Essay

Desiring Secularity

By October 11, 2013 2 Comments
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James K.A. Smith came to Dordt College this past week, bringing with him Augustinian desire, liturgical praxis, and Charles Taylor. It’s the Charles Taylor piece that I find the most intriguing. Smith creatively wove together Taylor’s insights on haunted secularity, the “cross pressures” of a social imaginary in which religious belief and praxis take multiple forms, and the poetic manifestation of this experience using such literary figures as Flannery O’Connor and David Foster Wallace. It was an excellent presentation, in part, because I’ve been immersed in Taylor’s Secular Age for the past year or so. I’m one of those crazy people who has actually read the book. (Ok… let me put it this way, my eyes have seen every page of the book. There may have been a few chapters in the middle that received a lighter touch.) Overall, I find Taylor’s historical description of the shift in “social imaginary” and “plausibility structures” to be very helpful for making sense of the contemporary religious experience of people, young people in particular, living in the West. However, Smith’s presentation left me with a few unresolved questions.

Taylor, as a Catholic, seems to long for a return to some form of “porous” understanding of humanity. Throughout the book he subtly, and at times not so subtly, blames the Reform movement (the reformation) for the shift in social imaginary that has made belief in God much more problematic. The reformation contributed to the disenchantment of the world that gave rise to the dominance of the economic (pragmatic) sphere – the “liturgy of the mall” as Smith refers to it in Desiring the Kingdom. The response to this problem, according to Smith, is to reclaim a more broadly “Catholic” approach to worship and the church – a type of “re-enchantment” of liturgical practice and the world. I wonder, however, if there is another possibility – one that is grounded in the protestant project and embraces secularity. “Secularity” in this context can be read as an out working of Paul’s theology of the cross that relativizes cultural identity through love. Paul’s primary message in his letters to the Corinthians and the Galatians is that the cross ruptures cultural and religious ideology, affirming difference (“neither Jew nor Greek”) and “disenchanting” practice (eat or don’t eat meat). Is there a Protestant way to take seriously Taylor’s insight on “social imaginary” and “secularity”? I think there is.

Please don’t misunderstand my point – I have a deep appreciation for Roman Catholicism. I spent six years learning the seven sacraments and going to Mass (every Thursday) as a part of a Catholic school education. Protestant Christians have much to learn from our Catholic brothers and sisters. Thus, my question about whether Smith’s work points us in a “Catholic” direction is not a criticism; it’s a question. Is there a way to inhabit a Protestant paradigm without falling into fundamentalism or giving into theological liberalism? Can we embrace secularity, not in resignation, but as a positive development that the Christian community can and should live into? I think so… but I’ll leave that for another time. 

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

2 Comments

  • Theresa Latini says:

    Thank you, Jason, and please keep the topic going. We need to hear this.

  • Andrew says:

    Thank you for this stimulating post. In rereading parts of Sources of Self recently, I was surprised to see how 'caricaturee' Taylor's depiction of Luther actually is. Interesting that no one has taken him to task on this. (Or maybe someone has, but I haven't come across it.)

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