A somewhat unusual document landed on my desk a few days ago, in page proofs, sent by Eerdmans, the major Evangelical publisher. It is a book about to be published, written by James K.A. Smith, a decidedly Protestant philosopher on the faculty of Calvin College—How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Taylor is the much celebrated Catholic philosopher, retired from McGill University, author of the massive book A Secular Age (2007). Smith is of a younger generation; I have read one of his books before—Thinking in Tongues (2010)—a feisty book billed as a Pentecostal contribution to Christian philosophy, in which Smith criticizes Christian philosophers for cutting the ground from under their own feet by accepting the naturalistic premises of secular philosophy—and then trying to find space for the supernatural that their faith must affirm. Smith (whose Pentecostal allegiance is apparently relatively new) instead suggests that Christian philosophy should from the first “think in tongues”—that is, base itself on the assumption that the world is indeed suffused with Spirit, is precisely what Christianity says that it is. I’m not interested in arguing whether that is a good philosophical method, but it is probably good pedagogy: “I won’t try to dissuade you from your view that we are in France; let me rather show you that we are in America”. (Whatever “tongues” Smith thinks in now, he is still listed as a professor of Reformed theology. So I was reminded of Karl Barth in his feistiest days. Barth once observed that he was completely uninterested in dialogue with Hindus or any people from other religions. He was asked, how then did he know that they were wrong. He replied: “I know it a priori”. This is not my style of thinking, but I must admit to a certain admiration for its Calvinist chutzpah! In the book mentioned here, Smith continues in the same vein, except that he now undergirds his argument with Taylor’s phenomenology of our supposedly secular age.
I think that Taylor’s magnum opus makes a very significant contribution, though I disagree with its central proposition: We don’t live in a “secular age”; rather in most of the world we live in a turbulently religious age (with the exception of a few places, like university philosophy departments in Canada and football clubs in Britain). (Has Taylor been recently in Nepal? Or for that matter in central Texas?) Taylor is a very sophisticated philosopher, not an empirically oriented sociologist of religion. It so happens that we now have a sizable body of empirical data from much of the world (including America and Europe) on what ordinary religious people actually believe and how they relate their faith to various secular definitions of reality). Let me just mention the rich work of Robert Wuthnow, Nancy Ammerman and Tanya Luhrmann in the US, and Grace Davie, Linda Woodhead and Daniele Hervieu-Leger in Europe. There is a phrase that sociology students learn in the first year of graduate study—frequency distribution: It is important for me to understand just what X is; it is even more important for me to know how much X there is at a given time in a given place. The phrase is to be recommended to all inclined to make a priori statements about anything. In this case, I think that Taylor has made a very useful contribution in his careful description of what he calls “the immanent frame” (he also calls it “exclusive humanism”)—a sense of reality that excludes all references to transcendence or anything beyond mundane human experience. Taylor also traced the historical development of this definition of reality. It’s the kind of thing he does very well, as he did before on another topic in his justly celebrated work Sources of the Self (1999).
In reading Taylor, I am forcefully reminded of another heated controversy, which roiled the theological world in the second half of the twentieth century—the one over Rudolf Bultmann’s project to “demythologize the New Testament”. His seminal essay on this topic began with the lapidary sentence: “Modern man, who uses radio and electricity and turns to modern medicine when ill, cannot believe in the world of miracles of the New Testament”. I remember reading this sentence at the time and thinking: How does Bultmann know this? No evidence is cited; none seems required. It is an a priori statement. To use Taylor’s key term: The “immanent frame” is simply assumed to be the reality in which “modern man” necessarily exists. The empirical reality, today as then, is of course much more complicated.
I have spent the last few years trying to develop a new angle about the relation of modernity and religion. My book The Many Altars of Modernity, to be published later this year in English and German by Walter de Gruyter (Berlin and Boston), will try to dissect this phenomenon in (possibly tedious) detail. (I will quote again my favorite Zulu proverb: “If I don’t beat my own drum, who will?”) This is not intended as a preview. But let me spell out, in my own terms, where Taylor is right, and where he is not.
Yes, there is indeed a powerful secular discourse, which dominates in important areas of modern life, which for some people is the only discourse they find plausible, and which for many others is a “default discourse” in that they almost automatically fall back upon it in certain situations. We may as well use Bultmann’s old example: I am ill, I call my doctor because I am convinced that his definition of reality is most relevant to my problem, and while he and I talk about my illness in this “immanent frame”, alternative discourses (especially religious ones) are rigorously bracketed. But it would be a mistake to think that this bracketing is permanent and that this secular discourse may not also interact with this or that religious discourse. I cannot resist the temptation of referring to an interruption earlier this afternoon: Today is Ash Wednesday, a fact that was not at all on my mind as I was working on this post. The call was from an occupational therapist, who wanted to know whether I might find her services useful (I thought no). I emphasize: This woman knows absolutely nothing about me except for a recent accident; and I know nothing about her except for her OT expertise. When we had concluded our friendly and very brief phone conversation, she concluded by saying: “Have a blessed Ash Wednesday!”.
I have formulated the question here as if it were a matter of deciding whether the secular discourse can co-exist and interact with religious discourses. But we already know that it can—the question is not if it can, but how the interaction occurs—and of course how many and what kind of people engage in it. Of course there are instances of friction between the different discourses, and at times direct conflict. This should not obscure the empirical reality that most religious people in the world (most of whom, happily, are not philosophers) manage to be both religious and successfully operate with various secular discourses of the modern world. Just look at the United States: It is important, I think, to ponder the fact that the Bible Belt overlaps with the Sun Belt—one of the most economically vibrant regions. Here are huge numbers of highly successful entrepreneurs, petroleum engineers, computer technology innovators—many of whom also believe in the power of prayer, who will turn to a prayer group for effective help while they are having recourse to all the wonders of modern medicine. And mind you, some of these people are also “creationists” who deny evolution and believe that the earth is only some six-thousand years old (“young earth theory”). Don’t be fixated on the fact that these two discourses may fight it out in school boards across the region: People with these logically contradictory views are engaged on both sides of these issues. Most of the time, it seems, that people manage to live with what to an outsider may seem to be irreconcilable contradictions.
I think that the basic formula to describe the secular discourse (= “immanent frame”) of modernity was stated by Hugo Grotius, the seventeen-century Dutch jurist who was one of the founders of modern international law. Grotius wrote that the new discipline of international law should be developed “etsi Deus non daretur”/”as if God were not given”, that is, “as if God did not exist”. It is very important to understand that Grotius did not express an atheist worldview. Rather, he formulated a “methodological (ad hoc) atheism” (“etsi”/ “as if”). In the event, he had no alternative: How could an international law function in a Europe with states that were Catholic and Protestant, Lutheran and Calvinist and Anglican—not to mention Orthodox Russia and the Ottoman Empire (whose sultan was also the Caliph)! Of course such law had to be independent of any particular religious belief! And it should be noted that Grotius himself was anything but an atheist, rather was a pious Protestant, adherent of the Arminian branch of the Dutch Reformation (which rejected the odious Calvinist doctrine that God has foreordained the damnation of most humans). The Calvinists, then in charge of the newly independent Dutch states, had no tolerance for dissenters within the Protestant camp—and Grotius himself was forced into exile in England.
I am not competent to speculate about the origins of this “god-less” rationality—which could even be envisaged and practiced by a pious Dutch Protestant in the seventeenth century. Very likely there are earlier roots (the social sources of nominalism?), but an important step must have been the discovery of the type of rational discourse that is the precondition of modern science and technology. Wherever it came from, once posited Grotius’ formula is capable of expanding into various areas of social life. To mention but two historically important areas, the religiously neutral state and the autonomous market economy—both operating “as if God did not exist”—presuppose Grotius’ dictum. However, as I have been at pains to point out, this does not mean that such secular discourse makes religion obsolete. Most of the time, for most religious people, it is an issue of drawing boundaries—a division of social and personal life between the two discourses (or, if you prefer, “frames”). Of course there are both religious and secularist fundamentalists, who would wish either discourse to be banished at least from public life. Recent history has shown that both projects are difficult to realize (at least in the absence of a totalitarian state enforcing them—and even then).
I think that this empirical conclusion is good news, both for individuals and for entire societies. The relation between modernity and faith is often perceived and presented as an epic struggle. Of course it is that sometimes and for some people. But there is a comforting message for those who want to be modern people and to hold on to their faith: Look—it isn’t all that difficult!