I just finished reading James K. A. Smith’s wonderful book How (Not) to Be Secular, which summarizes and engages with the writings of Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor. The main contribution of the book for me was how it provided insight on how people in our culture shape their ideas and identities.
Specifically, Taylor’s perspective provides three keys to effective evangelism in a secular age by giving us a window into the thought life of those in our communities:
- Effective evangelism focuses on narrative not just facts: Taylor (via Smith) shows how important a coherent life narrative is to shaping the perspective of people in our secular culture. For example, he contends that those who leave the faith “because of science” do so less because of the facts of science and more because of the narrative of science. In other words, people are searching for a life story that not only makes sense but enables them to live in the way they want to live and pursue the priorities they want to pursue. Effective evangelism cannot simply focus on the facts of our faith but instead must also provide a gospel counter-narrative that is more compelling.
- Effective evangelism focuses on intuitions not just ideas: Smith says a key, according to Taylor, of understanding our secular age is to not just engage it at the level of thought but also at the level of “unthought.” “Unthought” is their term for describing people’s perspectives at the intuitional level. It is the foundational viewpoint that is assumed and intuited rather than rationalized and developed. Effective evangelism must engage people not just at the level of their conscious ideas but also at the level of their “unthought” intuitions.
- Effective evangelism focuses on framework not just worldview: Taylor helpfully explains how people’s picture of the immanent world (their worldview) is surrounded by a framework of “unthought” that may or may not be open to the transcendent realities of faith. Therefore, it’s not enough to simply engage them at a worldview level. Instead, we must leverage opportunities (Taylor suggests time and death as the two key possibilities) to challenge people to open themselves up to seeing the transcendent realities beyond their daily lives. Effective evangelism must be able to engage people not only at the level of their worldview but also show a compelling vision of the transcendent power of the gospel that reorients their framework for life.
There is much to commend in Smith’s summary of Taylor’s thought. It is not an easy read. But it will have you reconsidering the thought life of our secular age and even your own.