Monday, September 29, 2014

The meaning and significance of the secular

In the theology reading group this month we discussed
How (not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, by James K.A. Smith
The 140 page book is a synopsis of the 900 page tome  A Secular Age, by  Charles Taylor. It makes that work more accessible, particularly through the glossary at the end of the book.
Previously, I discussed the three senses of the secular. Other important terms include the following.

Immanent frame.
A constructed social space what frames our lives entirely within a natural (rather than supernatural) order. It is the circumscribed space of the modern social imaginary that precludes transcendence.
The influence of this term is indicated by the existence of a multi-author academic blog with this title.

Modern Moral Order.

"A new understanding of morality that focuses on the organisation of society  for mutual benefit rather than an obligation to "higher" or eternal norms.  The "moral" is bound up with (and perhaps reduced to) the "economic.""
Although, not explicitly named neoliberalism seems the extreme and problematic embodiment of this.

A construal of life within the immanent frame that does not recognise itself as a construal and thus has no room to grant plausibility to the alternative.

A construal of life within the immanent frame that is open to appreciating the viability of other takes. Can be wither "closed" (immanentist) or "open" (to transcendence).

It refreshing and encouraging to see such a towering intellect highlight how many views that masquerade as "truth" or "well established" or "conventional wisdom" are just a "take" or "spin".

Some say that Karl Barth's Epistle to the Romans was like a hand grenade lobbed into the world of academic theology. Perhaps Taylor's tome is like a hand grenade lobbed into the secular academy, particular the humanities and social sciences. 

To me the book is highly original, stimulating, and challenging.
It helps understand how we got so secular. Furthermore, the church is secular. 
Some church and mission organisation statements, strategies, and practices may appear to be not that different from Walmart: a focus on money, marketing, growth, efficiency, and numbers...
But it is more than that. It is not just "worldliness" but a whole epistemology and approach to life.

Unfortunately, the rise of secularism was an unintended consequence of the Reformation. For example, if you think of the sacrament in purely material terms or the work of the butcher and the candlestick maker as similar to the priest or monk this does have flow on effects. This led to the disenchantment of nature [a key to the development of science] and life. "the Reformers rejection of sacramentalism is the beginning of naturalism, or at least opens the door to its possibility." (page 39).

Many apologetic strategies, particularly in response to the New Atheism, are conducted on the ground rules layed down by secularists: evidence, logic, rationality, science, .....
imagination, art, story, history, transcendence, emotion, .... don't get a look in.
" ...the responses to this diminishment of transcendence accede to it in important ways... God is reduced to a Creator and religion to morality ... the particularities of a specific Christian belief are diminished to try to secure a more generic deity - as if saving some sort of transcendence will suffice..." (page 51).
I do have a few reservations about the book. Taylor appears to have little engagement with the Tri-une God or little substantial theology. Although deism is decried, most of the discussion is in terms of deism. There is no acknowledge or engagement with the non-Western world. Perhaps because Taylor appears to be a liberal Catholic, there is little discussion of the Lordship of Christ, the prophetic voice to society, and a call for repentance.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks again for digesting some aspects of this wall which, coming from "a good Lutheran ", appears just like another construct . That being careless, I do wonder whether many of our forebears in faith would take the distinction as seriously/honoring as secularists do ( seems only non scientists want to limit reason and common learning and consensus ( my word for much "secular" ). As a govt officer grateful for the Rom 13 model and the secular distinction in Australian public life I still only treat it as a very useful concept and boundary . Perhaps that means your 1&2 for public dilaogue but limited in theological. Secularists seem to push the concept beyond its real territory ( your 3) . Does Charles suggest secularism is any more than a reaction and a moving target reaction? ,Early lutherans ( SA) and the Pressy Fairfax were of the first to insist education was secular which seems not to come from Romans ( Romans 13 clearly supports the role of government) but from experience of abuse by Christendom , For me who has worked in good government, its at least one instance of Christians getting it PRACTICALLY right in Australia.