Reading Wendell Berry at Costco:
Review of How (Not) to be Secular
by James K.A. Smith
Harold K. Bush

In his volume Imagining the Kingdom, part two of a promised trilogy on the experience and phenomenology of worship and formation in contemporary America, James K. A. Smith describes an unsettling experience. One day, he finds himself in the loud and busy food court of a typical Costco near his home. There he sits, innocently reading a book in the food court. But upon further reflection, this act of reading turns out to be a deeply unsettling and disturbing moment, because it is a book by Wendell Berry, environmentalist extraordinaire, being consumed in the belly of the beast: a place that Smith decides might represent, for Berry, “the sixth circle of hell” (8). Smith’s self-reflection on his own cognitive dissonance between what he thinks he believes and what he in action believes and actually lives, illustrates precisely why I delight in studying the prodigious works of one of the most thoughtful Christian observers of American culture today. Especially since I feel that pain too: like Smith, I adore Berry even as I head to the nearest superstore to fill my trunk with bourgeois goodies at discount prices. So as I read Smith’s confessional observation, I find that I'm busted as well.

Imagining the Kingdom, and its predecessor Desiring the Kingdom, are books at the top of my short list for recommending to friends and colleagues looking for a great introduction to the writings of Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College. cover of bookBoth contain scores of wonderfully illuminating moments of self-instruction about the ways our own “worship” permeates our everyday lives. If you think worship is something that happens only on Sunday mornings (and perhaps Wednesday nights, or during the moments of devotion many Christians carve out at the beginning or end of the daily grind), Smith’s books might shock you. Smith argues powerfully that virtually everything we do constitutes some aspect of worship; everything we feed ourselves will form us, whether we recognize or accept that reality or not. And if you are an educator like me, you will discover that what you are primarily called to do is not dispense “information,” but to foster “formation.” And you will be engaged in a thoroughgoing examination of just about everything surrounding the mundane life you are now leading. In effect, you will be forced back to the best of Reformed thought: Calvin’s insistence, as Matthew Boulton has recently described it, that “even ordinary Christian life is a disciplined life, a life of discipleship formed in and through a particular suite of disciplines, and so at every turn in his theological and reforming work, Calvin sought to serve the church’s broad program of practical formation” (13). And so, yes, if you take seriously such an account of discipleship as described by Calvin, you may even find yourself challenged by the food court at Costco, or by any number of other pre-cognitive choices you must make, virtually every day, in postmodern America. Thus Smith is not for the faint of heart, and his writing will shake you up, if you let it.

All of this is preliminary to the book under review here, because it helps to know a little bit about Smith’s earlier works and predispositions. It is no exaggeration to suggest that his voluminous works are achieving a kind of epic sweep. Smith may be a philosopher, but his works have wide relevance throughout the humanities and, I would think and hope and pray, throughout the church as well. I find him to be one of the most engaging writers on issues of Christianity and culture today, though his work is often not so easily digested (he is as fond of Bourdieu, Foucault, and ­Merleau-Ponty as he is of Tom Wolfe, Homer Simpson, and Death Cab for Cutie). And so, I am treating this review as a bit of an introduction to Smith’s most recent work, along with a review of his splendid, yet accessible and brief overview and discussion of what is arguably the most widely discussed work of philosophy of the last twenty years: Charles Taylor’s magisterial A Secular Age (2007).

Taylor’s work is already highly influential and very well known among not only philosophers but also many people working in literary studies, religious history, and other fields. Taylor was already well-known before the appearance of his masterpiece; his most famous book before A Secular Age was his analysis of Western subjectivity in Sources of the Self (1989), and his Gifford Lectures were published as Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited in 2002. In A Secular Age, Taylor addresses the problem of the foundations and content of moral value and all that such value involves, a problem greatly complicated by challenges such as Nietzsche’s famous claim that God is dead. Taylor asks, what is the most compelling account of life, and what is the normative status of this way of life? He is hardly the first analytic philosopher to have recently taken on strong Christian commitments. But what distinguishes Taylor (and, say, Alisdair MacIntyre) is that these two heavyweights deploy Christian commitments within the framework of their analyses of the current moral order, and how we got here.

Taylor charts the historical development of the main option that best characterizes our secular age: what he terms “exclusive humanism.” He describes exclusive humanism’s diverse legacy from the early nineteenth century up to our own day, and then explores several current options of belief and unbelief, especially in terms of how these options deal with suffering and evil, and the wide variety of ordinary life. Taylor rejects powerfully and persuasively what he calls “subtraction stories”: accounts of the development of a secularism that emerges by subtracting features of transcendence, and thus freeing us from illusions or limitations that confine us. Think of subtraction stories as accounts stressing how an individual, or a culture, has decidedly “grown up”: how any intelligent being must get beyond childish belief by rejecting superstition, or by suddenly waking up and realizing that it is all simply myth, as in the wildly condescending language of Richard Dawkins (or, in the nineteenth century, someone like Robert Ingersoll, or even his great admirer Mark Twain). For believers, subtraction stories are certainly condescending: they come across as very much like the ravings of highly intelligent people who are nevertheless tone deaf regarding matters of religion and belief. That is how I have often felt when this arrogant attitude has raised its ugly head in what had been friendly conversations. Taylor is very good at describing this phenomenon, and for unmasking it as a potential foe. Subtraction stories, for Taylor, are merely the misguided rants directed toward a relatively weak and unconvincing straw man, not a very serious argument at all.

Smith’s book, How (Not) to Be Secular, is thus to be highly recommended for the wonderful help it provides in navigating the heady waters of Taylor’s masterpiece. Not only has it helped me decipher the complexities of Taylor’s work, but Smith’s lucid commentary has helped me master a solid vocabulary of Taylorisms for use in my own work (the book includes a very handy glossary of terms). In short, Smith has taught me much more about Taylor than I learned by reading Taylor on my own.  But this volume also reveals Smith to be a master teacher; he tells us in the book’s introduction that the idea, and the manuscript, emerged from a semester-long senior seminar with philosophy majors at his college, and he gives a grateful nod to his willing students, who all committed to reading the entirety of Taylor’s intimidating tome together with the class. What a challenge! I’ve done Moby-Dick with seniors, usually over about three or four weeks, so I know the difficulties of Smith’s gargantuan task—the selling of a highly complex work of genius—and the marathon-like quality of assigning such lengthy works (especially among the current crop of so-called “digital natives”). I admire Smith’s courage and panache. His greatest gift may be his ability to bring it all back down to earth, and make it come alive, for a group of contemporary undergraduates. Bravo for that.

Here I will try to boil down major elements of the book’s narrative. Since the goal of the book is to explain and summarize the content of Taylor’s volume, we can assume Smith has broad agreement with Taylor. He rarely argues with, or disagrees with, Taylor’s claims. According to Taylor (and, evidently Smith agrees), the modern world emerged when an internal and self-­sufficient humanism began to become imaginatively available as a real opportunity. The single goal of this humanism was nothing more than human flourishing, and slowly intellectuals began to realize that perhaps belief in God was unnecessary for such an arrangement. And so a new concept of life emerged: the “secular,” which Smith describes brilliantly.  This new world is not characterized so much by the absence of God as by a “sort of contested, cross-pressured, haunted world that is ‘secular’—not a world sanitized of faith and transcendence, flattened to the empirical” (17).  Smith shows how the church became, in Taylor’s view, complicit with the changes in belief: “Taylor focuses on Christian responses to this emerging humanism and the ‘eclipses’ we’ve just noted. What he finds is that the responses themselves have already conceded the game; that is, the responses to this diminishment of transcendence already accede to it in important ways (Taylor will later call this ‘pre-shrunk religion’...)” (51).  In short, Taylor (and Smith) argue that there is in fact much to admire about the new order, even as there is much to despise; for instance, our contemporary obsessions about “freedom” are only imaginable within a modern, human-centered frame. But more broadly, this new, pluralistic, and open-ended culture represents the progress of the human imagination over many centuries: “exclusive humanism is an achievement: ‘the development of this purely immanent sense of universal solidarity is an important achievement, a milestone in human history.’... Indeed, discovering immanent resources for fullness and meaning in this way will become ‘the charter of modern unbelief’...” (57). In many ways, this new “secular” spirit has fostered inclusion and other forms of justice. So there are good, as well as bad, results of this “achievement,” a revelation hard for many Christians to comprehend.

In this new order, questions of theodicy have become foremost among the challenges to Christianity. Smith is excellent in describing these challenges, via Taylor’s engaging and thorough recognition of the seriousness of these challenges. “People in coffee houses and salons… begin to express their disaffection in reflections on divine justice, and the theologians begin to feel that this is the challenge they must meet to fight back the coming wave of unbelief. The burning concern with theodicy isn’t framed by the new imagined epistemic predicament” (52). In other words, many Christians today do not take seriously the challenges posed by widespread violence and horror, what philosophers call the problem of evil. This line of reasoning, the recognition of the need for a humble theodicy in light of evil, may remind some readers of the recent volume by David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea.  Hart’s ingenious point is that most believers have not taken Ivan’s (and Dostoyevsky’s) argument in The Brothers Karamazov as seriously as they should. This epic novel—considered by many to be the most definitive account in literature of the theodicy problem—represents, for Hart and Taylor, a crucial challenge in the history of Western religion: “Those Christian readers who have found it easy to ignore or dispense with the case that Dostoyevsky constructs for Ivan have not, I submit, fully comprehended that case...” (Hart, 42).

As Taylor puts it: “The failure of theodicy can now more readily lead to rebellion, because of our heightened sense of ourselves as free agents” (306). Strikingly, it is the church that is least prepared, at present, to deal with horrendous evils: largely due to its unreal grasp of evil’s fullness and its implications. Evangelicals, in particular, are nervous about admitting to the grand silences of God or their own inability to offer up a quick, scriptural remedy to any problem. But while the church struggles to grasp the moral implications of genocide and tsunamis, the fallen world totally gets it. Taylor, Hart, and presumably Smith all agree that the formulation of a satisfactory theodicy must become a crucial point of emphasis for Christian belief and practice today. But instead, the church fails to present a convincing response.

In effect, and like it or not, our highly touted “freedom” in America has in fact led to all sorts of new positions and new options and endorsed them all equally. The epistemological cat is out of the bag, in other words, and we should be dubious about any feeble attempts to rebag it. There is grandeur in that realization, as well as some real challenges. Identifying the causes of this shift is at the heart of Taylor’s (and Smith’s) project: “the positive shift that really made exclusive humanism a ‘live option’: a theological shift that gave us the impersonal god of deism coupled with the intellectual and cultural Pelagianism that found the resources for an ‘agape-analog’ within the immanence. This gave us a way to be rid of eternity and transcendence without giving up a ‘moral ­project­­’—a vision and task that give significance to our striving” (Smith, 60). One example of Taylor’s vocabulary for describing these momentous shifts has become my own personal favorite: the “nova effect,” which is “an explosion of options for finding (or creating) ‘significance.’ The cross-polemics that result from new options for belief and unbelief ‘end up generating a number of new positions... so that our present predicament offers a gamut of possible positions’” (Smith, 62). There are just so many options, and opinions, out there: just ask today’s students, inundated with too much of everything. “[W]e see ourselves adrift and cast into an anonymous cold ‘universe,’” says Smith (71). And as Taylor elaborates in a chapter entitled “The Dark Abyss of Time”: “Reality in all directions plunges its roots into the unknown and as yet unmappable. It is this sense which defines the grasp of the world as ‘universe’ and not ‘cosmos’; and this is what I mean when I say that the universe outlook was ‘deep’ in a way that the cosmos picture was not. Humans are no longer charter members of the cosmos, but occupy merely a narrow band of recent time” (Taylor, 326–7).

Dark abyss, indeed. Perhaps readers might be forgiven if they find much of this analysis fairly bleak, if not abjectly hopeless. Taylor (and Smith) offer some tips for the church and individual believers, but their work is largely descriptive, not prescriptive. The bottom line is this: our secular age presents unprecedented challenges not only for belief itself, but also for the simple presentation, and the long-term progress, of our narrative of truth, the Gospel. The risks are unprecedented, due largely to the nova effect of our “liberation,” our growing up into full maturity in a world marked by indecision, uncertainty, and thousands of live wire options. Who is to say what we can truly believe?

Thankfully, if we find this analysis troubling, Smith has given us—in his trilogy on worship, mentioned at the beginning of this essay—a deeper engagement with the kinds of prescriptions that might help us, as the church, to find our way forward. In a word: it is practice, the disciplines of our faith. The search is on for real, vibrant communities of hope in the midst of this dark abyss we call the secular age. Any hipster can sit at Costco, sipping coffee and reading Wendell Berry. But as my own college students are fond of asking me: where are the living, breathing, authentic believers in God to be found? They search, in other words, because somehow they know intuitively that it is within the disciplines of a beloved community that we might learn how (not) to be secular.


Harold K. Bush is Professor of English at Saint Louis University. His most recent book is Lincoln in His Own Time (University of Iowa Press, 2011).


Works Cited

Boulton, Matthew. Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.

Hart, David Bentley. Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? Grand Rapids:    Eerdmans, 2011.

Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids: Baker   Academic, 2013.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007.

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