Monday, August 08, 2016

How (Not) to Be Secular by James K. A. Smith

How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor,
by James K. A. Smith, Eerdmans, 2014, 148pp

It's commonplace to say that we live in a secular age. At least, 'we' in the West do. But what do we mean by 'secular' and how may Christians bear witness to their faith in the current existential environment? Well, Charles Taylor has written an influential book on just those things, A Secular Age. But it's a thumping big tome, weighing in at nigh on 800 pages. Can't be doing with that? Me neither. Slackers aren't we? Never mind, James K. A. Smith has done the job for us and produced a kind of 'bluffer's guide' to Taylor's work. It's more than that, but essentially he offers a neat summary of A Secular Age, with some insights of his own and a little critical engagement thrown in. Handy, eh?

Christians need to get to grips with all this secular stuff, as secularism is rapidly becoming the normative worldview in Western culture. As a result lack of belief in God is the natural default position for many/most. In the past it was the other way around and atheists rather than believers were the odd-bods. But that ain't the case just now. A recent survey showed that for the first time the number of people in the UK with 'no religion' (48%) has outstripped the number who regard themselves as Christians (44%) (see here). 

Now, according to Taylor's taxonomy 'secular' has three main meanings: Secular1 - as in this temporal, earthly realm in which some people pursue 'secular' vocations such as butcher, baker, candlestick maker, as opposed to religious ones like monk, priest, bishop. A bit medieval, that, I know. Secular2 which involved the disenchantment of the world in the face of Enlightenment-inspired empirical science and technological advancement. Out with faith, in with reason and all that. Religious belief pushed to the sidelines of life. Then there's Secular3, which is kind of where we are now. This is the world of exclusive humanism in which anything beyond the imminent frame is eclipsed. Human flourishing is sought at the this worldly level alone. In that context belief in God simply doesn't make sense. That kind of religious hokum is so last millennium. 

But that's not the end of the story. The secular self, safely buffered from transcendence within the imminent frame, finds itself strangely haunted by a sense that there must be something more to life than this. The writer Julian Barnes confessed, "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him." Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson sighed, "All my life I have sought something I cannot name." (I supplied that quote, not Smith - got it from Twitter). We also find that sort of sentiment in some of the more thoughtful examples of modern pop music,

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

But I don't, I don't know what that will be
I'll get back to you someday soon you will see

What's my name, what's my station, oh, just tell me what I should do
(Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes)

Such 'cross-pressures' reveal a longing for transcendence on the part of the Secular3 soul. This can't be satisfied by what Taylor calls 'subtraction stories' that offer a reductionist account of our lived experience. Whether of the type offered by 'new atheists' like Richard Dawkins, or religious Fundamentalists. Neither is it simply a matter of marshaling the intellectual arguments of Christian apologetics. What we have to do is tell a story that makes sense of our cross-pressured existence. At least more sense than other 'takes' on reality, including the Secular3 one. 

Smith also references Radiohead somewhere, but I can't track it down just now. Decent taste in music, that man. I was interested to see this New York Times piece on Searching for Transcendence with Radiohead. More cross-pressures.  

Taylor's emphasis on speaking to the secular person's felt 'sense' of things as opposed to trying to reason them back to belief makes him something of a self-confessed Romantic; pitting sensibility against rationality. I'm all for a bit of Brahms and Bruckner, but Romanticism has its limits, as did the cold-eyed rationalism of the Enlightenment against which it reacted. As a Christianised apologetic strategy it has its flaws. Taylor's approach could easily be open to the postmodern riposte, 'I'm glad that you feel that way about God and the Christian faith, but that's not how it feels to me'. Reasoned argument on the cogency of Christian truth claims has its place in our witness, as well as an appeal to more experiential factors. 

At least judging from Smith's summary, Taylor is better at helping his readers get a feel for what it's like to live with the Secular3 sensibility than he is at showing the way out of it. Taylor is a Roman Catholic. His touchstone is Francis of Assisi rather than the biblical gospel. Smith explains his outlook,  "Tell me what you think of Saint Francis, Taylor suggests, and I'll tell you what your 'unthought' is." An 'unthought' is a "pretheoretical perspective that comes with a certain sensibility and outlook". (See p. 81). 

But, if anything, the 'unthought' perspective of cross-pressured Secular3 unbelief is best accounted for by Reformed presuppositional apologetics. Arguing along the lines of Romans 1, this approach holds that human beings cannot entirely eschew an inbuilt sense of God. We may try and retreat into an exclusively imminent zone, but cannot entirely suppress the knowledge of God. Barnes, Thompson, and Fleet Foxes testify to that. As old Augustine put it, 'You have made us for yourself and we can find no rest until we find our rest in you.' The Secular3 'take' on reality is consciously deficient because it cannot account for the fact that God has "placed eternity in their hearts" (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Not that belief in God removes all tensions, questions and challenges. Just like that. It was Ecclesiastes I cited. 

Yet Taylor sees the Reformation as part of the problem, rather than a gospel-retrieving movement that offers a solution. Started with Luther & Calvin denouncing the superstitions of popery; idolatry, invocation of the saints and what have you, and ended up with a disenchanted world that paved the way for the God-free zone of hardline secularism. I really don't know about that. At its best the Reformed theological vision smashed the secular/sacred divide and suffused the whole of life with divine glory. Pastors and ploughboys, ministers and mums were all servants of God. Sweeping a floor was as God honouring  an activity as preaching a sermon when carried out by a believer in the name of Jesus. The superstitions of the Old Religion's 'enchanted' life had to make way for a holistically sanctified one.

It seems that for Taylor the Reformed tradition lacks the deep spiritual sensibility needed to speak to our secular age. He sees it largely a shimmeringly cool system of theology. A world of excarnate ideas, loftily floating above the messiness of flesh and blood reality. But that is a 'subtraction story' if there ever was one. We also need to factor in Reformation spirituality, which is all about encountering the God of the Gospel as he draws near to us in our brokenness by his Word and through his Spirit. That takes place not in individualistic isolation, but in and through the life and worship of the church, spilling over into the whole of existence. The tendency towards excarnation might be better seen in the world-denying, flesh-mortifying  asceticism of Roman monasticism than the Reformation's call to whole life discipleship. 

In terms of Christian witness, the Reformation beckons the church back to the gospel of grace as disclosed in Holy Scripture. The Bible's Big Story of God/Creation/Fall/Redemption/Renewal makes sense of the glory and grime of reality. It explains our longing for transcendence and the failure to find it. Christians can testify to Secular3 men and women that inhabiting this Story offers a better 'take' on lived reality than attempting to withdraw into a wholly imminent realm, only to find that space too is haunted by a sense of God.

The gospel speaks to the ache and aspiration of the human heart more satisfyingly than any 'cross-pressured' secular perspective. We cannot escape from the transcendent, or find transcendent meaning within the imminent frame. Not even in a Radiohead concert. But in the person of Christ we encounter God in the flesh, the perfect union of transcendence and imminence. Through his redeeming work sin-broken people, dwelling in the imminent realm of time and space, can be reconciled to a transcendent and gloriously holy God. In other words, that 'something'  for which Hunter S. Thompson sought, but could not name is in fact someone; Jesus.

To sum up, this book is certainly worth a read. It will help Christians to understand the Secular3 mentality and encourage thought on how to engage secular-minded people with the gospel. But it's a bit like seeing a Doctor who correctly diagnoses your ailment, only to prescribe the wrong medicine. Ain't going to make you any better. In his conclusion Smith shows that the success of Taylor's project can be measured in so far as secular types come to see that all along they've been 'waiting for Saint Francis' (p. 139). What? Like that's going to help. 'Waiting for God in Christ' is the thing. It's the gospel that shows us how (not) to be secular. 

No comments: