How (Not) to Be Secular, with James K. A. Smith
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, the year 1500 in our Western society, while in 2016 many of us find it more difficult to believe? This is the question that philosopher Charles Taylor tackles in his massive book called A Secular Age.
In this episode, James K. A. Smith joins us to talk about Taylor’s project. What was it like to believe in God in the past, and what is it like for many believers today, and how did we get here? Whether you find it easy or difficult to believe in God today, James K. A. Smith has a lot to teach you in his book How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.
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HODGES: James K. A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College and author of the book How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. He’s here visiting Brigham Young University with the Wheatley Institution this weekend, and had some time to stop by and talk about his book and about Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age. Thanks for taking the time to meet with us.
JAMES K. A. SMITH: It’s great to be here.
HODGES: And you go by Jamie, right?
SMITH: Yes, please, thank you.
CONDITIONS OF BELIEF
HODGES: I wanted to begin by talking about conditions of belief. Charles Taylor is a philosopher who wanted to write this book about how it is to believe today. It’s incredibly interesting and incredibly long book.
HODGES: It’s huge. So, you saw a need there to sort of distill this down into a shorter book that gives people a little crash course in what Taylor’s doing.
You’re a professor of philosophy so there are a lot of things you could choose from. Why focus on Charles Taylor’s work?
SMITH: It’s interesting. I was teaching a senior seminar on his book. So I had 15 undergraduates who signed up to spend the semester wading through the 900 pages of the big book, and they made it… and what was intriguing to me was how much this, at times pretty arcane and in the weeds kind of historical philosophical analysis was actually existentially illuminating for these 18, 19, 20, 22 year olds.
And it helped them make sense of the world that they live in now, which they felt was significantly different than the world that their parents knew or maybe have prepared them for. And so I just started to realize that there was a kind of existential bite to Taylor’s project that could help believers understand something about the water we’re swimming in, in terms of the conditions of belief, as you put it. And I think it would be sad if the insight and illumination of that big book didn’t trickle down to an audience who I think would benefit from it.
HODGES: And not everybody has time for—I think it’s 800 pages or something like that in A Secular Age.
SMITH: It’s an excellent doorstop. [laughs]
HODGES: Yeah! And I love the book, but again there’s a time factor. So Taylor’s looking at these conditions of belief and how they’ve shifted over time. He puts the question starkly like this, he asks, “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say 1500, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy but even inescapable?”
Why frame the book that way?
SMITH: I think what interested Taylor is…I think most people have a sense that something changed. That we live in an era of fragmentation, where all kinds of different beliefs have sort of exploded onto the scene. Disbelief has exploded. You have the rise of the “Nones,” you have all kinds of different faiths. And I think a lot of people look around and thought, “Wow. What happened in the 60’s, to engender this?” Which is a fair question, but Taylor thinks if you only looked back a generation, you are actually missing the deep, deep, deep roots that got us to where we are today.
And so what Taylor thinks changes are the “plausibility conditions.” I think he might get that term from the sociologist Peter Berger, right? And, so what has changed is what is believable. And if you take that sort of 1500 index to 2000 index, it’s an incredible almost flipping of the script that takes place in the West. Taylor’s very careful to qualify that he’s telling a western story, right? But in 1500, you know, being an atheist was pretty much unimaginable. Like literally, like it just wasn’t a live option. Being a heretic? Sure. But being an atheist wasn’t a live option. In the centers of the cultured elites in the West today, not being an atheist is almost unthinkable [laughs].
And so Taylor, I think rightly, suggests if you wanna really understand what changed there you have to tell a long, what he calls “philosophically inflected” history that got us to the present.
SMITH: Yes. So, I think what’s interesting is, in a way Taylor’s a philosopher, but probably about six hundred pages of A Secular Age are history. And it’s a history that only a philosopher could write because, on one hand it’s a history of ideas. On the other hand, because of his philosophical commitments he’s really interested in what you almost might call the “material conditions of belief,” “the social conditions of belief.”
So, it’s like a philosopher reading the history that got us to where we are. And in that sense I think… So, Charles Taylor—a Canadian philosopher I might add. We fellow Canadians have to stick together—some of his earliest work was on the philosopher Hegel. And I think in many ways Taylor still is Hegelian in this sense: Like, he thinks history matters; like what unfolds over time really does make a difference for good or ill.
HODGES: There is a story about how history works that we can sort of pin down.
SMITH: Totally. And that doesn’t have to turn into some sort of left-Hegelian-Marxist trajectory about the march of, you know, Spirit or something like that. But there is the sense that things change because of historical accumulations—snowball effects, decisions that people make do make a difference because they actually spawn different trajectories.
So if you want to make sense of faith today, you can’t just take a snapshot of the present. What you need is a video—a film—that tells this ongoing story. And then you locate the snapshot of the present within that longer story.
HODGES: Yeah, there’s a bigger plot.
THE SOCIAL IMAGINARY OF THE LATE MEDIEVAL WORLD
HODGES: And he’s putting us in the plot—different acts, what act are we in now. So, let’s go to that late medieval world that you sort of begin to describe there. This is where Taylor begins his story, in the late medieval world. And he talks about a “social imaginary.” This is a fancy term. How do you explain it to beginners and let’s talk about what the social imaginary of the late medieval world was.
SMITH: I love this this concept. He gets it from a political theorist name Benedict Anderson. The social imaginary. Everybody has a social imaginary and the reason he is describing it that way is, it a little bit…. Sometimes people say “everybody has a worldview,” right? Everybody has sort of like, a constellation, an intellectual grid, a constellation of beliefs that help them make sense of the world.
HODGES: Like, “I’m a child of God,” or “I descended from protoplasm that became apes and became human,” or “God oversaw a process whereby da da da…”
HODGES: So, all those are sort of these plots of how we fit…
SMITH: Exactly. And we often describe those as “belief systems” or something like that. And in that sense, everybody is a believer of something.
SMITH: When Taylor talks about this in terms of a social imaginary, what he means to say is almost, like, lower pre- and underneath your beliefs is a way that you imagine the world, which you might never articulate to yourself. But you’ve actually sort of… You have maybe often unwittingly absorbed a story about who you are, what the world is for. And you imagine the world in certain ways and that’s what you take for granted. I mean, your social imaginary is precisely what you take for granted, which is why you don’t have to articulate it. And yet if you look at communities, traditions, epics, you’ll see that there are different social imaginaries, and that they’re competing in that sense.
HODGES: And so back in the late medieval world, what did the social imaginary look like for someone living at the time? Cause we’ve said, Taylor said, you know… at that point, 1500 or so, it would’ve been almost impossible to be an atheist. So, what was the social imaginary like then?
SMITH: In part… And I think Taylor sees, actually, a great deal of continuity from medieval Christian understandings of the world back to ancients. And in this sense I don’t wanna confuse us… but in this sense there is actually quite a bit of continuity between paganism and Christianity, in this sense that they share this view: that the world is a “cosmos” that is sort of charged with presences of transcendence. Right? Like, the world is enchanted. The cosmos is enchanted.
HODGES: There are “powers and principalities” as Paul says.
SMITH: Absolutely. So, there’s either a God who sort of sustains all of this and is present in it and acts within the world; or there are gods and the cosmos is sort of governed by them. So in this sense, Aristotle and Plato, you know, share a lot in common with Augustine and Aquinas in this sense of an “enchanted universe.” And what that also means is, that the materiality of this universe is sort of charged with significance that is always more than the natural.
That enchantment of the cosmos is precisely why you couldn’t imagine a world without God or the gods because then there wouldn’t be a world, right? Like, this is… It’s such a package deal that you would basically be entertaining the nonexistence of the world or something like that.
HODGES: Yeah, it would be like saying not just that the sky isn’t blue, but that there is no sky.
HODGES: It’s like God or gods and creation went hand-in-hand. This also impacted social arrangements. Society itself was sort of grounded in that reality. Is that right, about how governments and how…
SMITH: Sure. And you get the natural right of kings. So, in a way, the social orders, political orders are also taken to be divinely instituted in significant ways. And that will give rise to… Taylor thinks that there come to be reform movement in that late medieval era precisely because some of this enchanted view of the universe engenders some of its own problems.
THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION
HODGES: What kind of pressures, then, came to bear in the late medieval world to begin shifting the social imaginary? We’re heading up toward the Protestant Reformation, which is when some big shifts happen. What are some of the pressures that led to that change? Because it seems like a worldview or a social imaginary will shift when holes and cracks start to appear in the foundation.
SMITH: It’s a bit like what Thomas Kuhn would call a “paradigm shift,” right? So, your explanatory paradigm no longer suffices to explain some phenomena that you keep bumping into, that you can’t make sense of.
HODGES: Yeah, it’s like an exception to your rule and that exception gets bigger and bigger until you’re like, “Okay, this isn’t an exception. This is a sign that the system we have is not accurate.”
SMITH: Yeah. And what’s interesting to me—and I think this is really important is—for Taylor, these are movements that include the Protestant Reformation, but they also include late medieval Catholicism. So he very importantly talks about reformed movements and not just the Reformation per se.
And I think one of the themes that he emphasizes is, this social imaginary had engendered a kind of two-tiered understanding of both social arrangements but also the spiritual life itself. So you get what he calls “two-tiered Christianity” where if you’re really holy, if you’re really spiritual, you’re gonna be a monk or nun or priest. And you’re sort of devoted to this kind of sacred way of life that is also in many ways distanced from the mundane domestic realities of inhabiting the world.
HODGES: And they could even hold it up too, really. They had hourly prayers and things.
SMITH: Totally, absolutely.
HODGES: It’s like, “hey, you should be prayerful, but also know that we’re praying for you all the time, like, we’re on this higher level of…”
SMITH: It’s true.
HODGES: There’s a service element to it, as well.
SMITH: Absolutely. They are monks for the world in that sense.
But it also came with a little bit of a signal of a kind of second-class citizenship for those who had children, were butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. Even though the spiritual communities needed that work to be done as well.
HODGES: It’s almost like a spiritual outsourcing that they could do.
SMITH: [laughs] yeah…
HODGES: Like they didn’t have dishwashers and supermarkets, they had a lot on their hands, and so they could outsource some of that extra work to clerics.
HODGES: It’s a great idea, that’s a great formulation of it. And it’s a complicated story and Taylor says a lot more details about it. But what he… One of the frustrations that I think that engendered was it didn’t fit that well with, for example, the Bible. [laughs] Right? There seemed to be a lot of signals in the Bible that you didn’t have to step out of just good creaturely human vocations in order to please God and so…
HODGES: Paul made tents.
SMITH: Yeah. That’s a great analogy. And that there are…That marriage is a good, right? That children are clearly a good. That economic life is a good. And so that tension between that two- tiered sort of division of labor becomes more and more unsustainable in a way.
HODGES: What kind of things were people talking about the time to sort of point that out. I mean, was there social unrest, was there sort of push back against the church? What kind of things were people saying when they started recognizing that they weren’t comfortable with that division of labor?
SMITH: So there is a political side to this if we talk about the Protestant Reformation, in particular. For example—on the one hand the Protestant Reformation unleashes a kind of leveling effect of those two tiers. Because it says actually—John Calvin is probably the most are articulate on this theme—all of human life, every form of domestic and kind of this-worldly vocation, is nonetheless lived Coram Deo, in the face of God, right? So that there is a kind of sanctification of ordinary life that he sees unleashed in the scriptures that affirms all of these kind of mundane domestic, formerly “secular” endeavors as actually now holy. That they are ways to worship God, to serve God, to pursue God. And so that levels the two tiers.
But there is a political side to the story which says this: Our social and political arrangements don’t fall from heaven. That in fact our political systems, our national arrangements, are the product of human cultural making and labor. And so, there starts to be the strong suspicion about the divine right of kings story that’s told. And in fact what you start seeing is, if a political order, a social order, is seen to be unjust that there could even be a kind of biblical warrant for revolution, unleashing… in order to actually secure a more just arrangement. This will find its ultimate fruition in John Locke and so on, but that that also had a leveling effect which you can see unleashed in different parts of Europe and then obviously the United States as well.
HODGES: And you introduced the word “secular” there, and people might be surprised to find it that early on. But the idea of separating secular and sacred, it was not something that was necessarily new to the Enlightenment. I don’t know if the terminology was or not, maybe you can speak to that, but this idea of separating—it basically gets back to this two-tiered existence we’re talking about. So, the idea of the secular wasn’t necessarily an anti-religious idea or an areligious idea. In fact it was a way of recognizing different roles that different people were playing in societies. Is that a fair way to…?
SMITH: Absolutely. It would have been a very common way for religious folks to talk, actually. Not unproblematic, I don’t think. But it did sort of divvy up, as you say, from this two-tiered version where there were sacred pursuits which were sort of specifically and narrowly concerned with the spiritual, the heavenly, the life to come. And then there would be this-worldly “secular pursuits,” which were basically mundane domestic life. The sort of creaturely life in that sense.
HODGES: Cooking food, eating food?
SMITH: Yeah. Making babies, raising children [laughs], all of those kinds of things were all good, but they were seen as temporal reality.
That actually might be an important theme to introduce is… The first kind of ancient and medieval understanding of the word “secular” probably is also tied to—not just meaning to diminish this-worldly life, but it’s actually tied to really probably the original meaning of the Latin seculum which is a temporal age, right? So, even in St Augustine in late fourth or early fifth century he’ll talk about the seculum as an era of history between the fall of humanity and the second coming of Christ, right? And so, that’s a kind of contested age and long era in which humanity finds itself.
HODGES: Adam has to toil in the…
SMITH: Exactly, so…
SMITH: And Eve has to do this. But it’s temporary, like God can fix that…
SMITH: It’s temporary that’s the thing, the seculum is an age that is temporary. It’s also deeply contested now because of Christ’s work and accomplishment and redemption…
HODGES: Yeah. So did he finish, yeah, exactly. So did he do away with the secular age or did…
SMITH: So now it’s an “Already but not yet” dynamic…
HODGES: And especially through Paul we see him talking about that. And Christ saying “the Kingdom of God is among you,” but he also talked about coming of the Kingdom in future tense.
SMITH: Exactly, exactly. So, I think why the ancient and medieval believers would also talk about secular pursuits is because what they meant is, well the kind of things we have to do in this meantime while we’re waiting for Christ’s kingdom to fully arrive.
HODGES: And they wanted to… We see Puritanism as one example of something that arises out of this, because they want to actually raise the bar on this and start thinking of every pursuit in a way as being endowed with some sort of sacred sequence.
SMITH: Very important. Yeah, thanks for bringing that up. On the one hand you could say it’s leveling this sacred secular distinction so that all of life is sacred. But then that also has this raising of the bar. Because that means in a way the butcher and the baker and the candlestick maker are called to the same pursuit of holiness that the monks and nuns and priests were called to. And you can see that in… again because of my own Christian tradition I know John Calvin the best, but he envisioned—if Calvin wanted to kind of break down the walls of the monastery, which he did it, it was actually only because he wanted all of Geneva to become a magnum monasterium, he said. He wanted the entire city to be governed by the rhythms of prayer, so that then we would undertake all of our vocations—as parents, as laborers, as intellectuals—in that frame of pursuing holiness.
HODGES: Another issue that they focused on was sacramentalism, this started to become a point of focus. Maybe expand on that a little bit.
SMITH: Yeah. So, let’s say by sacramentalism in here we mean, again, this sense that material elements were uniquely charged with the spirit of God’s presence.
HODGES: Like the host in the sacrament, the Lord’s Supper…
SMITH: Like the host, that’s right. In the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist…
HODGES: That there was something metaphysically real about it. It wasn’t just a symbol.
SMITH: No, it’s not just a symbol, it’s not just a memorial. And so you could see how that fits this is view of the cosmos as an enchanted cosmos.
HODGES: And the actual power the priest had to sort of be the…
SMITH: Yeah. Which could also engender then its own superstitions about it. Which is exactly what the Protestant reformers were responding to. So once you kind of make this shift, what happens is you also—this becomes particularly true in the later Reformation—you lose the kind of enchantment motif. And now the sacraments—even Protestants for baptism and the Lord’s Supper—they just sort of become memorials, symbols. They are not really sort of charged and do something. It’s more something that we do to show our faith, or something like that.
HODGES: It’s like something happens, but the host isn’t like Tylenol where you take and then there’s these physical results from it.
SMITH: So, you lose a kid of magic. Now in many ways that’s good because it’s not magic, right [laughs]?
HODGES: So we would say from a Protestant perspective, right, I mean Catholicism still has maintained some of that in terms of transubstantiation.
SMITH: They would but they still not want people think it’s magic. I think the interesting story to be told here—and I say this with lots of Roman Catholic friends—the gap between sort of official doctrinal understanding of the sacraments and laity’s perception of what’s going on in them—there’s a huge gap there between the two. And Taylor at one point says, really what happens after the Reformation is all magic becomes black magic, right? And so therefore you’re gonna be resistant to any kind of enchantment sort of dynamic.
So you get this kid of flattening of the world, this flattening of the universe. And what that means is unwittingly—I really truly believe unwittingly—it’s the Reformation that unleashes the beginnings of the disenchantment of the world as a whole.
A ZIGZAG PROGRESSION TO THE PRESENT
HODGES: And that had to do with how people viewed the natural world, right? They thorough a period of very mechanistic view of how the world works. Now people see things very naturalistically, like there’s matter and that’s were all reality is and there is nothing beyond that. How did the rejection of sacramentalism—how was that kind of a symptom of the rise of scientific worldview, and sort of the scientific impulse? Because that was not originally some sort atheistic anti-belief movement—
HODGES: —and a lot of people today would say, “well, science and religion conflict with each other. And clearly one is gonna win over the other.” Science in many ways was an outgrowth of religious expression and experience.
SMITH: Very much so, right? Certainly if you tell particularly the British story about the origins of science, it comes out of believing communities whose belief in God’s activity and designing the world is what motivates their investigation of its laws.
On the other hand, I think what happens is, the methodology of science proceeds in such a way that it is going to investigate the mechanisms and cause-and-effect dynamics of creation as if it were merely natural, right? And religious folks like us need to realize, that turned out to be super successful!
HODGES: [laughs] yeah—
SMITH: —so I could fly to Salt Lake City today, right [laughs], because we’ve marshalled certain forces as a result of the successful consequence of that methodology.
But what happens is the methodology almost flipped and became a social imaginary. There’s a fantastic book by historian of science from Australia named Peter Harrison called The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science” and I think it is the most sophisticated account of all of these dynamics. Because what he shows is, in some ways it was then the Protestant refusal of allegorical interpretation of scripture that engendered a kind of hermeneutic of creation as a whole that also sort of flattens our reading of the natural world.
Again this is all very unintentional, right? But it starts to treat the world as if it was this closed system. And because of other forces that continue on, you get this mythology that arises, as if science is a worldview or is a social imaginary which is not true at all.
HODGES: This is part of what Taylor describes as a “zigzag progression” to where we are today. There’s a story out there—as we’re tracing the shift from a culture where it’s almost impossible to disbelieve God to one word seems difficult to believe—Taylor is not offering what he calls a “subtraction story.” This is something that a lot of people assume the story to be. What’s the subtraction story and who’s telling the story?
SMITH: So a subtraction story about how we got to where we are would be a secularist account of our secular age. Because it goes something like this: Basically, humanity in the west used to overlay or attach this kind of supernatural, fantastic, transcendent, enchanted layer or level of the universe onto our natural, physical, rational universe that we know. And what happened is because of enlightenment, we basically became illumined to the point that we realized that we first of all didn’t need the supernatural transcendent to explain the natural anymore. And then we got to the point where we realized, “so why do we keep believing in the supernatural transcendent, let’s just lop that off.” And all you’re left with is kind of the cold hard facts of the natural world in which we find ourselves; and that’s when we became rational, enlightened, scientific. And that’s what it means to live in a secular age.
HODGES: As though belief today is a vestigial remnant of this outdated mode of belief.
SMITH: Totally. So, belief is like bad habits that you’ve still acquired from your crazy grandfather or something. Cause they’ve been sort of unwittingly…
SMITH: They’re memes, exactly.
HODGES: Memes, like this idea of genes being passed on. Memes, these ideas that are passed on.
SMITH: Exactly. And so that’s a “subtraction story” because what it says is, the secular is really just the “real world” that’s left when you throw off the fantastical world of religious belief. And Taylor thinks that is a completely unsustainable account of where we are for a couple of reasons.
First of all, he just doesn’t share that view that the natural world is all there is, he’s not a naturalist. And he thinks that any account you tell about our secular age is always informed by your own social imaginary. So when Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens tell this kind of story—this subtraction story—he says “Well, here’s what I wanna do. I wanna go down and dig down to the basement where they keep all of their own confessional commitments and bring those up to the surface and sort of lay those out to see whether they really work to explain who we are.
And in a way I think Taylor’s wager, his intellectual wager in this big book, is that, in fact, that subtraction story about who we are and how we got here doesn’t do justice to the complexity and nuance of what people experience. So he just thinks it’s not a sufficiently explanatory account, because what it does is it has to basically shut its eyes to phenomena that a non-secularist account of the secular could tell. That is, I think, what Taylor’s trying to offer.
HODGES: What type of phenomena? So what would he point to then that they can’t account for?
SMITH: So I think he would say that the kind of world or the kind of person that, say, Sam Harris imagines as the kind of quintessential, rational, enlightened person is both unbelievably rare and dysfunctional. [Laughs] And that in fact there are all kinds of people, who aren’t traditional religious believers, who are grappling with, still, a kind of lingering longing for a fullness that can’t just be explained away as a bad habit. So, I think he thinks… Not to mention the fact that this account does nothing to explain the explosion of religious belief around the globe. I mean, it’s a story that makes a lot of sense if you’re in like the middle of Oxford or something, or you’re sitting in the middle of Ann Arbor, Michigan. It makes no sense in most of the rest of the world.
HODGES: Is there a sense in which religious—and some religious believers have also contributed to that sort of view—I’m thinking in terms of some fundamentalisms and some groups who seem to… I mean it’s almost as if they agree with Sam Harris or these other “New Atheists” on a lot of things. They’re just sort of the flip side of it.
SMITH: We shouldn’t tell people this, but this is…I would say most fundamentalisms are the mirror image of modernisms, right? And the apologetics by which we respond to the Harris’s and Dawkins’s and Hitchens of the world often have already conceded so much to their worldview, their methodology, their social imaginary, that it’s more like you’re trying to win the most chairs on the deck of the Titanic.
HODGES: They’re on the same ship.
SMITH: They’re on the same… I really feel like the mode of responding… That’s why I do think Taylor’s work is its own kind of apologetic. But not because he’s going tit for tat about whether or not the creation reveals the existence of God. He is not doing that kind of apologetics; he’s doing a much more radical apologetics where he’s calling into question these kind of basement assumptions that are behind the whole story that motivates that back-and-forth altogether.
HODGES: In a nutshell—that’s a huge story—but can you identify some of those things that they share in common?
SMITH: I would say in many ways a lot of religious apologists act and argue as if the world really just was a deistic one, right? So, obviously they’re atheists so they believe that God exists. But the way that they imagine God’s relationship to the world is remarkably extrinsic. So they kind of accept the mechanics of the universe as laid out.
HODGES: What does that deistic God look like? What does that deistic God do?
SMITH: So, the deistic God, you know, kicks things going but then otherwise maintains a rather distant relationship. And is not the kind of God who is present in things and meets you in the materiality of the sacraments. Or it’s not a spirit who enchants the world in significant ways. And so the best that you’re going to argue for is a kind of distant deity who started it and is in charge but who isn’t personally present. And isn’t met…I guess for me what’s most usually missing from those kid of apologetic responses is… Jesus. [laughs] Like, there’s no dynamic, it seems odd to me to hinge so much of your public religious witness on making the sorts of arguments that, by their very methodological commitments, preclude appealing to Jesus as the consummate revelation of God.
HODGES: Do you feel like some of the apologetics that even do appeal to Jesus, though, sort of buy into some of this assumptions? I’m thinking in terms of apologetic works that try to provide these really strong evidence-based arguments that Jesus existed or that he…
SMITH: So, I’m a Kierkegaardian in this respect: So I think there is a place for that, and I think often that’s a legitimate set of questions that believers have to work through. Do you know what I mean? When you inhabit the space we do, I think that… And I think it is unique that Christianity can do that, right?
HODGES: Cause Jesus was a historical person?
SMITH: Right. Exactly, and it’s a deeply historical religion. I just think that even if you are successful in that, that’s a long ways from what Kierkegaard calls “subjective belief,” right? Like, that is owning and meeting and encountering that.
I should say by the way, you pointed out what Taylor calls this zigzag approach. So maybe one of the other significant differences between the subtraction story and Taylor’s account is that the subtraction story is basically a progress narrative.
HODGES: Whig history?
SMITH: It’s Whig history. It’s a story of our progressive enlightenment towards disenchanted rationality.
HODGES: It’s really easy to believe because we get a new iPhone every year, you know what I mean [laughs]…
SMITH: Yes! [laughs] That’s right. And actually it’s important to see that it’s a story. I think Taylor would say people who convert from belief to unbelief are really just converting to an alternative story. Taylor wants to call his a zigzag account because he’s really taking the contingency of history seriously. Like, he thinks, no, there are kind of contingent decisions and moves and communal developments that take place, and it could have gone otherwise. Like, there were possibilities for it to have gone otherwise. It’s also why he doesn’t think secularism in that sort of aggressive sense is necessarily the end of the story, right? Whereas if you’re telling a Whig history of a subtraction narrative, “oh well we’ve kind of reached enlightenment, now we’ve got to the end.”
HODGES: And it’s gonna keep going because of all the people who still believe will get there. They’ll see what we all see, they’ll see this irrefutable evidence that this is all there is, no God.
SMITH: Exactly. And so, that’s going to, I think, prove to be a refutable claim. [laughs] But it’s also…Because Taylor has this sense of the contingency of history he also thinks that, because that’s not a very good account of who we are and where we are it could implode. And there could be opportunities for faith in the future that might be hard for us to imagine now.
When I got to interview Taylor a few years ago, one of things that struck me is how much his account engenders, for him, hope. So it’s not a despairing narrative.
HODGES: What would there be to despair? Just this idea that religion will just be erased over time and…
SMITH: Yeah, yeah. That it would wither on the vine, that it would be gobbled up by either the state and/or science or consumerism or whatever it might be. And you tell this story whereby communities that foster faith completely shrivel, and what’s the possibilities going forward? Or at least a despair that religious believers would become such grotesques within our public spaces, that we would be the freak shows on the margin. And I think… Sometimes I worry that some of my co-religionists buy into that narrative of despair. And I mean I understand that there are political and social developments that could motivate that. I don’t think that’s the posture that Christians could ever take. I think hope is both commended and possible. [laughs] And I think Taylor, though, gives you the nuances of a history that also explains why… If you despair right now, you actually are accepting the secularist account of our secular age.
HODGES: Without looking at the history of how the ideas have really played out?
SMITH: Yeah. And because you’re also not taking history seriously. You’ve bought a progress myth and you think it’s a straight line trajectory. Taylor is saying, look, the spirit zigs and zags.
HODGES: Do you think there’s been a sense in which some believers, though, have contributed to their own disbelieveability when they align themselves with reactionary things? There’s this the idea that, “Okay, we understand it’s not this straight line of progression, and that history is not just on an uptick,” but that can become a bad attitude to have in the event that people stand in the way of things that do need to progress.
I’m thinking like racism, for example, or it’s something like climate change, where we don’t want to face up to that. We would rather keep life the way it is right now. And these scientists, “atheist scientists” are trying to trick us with these types of things—it’s kind of a caricature. But it’s this idea of feeling skeptical of science, skeptical of the Academy on the part of believers that then, you know… That’s not an appealing way to appeal to scientists, [laughs] if you make yourself an enemy of science.
SMITH: No. And enclosing ourselves in enclaves is not a way to bear witness to how the world could be otherwise. I think the Christian community since the beginning has always been trying to figure out this dance of how to be in the world but not of it, and how to be faithfully present to a culture without assimilating to the culture. And so it really depends on what demon you’re trying to exorcise.
I really do believe that the dynamics of assimilation is a real challenge. But in other more—for lack of a better term—fundamentalist communities, you might say the dynamics of isolation are precisely what need to be challenged. And it’s so easy to fall off the wagon on either side there.
I think one of the other reasons why Taylor’s account interested me is because it helped to make sense of the extent to which Christianity—and I would say probably especially Protestant Christianity—became overwhelmingly assimilated to this modernist enlightenment disenchantment story. And you So, the engines that really drive, say, an Immanuel Kant, is a sort of Lutheran, German Protestant who basically, because of other reasons, has decided to cast his lot with this sort of project. And I think you’re seeing that in mainline Christian denominations in the west. But I think we’re increasingly, I think that’s true of my evangelical sisters and brothers too. We don’t even realize the extent to which we sort of gotten in bed with the enemy.
HODGES: That’s James K. A. Smith. He’s professor of philosophy at Calvin College and author of How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.
I was gonna ask too, why the parentheses around “Not”? So if you look at the book How (Not to Be Secular, “not” is in parentheses. So I mean that’s kind of a clever thing.
SMITH: Yeah. So, it’s a sort of clever PoMo kind of trick. But it’s also… it’s trying to get something, which is, Taylor would say “Look, the question is not whether or not you’ll be secular.” Because, in this sense, because “the secular” is the water we swim in. It’s not a belief system per se, right? So, there’s a reason why his book is called A Secular Age, because what he’s saying is, look, this is how—as we’ve said—the plausibility conditions of our Western societies have shifted. And so now the question is, how to be secular, how not to be secular.” You could also say “how to believe in a secular age,” but also how not to believe in a secular age.
HODGES: There’s double meaning there.
HODGES: “Don’t believe in this version of what secular age could be.” It’s all sorts of very playful…
SMITH: Yes, yes, yes. And also don’t believe your faith this way anymore [laughs]. So, it impinges on both a critique of secularism, but it also is an invitation for believers to become just a little bit more culturally aware, and therefore newly intentional about their faith in the context. And I think that’s probably especially true as we think about how we hand on the faith to young people for whom they literally can’t—they don’t know even the shifts that we’ve seen in our lifetimes. All they know is what we see today. And I think that creates its own challenges for faith formation and faith “traditioning” in the sense of handing on.
WE ARE ALL SECULAR NOW—THE NOVA EFFECT
HODGES: Yeah. There’s this quote in your book where you say “We’re all secular now.” We’ve talked about this a little bit already, but you include believers in this idea. Let’s expand on that a little bit more, about how everyone is in this secular age and what our social imaginary looks like today.
SMITH: So one of the features of a secular age as Taylor explains it, is that it’s an era, it’s a society in which faith is contested, right? So, for Taylor, what it means to say we live in a secular age is to say we live in a society in which no one’s beliefs can be taken to be axiomatic for everyone. There is no kind of default belief, in a sense, because we all are aware that we have neighbors who believe in other things than we do.
So, there is this fracturing, what he calls this “fragilization” of belief, so that even if I do believe a traditional faith today I have to realize there are all kinds of people around me who don’t believe it. And therefore I have to recognize that it’s both contested and contestable. So, in that sense, even the most ardent devout religious believers today believe differently than our 11th century sisters and brothers did.
HODGES: So, why look at our history then? Why read the accounts of the 11th century monk who’s talking about spirituality?
SMITH: Ah. Precisely, I would say, because there is a well of wisdom and tradition there, then, that also gives us almost like an intellectual marketplace advantage. Because we…and this is why…
HODGES: [laughs] This is a very twenty-first century way of putting it, the marketplace…
SMITH: Yeah. I mean, I really feel this, though. I feel like as a Christian scholar who works in the Academy I feel like I am positioned to be more creative and more imaginative precisely because as a Christian I also see myself as the heir of wisdom and traditions that are older than the twentieth century for sure. And older than modernity. And obviously I’m gonna have to receive those in a creative appropriation if that’s gonna be live wisdom for today. But I actually think this is what really distinguishes religious communities in a secular age, is that we have a posture towards the past that is radically different, right? That we aren’t characterized by the sort of chronological snobbery that gives in to the tyranny of the present. And therefore we can recover wisdom and sort of redeploy it in the present.
HODGES: What’s the “Nova Effect” that Taylor talks about that is part of the…
SMITH: Let’s think of it this way. We all—believers and unbelievers alike—find ourselves in this fraught secular context in which belief is contested and contestable. What that means is, because of that we all experience different pressures on our modes of believing. And that… it’s almost like that pressure keeps exerting itself—and for Taylor, that includes the pressure of the transcendent [lauhs] pushing on unbelievers, right? That creates this, almost, pressure cooker situation of like, “I don’t know what to do with all of this.” And so what you get is this explosion—the Nova is a sort of like, I think it’s an astronomical picture—this explosion of different kinds of ways of believing.
So, on the one hand you will have traditional religious communities endure, but now you get all kinds of re-configurations and syncretistic…
HODGES: New Age and all sorts of…
SMITH: New Age. But also Oprah and Elizabeth Gilbert and Eat, Pray, Love, and all that kind of, right? And all of those are actually, if you think of it, they are basically kind of secularist ways of still trying to hold onto a way of being spiritual.
HODGES: Yeah, they’re like scratching this transcendent itch or something.
SMITH: Exactly. And Taylor thinks that the kind of account that Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins give you—
HODGES: These are the “New Atheist” thinkers.
SMITH: —doesn’t do justice, actually, to that kind of burbling up in the human person that keep looking for that.
HODGES: It seems like older atheists did, though. I kind of feel like we have this really cheap brand of atheism today—
SMITH: Give me Nietzsche any day!
HODGES: [laughs] Come on, right?
SMITH: Absolutely. Cause you also gotta—Nietzsche was the last atheist who actually understood Christianity.
HODGES: Yeah. So, it’s a more robust engagement than sort of the pop culture stuff we get today…
SMITH: Absolutely, with all of its caricatures of belief and so on.
HODGES: So Taylor says this Nova effect creates “cross pressures,” because the more we see plurality, the more it’s difficult to say—especially for Christianity that looks at Jesus Christ, it’s a fairly exclusivist, to use that term, idea that people are saved through Jesus—and yet we see so many different possibilities and ways of belief out there. So it becomes harder to believe, then.
And the idea of colonialism gets introduced here, because it’s almost like we’re trying to bring our religion to…”I don’t wanna do away with this culture and bring in…” you know, this is a sort of mentality that people might have as they’re approaching others with Christianity. So how do you situate Christianity within this place where we see a plurality of beliefs—some of them very laudable, many of them having much in common—how do you situate the role of Christianity, then, while the Nova effect is going on, and while we’re facing these cross-pressures of religious pluralism?
SMITH: Well, you’d almost have to talk about Christianities, right? So clearly one of the sort of trajectories out of that Nova explosion are forms of Christianity that basically have just decided to concede the secular. So you see this in mainline Protestant denominations, you see it, again I just think shockingly, in sort of post-evangelical folks who think the only way to liberate themselves from fundamentalism is to basically re-learn Protestant liberalism. And in that case…
HODGES: So, basically just a complete mythologizing, if I can use that word, of Christianity, like this is just a story that we tell ourselves so we’ll be nice to each other until we die kind of a thing?
SMITH: Yeah. And I see this in certain younger generations of… “I don’t really know about all the particulars of Christianity, but I really like justice. So, I’m gonna…” Justice becomes a new religion in a sense, right? That’s one trajectory that it can go. On the other hand…
HODGES: So, you hate justice then I assume?
SMITH: [Laughs] Yes, right. Exactly.
HODGES: [Laughs] No, I see what you mean…
SMITH: Right, but you could make an idol out of justice.
HODGES: Right. Any particular point in isolation…
HODGES: Basically you’re not looking at what you’re underlying social imaginary has become, when you single out something like justice?
SMITH: Exactly. On the other hand, I do also think that there are notable trends and trajectories of people responding to the disenchantment of the world by actually being attracted to enchanted sacramental forms of Christianity. So, for all those Protestant evangelicals who are basically running off to learn how to be mainline liberal Protestants, you’ll also find some who are converting to Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism. And I get out in the country a lot and what’s intriguing to me is how many evangelical Protestant—even non-denominational congregations—are, like, taking the Lord’s Supper weekly, and have a pretty rich sacramental vision. So to me there has been an interesting catalyst for recovering enchantment precisely because of this onslaught of disenchantment.
HODGES: Pentecostalism is probably another strain of this…
SMITH: I firmly believe that Pentecostalism its own kind of sacramentalism. They would never ever use that term—I say this as somebody who used to be Pentecostal. But it is a deep sense of the Spirit meeting you in materiality. And I think it takes embodiment and worship really seriously, I think that’s why it takes healing really seriously…
HODGES: Mhmm, speaking in tongues…
SMITH: Absolutely. And if you look at global Christianity, it is Pentecostal Christianity, for the most part.
HODGES: So that’s sort of a return to, there are these pressures of something else, something more, that people are looking for.
HODGES: I think we see that within the LDS tradition as well.
HODGES: When we come back to wrap up the interview we’ll talk a bit more about these cross pressures, especially for this really interesting phenomena of skeptical skeptics or doubting believers that we see. So we will take a break and come right back.
SKEPTICAL SKEPTICS AND DOUBTING BELIEVERS
HODGES: We’re speaking today with James K. A. Smith. Jamie is a professor of philosophy at Calvin College and author of How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. And I should also express our gratitude to the Wheatley Institution for bringing Jamie out to Brigham Young University to speak to our students and faculty on some of the work that he’s done.
I wanted to talk about a very interesting part of your book—and it’s actually how you kind of start things out. You talk about a figure who isn’t really religious believer. They’re atheist or maybe even just agnostic. They’re not really particularly concerned with God or religion. Maybe they had bad experiences in religion and they just… They have enough going on in their life that they don’t feel a very strong pull to find religion. They’ve got a family, they’ve got different things like this. But there are these questions that haunt these people—these questions about what happens when we die? These questions about why are there all these religions? These types of pressures. And you bring up this song by a band called The Postal Service. You say here’s this pop song, it seems like some triviality, then all of a sudden you start noticing these lyrics about “looking through the glass…”
[Postal Service song playing]: “And I’m looking through the glass where the light bends at the cracks. And I’m screaming at the top of my lungs pretending the echoes belong to someone, someone that I used to know. And we become silhouettes when our bodies finally go…”
HODGES: So, why this song? Talk about this song and the person you’re describing.
SMITH: Yeah. And I think almost anything Ben Gibbard has written fits here. I do, I think there are interesting pop cultural phenomena, that the Harris’s and Dawkins’s can’t explain, which point to the extent to which people in our society who are not religious are still haunted by transcendence.
HODGES: They try to explain it. They’ll say this is a… That consciousness itself is just a side-effect of biological processes—they can’t prove that, though, right? So they’ll offer a story, it’s just nothing that can actually be proven.
SMITH: And I would say what’s going on there is that the explanation is fundamentally unsatisfactory for a kind of inborn urgent longing for fullness that Taylor and I would both say is a feature of being created in the image of God.
And so, basically you could listen to this and say, “Well why don’t they get with the program and believe in God?” Okay, but there’s also a sense in which you could say, “Isn’t it interesting that they’re not willing to say ‘I’m an atheist'”, right? There is just this messiness. I find the messiness of late modern culture around these questions, for me, it’s an intriguing opportunity and a reason to be hopeful. And there are other examples, but it’s the sense that—okay, in a secular age I do think we have to grapple with the fact that doubt is going to be a companion of faith.
HODGES: This is the flip side of it, is you have believers who doubt strongly—
SMITH: Yes. And I think—
HODGES: —So you’ve got people who don’t believe who, like this figure in the song, start feeling something pushing in. But then you have believers who are like, “where is God?” You know?
SMITH: Yeah. And I think there’s implications for both of these. On the one hand, I do think it’s very important for religious communities that are “thick,” you know, and intentional, to make room to realize that God is not scared of our doubt, right? Like I think the Psalms of lament are like canonized expressions of doubt, right?
HODGES: Yeah. So this isn’t a new thing, either. This is, interestingly enough…
SMITH: It’s not new, but it is more intense now, and I think it’s more complicated…
HODGES: …In its own social imaginary, these are different social-imaginaries.
SMITH: But so if believers can be haunted by doubt, what that also means is that unbelievers can be haunted by faith, right? They can be tempted to believe.
HODGES: Have you met people like this, that talk to you this way?
SMITH: Sure, absolutely. And some of them, what they’ll do is they actually try to cover over that—what I would say is an imaginary dynamic, not like fictional. But that it’s at the level of the social imaginary what they do is they cover it over by having an intellectual debate about a bunch of ideas. I almost always perceive that as a kind of defense measure against actually exposing them to the existential pull of the Spirit.
HODGES: And we can also see believers doing that with apologetics, as well—
HODGES: —as sort of like staving off doubt with this anxious shoring up of, “here’s all these reasons!”
SMITH: Yes, yes. You know, Kurt Cobain—another Seattle-based crooner, so to speak—once quipped “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.” And [laughs] I’ve often thought that there could be a similar quip which would be something like, “just because you’re haunted doesn’t mean there aren’t ghosts,” right? And it could be the Holy Ghost that’s sort of priming.
And I think ultimately what Taylor is trying to offer is, he’s just trying to clear the intellectual space for an account of those phenomena that takes seriously the possibility that there is a “more,” that there is a spirit, that there is a transcendence, that it’s actually God knocking. And that you can’t just rule that out as an explanatory account.
So, in many ways I think A Secular Age is one of the most powerful works of Christian apologetics that we’ve had in the last generation. It’s just very sophisticated, very complicated, and very nuanced. And it isn’t just trying to win points or score a win in a debate. It’s actually trying to just change the debate itself.
HODGES: Like put the debate in a bigger context.
SMITH: Totally. Yes.
HODGES: I think that’s why some people won’t be interested in it because, like you said, some people just wanna argue the yes and no’s. They wanna just go through the typical, critical lists or apologetic lists, and this is a conversation that actually encompasses that conversation and so some people aren’t inclined to zoom out.
SMITH: And that’s why Taylor ends his book by saying, in many ways the most powerful pictures of faith that have a lure about them are going to come from artists, right? So, he talks about poets, he talks about novelists, he looks at Gerard Manley Hopkins, Flannery O’Connor. This sense that it will be precisely modes of bearing witness to fullness and transcendence that appeal to the imagination that actually will probably move people to truly consider that God is the one that’s calling.
HODGES: How about transcendence in immanence? Is there a sense in which we also need to be—And I’m thinking Adam Miller’s work within the LDS tradition, this idea that instead of viewing God as this person someplace out there, but also God as deeply a part of—finding grace, I think he actually locates within grace—finding grace within ordinary things.
SMITH: Absolutely. But that’s exactly sacramental, right? So sacramentalism is precisely not divvying up a sort of natural, flattened, imminent space from a distant, other, transcendent space. The sacramental imagination is ultimately an “incarnational” imagination, which is that God breaks in, is present in, and inhabits the imminent, the mundane, the worldly. So you get over that dichotomy a little bit.
HODGES: So to conclude, then, how—this is a twofold question—how do you, a professor of philosophy, live your faith today? And what kinds of suggestions do you give to those faithful doubters, who… it’s almost—the hope is always there. They can’t bring their brains around all the time to it, but they wanna live… They want that, they need that, so… How does that play out in your personal life, in your faith and scholarship, and what do you suggest to students and other people that you’ve counseled?
SMITH: Yeah, that’s a great question. I would say, for myself, what I’ve realized is it is crucial for me to remain committed to a congregational center of my life and the practices and disciplines that come with that, because that’s what fuels my imagination, my social imaginary, in such a way that I can then be centered to go out and be engaged in a fraught, cross-pressured space like the Academy.
So I know that, in a way, if I was just trying to pull this off intellectually on my own sources, in a way, you know, it’s like taking an ember from the flame and eventually there’s no way that it stays bright. And I’m actually really committed to the fact that congregations, worship, the disciplines of Christian communities and so forth shape and form me in such a way that I’ll have the capacity to be able to do that.
So, when I’m out and about, I think a big part of my work in those kinds of pluralistic context is often trying to deconstruct the caricatures of Christianity that that my quote-unquote “opponents” have. So, just this past Monday night I was at New York University and did a public event with an atheist philosopher named Kwame Anthony Appiah, who is a noted law professor and things like that. And he talks about what he calls “cosmopolitanism” as this sort of imminent ethical worldview. And I think some people were looking for this fireworks of debate between the Christian and the atheist. And instead, I wanted to sort of show how and why a religious believer can actually affirm a lot of the goods that he is concerned about, but then also to try to point out why I think, actually, Christianity offers better resources for achieving what he wants than what he has in his—I was gonna say secular tradition, but he kind of owned up to the fact that there is not a tradition there, there’s not a community of practice. And it was interesting, actually, to see we still live in an age where someone like that will, in the conversation, concede that it was his own early Christian formation that sort of bubbled up and engendered some of these sensibilities.
HODGES: And Taylor kind of talks about how that happened wholesale in culture—
SMITH: Exactly! In fact—
HODGES: tand David Bentley Hart’s talked about that, too, I think…
SMITH: Yes, very much. I think that’s important. There is a macro story to be told here that the secular ethical concern—what would Taylor calls the “modern moral order”—is actually impossible if the West didn’t come through Christianity, which universalized a concern for the neighbor.
HODGES: Or at the very least, it would not be what it is today.
SMITH: It would not be what it is today—
HODGES: At the very least.
SMITH: —Yes. Exactly.
HODGES: Okay. So it seems you’re basically saying, for you, you found that communalism helps your faith, being tied to a tradition that connects you with the transcendent. But also engaging with the broader world, broader society, and seeing what the needs and the impulses are there, and translating Christianity for that, and also showing how Christianity can sort of fill in gaps that they might be experiencing. So you’d encourage believers to sort of do that.
SMITH: Yeah. And it’s what my friend James Davison Hunter calls “faithful presence.” So, on the one hand you’re cultivating faithfulness in these formative communities—and by the way, I should also say for me it’s significant that that’s a sacramental community, right? But then you are sent from there to be present to the culture in ways that you hope both bear witness, but also could have some influence.
HODGES: Are you going to be changed there too?
SMITH: And that’s why you need to be aware of those dynamics. That’s actually a lot of the concern of my other research trajectory in the new book I have coming out next week, which is “how do we become attentive to the degree and ways in which we are assimilated when we are sent?” Which is why you need this kind of centripetal dynamic of coming back to the formative center of the community to be re-formed. To be re-sent.
HODGES: So would you feel comfortable saying “thank God for the secular,” and also “please God, help us with the secular”? Like, are both of those things acceptable? Because a lot of times “secular” is a bad word for believers like…
SMITH: Yeah. It’s a very good question. I don’t know that I have two cheers for the secular. Though, I think, maybe I have one cheer insofar as if included in that was actually this re-valorization of this-worldly life as an arena for faithful pursuit of God. I think that part of it is actually really crucial. And I think I also probably welcome—no matter how much I love Downton Abby—I still probably welcome the fact that we unleashed certain revolutionary capacities to realize that the political order is something that we’re responsible for and is not just handed down by the divine right of kings.
HODGES: That seems to make space for religious plurality.
SMITH: It does.
HODGES: I think the secular is important in that sense of, freedom of religious expression actually seems to be kind of a secular idea in that sense.
SMITH: But I would say I think it is a good idea in the seculum in which we find ourselves. Obviously, my hope and longing is in a kingdom in which every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. In the meantime, I think religious pluralism and religious freedom is the best way to grapple with the contested and contestability of faith.
HODGES: Does free choice have anything to do with that as well?
SMITH: I’m a Calvinist, so we probably shouldn’t talk about free choice [laughs].
HODGES: [laughs] Good! We’ll close on that then. I really appreciate it, Jamie, your stopping in today. That’s James K. A. Smith. He’s a professor of philosophy at Calvin College and author of the book How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. And what’s the title of the book you have coming out?
SMITH: It’s called You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit.
HODGES: Good. I’ll definitely check it out. Maybe we’ll talk about it in a future episode.
SMITH: That would be great.
HODGES: Again, thanks to the Wheatley Institution here at Brigham Young University and to James K. A. Smith. And thanks to you for listening to the Maxwell Institute Podcast.