The water we swim in

jamessmith

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is one of the most important books of philosophy of the past few decades, because it is a monumental account of how our Western, “secular” society got to be the way it is. Contrary to some accounts, it is not especially difficult, for Taylor very patiently and very systematically lays out his argument, but its 800 pages do call for a substantial time commitment, and so can be off-putting. James K A Smith (above) is a Christian cultural critic and (not completely one-eyed) fan of Taylor’s, and he has helpfully written this short book (How [Not] to be Secular) on Taylor’s long book for time-poor clergy and laity. Smith adds all manner of pop culture references to make his points – films such as Garden State, the books of Jonathan Franzen, and indie bands such as Arcade Fire (though his indie cred is somewhat undercut by confusing the band names).

A Secular Age famously asks in its opening chapter why religious belief is now only one option amongst many, whereas 500 years ago unbelief was unthinkable. Taylor traces what he calls the “disenchantment” of the natural world and the development of the “buffered” over the “porous” self. What this means is that previously people saw the whole world as a kind of spiritual battlefield, whereas now Westerners tend to think of the physical universe as entirely explained by science, and the spiritual as a discreet portion (only) of life, if they accept spirituality at all. And where previously any unbelief undermined the entire community, these days even Christians can assume belief is simply a matter of personal choice. Smith rightly says that we simply take this for granted. It is the water we swim in. Ironically, Taylor (amongst others) blames the medieval intensification of Christianity, particularly during the Reformation, when the focus narrowed to an individual’s, rather than the community’s, relationship with God. This, very gradually, led to our own society’s belief in the autonomy of the individual.

This has far reaching implications for the Church today. Not only do non-believers feel entirely free to reject belief in the supernatural, but within the Church the overriding philosophy of our age has created church-goers who think that it is all about me, hence the church-shopping, worship-wars and pop-psychology style theology books.

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