How not to be secular (review)

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.

Review: Saeculum

Markus, R. A. Saeculum.

Markus offers a reading of Augustine’s deconstruction of previous metanarratives. Markus gives a particularly lucid account of key terminology and moves Augustine made. And I think he is generally correct in his conclusions, though his reading has been challenged by recent Augustinian scholars.

Problem to be faced: Did the “fading night” of the Roman Empire necessarily mean a golden time for Christians? Augustine oscillated on this point. By the end of his life he held a more realistic, sober view. Not only did he make a distinction between pre-Christian time and tempora Christiana, against the Donatists he could distinguish the apostles’ time and the current age (which allowed for the use of the sword in religious matters).

Two Cities (and the time between)

“The two cities are formally defined either in terms of the ultimate loyalties of their members, or of their members’ standing in the sight of God” (59). But Markus hints at a perhaps more radical division: a division of two loves (de Civ. Dei. 14.28). This is a more accurate division and, as Markus notes, forbids any strict identification of a city with an institution (60). This has to be the conclusion if we hold that “membership of the cities is mutually exclusive.” city = citizens, allegiances to values they set before themselves (concors hominem multitudo; Ep. 155.3.9). A city is a “multitude of men linked by a social bond” (Civ. Dei. 15.8).

“Peace” is the realm where the two cities overlap. Yet it is divided into earthly and heavenly peace. The earthly peace is of common concern to all (Markus 69). Augustine’s definition of a res publica allows for this overlap. “The people in the earthly city agree in valuing certain things. They need not agree on the scale of value.”

Ordinata est Res Publica

Markus’s running thesis is that Augustine modified his view on “order” as the years went on. He became disenchanted with the possibility of a good Christian state. The early Augustine held to a cosmic hierarchy and this would be seen in the state. But this was in tension with the biblical view that man was a peregrinus on earth.

saeculum: the historical and empirical interweaving of the two cities (100ff).
a) The two cities can agree in their intermediate principles.
b) This is his sharpest break with the Platonic traditon. The true polis is not a city, but the society of saints and angels.

Criticisms

Markus repeatedly refers to the “ills” of Constantinianism, but it isn’t always clear what he means by it. About the most specific he gets is the “Christianisiation of the empire” (35), but what does that actually mean? And why is it bad? I think he means by “Constantinian” something like Eusebius’s interpretation of Constantine (48ff). But this still begs several questions.

a) Does this mean that church history has undergone a total and official reversal because of Eusebius? That is quite a stretch.

b) Does it mean simply that the Empire is pro-Christian and anti-pagan? But this can’t be that bad. Should we rather hope for lions and stakes?

c) What I think Markus means is that the Empire (and it isn’t always clear whether he means the medieval Latin Church or the Greek East) now sees itself as a focal point of God’s history. If that’s what he means, then sure, Constantinianism is probably bad and points to Augustine for opposing it. But few pro-Constantinian scholars hold that position today.

On another front, it seems rather odd that by the end of Markus’s account, Augustine looks and sounds like a radical Barthian and anabaptist opposing the power structures (177-178)!