How not to be secular (review)

Smith gives us a roadmap of Charles Taylor’s analysis of modernity. On most accounts, Smith’s treatment excels and the reader is well-equipped to analyze both Taylor’s work and (post)modernity in general. The book suffers from an unfocused conclusion and Smith’s overreliance on postmodern pop culture.

In some ways the most valuable aspect is Smith’s glossary of key terms in Taylor (noted below).

Smith’s version of Taylor (S-T) avoids crude genealogical accounts of how the West declined. But there were ideological moments that made it possible. And that leads to Taylor’s thesis: it is not that belief in God is simply wrong for secularists; rather, it is unthinkable. The structures that made belief in God likely on a societal level, so Taylor, are not there anymore.

With this shift came a different understand of person and cosmos. The pre-modern self is ‘porous,’ open to outside influences (grace, blessing, curses, demons). Thus, the modern self is “buffered,” insulated from outside forces (Smith 30). But that gives way to another phenomenon: the nova effect: new modes of being that try to forge a way through cross-pressures (14ff).

Smith has an interesting but undeveloped account of epistemology and the immanent frame (IF). The IF is a concept that, like a frame, boxes in and boxes out, focuses in and out. It captures how we inhabit our age (92). It is our orientation to the world. It is more of a “vibe” than a set of deductions.

Smith is concerned that foundationalist accounts of knowledge (justified, true belief) play into a closed-world, naturalist system. “If knowledge is knowing something outside my mind, the transcendent would be about as far away as one could get” (98).


One horn of my criticism is aesthetic. I think postmodern literature and art is an offense against decency, so I really can’t “relate” to Smith’s usage of them. But that doesn’t negate Smith’s thesis. The other horn of my criticism is that Smith tends to give too much of the farm away. His initial claim is good: secularism not only makes belief in God difficult, it entails an entirely new structure of beliefs that do not have room for God. But I am not sure, pace Smith, why I should be impressed with this new structure. Smith asks “How do we recognize and affirm the difficulty of belief” [in a secular age, p. 6]? The first part of the question is fine–we all recognize that belief in God can be difficult for our age. But why affirm it? What does that even mean or look like? To be fair, Smith acknowledges this point occasionally (20 n32).

Nonetheless, the book has a number of poignant (and occasionally brilliant) insights that should provide good reflection for apologetics and evangelism.


About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
This entry was posted in American Theology, Book Review, Philosophy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to How not to be secular (review)

  1. cal says:

    Maybe you can give an, at least, mildly intelligent answer to this question that’s continually before me:

    How is aesthetics not just a question of taste (and thus, “de gustibus non disputam”)? I’ve seen people make distinctions between real “art” and propaganda, or art and cultural run-off/sewage, art and entertainment, etc. but I’ve never seen an argument that doesn’t end in self-reference or tautology. So, is it more than just taste? Few seem to go as far as Plato and make it a rational formula, where if you don’t like it that just means you’re an unenlightened toad. So when aesthetes from Jamie Smith to Roger Scruton thunder down imperatives about art, I just shrug my shoulders.


    • J. B. Aitken says:

      I am aware of the difficulty. I can’t give a complete answer on why modern art is definitionally trash and pre-Raphaelite paintings are definitely superior. But I can give some suggestions and intuitions on what I think.

      1. Wisdom of Solomon talked about a thing’s *weigh, measure, and form.* Perhaps there is something to that.

      2. When Augustine’s De Musica gets translated, I think the discussion will move forward several centuries.

      3. Aristotle had a golden mean and when applied to the human form, appears aesthetically pleasing by near-universal consent.


    • J. B. Aitken says:

      Another example: a lot of the postmodern authors Smith quotes spend much detail talking about their personal masturbation habits. That. Says. A. Lot.


      • cal says:

        That’s not much better than a pervert like Caravaggio, Renaissance obsession with excessive showiness, or the use of pagan myths. For me, it’s the filth you’re willing to live with, or what you’re willing to excuse.


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