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Waiting for St. Francis

Reading Charles Taylor with James K.A. Smith

I was up till very late last night finishing James K.A. Smith’s latest book, How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.  It’s a thin book, and very accessible, though you don’t really want to read it quickly because the ideas are so challenging. I was so impressed with it that I’m radically redrafting the talk I’m going to give on Dante in light of what I read there. If any of the things I’ve said in the past here about the phenomenon of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism interests you, then you really need to read this book. The book doesn’t advance an argument; Smith just explains in more everyday language what the philosopher Taylor says in his influential magnum opus

Taylor, via Smith’s book, will open your eyes about what it means to be religious today, in our “secular age” (the concept refers to the fact that we live in a time when religious belief, or a specific religious belief, is not the default position; whether we like it or not, all of us, even convinced believers, live in a secular age).

I can’t possible do justice to this book (that is, to Taylor’s vision) in a single blog post, but I’m going to throw out a few concepts and ideas from Smith’s book that I found helpful.

Taylor says the standard secularist account of How We Got Here is a “subtraction narrative”: the idea that secular materialism is reality minus all the religious mumbo-jumbo that obscured our vision over the centuries and millennia. It’s not true. Taylor explains that secularism is not just distilled by sifting out the “imperfections” of religious belief, but is produced. It is so powerful in large part because it doesn’t think of itself as a narrative, but as plain fact.

In fact, says Taylor, we have over the past 500 or so years put borders around our experience of the world, such that we now live in what he calls an immanent frame. Smith defines it as, “A constructed social space that frames our lives entirely within a natural (rather than supernatural) order. It is the circumscribed space of the modern social imaginary that precludes transcendence.” A “social imaginary” is not a theory about the Way Things Are, but the unreflective way that most people experience reality — that is, the assumptions most of us make about the way things are, without thinking about it.

The immanent frame, then, is a construct most of us in a secular age accept that tells us that this material world is all there is. Even if we reject that proposition, we live within in a social imaginary that takes the immanent frame as the bottom line of what can be known. This is important to get right: even if we do not accept that the material world is all that exists, we live within a social world in which that belief is the default position.

This leads us to another helpful set of Taylorist concepts: the “spin” and the “take”. I’ll uses Smith’s definitions:

Spin: A construal of life within the immanent frame that does not recognize itself as a construal and thus has no room to grant plausibility to the alternative. Can be either “closed” (immanentist) or “open” (to transcendence).

Take: A construal of life within the immanent frame that is open to appreciating the viability of other takes. Can be either “closed” (immanentist) or “open” (to transcendence).

The person who holds to a “spin” perspective is a fundamentalist (fundamentalist Christian, or new atheist) who thinks he has a monopoly on explaining reality. The person who has a “take” may well believe in his own version of the truth, but understands that others may have an equally plausible version of the truth. This is not necessarily relativism. I, for example, believe in the God of the Bible. I don’t believe that my convictions are only “true for me”; I believe they are true, full stop. Yet I can easily imagine how someone else could, with equal sincerity, believe in the God of the Koran, or no god at all. To have a take, rather than a spin, is a position of epistemic humility, recognizing that our knowledge of these things through reason alone can only ever be partial.

To construe reality as a secular materialist would is to deny the possibility of the transcendent. It is to put a ceiling over the immanent frame. The thing is, most of us do not live that way, and can’t live that way. We are haunted by the idea that there must be something beyond what we can experience with our senses. It can’t be proven, but you can’t offer a proof of love either, but you know it when you feel it. A dramatic experience of beauty, says Taylor (via Smith), can be the inbreaking of the transcendent through the closed ceiling of the immanent frame. Smith:

If not, there’s not much more that Charles Taylor can offer you, because he doesn’t think he can prove his point But he’ll keep pressing you: “Don’t you feel it? Don’t you have those moments of either foreboding or on-the-cusp elation where you can’t shake the sense that there must be something more?”

Smith says that a religious conversion, or reconversion, today is such

that one feels oneself to be breaking out of a narrower frame into a broader field, which makes sense of things in a different way, corresponds to reality (emphasis added).

This is an unapologetic claim. It is not demonstrable insofar as it offers a better account of our experience. And the “better-ness” of that account is something that has to be felt. 

This, by the way, is what pretty much what Dante says, and the Fathers say: that a true conversion is a conversion of the heart, or it’s no conversion at all.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is Taylor’s concept of “unthought”:

So Taylor is pointing out that any account of secularization is inevitably informed by some “unthought,” some pretheoretical perspective that comes with a certain sensibility and orientation — what he calls “tempers” or “outlooks.” Taylor crystallizes this with a kind of case study: one can see these different tempers manifest in what you think about Francis of Assisi, “with his renunciation of his potential life as a merchant, his austerities, his stigmata”: “One can be deeply moved by this call to go beyond flourishing”; or “one can see him as a paradigm exemplar of what Hume calls ‘the monkish virtues,’ a practitioner of senseless self-denial and a threat to civil mutuality” (p. 431 [A Secular Age]). Tell me what you think of Saint Francis, Taylor suggests, and I’ll tell you what your “unthought” is.

What does this say about our religious future? On Smith’s account, Taylor predicts that the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) view prevalent in our culture will not endure the persistent sense that the immanent frame within which we live is a waste land, and that there is something more to be discovered. And that the Christian account of reality, if honestly considered, might feel more true to our own experience than the secular. Smith:

The aridity of that waste land, coupled with the persistent pressure of transcendence that cannot be explained away, will continue to generate “third ways” of various sorts. In that cross-pressured space, some will begin to feel — and be honest about — the paucity of a closed “take.” And in ways that they never could have anticipated, some will begin to wonder if “renunciation” isn’t the way to wholeness, and that freedom might be found in the gift of constraint, and that the strange rituals of Christian worship are the answer to their most human aspirations, as if, for their whole lives, they’ve been waiting for St. Francis.

That is, for the example of someone who, excuse my vulgarity, got sick of all the money and the power and the self-satisfaction of the world, and who gave it all up to live for God. Ron Herzman and Bill Cook have a paper, which I don’t have a link to, talking about what a huge influence on Dante that St. Francis was, in that Francis, who died shortly before Dante was born, taught him by example that poverty can be a gift because it strips away the illusions that wealth and power (such as Dante had till they were stripped from him, and such as Francis had until he renounced them) and all the hopes of this world provide, and forces you to rely on God and love alone. Religion, in the authentic Christian account, is not necessarily comforting; it is transformative, or it is not Christianity at all. This is what you get so powerfully and so beautifully in Dante: the view, stated with great force and unparalleled beauty, that the point of the encounter with God is to change you — and that this change is going to be painful at times. But it is a thrilling adventure!

Interestingly, in the footnotes to his final chapter, Smith, a Reformed theologian , philosopher, writes:

I might append my own prediction to Taylor’s crystal-ball report here:

Those evangelicals who have been raised and shaped by forms of Christianity that are roughly “fundamentalist” will either:

a. become taken with the modern moral order and thus sort of replay the excarnational development of modernity, just now a few centuries later, sort of catching up with the wider culture; so under the guise of the “emerging church” or “progressive” evangelicalism, we’ll be set on a path to something like Protestant liberalism, a new deism; or

b. recognize the disenchantment and excarnation of evangelical Protestantism and also reject the Christianized subtraction stories of liberal Christianity, and feel the pull of more incarnational spiritualities, and thus move toward more “Catholic” expressions of faith — and these expressions of faith will actually exert more pull on those who have doubts about their “closed” take on the immanent frame.

It seems to me that Smith is saying that if Charles Taylor is correct, the Christian future will be more Catholic-Orthodox — that is, more sacramental, mysterious, and embodied — or it will not be at all.

In a recent First Things, the Catholic Lutheran  Catholic theologian Matthew Rose strongly criticized A Secular Age and Smith’s endorsement of it. Excerpt:

And with that conclusion we realize that Taylor has written a book to explain why he is Catholic. “I am a Catholic,” our author is saying in so many (many) words, “because my experience of God is best explained by the spirituality found in radically holy Catholic lives. Such lives help me better understand the imperfect glimpses of a transcendent perfection that I perceive as God’s love. Christianity is true in that it is true to—faithful to—what is most evident in my life: its need for fulfillment and transformation by God’s love.”

John Milbank insists that Taylor “does not in any way contest creedal orthodoxy.” Perhaps, but Hegelians never contest. They comprehend and transcend, and in this respect Taylor is a true Hegelian. He denigrates the Christian past by seeing it merely as a dogmatic stage in our advance to the progressive present.

The failure here is not that Taylor sets aside the authority of dogma and discourages us from entering more deeply into the wisdom of the Christian past. That’s something we’re all familiar with, not just in our secular culture that can do without the Church’s teaching, thank you, but in our own thinking as well. Taylor rightly describes our experience of modern faith as riven with contingency. Those committed to the Church have lots of interior ways to set aside the authority of dogma, even as we affirm it.

No, the failure is much greater and potentially more debilitating. By assimilating a secular way of believing with the essential content of Christian faith, A Secular Age sanctifies and makes absolute precisely what we should regard as contingent—the age in which we live. This is not to say that much of what Taylor writes about the ways secularity has altered our culture and our sense of self is wrong and should not shape academic debates. His descriptions of the secular age are compelling and deserve the wide discussion they have inspired.

But if it is true that we have reached the end of an era and now live in a secular age, it will be even more important for Christians to know what has been lost and why. This Taylor will not and perhaps cannot teach us. Instead, he makes secularism invincible to the radical criticism it most needs. Like all Hegelians, Taylor is an apologist for the present, a theologian of the secular status quo.

James K.A. Smith pushed back hard. Excerpt:

I suppose Rose is worried that people are looking to Taylor’s A Secular Age as if it were some sort of encyclical issued by a progressive magisterium. But who would do that? Taylor is no bishop and obviously A Secular Age doesn’t come with an imprimatur. Does Taylor demur from some traditional orthodox formulations of the Christian faith? Yes. But his own idiosyncratic revisions of orthodoxy don’t at all follow from his analysis—nor does Taylor ever claim they do. In How (Not) To Be Secular (pp. 111-113), I push back on Taylor at just those points where he moves from the descriptive to the normative (which are rare and rather parenthetical). Not only is there nothing in Taylor’s diagnosis of our “secular” condition that entails such revisionism, there are actually aspects of Taylor’s argument that mitigate against it. One could be a more consistent Taylorian bynot following Taylor’s suggested theological moves.

Yet Taylor’s analysis has pastoral value, not as a theological pronouncement but as an ethnography of the age in which we bear witness and make disciples. And we ignore such analysis at our own peril, I think, because the alternative would be what I fear Rose commends: a “traditional” faith that (wrongly) imagines itself unaffected by tectonic shifts in how we believe. We do the Gospel no favours by pretending that the world hasn’t changed. Nor do we compromise the Gospel by recognizing it has. Our Mars Hill is not Paul’s. That doesn’t mean the good news needs to be revised, but it does mean howwe proclaim (and live) it must. We need not choose between faithfulness and secularity: our burden is to discern how to be faithful amidst secularity. This is why we need to resist the false simplicity of Rose’s 2D dichotomies and live into the complexity of what my friend (and Cardus Senior Fellow) John Seel calls our “3D” world.

The question isn’t whether to be secular.  It’s how (not) to be secular as we make our pilgrimage toward the City to come.

I suggest you read both Rose’s critique and Smith’s response. But more than anything, I suggest you read How (Not) To Be Secular, a thin book that possesses the unusual virtue of being both thrilling and practical.




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