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

How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor
by James K.A. Smith

Living in a secular age means, not that we are living in what is left when God and religion are taken out of the mental framework of a society (a subtraction story), but that we are living in a space where everyone feels a metaphysical tension, where there are choices. We are no longer living in a world where everyone we meet sees the world through the same lens we do.

The popular story is that religion will continue to dwindle until there is nothing left, but that is not proving to be true. Many of those who have rejected traditional Christianity are still searching for something “more”. There is both a sense of doubt and of longing (what C. S. Lewis would call joy?) within us. We are feeling pressed between a closed, materialistic way of viewing the world and an open, transcendent view. We are searching for meaning.

I often felt like the kid at the table listening in to the adult conversation while reading this. I don’t have enough background knowledge to fully understand all that I read, and YET many times over the course of the book I said to myself, “This is why I’ve thought like that! Here is a piece to the puzzle of why I’ve struggled for so many years with philosophical and theological questions. I HAVE to read A Secular Age.”

I found the first three chapters where he talked about the shift from a medieval to a modern/postmodern “imaginary” to be the most interesting. Our modern world is disenchanted – moving the location of meaning from “the world” into “the mind”. Meaning is generated in the mind rather than in things. (Enter, The Matrix) The way we see the world (not necessarily what we THINK, but our conception of the space we live in) is different than it used to be.

Some favorite quotes:

“The Reformers’ rejection of saramentalism is the beginning of naturalism, or it at least open the door to its possibility. It is also the beginning of a certain evacuation of the sacred as a presence in the world.” (p. 39)

“Rather than see ourselves positioned within a hierarchy of forms (in which case we wouldn’t be surprised if “higher levels” are mysterious and inscrutable), we now adopt a God-like, dispassionate “gaze” that deigns to survey the whole. … Thinking we’re positioned to see everything, we now expect an answer to whatever puzzles us, including the problem of evil. Nothing should be inscrutable. (p. 52)

“On [Taylor’s] account, our secular age is haunted, and always has been. Certainly belief is contested and contestable in our secular age. There’s no going back. Even seeking enchantment will always and only be reenchantment after disenchantment. But almost as soon as unbelief becomes an option, unbelievers begin to have doubts – which is to say, they begin to wonder if there isn’t something “more.” (p. 61)

“One of the features of post-Romantic art, [Taylor] suggests, is a fundamental shift from art as mimesis to art as poeisis – from art imitating nature to art making its world.” (p. 74)