How Not to Be Secular (Smith)

Smith gives us a roadmap of Charles Taylor’s analysis of modernity. On most accounts, Smith’s treatment excels and the reader is well-equipped to analyze both Taylor’s work and (post)modernity in general. The book suffers from an unfocused conclusion and Smith’s overreliance on postmodern pop culture.

In some ways the most valuable aspect is Smith’s glossary of key terms in Taylor (noted below).

Smith’s version of Taylor (S-T) avoids crude genealogical accounts of how the West declined. But there were ideological moments that made it possible. And that leads to Taylor’s thesis: it is not that belief in God is simply wrong for secularists; rather, it is unthinkable. The structures that made belief in God likely on a societal level, so Taylor, are not there anymore.

With this shift came a different understand of person and cosmos. The pre-modern self is ‘porous,’ open to outside influences (grace, blessing, curses, demons). Thus, the modern self is “buffered,” insulated from outside forces (Smith 30). But that gives way to another phenomenon: the nova effect: new modes of being that try to forge a way through cross-pressures (14ff).

Smith has an interesting but undeveloped account of epistemology and the immanent frame (IF). The IF is a concept that, like a frame, boxes in and boxes out, focuses in and out. It captures how we inhabit our age (92). It is our orientation to the world. It is more of a “vibe” than a set of deductions.

Smith is concerned that foundationalist accounts of knowledge (justified, true belief) play into a closed-world, naturalist system. “If knowledge is knowing something outside my mind, the transcendent would be about as far away as one could get” (98).

Criticisms

One horn of my criticism is aesthetic. I think postmodern literature and art is an offense against decency, so I really can’t “relate” to Smith’s usage of them. But that doesn’t negate Smith’s thesis. The other horn of my criticism is that Smith tends to give too much of the farm away. His initial claim is good: secularism not only makes belief in God difficult, it entails an entirely new structure of beliefs that do not have room for God. But I am not sure, pace Smith, why I should be impressed with this new structure. Smith asks “How do we recognize and affirm the difficulty of belief” [in a secular age, p. 6]? The first part of the question is fine–we all recognize that belief in God can be difficult for our age. But why affirm it? What does that even mean or look like? To be fair, Smith acknowledges this point occasionally (20 n32).

Nonetheless, the book has a number of poignant (and occasionally brilliant) insights that should provide good reflection for apologetics and evangelism

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