CFC Lecture

James K.A. Smith: Why A Secular Age Can Lead to an Explosion of Belief

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As a precursor to the Wisdom Forum, James K. A. Smith, a Canadian philosopher and professor of philosophy at Calvin College, spoke at a Ph.D. lunch at Southeastern Seminary on March 16, hosted by the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture. Smith explained how to understand our secular world and what it means to live in this cultural climate of secularism.

James K. A. Smith

“The posture that Christians take with respect to secularity and secularism depends a lot on your diagnosis of what it is,” said Smith. Drawing from Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher and professor at McGill University, Smith noted four ways to understand and live in this secular age. Smith called this “Taylor’s non-secularist account of the secular.”

This understanding is important for believers, said Smith, to develop “a posture in which we see a secular age less as a threat to defend ourselves from and more as an opening and an opportunity and a challenge both for the renewal of Christianity, but also for what our witness looks like.”

First, Smith noted that secularism is not equivalent to unbelief. “Secularity is not synonymous with unbelief. Secularity is a feature of the contestability of belief,” said Smith.

Second, Smith highlighted what Taylor calls the “the emergence of the immanent frame,” meaning that transcendence and eternity are disregarded in secular culture.

Third, there is a “haunting” that Smith noted both for believers and non-believers that is seen both through doubt and the possibility of faith, respectively.

“If cross pressured means that the believer is tempted to doubt, but everybody is cross pressured, it also means the unbeliever is haunted by faith,” said Smith.

Fourth, Smith refers to Taylor’s “nova effect” as a result of a multiplicity of ways people believe. Smith referenced Julian Barnes’ book, “Nothing to Be Frightened Of,” in which Barnes writes, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

“That, to me, is the most succinct encapsulation of the messy complexity of what a secular age is,” said Smith.

Watch the video above, or read key excerpts below (edited for clarity):


What does it mean that we live in a secular age? First of all, it is not synonymous with living in a godless age.

On Christians’ posture regarding secularism.

“The posture that Christians take with respect to secularity and secularism depends a lot on your diagnosis of what it is. I grant that I might be something of a minority report, but my interest is coming up with a diagnosis of what it means to live in a secular age that yields a posture on behalf of the Christian community that is not defensive and reactionary. In other words, a posture in which we see a secular age less as a threat to defend ourselves from and more of an opening and an opportunity and a challenge, both for the renewal of Christianity but also for what our witness looks like.

“Ultimately, this is where the diagnosis matters a lot. What does it mean to live in a secular age? That’s the question I want to ask today. What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age?

“I don’t want to deny that we do. I absolutely think we do. Something’s changed…. But I think what that means can be understood very differently, and I think there are some very flat-footed takes on that that actually aren’t helpful. [What’s better is] something like Charles Taylor’s take, of which I’m just the dinghy floating in the wake of his giant intellect and project. And I’m here to just give you bread crumbs that are very much dependent on Taylor, but hopefully with a little bit of originality to it.

“So, what does it mean that we live in a secular age? I would say first of all it is not synonymous with living in a godless age. That is, I think the first thing we have to do is realize that a secular age is not reducible to an areligious age. It is not reducible to disbelief. Instead, there’s something else that’s going on in our secular age. Now, does the reality that give us a late modern age make disbelief possible and more prevalent? Yes. But it doesn’t vanquish belief. And by the end I’m going to explain why I think it creates its own explosion of belief. And that’s part of what we have to grapple with.”

We need an account of the secular that refuses the secularization thesis.

Rejecting the Secularization Thesis

“I actually think we need an account of the secular that refuses the secularization thesis. If you were thinking about these matters in the sixties, seventies or eighties… the way that we previously would have thought about this was under the rubric of the secularization thesis, which was mostly a sociological thesis, which suggested that as late modern cultures advanced in technological prowess, liberal democratic access, capitalist consumption, as all of these markers of modernity increased, globalized and became more and more prevalent…, religious interest and participation decreased. What was projected was less and less religious belief.

“The problem with the secularization thesis is it actually didn’t work. It didn’t come true. In fact, we spent so much time in the 2000s talking about the return of religion around the world. I mean, imagine having a conversation about politics today that didn’t involve religion. It’s actually very, very difficult to do. If you want to make sense of American politics, you actually can’t do it without talking about religion. So apparently we are not the secularized space that the secularization thesis anticipated.”

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The L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture seeks to engage culture as salt and light, presenting the Christian faith and demonstrating its implications for all areas of human existence.

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