philosophical analysis of our modern world. Taylor’s book is “heady” stuff, yet Dr. Smith informs us that Taylor also wants us to “feel (italics mine) the suffocating immanence that characterizes late modern existence, even for ‘believers.’” (p. 3) How did we arrive at a time when “exclusive humanism” – a view in which anything beyond the immanent is questionable – is the widest choice for so many?
Though Taylor uses the method of story to answer this question, he is not as concerned with what beliefs are available; he is more concerned with how the shift in what makes some things believable and others unbelievable came about. (Taylor is speaking about our Western, rational societies. Anyone who has been on a foreign mission field can tell you that there is still a prevalent belief in the transcendent in other places.)
Dr. Smith highlights for us the major points of Taylor’s work. In each chapter, Smith poses questions for readers to consider. I have some questions myself that I hope will be answered by Charles Taylor in his book.
- Taylor gives us a unique definition of secular. Most people think of secular as a subtraction process – the world minus God. But in the modern world religious belief is just one option among many. Exclusive humanism is the modern take on the world.
Question – Will Taylor show that Humanism is also a religion?
- Dr. Smith then summarizes how Taylor uses story to demonstrate how this new imaginary of exclusive humanism came to be. In the late medieval and early modern world there were religious and theological shifts towards immanentization – a closed, material universe in a natural world. For example, higher purpose (historically a transcendental teleology) was eclipsed by a concern with only mundane human flourishing. This life is all there is. There was also a shift in politics. A modern moral order (MMO) defined the ordering of society for the mutual benefit of all. Christendom faded away as the shifts in plausibility structures changed. But not everyone threw God out completely.
Question – Presumably as a Roman Catholic, Taylor is not a Dispensationalist. Will he show in his book why he is optimistic about progress and why he thinks the place where we are is inevitable?
- Smith continues to describe Taylor’s feel of a secular age. There is a nova effect of the myriad of options accompanying the search for significance. Belief is cross-pressured with doubt; certitude is cross-pressured with longing. People are pushed (cross-pressured) on the one side with the immanence of disenchantment and a sense of significance and transcendence on the other side. Taylor says that everyone feels this way. He does not offer any proof. I guess this makes sense if “his phenomenology has just named something that’s been haunting you.” (p. 69)
Question – What do we say about all those people who just live day to day in their immanent world and don’t ask questions? And speaking of the trancendent, what room is there in the “buffered self” for the Holy Spirit?
- As he moves through history (Renaissance, Enlightenment, Romanticism) to the present age, Taylor touches on subjects such as a change in how we perceive nature, the cosmos, and art. By the time we reach the present age, humans (at least here in the West) live in a world that is predominantly immanent.
Question – In a world where many people don’t think they need salvation how will we address the topic for those who think otherwise? How is (Taylor’s) Roman Catholicism different from Protestantism in addressing the issue of how we perceive Salvation? Jesus Christ is our transcendent God and immanent, incarnated Savior.
- After the narrative, historical portion of the book, Taylor delves into the more philosophical theories of secularization. At the heart of “secularization3” (as opposed to “secularization2” – subtracting God) is the move away from either the extreme of materialization (immanency) or the opposite view of transformation, the strong claims about the power of God in our lives. (What does one think of St. Francis of Assisi?)
Question – Will Taylor prove some way other than “feelings” or “sense” that the desire for “the spiritual” (p. 89) still exists?
- Taylor describes the present as an Age of Authenticity. Individuals are free to express themselves. The only sin is intolerance. Yet, committed secularists are a minority. We are still haunted by our past. The fact that we continue with rites of passage or prayer after disasters proves that we find ourselves practicing transformation while denying it.
Question – How are we to address this as Christians? Will we take advantage of events like 9/11 to begin a conversation with people about death, evil, the hereafter, etc…?
- Dr. Smith gives us a helpful chart to show the matrix of options in a person’s framework. Taylor’s own take on the world is one of openness and transcendence. For example, he does not spin (an overconfident picture which disdains others who disagree with you) transcendence as the fundamentalists do. There is also a take on the immanence (closed) view (most Westerners) and a spin (the Academy).
Question – If Taylor’s position is the correct one, how can we as Christians help people move from their “spin” or “take” on sole immanence to his? As in the question above, can we use subjects like “time” and “death” to “tip” a person into the “Open/take” position of the possibility of an all powerful God Who loves us and intervened in time and space to redeem us?
Those who live in an immanent framework feel pressures that Christianity has the answers for. In the first place, our God is both far and near; immanent and transcendent. He lives in the hearts of believers. But He is also mighty enough to help us in our times of trouble.
Taylor’s framework is helpful, but how do you make people go along with your position? One limitation seems to me to be no final authority. Even Kant seemed to indicate that you can’t make people obey the rules. Would Taylor go so far as to say that God is the final authority? That the Bible, His Word, gives answers to these questions that we can depend on?
I believe that Taylor is correct when he says that people feel they are living in a ‘waste land’ and might begin to wonder if “‘renunciation’ isn’t the way to wholeness and that freedom might be found in the gift of constraint, and that the strange rituals of Christian worship (Eucharist?) are the answer to their most human aspirations, as if, for their whole lives, they’ve been waiting for Saint Francis.” (p. 139) I believe that Christ Himself is the answer – not the Eucharist.
My final question – What then is the highest good?
 All quotes from: James K. A. Smith. How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014).
 Charles Taylor. A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).