How (Not) To Be Secular by James K.A. Smith
You came with what you thought were all the answers to the unanswered questions these “secular” people had. But it didn’t take long for you to realize that the questions weren’t just unanswered; they were unasked.
Employing a kind of intellectual colonialism, new atheist cartographers rename entire regions of our experience and annex them to natural science and empirical explanation, flattening the world by disenchantment.
These road atlases of belief versus disbelief, religion versus secularism, belief versus reason provide maps that are much neater and tidier than the spaces in which we find ourselves. They give us a world of geometric precision that doesn’t map onto the world of our lived experience where these matters are much fuzzier, much more intertwined — where “the secular” and “the religious” haunt each other in a mutual dance of displacement and decentering.
We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting.
most of us live in this cross-pressured space, where both our agnosticism and our devotion are mutually haunted and haunting.
That’s a neat would-you-rather for the God-denying philosopher: would you rather there was nothing after death, and you were proved right, or that there was a wonderful surprise, and your professional reputation was destroyed?
He seems, if not tempted by, at least a bit intrigued by an aesthetic argument never entertained in Aquinas’s “Five Ways”: that religion might just be true simply because it is beautiful.
There’s no undoing the secular; there’s just the task of learning how (not) to live — and perhaps even believe — in a secular age.
Ours is a “secular” age, according to Taylor, not because of any index of religious participation (or lack thereof), but because of these sorts of manifestations of contested meaning.
what should interest us are these fugitive expressions of doubt and longing, faith and questioning. These lived expressions of “cross-pressure” are at the heart of the secular.
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.
A society is secular3 insofar as religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested).
“For the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true”
There are still believers who believe the same things as their forebears 1,500 years ago; but how we believe has changed. Thus faith communities need to ask: How does this change in the “conditions” of belief impact the way we proclaim and teach the faith? How does this impact faith formation? How should this change the propagation of the faith for the next generation?
On Taylor’s account, the force of such subtraction stories is as much in their narrative power as in their ability to account for the “data,” so to speak. There is a dramatic tension here, a sense of plot, and a cast of characters with heroes (e.g., Galileo) and villains (e.g., Cardinal Bellarmine). So if you’re going to counter subtraction stories, it’s not enough to offer rival evidence and data; you need to tell a different story.
social imaginary — a way of constructing meaning and significance without any reference to the divine or transcendence.
How did we get from a time (in, say, 1500) in which atheism was virtually unthinkable to a time (in 2000) when theism is almost unbelievable? — we can’t simply note when and where various beliefs were knocked off. We also have to consider the change in conditions that made it possible for the West to be able to imagine exclusive humanism as a viable vision of significance.
So the modern self, in contrast to this premodern, porous self, is a buffered self, insulated and isolated in its interiority (p. 37), “giving its own autonomous order to its life” (pp. 38-39).
By making room for entirely “religious” vocations such as monks and nuns, the church creates a sort of vicarious class who ascetically devote themselves to transcendence/eternity for the wider social body who have to deal with the nitty-gritty of creaturely life, from kings to peasant mothers (which is why patronage of monasteries and abbeys is an important expression of religious devotion for those otherwise consumed by “worldly” concerns).
In other words, the Reformers’ rejection of sacramentalism is the beginning of naturalism, or it at least opens the door to its possibility. It is also the beginning of a certain evacuation of the sacred as a presence in the world. And that leads to a completely new understanding of social and cultural life as well. Social and political arrangements are no longer enchanted givens; the king or monarch can’t be any sort of “sacramental” reality. There is no enchanted social order. If the world is going to be ordered, we need to do it.
It is religious Reform that calls for secular reform, which in turn makes possible exclusively humanist reform. The Reformation has some explaining to do.
Because it’s not that our secular age is an age of disbelief; it’s an age of believing otherwise.
Taylor’s point in part 2 of A Secular Age is to show that we had to learn how to be exclusively humanist; it is a second nature, not a first.
“For Christians, God wills human flourishing, but ‘thy will be done’ doesn’t reduce to ‘let human beings flourish.’
Whereas historically the doctrine of providence assured a benign ultimate plan for the cosmos, with Locke and Smith we see a new emphasis: providence is primarily about ordering this world for mutual benefit, particularly economic benefit.
So even our theism becomes humanized, immanentized, and the telos of God’s providential concern is circumscribed within immanence.
Finally, and as an outcome, we lose any “idea that God was planning a transformation of human beings which would take them beyond the limitations which inhere in their present condition” (p. 224). We lose a sense that humanity’s end transcends its current configurations — and thus lose a sense of “participation” in God’s nature (or “deification”) as the telos for humanity.
In this mode, the universe appears “as a system before our gaze, whereby we can grasp the whole in a kind of tableau” (p. 232). And it is precisely in this context, when we adopt a “disengaged stance,” that the project of theodicy ramps up; thinking we’re positioned to see everything, we now expect an answer to whatever puzzles us, including the problem of evil.
“the main thrust of modern exclusive humanism has tried . . . to immanentize this capacity of beneficence.”
Ironically, it is the overwhelming homogeneity of our lives in modernity that makes our faith stances all that more strange and contested: “Homogeneity and instability work together to bring the fragilizing effect of pluralism to a maximum” (p.
“in the face of the opposition between orthodoxy and unbelief, many, and among them the best and most sensitive minds, were [and are] cross-pressured, looking for a third way”
Sealed off from enchantment, the modern buffered self is also sealed off from significance, left to ruminate in a stew of its own ennui.
The new epistemic expectation that comes with enclosure in immanence — namely, that whatever is within the sphere of immanence should be understandable to us — means we expect an answer to such matters. Inscrutability is no longer an option; so if believers have no rationally demonstrative answer, but can only appeal to something like the “hidden” will of God, then the scales tip in favor of what we know and understand.
“once people come to live more and more in purely secular time, when God’s eternity and the attendant span of creation becomes merely a belief, however well backed up with reasons, the imagination can easily be nudged towards other ways of accounting for the awkward facts”
Indeed, we only get the so-called war between science and religion once the modern cosmic imaginary has seeped into both believers and unbelievers; at that point, “these defenders of the faith share a temper with its most implacable enemies”
In earlier societies, the aesthetic was embroiled with the religious and the political — what we look back on as ancient “art objects” were, in fact and function, liturgical instruments, etc. What we see in modernity, however, is a shift whereby the aesthetic aspect is distilled and disclosed for its own sake and as the object of interest. And from this emerges “art” as a cultural phenomenon and an autonomous reality
So now we go to hear Bach’s Mass in B Minor (a liturgical work whose “home,” as it were, is in worship) in a concert hall to “appreciate” it as a work of art disembedded from that liturgical home. This is a “desemanticisation and resemanticisation” whereby the art is decontextualized from its religious origins and then recontextualized as “art.”
The result is an immanent space to try to satisfy a lost longing for transcendence; in short, this creates a “place to go for modern unbelief” without having to settle for the utterly flattened world of mechanism or utilitarianism — but also without having to return to religion proper. And so we get the new sacred spaces of modernity: the concert hall as temple; the museum as chapel; tourism as the new pilgrimage
The upshot is a hermeneutics of suspicion; if someone tells you that he or she has converted to unbelief because of science, don’t believe them. Because what’s usually captured the person is not scientific evidence per se, but the form of science:
“the appeal of scientific materialism is not so much the cogency of its detailed findings as that of the underlying epistemological stance, and that for ethical reasons. It is seen as the stance of maturity, of courage, of manliness, over against childish fears and sentimentality”
Converts to unbelief always tell subtraction stories.
So while such converts to unbelief tell themselves stories about “growing up” and “facing reality” — and thus paint belief as essentially immature and childish — their “testimony” betrays the simplistic shape of the faith they’ve abandoned.
It’s not just that belief in supernatural entities becomes implausible; it’s that pursuing a way of life that values something beyond human flourishing becomes unimaginable.
This contemporary social imaginary is crystallized in terms of authenticity. So the primary — yea, only — value in such a world is choice: “bare choice as a prime value, irrespective of what it is a choice between, or in what domain”
And tolerance is the last remaining virtue: “the sin which is not tolerated is intolerance”
“One could argue that for many young people today, certain styles, which they enjoy and display in their more immediate circle, but which are defined through the media, in relation to admired stars — or even products — occupy a bigger place in their sense of self, and that this has tended to displace in importance the sense of belonging to large scale collective agencies, like nations, not to speak of churches, political parties, agencies of advocacy, and the like”