11 March 2014

Charles Taylor's This Secular Age: Linker Versus Smith

Go here to read James K.A. Smith's rejoinder to Damon Linker who in turn argues that, according to Charles Taylor, it is no longer possible (or, more accurately, increasingly less likely) to experience what had traditionally been characterized as a religious conversion. Linker had characterized Charles Taylor's massive work, This Secular Age, as contending that conversion was well-night impossible in a "disenchanted" world, one in which all social experiences are horizontal. Horizontal in this sense is that there is and indeed can be nothing apart from the material world, and is what Taylor characterizes as a social imaginary. Linker rejects this view but Smith takes up a cudgel in defense of Taylor and argues that Linker misunderstood Taylor's point. In other words, according to Smith, 
For Taylor, ours is a “secular” age because it is an age in which all of our beliefs are contestable. It is a shift, not in what we can believe (or “experience”), but in what is believable. Ours is a “secular” age, not because we’re all doomed to inhabit the world as disenchanted, but because even those who experience it as enchanted have to realize that not everyone does.
For what it's worth, I think that Smith understates Taylor a bit but I must agree that Linker substantially overstates Taylor's contentions. In my series of posts of This Secular Age I never summarized Taylor's lengthy and complex arguments as simplistically as Linker has. (Go here, here, here, here, and here for my "best of.") My one-word take on Taylor (and the fact that I needed a half-dozen posts to summarize Taylor should suggest that one word isn't enough) was disintermediation:
Rather than related to the top through real entities (peasant --> lord --> king --> God and/or parishioner --> bishop --> pope --> God), time has become secularized (it's all horizontal, sequential or the like; in any event, nothing outside the succession of moments really matters) and people (think they) have direct access to their rulers...
It's direct-access that makes conversion, at least conversion to believe in a transcendent God who orders life apart from our felt needs, particularly challenging. It's not so much that folks can't be persuaded that something beyond the material is real. Widespread belief in various forms of "spirituality" (Christian flavored or otherwise) should make that clear. It's that they believe they can get to the transcendent without submitting to the pesky details of Christian doctrine and most certainly without submitting to the authority of the Church.

Thus, awareness of the polymorphous sovereign self rather than straightforward disenchantment should be at the heart of thinking about contemporary evangelization.

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