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How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor Paperback – May 1, 2014
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"Readers in any church tradition, or none at all, can benefit from Smith's accessible and lively book."
—Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City
"Charles Taylor's crucial book on our secular age is inaccessible for most people, including the church leaders who desperately need to learn from its insight. Jamie Smith's book is the solution to this problem. As a gateway into Taylor's thought, this volume (if read widely) could have a major impact on the level of theological leadership that our contemporary church is getting. It could also have a great effect on the quality of our communication and preaching. I highly recommend this book."
T. M. Luhrmann
"This is a brilliant, beautifully written book on the dilemma of faith in a modern secular age. It introduces the reader to the material in Taylor's dense book, of course, but it does more. It invites the reader on a journey through the experience of the spirit in different centuries, and how our conceptions of mind and person shape belief in ways far more intimate than we usually imagine. How (Not) to Be Secular is a gem."
"Charles Taylor's daunting tome, A Secular Age, has just turned a great deal less intimidating. Combining his usual lucid style, his love for literature, and his passion for the church's future, Jamie Smith offers a faithful guide through the pages of Taylor's monumental work. Along the way, he wisely cautions his co-religionists against facile responses to the `disenchantment' of modernity, but he also insists that the Christian faith may have much more going for it than many recognize."
Review of Metaphysics
"I highly recommend Smith's book, a short and clear introduction to Taylor's A Secular Age. Having slogged through Taylor's book, I think that Smith's book communicates well, contra MacIntyre, Taylor's analysis and extraordinary skill. . . . Illuminating and insightful."
"The importance of A Secular Age is matched by its inaccessibility. It is a great woolly mammoth of a book. . . . Smith's book does great work in opening Taylor's tome to a wider readership. His commentary is clear, accurate, and insightful. It is also concise, leading readers deep into Taylor's ideas in well under 200 pages. Smith's sure grasp of Taylor's big picture makes the details of the argument pop with fresh intelligibility."
Religious Studies Review
"For those who have been intimidated by Charles Taylor's massive tome A Secular Age (2007), Smith has provided an accessible entry point to Taylor's work in How (Not) To Be Secular. . . . The work endeavors to distill Taylor's work for a wider audience and is more digestible than Taylor's daunting volume thanks to Smith's lucid and engaging prose. Those desiring an accurate summary of Taylor's work or those looking for a more sophisticated understanding of the secular age would find this book well worth the time."
Books & Culture
"An altogether readable, charming and short introduction to Taylor's behemoth."
"Those looking for an introduction to this supremely important work (Taylor's A Secular Age) but reluctant to wade through its 896 pages can turn to this economical commentary."
"Smith offers a reader's guide to Taylor's lengthy work. This book succeeds as both a summation of Taylor's argument . . . and as a light critique. . . .A sympathetic, astute summation of Taylor's most ambitious work. Recommended."
Englewood Review of Books
"This is philosophy with feet, a thick theology that will get your heart beating because it meets you in the complicated world we all share."
"Already in previous books Smith has proven himself adept at translating difficult philosophical and theological ideas for the broader church and culture. How (Not) to Be Secular continues in this trajectory. It is part cultural analysis, part philosophical ethnography, always accessible, and always with an eye toward the implications of Taylor's insights for the practice of Christian faith."
"Splendid, yet accessible and brief overview and discussion of what is arguably the most widely discussed work of philosophy of the last twenty years."
The Presbyterian Outlook
"If one wants to understand the roots of our current cultural condition, Charles Taylor's book is essential. There is no better guide to it than James K. A. Smith."
Los Angeles Review of Books
"Well written, clear, and accessible. Most important, it supplies a very reliable reconstruction of the essentials of Taylor's position. Smith is particularly adept at emphasizing the existential quality of Taylor's analysis of secularity: what does it feel like to be a believer or non-believer in the modern Western world? . . . Anyone seeking a quick but dependable overview of Taylor's argument in A Secular Age would benefit immensely from Smith's book. . . . [It] is a fine achievement and accomplishes just what it sets out to: providing its readers with a reliable road map to Charles Taylor's account of our secular age."
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Just a few highlights for me. Smith works through Taylor’s subversive intellectual history of Western Civilization as it attempts to undermine modern “subtraction theories” (that the modern world is just the old world after a God-ectomy). He maps the developments toward mature exclusive humanism as not inevitable, but resulting in many cases from developments within Christianity that are not faithful to the narrative of science displacing religion. The idea is that we can’t just subtract God from society without constructing an entirely new way of imagining life and significance and meaning. Exclusive humanism then, is not just society without all the God stuff, not just the neutral frame absent ancient or medieval mythology and superstition, it’s a whole new “take” on human life. Taylor’s somewhat apologetic tactic here is to paint exclusive humanism as a “take” in the same way that contemporary society considers Christianity a “take” to be criticized, evaluated, and accepted/rejected.
He moves on to argue that this modern disenchanted world where exclusive humanism is the water we swim in can be at times less than satisfying, as many feel a kind of loss or doubt about meaning and significance absent transcendence. This creates a fundamental point for Taylor, the idea of “cross-pressure.” While everything around us focuses on the imminent, the here and now, there are still hints, hauntings, of transcendence that create this pressure on us. Somehow, many of our major strivings, goals, or achievements seem to lack something, to be more flat than they could be. Taylor is very big on this kind of gutsy, feeling type argument. Smith portrays him as dependent upon his readers’ sharing the vague feelings he describes as so essential to the modern world. Smith reinforces this by showing how this cross-pressures may be evidenced in literature and music that resonates with us. Living in a “cross-pressured” world is true for everyone, we feel pulled by the pressure to “grow up” and face the “reality” that transcendence is a myth and we must make meaning for ourselves, while still sometimes dealing with the internal call that there might be more “fullness” or “weight” to be had than just what can be humanly created and attained.
Smith’s look at Taylor’s book can feel a bit apologetic to be sure, there are several points where it is clear that the aim is to “level the playing field” between exclusive humanism and Christianity by showing some of the primary criticisms lobbed at Christianity can also impinge upon exclusive humanism. One of the more significant sections deals with the question of whether Christianity/Exclusive Humanism better handles the “maximal demand": how to achieve our highest aspirations while not crushing the essentials of ordinary humanity. The ascetic and moral demands of religion easily fall upon this critique, but Smith/Taylor argue that humanism also may either underestimate capabilities of reform ("just victims" of environment) or may set the transformation bar too high allowing for a kinds of ends-justifying-means mode of achieving all that humanity could/should be. Smith/Taylor state that the playing field is level more than a few times, and I, even as a Christian, did not find myself fully convinced that it was actually level, though certainly more level than fundamentalist humanists would care to concede.
In the end, this book provides a helpful window into the assumptions behind modern belief systems. If you can handle the sometimes apologetic tone, it provides some great questions of fundamentalisms (both Christian and humanist, though mostly of humanist). How do we as a society and as individuals deal with the big issues of shared morality, significance, and meaning in a world where religion is no longer anything like a default option? We need to examine our assumptions and this book is a good start for that.
James K.A. Smith communicates clearly and helps to coalesce the ideas presented in Taylor's book. Also, Smith's book is much less daunting at a page count of roughly 1/6th that of Taylor's.
I especially liked his treatment of the growing tendency to depersonalize creation with a view toward an impersonal universe devoid of order rather than a cosmos rich with the created order coming from a personal God who is involved in every aspect of its existence. Such is the world and thinking that is prevalent in education and even the church. And that "believers wind up defending a theistic universe rather than a biblical cosmos" resulting in believers mining the bible for knowledge of the universe rather than knowledge of a sovereign, gracious and personal God.
In other words, you don't have to read Taylor while reading Smith. You can read Smith, and with great benefit.
This book originated in a class Smith hosted with students, a focused reading of A Secular Age. Readers could do a lot worse than assemble a group of sympathetic souls, and read Smith and Taylor together over a summer or semester. On the other hand, if you've been curious about Taylor but intimidated by the heft of A Secular Age, Smith offers here a handy and wonderful primer.
One of the most helpful parts of the book is Smith's glossary. He offers simple definitions of some of Taylor's technical terminology. I believe these will solidify some of the terminological discussions around Taylor's work. See the definition of things like Age of Authenticity, Buffered Self, Cross-Pressure, Social Imaginary, the Unthought, and Excarnation.
This is a handy, helpful, and wonderful short read. You will not be disappointed.
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