- Paperback: 160 pages
- Publisher: Eerdmans; 1st edition (May 1, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0802867618
- ISBN-13: 978-0802867612
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.2 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars See all reviews (82 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #17,382 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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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Top Customer Reviews
But I did read Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. And it really did fundamentally change my perspective on liturgy and worship. Since then I regularly read Smith’s editorials (he is the editor of Comment magazine) and I have slowly been reading some of his other books.
How (Not) to Be Secular is the type of book I wish were more popular. For important ideas to really take hold, we need good authors to popularize those important ideas into formats that a general public can understand. Charles Taylor’s A Secular age is a massive and important book, but at 900 pages it is too long (and too dense) for most readers. (And more than a few people have suggested Taylor is not the most readable author.) So Jamie Smith has put together a 148 page companion that covers the basics of the argument and includes relevant contemporary examples.
The basic idea of A Secular Age is to explain what it means to live in a secular age and how we have come to this place in culture.
"We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike. There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places. Every religion is one among many. The clear lines of any orthodoxy are made crooked by our experience, are complicated by our lives. Believer and unbeliever are in the same predicament, thrown back onto themselves in complex circumstances, looking for a sign. As ever, religious belief makes its claim somewhere between revelation and projection, between holiness and human frailty; but the burden of proof, indeed the burden of belief, for so long upheld by society, is now back on the believer, where it belongs."
Taylor’s innovation is how he reframes discussion about secularization from what it has lost (belief in God) to how the very nature of belief claims have changed.
“...these questions are not concerned with what people believe as much as with what is believable. The difference between our modern, “secular” age and past ages is not necessarily the catalogue of available beliefs but rather the default assumptions about what is believable. It is this way of framing the question that leads to Taylor’s unique definition of 'the secular.’"
There is no good way to summarize this book. Smith already has condensed a 900 page book into 148 pages and I can’t condense that 148 pages into 700 words. But there are a couple points that really struck me as important. First, it is a good reminder that our world is not the only possible world. We have one 'take' on the world, that is not the same one that our pre-modern ancestors had, and it is not the only possible one that could have come about.
Second, part of how secularization came about is that God moved from the being that controlled everything, to the being that put everything into place. So where pre-moderns saw God's hand in everything, we tend to see God as a step removed. The sun rises not because God told it to rise, but because God put into place a natural world that makes it appear that the sun is rising. It is probably more important for Christians to understand how our world has changed than non-Christians because our very belief systems now have to take into account not only the reality of God in the world, but the reality of God in a world that has moved God yet another step away.
Third, as has been noted by a number of books I have been reading lately, the real incarnation of Jesus as human becomes even more important (and in some ways more unbelieveable) because of the way that modern culture understands God as other.
And fourth, we cannot turn back.
"So shouldn’t an “authentic” Christianity want to turn back the clock? “Isn’t the answer easy? Just undo the anthropocentric turn” (p. 651). Not so fast, cautions Taylor. First, even if we wanted to, there’s no simplistic going back. The anthropocentric turn is in the water; it’s increasingly the air we breathe.31 Not even orthodox Christians might realize the extent to which we’ve absorbed this by osmosis. Second, for Taylor, we shouldn’t want to."
If you are interested in my take aways, Smith did do an interview with his publisher about the book that I think does a very good job introducing the book and giving you are good jumpstart on Taylor. [...]
If you are frustrated with the way that apologetics are done in the church, or with how many seem to be missing the point (both inside and outside the church) of what it means to believe in something this might be a helpful book.
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.
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.