James K. A. Smith’s book, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, is the most insightful and interesting book I have read in the last few months. And though I don’t consume books at the rate of Kevin DeYoung or Tyler Cowen, I do read a lot of books. So for a book to grab me the way this one did and clearly set itself off from the others says a lot about the book.
This book, as the subtitle betrays, is not a straightforward presentation of Smith’s own views; rather, he writes to explain the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, whose depth is said to be hidden behind inaccessible prose and terminology. But Smith does a good job (as far as I can tell — I am only familiar with Taylor’s reputation, not his work) of presenting Charles Taylor’s ideas from A Secular Age. And the way that Taylor’s theory explains so much about our society and its relationship to faith. It accounts for dichotomies and conflicts that other, more simple (and less erudite?) accounts cannot account for.
I am in the process of creating a sermon series based on the ideas I have found. I am unsure, but I expect to be working on this series for a few more months before I am ready to preach the sermons from it. But until then, I want to share some of the gems I have found in this book.
Secularism, Christianity, and Apologetics
One aspect of modern Christianity that Smith, channeling Taylor, brings into sharp relief is how thoroughly modern and secular it is. We Christians often pose as if we are the valiant defenders of older values and beliefs that secularism wants to toss aside. But so often we have sublimated much of modernism into our lives and use its assumptions as our starting place.
One area where this is clearly evident is in some areas of Christian apologetics, which positions itself as the core defender of the faith, but so often borrows some secular assumptions and methodologies as its starting place. Of course, reading around in Kierkegaard’s writings about a decade ago alerted me to some of it. But Smith’s work was a good reminder.
A lengthy Quotation From Smith
In a section aptly title, “How Apologetics Diminishes Christianity,” Smith writes:
“Taylor offers an analysis of the apologetic strategy that emerges in the midst of these shifts — not only as a response to them, but already as a reflection of them. In trying to assess just how the modern social imaginary came to permeate a wider culture, Taylor focuses on Christian responses to this emerging humanism and the ‘eclipses’ we’ve just noted. What he finds is that the responses themselves have already conceded the game; that is, the responses to this diminishment of transcendence already accede to it in important ways (Taylor will later call this ‘pre-shrunk religion’ [p. 226]). As he notes, ‘the great apologetic effort called forth by this disaffection itself narrowed its focus so drastically. It barely invoked the saving action of Christ, nor did it dwell on the life of devotion and prayer, although the seventeenth century was rich in this. The arguments turned exclusively on demonstrating God as Creator, and showing his Providence’ (p. 225). What we get in the name of ‘Christian’ defenses of transcendence, then, is ‘a less theologically elaborate faith’ that, ironically, paves the way for exclusive humanism. God is reduced to a Creator and religion is reduced to morality (p. 225). The ‘deism’ of providential deism bears many marks of the ‘theism’ that is often defended in contemporary apologetics. The particularities of specifically Christian beliefs are diminished to try to secure a more generic deity — as if saving some sort of transcendence will suffice.
“When Taylor broached this theme earlier, he specifically noted that the ‘religion’ that is defended by such apologetic strategies has little to do with religion in terms of worship: ‘…Moreover, there didn’t seem to be any essential place for the worship of God, other than through the cultivation of reason and constancy.’ What we see, then, is the ‘relegation of worship as ultimately unnecessary and irrelevant’ (p. 117). This is the scaled-down religion that will be rejected ‘by Wesley from one direction, and later secular humanists from the other’ (p. 226).
“…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. Nothing should be inscrutable.” (p. 51-2)
The Problems with the Minimal Defensible Unit
Taylor’s view on this is significant and on target for how apologetics is often attempted. In our attempt to defend our faith, providing a “reason for the hope within” to everyone we encounter, we have sometimes done more damage than good. Because our faith (both in the sense of our personal conviction and in the sense of a set of beliefs) becomes diluted, culled of any aspect we might find difficult to decisively defend.
In effect, much of Christian apologetics is forced to reduce Christianity to its minimal defensible unit (my phrase) in order to, well, defend it to the skeptics around us. But you get a Christianity that is close to losing some of the aspects needed for Christianity. (How many apologists argue for and talk about God in a way that leaves out the triune nature of the Christian God?) And you get a Christianity whose emphases are different from those of historic Christianity. The exciting, life-changing bits of Christianity aren’t the narrow set of historical stories and statements of Jesus whose historicity can be strongly defended. The Christianity that results is often one that our predecessors in the faith would not have recognized.
And so many apologists leave their arguments with a great gap between what they have defended and what historic Christianity. Or, if they do argue for these parts, the quality of the arguments for these tenants is often much lower than the quality of the arguments for more generic teachings. One famous apologist has compelling arguments for the existence of a Creator of some type, but his arguments that this Creator is personal lacks the rigor of the other arguments.
So maybe we should take care not to do apologetics that is cut off from the rich theology of historic Christianity. Though I admit that some of these teachings are not the easiest ones to defend, but, as Taylor notes, ours is not a ‘disengaged stance.’ We believe we cannot know the answer to many of the problems, and some of the reasons and justification for beliefs or commands have not yet been laid bare. But that is the nature of our faith. When we deny this to better answer the skeptic’s questions, we end up pushing aside many aspects of Christianity, losing it in the meantime.
And if we lose Christianity in the process of defending it, what are we really defending?