How (Not) to Be Secular, by James K. A. Smith

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is one of the most important books of the new millennium. It offers a rich description of what it is like to live in a world that is both thoroughly immanent and haunted by transcendence. A Secular Age offers new vocabulary for understanding individual experiences and social patterns, along with a genealogy that accounts for the forms of these phenomena. Taylor’s book can make readers feel as if they now see a third dimension to a world they used to inhabit as if it were flat. He does not simply join debates about things like the relationship be­tween church and state, the nature of the atonement, or the elements of worship. Instead he tells a story that explains how our debates have come to assume the forms they have and why some arguments feel more plausible than others.

Taylor’s book is important for academics. Published in 2007, it has already generated a small industry in scholarly commentary. And it may be even more important for church leaders trying to make sense of faith in this secular age.

But the importance of A Secular Age is matched by its inaccessibility. It is a great woolly mammoth of a book. Almost 900 pages long, it is full of repetitions and digressions. Taylor presents a coherent vision, but not by developing a single line of argument that can propel a reader along. Instead he initiates many shorter arguments that sometimes overlap with one another. He meanders and explores and doubles back. And the book abounds with references that will be understood only by people whose reading in philosophy, theology, sociology, and literature is as wide as Taylor’s own. Features like these make A Secular Age more admired than read, the kind of book that collects dust on the shelf except when it is being used to prop open a door.