A Discussion of James K. A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular
For those intimidated by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s doorstop-sized magnum opus, A Secular Age, Smith’s book functions as a helpful primer. In this episode, Nathan and Cameron discuss How (Not) to Be Secular, and consider some of the subtle ways in which many Christians begin to mirror the secular world around them, and how we might open our eyes to this insidious process.
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Cameron McAllister: Hello and welcome to Thinking Out Loud, this is a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope. I'm your cohost, Cameron McAllister.
Nathan Rittenhouse: And I'm your cohost Nathan Rittenhouse.
Cameron McAllister: We're going to do this nerdy book thing again because Nathan and I really like books. We like to talk about books and maybe it seems a bit presumptuous, but it seems that you, for some reason, like to listen to us discuss books and there's a certain reference ... Well, a certain name comes up over and over again in our podcast. We drone on and on about some of the concepts from his books. We talk a lot about the social imaginary, maybe the Nova effect-
Nathan Rittenhouse: Subtraction stories.
Cameron McAllister: Subtraction stories. So the-
Nathan Rittenhouse: Believing while doubting.
Cameron McAllister: There you go. The culprit here is the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor. Now he's actually been writing and working in the academic world for many years, but the reason he's almost, almost a household name. I guess as far as philosophers go, he's a household name, but is a massive book called A Secular Age.
It's a big doorstop of a book, probably close to 700 pages and it's a fairly imposing book given its length obviously, and we like it a lot. We would recommend it, but before we would recommend that to you we're not that mean, I will say this, though, it's actually a very clearly written book and it's going to make some demands, but I actually think, I will dare to say it's accessible, but I always recommend another book. So many books before sending people straight to Charles Taylor. The book that we're actually going to be discussing is called How (Not) to Be Secular. Now, this is written by James K. A. Smith.
For those of you who don't know, James K. A. Smith is a Christian philosopher who teaches at Calvin College. Some of you may know him from his cultural liturgies series, which began with Desiring the Kingdom. Then there's the Imagining the Kingdom, and then finally Awaiting the King. This is a really helpful primer on Charles Taylor's book, A Secular Age. It's very short. It is a pretty slender volume. So it's not even 200 pages. It's not even 150-
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, its deceptively small book.
Cameron McAllister: Yes it is. So it's deceptively small in the sense that it actually it's quite robust because what Charles Taylor is talking about requires a lot of us to rethink a lot of kind of thought patterns that we sort of fall into and we'll get into that. We're going to be discussing How Not to Be Secular. I'm wondering, how did this book first cross your path, Nathan? I'm just curious.
Nathan Rittenhouse: I don't know exactly, but I do remember that it struck me at a very interesting time because they're sort of the, maybe a Christian way of thinking about culture, paradigms, worldview and that sort of thing that was very familiar with, but then experiencing also that that's not the way that actually works in the day to day practice as the types of questions people are and aren't asking. I have no idea. Maybe you put me on to, I don't know. When did this come out? It's been a little bit.
Cameron McAllister: I think it came out in, I want to say 2014 actually. So it's a relatively recent-
Nathan Rittenhouse: Probably read about somewhere around then. I'm thinking or listening to this thinking, "oh, great, a book review of a book review."
Cameron McAllister: Exactly.
Nathan Rittenhouse: But what's fascinating, though I don't remember reading it for the first time, once you read it, you will see references to everywhere.
Cameron McAllister: Oh, yeah.
Nathan Rittenhouse: There are multiple times that I've been reading, I can think of three books off the top of my head, that, as I was reading the author, I thought "they read Charles Taylor" and then sure enough, within a couple of pages there's a direct quote or a footnote or something that goes to it. And so really, as far as a foundational text that's really informing a lot of popular, but academic Christian thinking about culture, sociology, about the structure of belief, about the paradigms in the realities in which we live it's helpful for that reason in and of itself.
Cameron McAllister: Well, one of the first really helpful features of the book I think has to do, Charles Taylor has a pretty unique vocabulary. He's got a lot of neologisms that he kind of introduces and-
Nathan Rittenhouse: Way to you say neologisms after talking about a unique vocabulary-
Cameron McAllister: That's funny, yes. I did plan that, but I think we need to begin with the basics first. "Secular" the word. Yes. So that word, a lot of people think the word is very self evident, particularly in Christian communities, we think that there's a really straight forward definition of secular. I know I did. Well, Charles Taylor actually has a pretty nuanced description of the word secular. We probably should begin. There are three ... in the beginning of the book, James K. A. Smith highlights three distinct uses of the word secular. The third one is actually is Charles Taylor's.
But he gives us the first two to clarify and sort of distinguish Taylor's. So the first would just be the ancient ... it actually goes back to the etymology of the word saeculam, which just means those institutions and those domains outside the church. This would have been the middle age understanding. The funny example he gives us, there's the clergymen or the priests of the pastor. That's a sacred vocation. And then there's the baker... The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.
Nathan Rittenhouse: The secular careers.
Cameron McAllister: Those are the secular careers. So that would be a very basic, bare bones sort of early definition, but there's been a gradual sort of cultural accretion.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yup, and so he throws in the Enlightenment really there as the shift into culture version two.
Cameron McAllister: Yes.
Nathan Rittenhouse: That secular version two.
Cameron McAllister: Secular version two, I would venture to say, is what most of us are default sort of understanding would be, which would be this disinterested objective, scientific, specifically nonreligious way of looking at reality. Even the paradigm of separating church and state. There's kind of an enlightenment shade of secular there. So it would be-
Nathan Rittenhouse: He uses like public schools now would be what pops in our mind is a secular school. It's not a parochial school.
Cameron McAllister: Exactly.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Areligious in that sense.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah. So and also, and I think this is where a lot of people just think, okay, secular, just shorthand almost for atheism or shorthand for non religion and, in some cases, shorthand for hostility to religion. You often hear the word secular used in Christian circles in a very pejorative sense. Well, it's a secular music or a secular university that's very secular, there's the onslaught of secularization increasing secularization like it's some sort of disease that's ravaging the land.
But the third definition is really interesting and I think we need to linger on it for a little bit. I want to look at the book specifically a little bit here because it gets quite specific, but I think-
Nathan Rittenhouse: Page 21.
Cameron McAllister: Page 21, thank you as I'm frantically flipping around here and I needed to use a book mark, one of those amazing inventions. Here's secular in Charles Taylor's sense. This is version three and this is a direct quote from James K. A. Smith's book, "A society is secular in so far as religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others." And then he goes on to say, "The shift to secularity in this sense indicates a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and unproblematic to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently, not the easiest to embrace." So the title of Charles Taylor's book, A Secular Age refers more to that proliferation of options. Christianity is no longer, it's not the default position, it carries no essential authority. It's one among many competing options.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. So let me jump in here and it might not be immediately clear why this is so important for our time. One of those elements is that, in this secular three, he talks about everything being contested and the one option among many and lots of directions we can go here with stories. But that idea of ... and to pick up an earlier phrase we mentioned of believing while doubting is an important element because he's fundamentally saying that actually the structure of belief is different in our time if you do believe. For the Christian audience listening to that, it's a fascinating thing. He said, "Maybe we believe some of the things that our forefathers believed 1500 years ago as Christians, but the way that we hold those beliefs is different." I think we don't even have to go 1500 years ago. I think we could go, 80 years ago if we're an American context and say, you know what, it's totally possible 80 years ago that you live in small town USA.
Everybody that you knew was a Christian or, if not, you didn't really know them, and there was a general Christian-esc ethos to the ... and so you could hold a Christian belief and never be challenged on it because sort of everybody did .. Maybe 80 years is a bit much, maybe a 100, maybe we push it back a little farther. But there was a general sense in which that happens. Now when you look at the context of holding a system of belief for a young person in a globalized 21st century, you work with and have friends and colleagues who are Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, Jedi, whatever. Fill in the blank. There's this proliferation of options and ideas around you. You are almost reinventing and re articulating what it is that you believe in every single context because, to pick up another word that's important here, is there are cross pressures in the system in which we believe, and so everything is consistently contested as an option that has to be justified almost on a daily basis.
The structure of the way that we hold a belief within a culture is totally different. And he's not necessarily saying good or bad, he's just pointing it out that there's a difference here that this is a new game that we're playing. I think probably one of the practical ways in which you see this sort of show up in a sad and funny way is you often hear people saying, "Oh, you know, these young people go off to college and they lose their faith." My hunch had been, and I think Taylor would agree with me that, actually the reason for that, is because they're going off to college and they need to answer and address and deal with questions that their parents won't even know how to answer and address and deal with if they were in that same context and being asked those same things just because of the change of the types of questions that are out there.
There's that radical shift and so and maybe that's overly harsh, but I think we can see the shift happened there in a way that it's helpful for us, whether we're living in the midst of it or helping other people think it, that there is a difference to the way in which we hold belief in the 21st century.
Cameron McAllister: I think to kind of to join sort of thoughts here with you, Nathan, on the college example, where it gets very practical. A friend of mine, Alan Noble, has just released a book called Disruptive Witness, and it's drawing a lot on Taylor. What he points out is that, and he's looking at, he's assuming this definition of secularity of the, as this proliferation of options, beliefs are always contested and Christianity is by no means the easiest one to embrace. I think all of us could agree that Christianity, in particular, right now is very, very contested, particularly in university settings, but what he points out what Alan Noble points out in that book, and maybe we should discuss that at some point. Too many books.
Anyway, he points out that if Christianity is seen by the person who, supposedly, holds it as nothing more than an option, maybe even without realizing it, and if they have just, in fact, reduced it to a lifestyle choice, then really, and this just goes along with what you're saying, as harsh as it might sound, we both can take a step back here and recognize, well then that's actually not Christianity because Christianity by definition cannot be just one option.
It can't. That's a thoroughly denuded, shrunken vision that really has nothing to do with the comprehensive vision of God's word. So what happens, you go into a setting where if it's just contested as an option and if options are understood to be something that enhances, and we're getting into different territory here a little bit when it comes to the needs and the demands of individualism and the self, but if an option is understood to be something that just will enhance your existence, you think one crude example might be if you're on Netflix or some streaming service, you want to pick an option that best fits your needs and suits you. Well, Christianity doesn't do that. It's not tailor made to suit all of your immediate needs. Ultimately, it does promote flourishing.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Or make you comfortable.
Cameron McAllister: But yeah, absolutely. It's going to put you at odds and particularly in a college setting, if you are in a secular university, there's the word secular.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Secular two.
Cameron McAllister: Yes, secular two university. We're where your belief is going to be contested, and, by the way, maybe this is a side note, part of a professor's job is to contest your beliefs. They should do that. They should do that. Now that doesn't mean they should single you out and humiliate you, but that's part of a scholar.
Nathan Rittenhouse: You're paying them to do that to you.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, absolutely. But so if you don't have ... and I've heard you make this distinction Nathan before, and I think we're lingering here a little bit because this is going to be I think particularly important to many of our listeners, especially those with kids, or those who are approaching college. But you've said a lot of well meaning Christians, what they try to do is help college students survive rather than thrive. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. So I was listening to somebody the other day who had a son who was in his mid 20s and she said, "Oh, he's gaining all of these non Christian friends. I think it's just the best thing ever because, ultimately, this will be really good for our church." Wow. I was just like, you know, that's not the way that .... and so for her to have a confidence in the robustness of her son's faith, to think that it would actually be the formative narrative in the community of his friends, that would be the most attractive thing. That's a pretty exciting, stellar view of a robust thriving faith. It's good to know that's still out there. But I think we do send people off with, "Oh, I hope you can just hang on there." Rather than, that you will grow and flourish and take ground in and have a set of ideas that can really be helpful.
So maybe not to dwell on that too much, but to bring in some other Taylor themes here based off of what you've said, secular three reduces belief into one option among many, but he also makes the case that part of our belief shift has gone from the idea developed that secular two develops out of a- or secular three- develops out of a subtraction story or secular two does in subtraction, in the sense that, we used to believe that Thor calls the thunder or whatever. Now we've gotten rid of that, and we used to believe there are fairies in the trees and now we've gotten rid of that. And so that we all arrived at secular two by subtracting out the divine, the mysterious and all of that. However, in secular three he's saying it's a bit trickier here because secular three is not the byproduct of a subtraction story necessarily.
It's a creation of a new system of belief in which we can somehow subtract out all of the divine, but then construct transcendence or construct significance without transcendence. And so that's an important movement here, too, is the desire and the drive for significance without transcendence. That's new in secular three. I'll give you a story of this that struck me while I was reading this book. This happened and people have probably heard me say this before. I was speaking to a group of students at MIT on, meaning and purpose of life. And at the end when the students stood up, and he said, why would you ask, why would you even ask why questions? And there's a bit of a chuckle through the audience because it's sort of a funny thing. Why would you ask why? But I stopped the laughter and said, "Hey, no, seriously, think about it, actually, if he's coming from a completely naturalistic framework in which it is what it is, the why question isn't necessarily there and a lot of meaningful categories."
So what I said to the audience that night was, an atheistic naturalism does not necessarily bother me because of the types of answers that it gives to my questions, but because of the types of questions that doesn't allow me to ask. And so that's where the Christian rub happens here of that this truncated transcendence that develops that I have to construct my own significance within the system actually ends up chopping off a lot of human experience on the end. And so we're left with that, haunted world, as he would say, because we have a sense of something else. It shows up in the vocabulary. I think he uses the example of the shift from, we used to talk about creation to now we talk about nature and the shift there is to say, okay, significance and meaning and all of our resources come from within a closed system.
There's no longer a connection outside. And so we go from a creator and creation to its nature, but we still seek significance and meaning and, and maybe, a sense of connection with the transcendence within it. So, sorry I threw a whole bunch of new vocabulary, a new tailor ideas in there, but there's just so much in this book we kind of have to keep moving.
Cameron McAllister: Well, he talks a lot about the buffered self here in these circumstances as well. That has to do ... That's right. That goes right along with that kind of shrinking horizon where, again, he uses the subtraction story language, but, in the Middle Ages, Taylor will point out and, of course, Taylor being a devout Catholic, he's got a rich array of material to draw on from here.
Nathan Rittenhouse: He's got a deep hold to fish out of.
Cameron McAllister: Absolutely, and, by the way, it might be worth noting here that that Taylor has some fairly critical remarks about the reformation, situates quite a bit of blame-
Nathan Rittenhouse: And against Christian apologetics.
Cameron McAllister: Yes. And we're going to get there in a second.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yes we'll get there.
Cameron McAllister: James K. A. Smith actually does as well. So we don't want that to creep up on you. But the "buffered self," essentially what he's talking about is, in the Middle Ages, people thought of the self as highly porous and susceptible to all sorts of supernatural influences. Sometimes this could be very superstitious, but the main point was you're not some closed system as a person sealed off from the elements and spiritual forces. You are very susceptible to influence. So you need to be absolutely careful and guarded. I mean caution is the word of the day because all sorts of different factors and forces and possibly good and or malign beings are influencing you and influencing your moods and your feelings.
We don't think that anymore. And, by and large, people don't really consider this. They just, the assumption of the buffered self is that nope, as an individual you are this discreet entity, and you are sealed off from all these forces, and so long as you're minding your own business, you're not doing anything illegal, and you're doing what makes you happy, you're okay, and you can flourish.
Now, of course as Christians we can take a few steps back here and say there's a lot of danger in that distinctly modern assumption, which many of us don't even think about. It just seems to us the way things are. I'm fine as long as I pursue my own interests and I'm not. But what you listen to, what you watch, what you take in-
Nathan Rittenhouse: The podcast you listen to.... careful, careful.
Cameron McAllister: Yes, the podcast and the environment in which you find yourself has a huge influence on you. Charles Taylor does something that really great philosophers are always able to do to point out what obvious things that we don't see anymore. And so one of the features that he highlights that is so powerful is that it's virtually, it's very, very difficult it's not virtually impossible, tou can do it, there's a lot of effort to find any landscape, any environment where you don't see some man made structure of some kind, a telephone pole, something. What that tends to do is it monkeys with our sense of the of the way things are, we tend to see human agency in everything. And we just tend to, naturally lapse into the thinking of we're in control and man is the measure of all things. That's a really subtle observation. It seems really obvious once you say it, but it's powerful.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. Yeah. Well, let's shift it a little bit here and think through, you said the ability to kind of name things that are obvious and one of those is that ... one of the byproducts of this secular three is that, oftentimes, those of us, maybe the church living in a secular two paradigm, are answering questions that aren't actually being asked by secular three. And so this is a funny or tends to difficult... however, just sort of the awkward thing to look at and say, you know, the language that we're using are we ... and we go through and look at the banana slicer on Amazon. I don't know if you've seen the banana slicer.
Cameron McAllister: Oh, my goodness.
Nathan Rittenhouse: You want a good laugh, and you're not familiar, look up the banana slicer on Amazon and read the reviews there. And the whole thing's ridiculous. Because when was the last time you looked at a banana and you're like, I just don't know what to do with this thing. You know, how will I get this into nice little even pieces? And so the hilarity of the banana slicer is that it's solving a problem that nobody has ever thought of it as a problem. Right? And so how do we, as Christians, are we trying to solve a problem that people don't have as a problem? Are we trying to answer questions as if it's the greatest thing ever to a question, you know, do we have answers that are great that aren't the questions being asked, that sort of tension there is something we're thinking about. So you want to pick up any thoughts there and kind of move us in his direction of apologetics and where Christians need to be careful?
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, absolutely. I learned this firsthand the hard way when I was beginning as a speaker. I learned that there's a major difference between the questions I'm asking or find interesting and what people are actually asking.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, that's what most people are going to say about this podcast.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, absolutely. So there's a discrepancy there. Yeah. And so yeah, physician heal thyself. But, I think, so there's some very critical remarks that both James K. Smith and Charles Taylor have about current apologetics. So we're going to have to make a distinction, I think between contemporary apologetics today and how it's often, and the perception of it, and apologetics as it's commanded in scripture and the practice that we see, for instance, Jesus carrying out with the Pharisees or people ask them questions and then of course the disciples particularly in the book of Acts and the early church.
Cameron McAllister: You notice, one important distinction there is that apologetics in that context is often a response to specific accusations against Christians. For instance, in the early church in the book of Acts, there were a lot of very erroneous assumptions about Christians. Some of them pretty outrageous that they were cannibals, that they've participated in orgies, that they were seditious, and that they wanted to ... if not overthrow the Roman empire. Undermine-
Nathan Rittenhouse: Subversive. Yeah.
Cameron McAllister: The authority of, and of course in some ways there are subversive elements of Christianity because your ultimate allegiance is of course to Christ as King. But, the point is here, even when Justin Martyr wrote his apologia, it was a response to-
Nathan Rittenhouse: Behavior.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah. Behavior. It was a specific mode of life that was being attacked by the outside culture. And there were tensions there and it was a response to that. What often happens now, though, is his apologetics has, in some cases, one of the temptations, and this is a temptation, I think in almost any field, Nathan, I would say. The temptation is that we just talked to ourselves and that apologetics becomes its own sort of unique kind of field where we have our own sets of interests and our own pursuits and our own particular lingo and language. So some of that language would be worldview language paradigms. You mentioned some of it, even the word transcendent, the way Christians use it often. That's one word I learned to subtract from my vocabulary when I go into non Christian settings. Because when I say transcendent or I think many college students for instance, we're thinking, what are you talking about? The transendentalists? I mean they were thinking maybe more in poetic terms and that just, it was unique.
Cameron McAllister: I was using this in a uniquely Christian sort of sense and so I learned to use more conservative terminology, a sense of something more, a sense that there's more to life than meets the eye. I found I was getting much more traction and then I could get more explicit as I moved forward.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yup.
Cameron McAllister: But I think a lot of the harsh words that they have reserved for apologetics, and this gets a little complex and we're only going to scratch the surface. On the one hand, both Taylor and James K. A. Smith think that a lot of modern apologetics is complicit with Enlightenment thinking in that it situates reason as the final arbiter of everything that reason is so enshrined that that becomes our guarantee of all knowledge. It vouchsafes, everything for us. In that sense, Taylor and Smith are going to point out that, that's essentially what the same error that Rene Descartes fell into. And that, if we do that, reason as susceptible to all sorts of problems, error and it won't give us that, kind of, our ultimate foundation, in other words, ought to be Christ. I think that's where ... I think that's a, that's a helpful entry point. I'd love to hear some of your thoughts on this.
Nathan Rittenhouse: I think we're going to drift into direction here, talking about the social imaginary, rather than as opposed to kind of a worldview thing. But let me throw a story in here that maybe just puts a bit of a humorous spin on the real life element of this. When my dad went to college, he did not wrestle as a sport. I mean, just kind of farm boy wrestling, whatever. He gets to college and there's a guy on his hall who keeps talking about how great a wrestler he was in high school and blah blah blah and won this and this and this. After a couple of weeks of this, Dad thought, well, there's one way to find out. So, jumps the guy,, and they thrash around, wrestling, good old college roughhousing, horsing around. Finally the good wrestler stands up and says, "I can't beat you because you don't have a clue what you're doing."
There's a sense there where dad had no clue what the proper wrestling moves were, what the right technique was, the right positions, posture. In some ways, I think, as Christians we can move into that of like, "I don't know what to do with you because you don't know what you're doing," assuming you need to play by my rules to wrestle correctly. We come into these ideas that they don't have the right shape handles on them for us to grab hold of with our terminology and our ideas.
Cameron McAllister: The framework's wrong.
Nathan Rittenhouse: The framework is wrong. Yeah. And so there's an assumption of like, "this is how you wrestle," "this is how you engage on a metaphysical proposition," and it's just not there. And then we're like, I don't know how to deal with you because you don't know what you're doing, which is presumptuous. I think you're seeing the connection here that I'm making of, talk to us a little bit about the social imaginary and how that might fit into that analogy.
Cameron McAllister: Definitely. I think I've told this story a few times before, but I think it's a helpful example. I was at a university at one point, secular university, secular version two. We were on one of our university missions, and so there were several of us there. One of the most, for me, difficult aspects of the university missions is called flyering. It's a verb. You can go out in your hand, you accost people in the commons and sort of in the main courtyard.
Nathan Rittenhouse: It's a real thing.
Cameron McAllister: Oh yeah. And you put a flyer in their hands and you invite them to come talk about all the most uncomfortable subjects, you know, Christianity and why it's true, is atheism true, problem of evil, exclusivity of Christ. We're doing this and one of one of the people who was along for the ride, great, great person, friend of mine, really fond of these what are called worldview maps, worldview surveys and it's a questionnaire many listeners will be familiar with these, you're led through a couple of basic questions, maybe about origin, meaning, morality, destiny, those kinds of really fundamental questions.
Then on the basis of those answers, what the Christian is often looking for is consistency so that they can chart the person and get them on some kind of, it's sort of map their beliefs and now we've got a way forward in the conversation.
Nathan Rittenhouse: We've got the handles like a fixed absolutely.
Cameron McAllister: Absolutely. Well here's where it gets a little bit like your dad's wrestling sort of example. This person kept coming back and kept saying, these people are just, they're so inconsistent. They're literally all over my map and eventually it dawned on me, okay, the problem is the map because people don't translate their day to day experience in worldview terms. They don't use that kind of conceptual language. Now, eventually, I think you can lead people to start-
Nathan Rittenhouse: You do want to get there.
Cameron McAllister: You do. You want them to really examine their assumptions and their bedrock beliefs and get them to a place where they can articulate where they're coming from, but we're at a stage when we're in a secular culture version three where if all of these different beliefs are seen as nothing more than options, just think about how incredibly novel that is. I mean we are talking about, if Christianity for instance is true, it's literally a matter of life and death and matter of life after death.
Those are the kinds of stakes and that is the way traditionally people have always seen these questions, whether they disagreed with Christianity or any other religious belief, most people approach these topics with real sobriety because they realized these are high stakes issues. We don't now, and that has a lot to do with the sort of marketplace mentality that we have. Well, I can, I can pick and choose as I want or I can mix and match. Often what we have to do, we've got to learn how to not only hear the questions people are asking but to speak their language.
To clean up our language a little bit, initially, so that we can, we can at least be on the same page, talk about assumptions, but I think in many ways as apologists, I'll say this, and Nathan, I'd love to hear your thoughts here, but when I'm on the road, a good deal of what I'm doing when I'm in non Christian settings, look, if you give classic what's called evidentialist apologetics, which is very helpful and necessary, that's usually further down the line.
Let me give a typical example. If somebody, for instance, would self identify as a naturalist, they would categorically reject any supernatural causes, agency, evidence whatsoever. If they've done that, then no amount of evidence that I offer for say the resurrection of Jesus, no matter how compelling is going ... they're going to reject it on general principle, it will be in the same category as me trying to prove a mermaid to them or a leprechaun. And that, actually, is not totally, that's actually not inconsistent with their view.
What you have to do is you've got to recognize that their, their whole framework, all of their assumptions are fundamentally at odds with my own. So what you have to do is get those assumptions on the table, but also, a good deal of what I'm doing right now before I get to evidence stuff is I'm talking about the significance of the resurrection, the significance of the incarnation or the significance of Christianity in general, because that's lost.
We tend to think, oh, been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. We know what Christianity is and of course when we talked to many of these students, it turns out they don't. A good deal of, I think, the apologist's work today, and I think this is part of what Smith and Taylor are taking issue with, is that you actually have to demonstrate significance, but a lot of what they're critiquing jumps immediately ahead way many, many leaps ahead to evidence, which assumes a common vocabulary, which as assumes we're on a page that we're not on.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. One of the ways that I've practically done that is, given an invitation to come speak on the rationality of the Christian faith to say, no, I will come and speak on what's it like to be a Christian.
Cameron McAllister: There you go. Yeah.
Nathan Rittenhouse: I start there and I do have a whole lot of reasons that I think it's rational, but I have to paint the the silly analogy that I use as sort of the idea of say you come to me, you say, "Nathan, great news, my neighbor has a blue bicycle." I will say, "That's awesome Cameron." But I'm not going to go out of my way to go explore whether or not that's actually true because it has zero impact or bearing or meaning in my life with his blue, pink, red, or doesn't exist.
In an analogous way, why would I even expand the mental energy to decide whether or not it's rational if it doesn't make any difference in what I'm doing. There's a sense there in which there's that direction of it. I think by what we're doing is we're recapturing a bigger vision of the historic preaching of the church, of bringing it back into a Christ focused, Christ centered proclamation and description of reality in that way with the understanding of, part of his critique of apologetics is that hey, when you reduced God down to a creator, say like a cosmological argument sort of thing, which is a good argument.
Cameron McAllister: It is.
Nathan Rittenhouse: But when you take God down to creator, then that puts God in a box of a size that's easily replaceable by naturalism. You can shift your agents around in a way of thinking, easier. It's easier to replace "creator," kind of this vague creator than it is to replace risen Christ. The degree of specificity necessary in order to keep Christian apologetics Christian, I think, you know, so we would say, you know, rub up against the idea of, but he has some actually helpful critiques there of things that are good for us to remember as Christians trying to articulate what we believe with our non Christian friends and neighbors and to to explain ourselves.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, I would agree and I'll just real quickly, I think both of them make reference to this. I know Taylor does, but all of say Thomas Aquinas's classic proofs are there actually ... Aquinas considered them all auxiliary. They were actually there as he saw them to strengthen the faith of somebody who already believes. He didn't see them as doing all the legwork. And I think that's really important. We sometimes are in danger forgetting that. I remember being at an event once and somebody asking me, what's your favorite proof for the existence of God? What I really wanted to say was I think Jesus Christ is my ... for me this is so inherently personal and so I don't really think about it in those terms necessarily. It was a very understandable question for those of us who were in sort of nerdy apologetic circles.
I think it would point up some of what you were saying and I think we need to remember, I think the one facet I forgot to mention, Nathan, which is where you were trying to gently lead me, was that the other really helpful concept that Taylor gives us is social imaginary, which refers to ... I think it's more, it's a little bit more holistic than the concept of worldview. And by the way, worldview can be very helpful.
Please don't hear us as denigrating the concept of worldview. It's just that it's, in some ways it is a heuristic device. It's a helpful teaching tool, but, generally speaking, if you want to capture the actual quiddity, lived experience of people, Charles Taylor's social imaginary does that because he says that the way we think is much more akin to, it's not concepts, ideas, it's more, it's stories. It's fables, it's songs, it's poems-
Nathan Rittenhouse: Subconscious assumptions really.
Cameron McAllister: Absolutely. His analogy is the neighborhood, right?
Nathan Rittenhouse: But could we say it's actually because we are actually porous.
Cameron McAllister: I think we are. Yes, we are.
Nathan Rittenhouse: So we are absorbing that subconsciously, not in a logical way, crafts a way in which we view the world that isn't structured really.
Cameron McAllister: Environment has a profound effect on your thinking. I mean, if all you look, if the horizon for you always has some form of human artifice or technology in it, that affects the way you think. Absolutely. And if you're thinking about even negative examples are always powerful. Children from broken homes, people from impoverished communities, even the look of a street. Social scientists, and often people who do a lot of charity work will tell you that even well tended gardens in a certain poor district can make all the difference in the world. That tells you something very profound about how porous we actually are.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. Yeah. What can we say here then as we bring this to a close, in a sense of practical takeaways, I think one of the interesting things, some of our listeners is neither one of us are Catholic, right? Or even close to being Catholic. But here we're taking ideas and vocabulary from a Catholic philosopher. You were quoting Aquinas a minute ago and saying... So there are ways in which we can have part of engaging in a social imaginary ... Help me. I'm just putting this together as I go here to help me think out loud.
Cameron McAllister: Yeah. Sure. That's what we do.
Nathan Rittenhouse: I'm sorry. Sorry. That's what we do is to say that part of the stability of what it is that I believe has to be centered on the person of Jesus. But then as I think about articulating that to the world around me, that I am porous and that, and by being an embedding vocabulary and thoughts and ideas of philosophers, a little bit different than myself, people that are very different than myself. And so not to put myself in a quantum sequence, the step by step by step, this is the way this is going to work, but to really listen well to the people that are around me.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Just think about the diversity within Christianity?
Cameron McAllister: Yeah, absolutely.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Then go forward and say, "Well, you know, my neighbors Hindu, so I'm going to read this book about what Hindus believe. Probably that's not going to work. It pushes us back into an actual caring relational, "what do you really think? Tell me about this. Tell me stories about your life. Well, here are stories about how my families responded to things like that." To see a deeper and a richer, painting a picture, sort of, and inviting structure, a more beautiful story to invite people into a more secure house, a more stable way of living, and to paint those and to invite into that, rather than just kind of chopping people off at the knees because of their irrational ideas.
There is a way for pointing out brokenness and inconsistency, often people don't need us to do that for them, they can do that on their own. I think we're just calling here for a positive construction, maybe some people would call that a form of evangelism, of building and inviting, in addition to just a quantum cubic kind of type of apologetics. I think we can give an affirmation to the book as a helpful set of vocabulary for helping us make sense of the time in which we live.
Cameron McAllister: I think so. I think to just underscore some of what Nathan was saying, if we in an environment today where it's so confused. Where there are, it's not just the proliferation of perceived options for belief, but just where mindsets are, are really, really foreign and you've got so much confusion added to it. One of the really powerful witnesses is going to be your whole manner of life. As Christians we put huge stock in words, so that includes that angle. As good Protestants, we believe strongly in, in the preaching of the word, of hearing it expounded, but also hearing it read out loud.
I think sometimes we don't hear scripture read out loud enough. What if we have homes where we do that on a routine basis? Where we have devotionals with our kids, where people hear, the written word, where they see it framed on our walls, where they see us going to church in disruptive witness. That's what Alan Noble calls the disruptive witness. When people actually in your subdivision, in your neighborhood, they see hey, every Sunday come rain or shine, fighting your kids into the car, there you are heading to church. These are habits that mark you out as people who are in the world but truly not of the world who belong to a different kingdom. In our environment, I think that speaks volumes these days.
Nathan Rittenhouse: Let me conclude by reminding us that, when we think about apologetics and we think of Paul giving his defense in his legal, so they're accusing him of a way of life. He comes back and he explains that and at the end of it, what do they say? Do you want us to become Christians too? You know?
Cameron McAllister: Right.
Nathan Rittenhouse: So there's that ... It's not a defensiveness in the sense of like, “Oh, I got to have to justify myself, but I get to explain myself in a way that invites you into a bigger beauty.” May that be the goal for our next week, and our next life, that the Lord would lead us to be Christ like in the way in which we invite others into his kingdom.
Thanks for sticking with us it's been a bit of a long one here and a lot of deep ideas, but you've been listening to Thinking Out Loud, a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope.
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