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How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor?
by james k. a. smith?
eerdmans, 160 pages, $16

In the seven years since its release, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has entered a particular category of books: frequently referenced, less frequently read. Conference speakers note its “complication” of the “simple secularization” thesis; David Brooks drops the phrase “cross-pressures” in a Sunday column. Those looking for an introduction to this supremely important work but reluctant to wade through its 896 pages can turn to this economical commentary by James K. A. Smith.

The five main chapters in How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor parallel the divisions in A Secular Age, and the citations follow the sequence of the original book (with occasional and helpful asides that require references forward or backward). The almost page-by-page summary is faithful to Taylor while being much more tightly written than the source material. Key terms are bolded, as in a textbook, and Smith is particularly adept at offering literary examples. His coverage of Julian Barnes, François Mauriac, and David Foster Wallace, for example, helps show how Taylor’s ideas can find creative manifestation.

These popular artifacts, high and low, are all “haunted” and exhibit a kind of unease that is neither committedly religious nor shut off to irruptions of the transcendent. Here Smith conveys one of Taylor’s major points: Modern secularity “isn’t like the Mars Hill of Saint Paul’s experience”—both the conditions of belief and belief itself have changed in unprecedented ways. As competing philosophical and religious options have multiplied over the past few centuries, unbelief (and ignorance of religion altogether) has come to be a real option for many more people. Even the believer, as Joseph Ratzinger once wrote, now “knows himself to be constantly threatened by unbelief, which he must experience as a continual temptation.” Likewise, “for the unbeliever faith remains a temptation and a threat to his apparently permanently closed world.”

A common criticism of Taylor is that, though he is no junkyard dogmatist, he is in fact basically a Catholic apologist. Smith seems to think there is some merit to this objection, detecting an occasional “bias” that “assumes an implicit understanding of the nature/grace relation.” A little later, discussing the identification of secularity with the “sanctification of ordinary life,” he wonders whether the latter perhaps had more benefits (even if it was “the camel’s nose in the tent of enchantment”) than Taylor acknowledges—and whether Taylor underestimates how much it might owe to Smith’s own Reformed tradition. It does not seem unreasonable to think Taylor would be open to elaboration on the subject of Calvinism specifically: In contrast to some Catholic genealogies that limit Reform to the Reformation in order to condemn it, he believes “Reform” to be a cross-denominational, millennium-long movement that has produced benefits as well as problems.

Ultimately, though, How (Not) to Be Secular functions less as an exegetical commentary than as a set of particularly well-composed seminar notes—not surprising given that much of the book is derived from lectures, fortified and refined by interactions with students. It also reprises some themes from Smith’s earlier books, including the case for postmodernism as an ally of Christianity rather than as a threat, and skepticism about the value of straightforward apologetics—with Taylor, he suggests that the genre diminishes religion by reducing it to just another “closed” set of propositions in an age that prizes story­telling and fluidity. This is the (not) in how to be secular.

So why not simply read A Secular Age? For those with a strong background in philosophy and theology, that is perhaps the better option. For those intimidated by the “forest” of the original, this brief volume could serve as a trustworthy map. As in a college course, though, those who begin with the professor’s remarks will benefit more if they treat them as supplement and not SparkNotes.

Matthew Cantirino, a former assistant editor at First Things, ?is pursuing a PhD in political theory at the Catholic University ?of America.