My wife and I used to frequent the local Barnes and Noble bookstore on our dates out on the town. Instead of dinner and a movie, for a while it was dinner and a book. Yeah, we’re a bit nerdy. I miss those days when a person could discover new books—real, tactile books—without needing to click-surf Amazon’s catalog. Anyway, one book caught my eye on the Christianity shelf one evening back in 2014. It had a quirky title and a bizarre cover photo accompanying it. A scowling old white dude, clean shaven but sporting hoary brows, and with a wayward glance to the left, somehow illustrating “How (Not) To Be Secular” (HNTBS). That guy is Charles Taylor, one of the most important living philosophers and professors who you’ve probably never heard of. I hadn’t. But I did recognize the name of the book’s author, James K.A. Smith, a Christian professor of philosophy, theology, worldview, and cultural analysis who teaches and writes at Calvin College. Back in my seminary days I read one of Smith’s books that kinda turned me off to his take on things, with appeared to me as a tad too friendly with the post-modern conception of truth and metanarrative. So when his book-length treatment on reading Charles Taylor jumped out at me, I don’t remember thinking, “I need to read this book.” But I wish I had. Because four years later I’m the richer and wiser for allowing Smith to introduce me to Taylor’s insights on what it feels like to live in a secular age.
“A Secular Age.” That’s the name of Taylor’s magnum opus. From what I gather it is a long, dense, poorly edited (long and rambling), but immensely perceptive analysis of how we, as homo religiosus (religious man), feel haunted by a nagging sense of transcendence in a culture that does it’s very best to concentrate the immanence of this world. Essentially it’s an attempt to provide a comprehensive account of how the West got to our disenchanted, immanence-dominated secular age from the transcendent enchantment of the medieval age. No small goal because a lot of happenings and history have transpired in the last 500+ years!
A few people smarter than you and I, who have read and understood Taylor, have taken up the task of translating and explaining him for those of us who profit from a more straight-forward, plain-English presentation. That is what Smith aims to do in his book HNTBS. By devoting a short chapter (typically 30 pages or less) for each of Taylor’s corresponding sections, HNTBS functions not so much as an imagination-less summary, but rather something like a good book guide. The difference is the separate feelings and experiences you might have if you chose to explore a museum with an accompanying tour guide compared to merely ordering the official museum coffee-table book and staying home to browse it.
So what does Smith want us to know about reading Charles Taylor? It turns out quite a lot, but here are three things. Continue reading