How (Not) To Be Secular: A Lecture by James K.A. Smith

Years back, Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor published his 800+-page tome A Secular Age. I actually checked it out from the library once, got about 15 pages into it, and didn’t pick it up again until I had to return it. I realized that it was something I’d have to spend a lot of time not only reading, but chewing on. Given that I was still a newly-married undergrad, I decided to revisit it at another time.

I still haven’t tackled Taylor’s book, but I did recently complete James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Smith’s book acts as a summarized walkthrough of Taylor’s, illuminating and at times taking issue with the some of ideas presented. By reading Smith’s book first, I feel prepared to take on the entirety of Taylor. In short, Smith and Taylor argue that the Western world has become a disenchanted one in which belief in God is just one option of belief among many:

A society is secular insofar as religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested). At issue here is a shift in “the conditions of belief.” As Taylor notes, the shift to secularity “in this sense” indicates “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace”…It is in this sense that we live in a “secular age” even if religious participation might be visible and fervent.1

Shifts towards secularization led us to see ourselves as free agents closed off to external meaning, influences, and forces. Social ties and hierarchies were no longer seen as being grounded in higher, sacred orders. Reality was no longer a cosmos full meaning and purpose, but merely a universe full of chaos and chance. The secularity of the modern age is inescapable even for the most ardent believer. But this isn’t a subtraction story (i.e., the loss of superstition) as much as it is a change in sensibilities; a change in the water we swim in so to speak.

I’m certainly not doing the book justice in my brief summary, so I’ll just say this: anyone interested in making sense of our secular age, but hesitant to read 800 pages on the subject, should check out Smith’s book. You can see him lecturing at BYU’s Wheatley Institution below.

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