Published on December 8, 2014 by Fred Zaspel

unknown, 2014 | 139 pages

Reviewed by Matthew J. Claridge

James K. A. Smith has written a summary of  A Secular Age that should make Charles Taylor proud. Although I myself have not read Taylor’s tome, it’s clear that Smith is both an admiring and penetrating student of Taylor’s work. Not only does Smith condense a thousand page book into one hundred and fifty pages without losing anything of the intellectual rigor of Taylor’s ideas, he does so in a way that showcases Smith’s own talents as a writer and thinker.

Survey & Overview

The title, How (Not) to be Secular, provides a nice summary in itself of the salient points of Smith’s reading of Taylor. The interrogative “how” suggests that dwelling in the Secular Age is not so much the result of intellectual acquiescence to the truth-claims of naturalistic materialism, but rather the result of inhabiting a world where transcendent answers to life’s questions no longer make sense and are no longer needed. Taylor’s concern is not just with what secularism is, but also with what it feels like – hence “how” to be Secular not “what” is the Secular.

The parenthetical “(not)” in the title suggests that there is no escape from our Secular Age, or more precisely put, from the “immanent frame.” We are born into a world that is framed in entirely immanent (this-wordly) terms, concerns, and goals. For the foreseeable future, no one, not even die-hard believers in a transcendent order beyond the natural (a blanket phrase covering all religious sentiment), can fully escape the feeling that maybe “this is all there is.” This nagging doubt is captured by the parenthetical “not” in the title. We are all secular now to some degree. And yet, the “not” still haunts. While believers are under the constant pressure of doubt, so too are non-believers. Despite the plausibility structures that beat down the need for transcendence, most secular people are plagued with thoughts that “something may have been lost” with the eclipse of a supernatural order. Taylor majors on this feeling, building arguments that may not positively prove the reality of the transcendent, but seriously undermine the pretentious exlusivism of the immanent frame.

This leads to the term “secular” in the title, which Taylor defines and analyzes at length. One of Taylor’s chief concerns and contributions is to complicate the nature of “secularism” as both an immanent reality and a religious/spiritual quest. His boogeyman is the “secularization thesis” that defines secularism as the antithesis of religion and that spins Western history as the gradual replacement of supernatural explanations with purely natural ones driven by political and scientific progress. While Taylor admits that the trappings of religion may be on the decline, “spirituality” as such is not. For Taylor, secularism is not an alternative to religion or spirituality, it’s just a very distant third cousin. Secularism encourages “expressive individualism” as the chief means of finding meaning in our age, but this quest might just as well and often does lead secular people into the embrace of traditional religion. The “immanent frame” that has been constructed by secularism is actually a neutral space that can either suggest or deny something beyond its boundaries.

This very brief thematic summary doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of all that is happening in this book. Behind all these themes are extensive forays into philosophical and historical narratives about how we’ve arrived where we are and probing cultural analysis of where we are now. For the remainder of this review, I want to note some particular things I have found commendable, or at least very interesting, about Taylor’s take on our secular age via Smith; and I also want to look more closely at some of the details that underwrite Taylor’s thesis, an exercise I have so far not observed in other reviews.


Overall, I believe Taylor has captured something experientially true about life in our Secular Age. No matter how deeply one is committed to the transcendent order of Christian theism, there are always those nagging doubts that it might all be poppy-cock. These persistent doubts have various sources, but surely one of the chief instigators is the secularism we have already adopted or assume. Early in the book, Smith survey’s the pre-theoretical “social imaginary” (Taylor’s phrase) that made life without reference to the transcendent impossible for pre-modern societies. He then moves on to the new “social imaginary” that replaced the old order and made secularism a living possibility. The first of these changes was from the “porous self” to the “buffered self.” Previously, the self was understood to be “essentially vulnerable (and hence also ‘healable’). To be human is to be essentially open to an outside (whether benevolent or malevolent), open to blessing or curse, possession or grace.” Furthermore, “in an enchanted, porous world of vulnerable selves, ‘the prospect of rejecting God does not involve retiring to the safe redoubt of the buffered self, but rather chancing ourselves in the field of forces without him.’ … It wasn’t enough to simply divest the world of spirits and demons; it was also necessary that the self be buffered and protected.” Both external influence and external meaning were transferred to the self, creating the all powerful, all-impervious ergo sum. Previously, “all kinds of nonhuman things mean – are loaded and charged with meaning – independent of human perception and attribution.” Now, I must bring order to the galaxy. I don’t, practically can’t, assume it is there already.

I have to acknowledge that a major source of my own doubts arise precisely from the fact that I am a modern “buffered self.” It is practically unthinkable and unlivable to return to a state of being that is “porous” rather than “buffered.” This is aggravated by another change in the social imaginary we all now take for granted. Previously, “society itself was understood as something grounded in a higher reality; earthly kingdoms were grounded in a heavenly kingdom.” In other words, “the social bond itself was enchanted, sacred.” Only by appreciating this can we moderns make any sense of heresy purges during the Medieval era. But “the buffering of the self from alien forces also carved out a space for a nascent privacy, and such privacy provides both protection and permission to disbelieve.” This detachment of the self from society led, through many twists and turns, to lower expectations of society’s purpose and particularly the divine, transcendent purposes for human society.  In the early modern period God was still invoked but his goals for the world were “shrunk” or “economized”: “God’s goals for us shrink to the single end of …ordering this world for mutual benefit, particularly economic benefit.” Eventually, we are left with a world that is doing fine on its own, thank you very much. In one sense, the world has not shrunk at all; it has expanded (this is one of Taylor’s unique insights). The immanent frame appears to provide for everything we need in life. It is this apparent contentment with the immanent frame – my apparent contentment with the immanent frame – that makes it difficult to have faith. I have to work at seeing the transcendent; it is not something I just find myself in at every waking moment.


As Taylor emphasizes throughout, there is no real “going back” to the way things once were. We will probably never live in a world again where everything colluded to make the transcendent irrepressibly present, bathed in the glory of uncreated light. In many ways, you could summarize the shift from the “transcendent cosmos” to the “immanent frame” as a shift from a typological reading of the world to a baldly literal reading of the world. Part of Taylor’s point is that we must make peace with this fact; and Smith’s point is that evangelical Christians and leaders must make peace with this fact and use Taylor’s insights to conduct outreach in light of it.

I do not believe this means, at least as far as Smith has input, that the church should go down the prim-rose path of contextual apologetics with its liberalizing, accommodating allure. It does mean we must acknowledge the pervasive reality of the immanent frame while also contesting it and challenging it at every opportunity. It is like living under the Third Reich in 1938; no matter how implausible the underpinnings of the “new order,” we can’t escape the fact that it is in power, it’s telling a compelling story, and we seem to be doing O.K.

There are many more things of interest that could be mentioned. One could argue that Taylor does not actually say anything we could not have pulled together elsewhere, but Taylor has re-packaged, re-applied and re-interpreted the rise of the Secular in a way that is entirely fresh, compelling, and serviceable to the Christian community.

A Catholic Pursuit?

I want to turn now to some very important details of Taylor’s thesis that require much closer scrutiny and interaction. The Secular Age, and undoubtedly Taylor’s corpus in general, has gotten a great deal of praise from evangelicals. What I haven’t seen yet is anyone addressing Taylor’s deeply Catholic take on all this. I wonder, in particular, if Protestants can whole-heartedly accept Taylor’s conclusions without also accepting the Roman pilgrimage taken to get to there. In other words, there may be something irreducibly Catholic about Taylor’s reading of the Western march to secularism. Let me briefly trace the steps along this pilgrimage.

It is not a stretch to say that the crux of Taylor’s interpretation of Western civilization since the dawn of Christianity is how human society has handled the tensions involved in the “maximal demand” which is defined this way: “how to define our highest spiritual or moral aspirations for human beings, while showing a path to the transformation involved which doesn’t crush, mutilate or deny what essentially human.” What’s Taylor talking about here? Its best fleshed out in his interpretation of the tense, but balanced social arrangements under Christendom. Here’s Smith’s summary quoted at length:

Under Christendom…, there was a unique tension between “self-transcendence’ – a ‘turning of the life toward something beyond ordinary human flourishing’ – and the this worldly concerns of human flourishing and creaturely existence. We might redescribe this as a tension between what ‘eternity’ required and what the mundane vagaries of domestic life demanded. It was assumed that human life found its ultimate meaning and telos in a transcendent eternity and that the demands of securing such an ultimate life required a certain ascetic relation to the pleasures and demands of mundane, domestic life. The spiritual disciplines of the saint are a lot to ask of the nursemaid or the peasant laborer who is pressed with more immediate concerns….

In Christendom, this tension is not resolved, but inhabited. First, the social body makes room for a certain division of labor. By making room for entirely ‘religious’ vocations such as monks and nuns, the church creates a sort of vicarious class who ascetically devote themselves to transdendence/eternity for the wider social body who have to deal with the nitty-gritty of creaturely life.”

This last point is significant. Ideally, the sacred order was not designed for the personal pursuit of salvation but rather to serve in an interceding capacity for the salvation of others. Taylor argues that in the late Middle Ages, this understanding began to break down as the sacred class began to turn up their noses on lower orders, transforming the long-lasting tension into a crisis. Out of this crisis arose various “Reform” movements, not all of which were sired by the Protestant Reformation. Regardless, the Protestant Reformation was a key player in attempting to finally resolve the tension of the “maximal demand.” Taylor suggests that there are really only two ways of resolving this tension, either by resolving it in the direction of eternity (the path of Protestantism/Puritanism) or in the direction of the temporal (the path of humanism/secularism).

“Religious devotion,” under Protestantism, “is not sequestered to the monastery or the convent; rather, the high expectations of sanctification now spill beyond the walls of the monastery.” Ultimately, it seems, this demand was too much for most folks to handle and swung the pendulum in the direction of a lowest-common denominator ethic embraced by secular humanism. Besides faulting Protestantism for “raising the bar” of ethical standards, Taylor takes its “lowering of the bar” sacramentalism as reinforcing the “buffered self” mentality because it banished the divine presence from the elements.

Although Taylor doesn’t fault the Reformation for everything, it does deserve a fair amount of reproach. Blaming the Reformation for the birth of Modernism may be nothing new, but as far as I know, Taylor puts a unique spin on that narrative with recourse to the “maximal demand.” Clearly, a number of questions need to be asked before evangelicals gobble up Charles Taylor. Although Smith’s goal in this book is not to provide critical appraisal of Taylor, he does suggest that maybe the maximal demand should not slide past us unquestioned: “[Taylor] ends up creating a tension between the order of creation and the order of redemption – between nature and grace. I think this is a hangover of a certain type of scholastic Thomism. In the Protestant and Reformed tradition, we would emphasize a fundamental continuity between nature and grace, creation and redemption, even if redemption is also always ‘more’ than creation. So whatever ‘ascetic’ disciplines are required of us ‘in this life’ are not repressions of flourishing but rather constraints for our flourishing.”

This is a good first step, but more needs to be said and questioned. Is there something inherent in Protestantism, broadly considered, that tends or inevitably leads to a disenchanted world? Is there such a thing as a Protestant social order that does not degenerate into the illusionary “naked public square” supervised by a secular ethic? Do the Scriptures have anything to tell us about this “maximal demand” and the role of the church in human society? Did Christendom ever truly approach a workable compromise with the so-called maximal demand? And finally, can Taylor’s Catholic polemics be divorced from his diagnosis and prescriptions for our Secular Age? I’m hopeful they can be, but evangelicals should not naively embrace Charles Taylor without a good amount of soul-searching within their own heritage.

Matthew J. Claridge is pastor of Idaho Baptist Church, Grangeville, ID, and an assistant editor here at Books At a Glance.

Note:  See our summary of How Not to Be Secular here.


Buy the books

How (not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor

unknown, 2014 | 139 pages

Share This

Share this with your friends!