The Secular is Haunted (live blog)

James K.A. Smith is previewing his new book “How not to be Secular” and I am going to try and live blog it – so apologies if it doesn’t all quite make sense.

Key question the existential core of Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age” is very helpful.
What does it mean to live in a secular age? Is it an age of disenchantment?

Who gives us the best account of our secular age, in which we undoubtably find ourselves? Whose analysis of our present is the most helpful?

We are being given a subtraction story – where the secular is thought to be the world that is left when you lop off transcendence. Minus the fiction of transcendence we are left with the rational secular.

As Journey should have sung “Do Stop Believing.” There is something innacurate about this analysis.

Smith argues we are in the middle of a secular age, but wants to contest what it means. The story we are being given by most accounts of secularism does not make sense of our lives. These accounts do not take into account the experience of many atheists: e.g. Julian Barnes and Steve Jobs.

Julian Barnes “Nothing to be Frightened of”
“I don’t believe in God but I miss him”

This is very different to Ian McEllan.
“If I called myself an atheist at 20, and an agnostic at 60 it isn’t because I have more knowledge just recognising more ignorance.” Julian Barnes

All though we are more informed we are not more evolved, what convinces us that our knowledge is more final.

Barnes feels the haunting of the immanent
Much of what he enjoys owes its existence to Christianity

“Without the madness of the gospel, Mozart would never have composed a requiem.”
Julian Barnes

Steve Jobs
The late Apple CEO Steve Jobs said he was about “50/50” about the existence of God, but found himself “believing a bit more” in life after death after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Jobs told Walter Isaacson, “I saw my life as an arc and that it would end and compared to that, nothing mattered:
“You’re born alone, you’re going to die alone,” he said. “And does anything else really matter? I mean what is it exactly is it that you have to lose Steve? You know? There’s nothing.”
However Mr Jobs’s views softened after he became ill, Mr Isaacson told a CBS 60 Minutes programme marking the release of the book ‘Steve Jobs’ on Monday.
“Maybe it’s ‘cos I want to believe in an afterlife,” he recalled Mr Jobs saying. “That when you die, it doesn’t just all disappear. The wisdom you’ve accumulated. Somehow it lives on.

Smith argues (citing Charles Taylor)

1. We live in a world of contested belief
Secularity is not the same as unbelief but rather the contestability of beliefs. No beliefs are axiomatic or default or taken for granted. You can still be a believer but just not in the way that you forget that other people don’t believe it. Thus faith is “fragilised.”

2. The secular is an accomplishment
In other words this is not just what is left over when transcendence is removed.
We moved in 1500 when it was almost impossible in the west to not believe in God but in 2000 the opposite is true..

3. The immanent frame is only a viable space to inhabit with the advent of “exclusive humanism” which generates immanent significance”

We pursue meaning and significance without reference to the immanent.
We are free not to believe in transcendence but that all those that believe in transcendence believe differently.


4.The immanent frame is cross-pressured by (a nostalgia for?) transcendence and fulness.

We feel longings of an ancient impetus to faith that will keep pressing on us – this is “enchantment” in an age of secularity Peter Jackson’s rendition of Lord of the Rings is hugely popular because we long for enchantment. Is that because the world really is enchanted or we are just haunted by the memory of enchantment.

5. Secularlity does not end belief but creates a nova effect of many modes of believing otherwise

this new experience of what we see in Julian Barnes and Steve Jobs (or David Foster Wallace “Good Old Neon” and “All That”) explains the fact that we cannot map their experience of spirituality without this nova situation of belief.

Our most meaningful experiences and relationship are invisible and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

Taylor suggests towards the end of his book that intense immanentisation will lead to a wasteland which encourage more young people to look beyond the boundaries because of the haunting of transcendence. People will look again to chritian tradition.

Smith finishes by quoting this poem:

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“Staying Power”
In appreciation of Maxim Gorky at the International Convention of Atheists, 1929

Like Gorky, I sometimes follow my doubts
outside to the yard and question the sky,
longing to have the fight settled, thinking
I can’t go on like this, and finally I say

all right, it is improbable, all right, there
is no God. And then as if I’m focusing
a magnifying glass on dry leaves, God blazes up.
It’s the attention, maybe, to what isn’t there

that makes the emptiness flare like a forest fire
until I have to spend the afternoon dragging
the hose to put the smoldering thing out.
Even on an ordinary day when a friend calls,

tells me they’ve found melanoma,
complains that the hospital is cold, I say God.
God, I say as my heart turns inside out.
Pick up any language by the scruff of its neck,

wipe its face, set it down on the lawn,
and I bet it will toddle right into the godfire
again, which—though they say it doesn’t
exist—can send you straight to the burn unit.

Oh, we have only so many words to think with.
Say God’s not fire, say anything, say God’s
a phone, maybe. You know you didn’t order a phone,
but there it is. It rings. You don’t know who it could be.

You don’t want to talk, so you pull out
the plug. It rings. You smash it with a hammer
till it bleeds springs and coils and clobbery
metal bits. It rings again. You pick it up

and a voice you love whispers hello.

Jeanie Murray Walker
found onPoetry Magazine site.

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Because the imagination is the place in which transcendence is most clearly seen – the imagination is our battleground.

About the author: Krish Kandiah

Founding Director: Home for Good Executive Producer: Books for Life Vice President: Tearfund Tutor: Regents Park College, Oxford University

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