| September 27, 2016


Podcast #238: Life in a Secular Age

It’s said that we live in a secular age.

But what does that mean? Is it simply that people are less religious or is it something more?

Philosophy professor Charles Taylor wrote a 900-page tome called A Secular Age in which he argues that secularity has more to do with a feeling of uncertainty about truth that pervades a culture in which all ideas are contested and contestable. 

My guest today on the show wrote a reader’s guide to Taylor’s epic work. His name is James K. A. Smith (he goes by Jamie). He’s a Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College and his book is called How (Not) to Be Secular. Today on the show, Jamie and I discuss what it means to live in a secular age, how we got here, and why it creates so much anxiety. Whether you’re a believer, agnostic, or atheist, you’re going to find some fascinating insights about today’s culture.

Jamie and I also discuss his latest book called You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit in which he argues that our lives are filled with “liturgies” whether we know it or not, and how not being mindful of these liturgies can result in living a life you’re not wholly satisfied with. 

Put on your philosophical and sociological hard hats. We’re digging deep into the mine of human existence in this thought-provoking but accessible episode on secularity and spirituality.

Show Highlights

  • The existential bite of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age
  • What Taylor thought of Jamie’s reader’s guide to A Secular Age
  • What Taylor means by a “secular age”
  • Why Taylor thinks the dominant theory of secularization doesn’t give a complete picture
  • Why secularity isn’t equated with unbelief
  • Why it’s important for everyone — believers and unbelievers alike — to understand what it means to live in a secular age
  • The “cross-pressures” of a secular age and how they cause a “fragilization of belief”
  • What the “nova effect” is
  • How we distract ourselves from the cross-pressures of life
  • The pre-modern “porous self” and the modern “buffered self”
  • Why the buffered self makes it hard to find meaning and transcendence in life
  • How the Protestant Reformation contributed to the rise of the secular age
  • The future of the secular age
  • The most important question Jesus asked in the gospels
  • How a Russian film can provide insights about what you really want
  • How our daily practices shape what we want and love on an unconscious level
  • The liturgies that pervade our life and what they do to us
  • The liturgy of consumerism
  • How our actions shape our character
  • The commodification of Jesus
  • What a post-modern ancient Christianity looks like (hint: a Catholic church in the middle of Austin)
  • Why training the soul is like training the body

Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast

how not to be secular book cover james ka smith

How (Not) to Be Secular is one of the most fascinating and thought-provoking books I’ve read this year. It definitely provides a new mental model through which to view the world. I highly recommend picking up a copy. And despite You Are What You Love being a book geared towards a Christian audience, I think non-Christians can get a lot out of it due to Jamie’s insights on how rituals and habits shape us, as well as how Aristotelian virtue ethics can be a meaningful paradigm to guide your life.

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Read the Transcript

Brett: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. It’s said that we live in a secular age, but what does that mean? Is it simply that people are less religious, or is it something more? McGill University philosophy professor Charles Taylor wrote a 900-page tome called A Secular Age, in which he argues that secularity has more to do with a feeling of uncertainty about truth that pervades our culture, which ideas are contested and contestable.

My guest today on the show wrote a reader’s guide of Taylor’s epic work. His name is James K.A. Smith. He goes by Jamie. He’s a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, and his book is called How (Not) to be Secular, and today on the show, Jamie and I discuss what it means to live in a secular age, how we got here, and why it creates so much existential anxiety. Whether you’re a believer, agnostic, or atheist, you’re going to find some fascinating insights about today’s culture. Jimmy and I also discuss his latest book, You are What You Love, in which he argues that our lives are filled with liturgies, whether we know it or not, and how not being mindful of these liturgies can result in living a life you’re not wholly satisfied with. Put on your philosophical and sociological hardhats. We’re digging deep into the mind of human existence in this thought-provoking but accessible episode of secularity and spirituality.

After the show, make sure to check out the show nets at aom.is/secular, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic. Jamie Smith, welcome to the show.

Jamie: It’s great to be with you. Thanks.

Brett: You are a professor of philosophy and theology at Calvin College in Michigan, right? Grand Rapids, right?

Jamie: That’s right.

Brett: Okay, and you’ve written a ton. A ton of books.

Jamie: I guess. Yeah.

Brett: Yeah, but today I want to talk about two that I’ve read. It’s How Not to Be Secular, and You Are What You Love, because I think they’re related in a way. Let’s talk about your first book, How Not To Be Secular. This is a reading guide to philosopher Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age. Can you give us a thumbnail sketch on Taylor, and the thesis of his work, and why you felt it was necessary to create this reading guide to his book?

Jamie: Yeah, absolutely. Taylor himself is also a longtime professor of philosophy at McGill University in Montreal. He’s Canadian, trained in England, and has long been doing what I would call philosophical histories of modernity. He’s sort of a genealogist of the contemporary. He helps us make sense of the cultural moment in which we find ourselves. He had an earlier book called Sources of the Self, which is equally important in many ways. His book A Secular Age is this 900 page tome that is wending, and winding, and difficult, but also totally brilliant, and incisive, and widely, widely engaged and discussed. What’s interesting is Taylor himself is a person of faith. He’s a Catholic Christian who is in the middle of mainstream academic world. He’s trying to understand the nature of secularity.

I had an opportunity to teach a senior seminar class here at Calvin College, and had 15 students sign up to walk through this 900 pages of dense philosophical history in the course of a semester. They all did it, and I was so proud of them, but what they became clear in that experience is, here is a bunch of 21, 22-year-olds who said, “This guy’s been reading my mail. He’s got his finger on the pulse of the world in which I live.” I started to realize that there is a lot of existential insight and bite to what he had to say, and it had a lot of nuanced complexity that seemed to honor the messiness of the moment in which we find ourselves. That’s what convinced me that I really felt like Taylor’s argument and analysis would help a lot of people who would never sign up to read a 900 page philosophy book.

I really just kind of came along as a servant of the master, and said, “I want to try to translate this for wider audience, because I think it matters.” I’ve been really encouraged by the response, and I should say, too, one of the highlights of my academic career was then getting to meet Taylor about a year later, and he very graciously welcomed me into his home, and he said, “You performed alchemy with your work. You wrote the book that I was trying to write.” That was sort of like, okay, I could die now.

Brett: Right. What a great compliment.

Jamie: Yeah.

Brett: Let’s get in the nitty gritty of this. Religious folks, non-religious people, we talk about, we’re living in a secular age, but sometimes I feel like we don’t even know what that means. It’s like when we say, “I’m living authentically.” What does that even mean? What does Taylor mean by a secular age?

Jamie: Yeah, and in many ways, he is pushing back on kind of the dominant paradigm for understanding a secular age. Let’s say the dominant story, narrative, paradigm for thinking about secularity is something like the secularization thesis, which was … In a way, it was kind of 100 years old. It was birthed out of the very heart of modernity and the Enlightenment, and it’s this prognostication that confidently believes the march of reason and science is going to make us wiser and wiser, and enlighten us to the point that we can sort of grow out of religious beliefs, and usher in the atheistic, naturalistic kingdom of light. Therefore, a secular age is kind of like the realization of enlightenment.

In that story, the secular is identified and equated with unbelief, even atheism, naturalism, and so on. This is kind of the story that new atheists, like Richard Dawkins, or Daniel Dennett, or Sam Harris, would tell. Taylor comes in and says, I … First of all, I don’t think that’s very good history, and secondly, he would say, “I don’t think that really describes the world in which people find themselves in 2010, or 2016.” It’s that the world that we find ourselves, and the culture in which we move, feels way more complicated than that. For Taylor, secularity and secularization is not synonymous with progressive unbelief, and certainly not with progressive and growing atheism.

Instead, what he would say is, a secular age is an age in which everyone’s beliefs are contested and contestable. Absolutely, something like atheism becomes thinkable and possible in ways that it couldn’t have been before, but what intrigues Taylor is, it’s interesting that not that many people sign up for it, really, at the end of the day. Our op-ed pages tend to give a lot of play to a kind of almost fundamentalistic atheism, but you already see push back on that from people who wouldn’t necessarily identify themselves as religious, but would also say, “You know what? That’s not how I see myself.” For Taylor, a secular age is this age of contested, cross-pressured, multiple ways of believing otherwise, and it’s not synonymous with atheism, per se.

Brett: Got you, and we’ll delve deeper into that, that feeling of the secular age. Your book is primarily aimed at Christians, but you say it’s of interest to both religious and non-religious folks alike to understand the secular age. Why is it important that everyone understands what it means to live in a secular age?

Jamie: Yeah. I think Taylor’s conviction, and I think it’s absolutely right, is look, everybody knows the world has changed. There’s a different vibe, clearly in the last hundred years, and certainly in the last 500 years in the West. He says, and I guess what motivated me is on the one hand, I want religious folks, Christians, for example, to have a better account of the cultural moment in which we find ourselves. What I think is also equally intriguing is that at an account like Taylor’s helps people who might think of themselves as non-believers, or unbelievers, or something, make sense of why they’re not necessarily atheists, or why they don’t even really identify with that kind of binary. They still hunger for a fullness, as Taylor puts it. Their lives are still characterized by a kind of transcendence.

Even maybe they’re wrestling with a certain kind of haunting, that there’s something more, and I feel like when you try on Taylor’s story and account of how we got to this point, he does a better job of doing justice to all the ways that supposed non-believers are still kind of haunted by something other than atheism, if that makes sense.

Brett: Yeah. That makes sense. Yeah, he talks about that a lot, that we’re haunted by the ghost of a secular age. Let’s go back to this feeling, right? You mentioned earlier, we’re filled with it … The world of the secular age is filled with these cross-pressures, so it’s basically, there’s all these ideas, and they’re all contested and contestable. How does that play into what he calls the nova effect?

Jamie:  Yeah, so let’s pause for a moment on this metaphor of the cross pressure, right? What he would say is, in a secular age, nobody can take either their belief or their unbelief as axiomatic, right? Nobody’s posture, nobody’s kind of ultimate stance is universal. We all live on a street where our neighbors believe things, ultimate things, differently than we do. Nobody’s belief system or “unbelief system” is axiomatic and a default for an entire society. Therefore, everybody is kind of pushed, and pressed, and constantly encounters the alternatives to what they believe, right? You move in a world in which you rub up against stories, accounts, confessions that challenge your own way of how you understand the fundamental features of being human, and what the cosmos is, and so on.

Taylor says that leads to what he calls a fragilization of our belief, which is, everybody kind of … If they’re really honest, if they’re not sticking their head in the sand, they have to own up to a certain degree of tentativeness, of how they believe what they believe. It doesn’t mean that they don’t believe. It just means they’re always kind of around the edges, haunted by the alternatives, and so Taylor says that means no matter who you are, you experience this kind of cross pressure. If you’re a believer, let’s say you’re a religious believer, what that means is you are constantly going to feel the pressure to … Yeah, to feel the power of alternative stories, like the fact that an evolutionary psychological account does this really incredible job of explaining a lot of things, and you start thinking, “Man, that’s pretty persuasive sometimes.” You feel that pressure.

You might say that the believer feels the pressure of doubt, but what Taylor gets at is that in the same place, in the same way, the unbeliever also can feel the pressure and temptation to believe, and that’s this kind of cross pressure. What you get, then, the pressure scenario creates this kind of pressure cooker kind of metaphor or something. You’ve got all this pressure building up, and so instead of issuing in this age of unbelief, what Taylor says is you get this kind of explosion, a way of grappling with all that pressure, and you get a million different ways of believing. Instead of the diminishment of spirituality and religion, in some ways, you get the explosion of all kinds of religious or at least quasi-religious alternative.

That includes all kinds of religious expressions, but it also includes quasi-religious expressions, like eat, pray, love kinds of piety, or Oprah kind of piety, or-

Brett: Crossfit.

Jamie: Yeah, yeah. Sure. Absolutely. The way that people invest things in their lives with the kind of ultimacy about them is actually their way of getting a handle on this haunting.

Brett: Right. Here’s the interesting thing. We have all these different cross pressures. It seems like there would be a lot of tension there, but Taylor argues, and I think what your students were getting at when they said, “Taylor, just, he’s been reading my mail,” is that this age can feel very flat, and like it’s full of malaise. Why is it that we have this tension that exists, these cross pressures, but you can just feel so empty, and just meaningless?

Jamie: Yeah. It’s a great question. It could be that I actually think a consumer culture has a lot to do with that. That is some ways, this would be Blaise Pascal, is basically what society does is gives us a million different ways to be distracted so we’re not haunted, right? You basically, you sort of spend your way out of … Think of the million ways that we are offered to be distracted, precisely so that you don’t ever have to sit quietly in a room, and feel the cross pressure. I think a consumer society offers us a million outs from feeling that existential pressure, which then issues in that kind of malaise, right? You’re sort of numbing yourself. This is the world that David Foster Wallace is always describing.

Maybe the malaise can also come from the fact that we’ve come up with inadequate ways of really doing justice to the cross pressures, right? At the end of the day, Taylor feels like we need to probably be more honest that it’s not just that we’re haunted by a ghost. It’s that there’s someone there knocking, right, that there’s something on the door, and we might be trying to repress that, which would breed some of that malaise. I don’t know if that’s an adequate account, but that would be part of it, I think.

Brett: Part of it, and you mentioned David Foster Wallace, a writer of the gospel of the secular age, who’s kind of been able to grasp, and articulate what it feels like. Are there any other movies or writers who do a really good job at describing what it feels like to live in the secular age?

Jamie: Yeah. That’s a great question. It’s interesting. This is going to feel dated already. I’m getting old, but if you watch a movie like American Beauty, I think it’s this really interesting account which begins totally with the flatness and malaise of just typical suburban middle class life. It looks like Lester Burnham pierces through that with sex, drugs, and rock and roll sort of solutions, but that actually turns out to be totally inadequate. You get the Rickie Fitz character who manages to have a perspective on the world in which he sees beauty that is transcendent, and he sees it in a bag of dancing trash, right? He says actually in that one sort of confessional climax moment, he says, “That’s when I knew that there was this force behind things.”

It’s interesting. You get this real testimony to a kind of transcendent, smack dab in the middle of this flattened experience of suburban life. That’s one example that comes to mind. I do think Wallace is kind of my favorite example. Can you think of others that come to mind for you when you think of that?

Brett: I can’t, actually.

Jamie: In some ways, a lot of people make a lot out of the recent space film, interstellar kinds of films, which are grappling with a kind of place we have in the cosmos, and trying to do justice to this sense that there’s something more, something other. I could probably … Yeah. It’s a great question. I would want to muse on it some more to think of some alternative examples.

Brett: Think of some more. Maybe Twilight Zone? I always watched Twilight Zone. I’m like, these guys are getting some existential ideas when they’re being kind of goofy.

Jamie: Yeah, it could well be. You wonder if something like X Files … The interesting thing about something like X Files is, you’ve got the voice of enlightenment modernity in there, always trying to explain away the other. We probably always feel like we have to do that kind of dynamic in a way.

Brett: Right. Going on this idea of feeling, the feeling of our secular age, Taylor, and going back to Taylor’s idea of, he’s trying to create a philosophical history of the secular age, he talks about in the pre-modern world, so this is before the Renaissance, more or less.

Jamie: Yeah, yeah. Think before the promise of reformation, before the Renaissance, before the late Middle Ages.

Brett: Got you. He says that the self was a porous self, and that now the modern self is a buffered self. What does he mean by that, and how does the buffered self make it harder to believe in transcendence, or God, or something larger?

Jamie: Yeah, so the metaphor here, of course, is the porous self has all of these openings, right? The human being is this kind of … It’s an entity. It’s a being. There’s a sense of self hood, but there’s a sense in which its open to things that are outside, and other forces that can make these incursions. In both pagan worlds and Christian worlds, that meant you lived in this enchanted universe, where there were spirits, and forces, and God, and gods, and they could have these sorts of incursions into your life. On the one hand, that meant threat, right, so possession, invasion, that kind of dynamic. On the other hand, it also was grace, right, the infusion of grace, the in dwelling of the spirit.

The porous self was open, was vulnerable, which meant that the self could be both saved and helped, but also possessed and incurred upon.

Brett: Tormented.

Jamie: Yes. Tormented. There’s a very long, 300 page history he tells here, but what he thinks one of the key moves that happens in early modernity … If you’re looking for just a poster child of this, it would be Rene Descartes, that kind of, I think therefore I am sort of dynamic, where now what happens is, you get this emergence of a new idea of the self as contained, and that’s where he calls it buffered. Now the self is this kind of atomistic nomad that’s self-contained, self-sufficient in many ways, and is not vulnerable, right, is encased. Because of that, then, it’s protected, it’s no longer open to those torments, and incursions, and possessions, and so on. Which then makes it possible for that self to stop believing in God, and the gods, and spirits, and demons, because there’s no threat anymore.

What Taylor is saying is, you get a huge paradigm shift in Western cultures that makes it possible for something like atheism to become a live option, because you’ve really reconfigured what you think is at stake for the self. Prior to that, in that porous self, if you started to disbelieve, or if you believed otherwise, you were open and vulnerable, and you were kind of exposing yourself to danger, whereas in the modern monad, you’re protected from that, and so you can do whatever you want.

Brett: Right, so that’s the birth of individualism in modernity.

Jamie: Yeah. Very much, and it’s a very atomistic individual, which then Taylor says you needed to reconfigure your understanding of the self for something like atheism, or what he calls exclusive humanism, to be a live option of belief. Otherwise that would’ve been kind of unthinkable, because it would’ve been like a suicide mission.

Brett: Right, and he even makes the case that the buffered self not only makes it harder to believe in God, or gods. It even makes it hard to find meaning in personal secular projects as well.

Jamie: Yeah. That’s why he says, it was never going to be sufficient for “modern man,” the enlightened human, to just throw off religion, transcendence, eternity, because prior to that, every single sort of worldview, and belief system, even pagan belief systems, nonetheless invested significance in something like eternity and transcendence. If you just cut yourself off from eternity and transcendence, you’ve basically cut yourself off from meaning. What Taylor sees the real invention of a secular age is the attempt to forge ways to have a meaningful life, a significant life, that makes no reference to eternity, and no reference to transcendence. In a way, he thinks that is one of the most remarkable accomplishments of modernity, although you also get the impression from Taylor that he doesn’t think it’s very sustainable, and it doesn’t maybe quite pull itself off, which might be another explanation for that malaise.

Brett: Right. Another interesting aspect of Taylor’s work is how we came to the secular age. Like you said, he argues against this sort of secularization theory, that we got smarter, so we stopped believing in God. He makes the case that even reformations within Christianity actually help disenchant the word, not the word, the world, and create conditions for secularization. What’s that argument that he makes there, because I thought that was really fascinating.

Jamie: Yeah. It is an interesting argument. The ways in which the Protestant reformation, in very unintended ways, unleashed some of the forces of secularization and disenchantment, in this way. The Protestant Reformers were deeply critical of what they saw as the emergence of a very superstitious form of Christianity in late Middle Age Roman Catholicism, basically. The target of the reformers’ critique was this version of Christianity that wasn’t just enchanted. It had basically turned it into magic, this kind of superstitious magic, and they thought, “That’s not true to scripture. That’s not true to the nature of the cosmos.” Therefore, they sort of undercut that sacramental understanding of the world, in some ways, and in doing so, they really kind of unleashed the forces of disenchantment.

Whereas really what they meant to do was cap the forces of superstition. The Frankenstein-ish effect here was that the monster kind of outran them, and they ended up giving birth in some ways to enlightenment disenchantment.

Brett: Right, and a lot of people I’ve heard argue that Protestant, or just what we’re seeing, social justice warriors, or liberalism, is just secular Protestantism, using it.

Jamie: Yeah. In some ways, that’s right, and you can see what then happens is, that’s precisely why people invest something like justice with eternal signi … That’s the new religion then, right? You’ve got to invest something with this kind of full significance and ultimacy. If you’ve basically learned to be a flattened, secular liberal, you might be tempted to invest justice with that kind of place that God used to have.

Brett: Got you. After reading, and writing about Taylor’s work, do you think the depth of the secular age will deepen, or will change course as time marches on?

Jamie: That’s a great question. I’m not prone to prognostication. I think it’s always going to be a mixed report, and a complex affair. I do think one of the really important gifts of Taylor’s work is, he’s really trying to get people to appreciate how messy and complex the situation is, right? He doesn’t think there’s … He can’t pigeonhole stuff. My sense is, I think there will be some forces of secularization and really the kind of refusal of religious belief that are going to deepen and intensify. However, I think those could become louder, precisely because they’re a bit of a last gap. I’m going a little bit beyond Taylor here. I’m not at all convinced that the kind of exclusive humanist take on how to be human is really sustainable, because I don’t think it does justice to a kind of fullness of the cosmos that keeps pushing back on us.

I think we can already see some cracks in the secular in that respect. I think you can already see the certain failure of these accounts to do justice to who we are, and what we’re called to be. I actually see in the next generation or two a new openness to the recovery of enchantment, and there’s no going back. There’s no romantic re-pristination of where we were, but I do think that people might more and more sense the inadequacy of kind of flattened, imminent accounts of where we are. I’m interested to watch it, and that’s partly why I wanted religious communities to have appreciation for Taylor’s account, because I do think that there are openings and opportunities there.

Brett: Right. This doesn’t necessarily mean that this re-enchantment could be Christian. It could also manifest itself in, I think, paganism, there’s been a increase in-

Jamie: In some ways, that’s right. That’s right, and it would be a different conversation to then ask why or whether Christianity would be perhaps the best, or one of the more robust accounts of what it means to make sense of transcendence. That would be more apologetic kind of conversation. I do think there are renewals in Judaism, for example, that are happening, that also bear witness to that.

Brett: Your latest book, You Are What You Love, seems to provide answers, but it’s primarily directed at Christians on how to re-enchant our disenchanted, secular age. You start off the book arguing that the question that Jesus keeps asking throughout the gospel is, what do you want? Why is that such an important question to be able to answer in our secular age?

Jamie: Yeah. I love that we’re building the bridge between these two books, because I think one of the Taylor emphasizes and does a good job of is really naming the fact that people in a secular age, the questions that they feel are less questions of knowledge, and … In a way, they’re less questions, and they’re more hungers. How do I make sense of these hungers that I have? I think that actually resonates with Biblical Christianity. I don’t think the gospel is offered primarily as a set of intellectual answers to propositional questions. I think it brings us to an encounter with a person who is the lover of our souls, and answers to the deepest hungers and longings of who we are as humans. What I’m trying to get at is that human beings are not just thinking things, right?

Again, pushing back on this element of modernity, we’re not just thinkers. We’re not even just believers. At the end of the day, human beings are lovers, and I think Taylor senses something like that, and I think when you start the scriptures with new eyes, you see it all over the place.

Brett: You brought up this great example of this Russian film called Stalker. I think the question is that you can … Yeah, yeah. You ask yourself, “Okay, what do I want?” Then you say, “Okay, I think I know what I want,” but do you really, really want? You say this Russian film can provide some, that can teach us something important about figuring out what we really want.

Jamie: Yeah, so in Tarkoski… By the way, if folks have never watched Tarkoski, a lot of this stuff is available free online, and he’s also the one who did the film Andre Rublev, about the famous iconographer. It’s just a stunning, stunning work, but in this film The Stalker, very quickly, the interest stuff is, this guy brings these people to a room in which you get what you want, right? It’s this kind of magical, sacred room where, once you step inside, it’s going to give you what you want. As they get to the threshold of the door, the stalker basically says, the guy says, “All right. Here we are. Who wants to go first?” Both of them get cold feet, because they start to realize, what if I don’t want, what if I don’t really want what I think I want, right? There can be this gap between what I know, and believe, and think, and what my heart has learned to really hunger for.

That’s the tension that interests me. I think our loves, are deepest, most fundamental longings and hungers, are shaped, and primed, and directed by the practices that we’re immersed in, and they’re not just the outcomes of what we think. There’s a kind of unconscious force, or at least pre-conscious force to our deepest hungers and longings, and we might not realize the extent to which they have been shaped by cultural practices that have taught us to love something at that unconscious level, that is quite antithetical to what we believe on a conscious propositional level. Does that make sense?

Brett: Yeah. That makes perfect sense, and so this brings us to your idea of liturgies, that we’re surrounded by these liturgies. Liturgies don’t necessarily have to be religious. First, for our listeners who might not be familiar with liturgy because that’s not really popular in a lot of Christian churches nowadays, what do you mean by that? What is a liturgy?

Jamie: Yeah, so I’m actually trying to sort of recover and repurpose what is an old, kind of church-y word, but I’m using it in a much broader sense. For me, liturgy is just the shorthand term to talk about love-shaping practices, right? Think of rhythms, routines, rituals, that aren’t just something that you do. They do something to you, and ultimately, what they do to you is they’re covertly, and subtly, and implicitly training you to love certain goods, a certain vision of the good life. They’re aiming your heart in a certain direction, and if you think of liturgy in that broad sense, and I’m using the word liturgy just so that we can feel the religious force of cultural practices, cultural rituals, then you’ll start to realize that, man, there are kind of liturgies everywhere, right?

This is certainly not confined to the walls of churches, because there are all kinds of cultural rituals that we give ourselves over to, that are implicitly training us to love certain things as if they were ultimate.

Brett: Right, and you give the example of secular liturgy would be like going shopping is a great example of that.

Jamie: The mall is the cathedral of consumerism, right? The point here is, the way you learn to love something as ultimate is not because it teaches your intellect some idea. It’s because the rituals, and liturgies of these institutions and practices actually capture your imagination, co-opt your heart’s longings, and sort of train you to love something as ultimate in ways that are … It’s like the way to your heart is through your body, and so the mall is this kind of liturgical experience, which is … It’s not like you walk into the mall and they say, “Well, here’s the 16 things the mall believes, or this is what the mall wants you to think.” The mall doesn’t want you to think. That’s the last thing it wants to do.

Instead, it’s drawing you into an experience, a liturgy, a ritual, that is kind of picturing for you what the good life is. The mall’s outreach, its evangelism, is marketing, which totally understands that we’re not thinking things. It knows that we’re lovers. It knows that we have these hungers, and so what marketing holds up to us is not information, but the invitation into a story where some good or product or service is going to finally give you the happiness that you’ve been longing for.

Brett: Right, and you even talk about, there’s been research done where when people buy an Apple product, the same part of our brain that lights up when someone’s worshiping lights up when you’re buying or thinking about that Apple product.

Jamie: We all know the cult of Apple, right? I’ve got three Apple devices sitting here on my desk right now, and there’s a fantastic PBS Frontline documentary called The Persuaders, which is this … It’s PBS, so this is not a religious organization at all, but they do this study of how marketing works, and completely voluntarily, all these big marketing executives start talking about literally evangelism. When they wanted to understand how brands worked, they studied cults, and so the kind of religious force of brand loyalty, of how they communicate to the heart … If listeners are interested, Google it. You’ll find it free online. It’s a fascinating study.

Brett: As you’ve been talking, Jamie, about shaping what we want is through the body, it’s done through behavior, it sounds like you’re making an Aristotelian virtue ethic argument about training character, training the soul. Is that what you’re doing?

Jamie: Totally, and in that sense, you could say ancient Christian thought was already appropriating something like Aristotle’s framework as a way of making sense of Biblical intuition. Yeah. The conviction here is really a different model of the human person, right? The center of the human person here is not located in the head so much. It’s not located in the intellect, though that’s not unimportant. It’s just that the center and seat of the human person is located in something more like the affections, in what the Bible calls the heart, which is this visceral feat of our longings and hungers. Those are trained, and in there, you acquire these habits, and for Aristotle, virtues of course are those good habits, which are the internal dispositions that you acquire that make you inclined in a certain direction.

I just think it’s a very rich way of trying to make sense of human action. I also think we live in an interesting time, insofar as a lot of cognitive science and neuroscience right now is confirming very ancient intuitions about human action works, and that so much of what I do in a given day is governed by these kinds of habits that I’ve acquired, not because I’m thinking through all the options and then making some conscious choice to do X. I think there’s a lot of spiritual significance to thinking through that and appreciating that.

Brett: That’s really interesting, and you make the case, finally, in this book that for Christianity to thrive in a post-modern age, it needs to embrace ancient forms of liturgy and worship, which I think is interesting, because the trend you’ve been seeing in the church for the past 20 or so years is making church more pre-, or more post-modern, making it less church-like. Why do you think that approach misses the mark?

Jamie: I understand the impetus behind it. There’s a kind of missional desire behind it, which is, we don’t want people freaked out. We want people to sort of feel welcome, so let’s make … People don’t like going to old, stodgy churches, but they like going to the mall, so why don’t we make the church more like the mall? I understand the logic. Here’s the problem. What I’m saying is, the mall’s liturgy, the very form of the practice of the mall, is itself already a loaded game that is aimed, and oriented, and indexed to a very different vision of the good life, which is the consumer gospel, which tells you stuff will make you happy. It commodifies everything in the world.

When you sort of appropriate that form, and think, “Well, we’re gonna appropriate that form. We’re just gonna kind of put Jesus content in it,” you think you’re Jesu-fying the mall, but what you’re actually doing is commodifying Jesus. People who’ve been in that mall liturgy, who are in that practice, know, oh, everything that’s in the mall is there to make me happy. Oh, there’s Jesus on the shelves now. He must be there to make me happy. You’ve completely reconfigured the encounter. I’m suggesting that the robust sort of thickness of ancient Christian worship and spiritual disciplines is exactly the counter measure we need to those kinds of secular liturgies.

That’s not a fundamentalist point. I’m not saying, go hide out in some sort of enclave. What I’m saying is, precisely so that we can be centered in a Biblical story, you need the thickness, and, by the way, the embodiment, the tactile nature of historic Christian worship practices, so that the gospel gets into your bones, so that you can then resist the lure of these other practices. The irony for me is how much of contemporary Christianity is also then just reduces the gospel to a message you get sort of in your intellectual receptacle. I think the largely bought into modernity, and thinking thing-ism, and that’s been our problem.

Brett: Right. They’ve bought into the buffered self, right, that you’re sort of this atomized individual.

Jamie: They’ve bought into the suffered self, yeah, and they’ve bought into basically thinking human beings are brains on a stick, with emotional bellies. What we do is the typical service is, let’s stir their emotional, let’s fill their emotional belly for 30 minutes of motivist song, so that they’re satisfied to at least sit down for the 45 minute lecture where we’re going to tell them what to think, or fuel their intellect. I’m just saying that’s a really stunted, reductionistic picture of the human person, and that embedded in the ancient practices of the church is a much more holistic account that I think does more justice to who we are.

Brett: What does a post-modern, ancient Christianity look like at a congregation or an individual level?

Jamie: I don’t want to deny that there’s going to be a certain strangeness or weirdness about it, compared to the sorts of rituals that we’re used to in modernity, right? I actually think that’s its strength, because it sends signals about the strangeness of transcendence in a flattened, imminent, secular age. I don’t want to pick a particular horse here, but I guess I would say it would look like … It’s not going back to your grandma’s church. Do you know what I mean? I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about inheriting, say, the core of what an Anglican sort of vision of the church would look like, but doing it in a contextualized way, where you’re engaged in an urban environment, and you know who your neighbors are.

It’s sort of like a Catholic church in the middle of Ospen. It’s both ancient strangeness with contemporary relevance. I actually think its our strangeness that makes us more relevant.

Brett: That’s interesting. I think it’s interesting, too, is right now, we’re working on this series on the site about Christianity’s man problem. Across denominations, there’s more women and men sitting in the pews, but the few exceptions are Eastern Orthodox Catholicism.

Jamie: Interesting.

Brett: I’m wondering if it’s that strangeness, that embodiment, that vigorousness that the worship service requires is maybe appealing to men on a level that we’re not getting today?

Jamie That’s a great hypothesis. It’s not something I’ve thought about. I think anecdotally, I’ve seen the impression of what you’re talking about. There’s certain layers of gendered questions that we would have to sort out to really have that conversation. I think some of the churches that attract men are also ones that can be very intellectualist, right, and actually buy into thinking thing-ism. In that case, I’d be worried about how we’ve just configured male hood, manhood, or something there. Yeah, no, it’s an interesting thesis. Certainly there is a long history of men feeling called to a monastic life that was not … That was seen to have a kind of vigor and rigor about it, and the question was almost, are you man enough to do this life, not this is a retreat from the world.

Brett: Yeah, and so on a individual level, what would this incorporating ancient worshiper liturgy, what would that look like in a person’s life? You mentioned disciplines, like spiritual disciplines.

Jamie: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think it needs to have a congrega … It means having a congregational center to your spiritual life, and so it means sort of locating yourself in a communal expression of this faith, where you keep getting centered around the word and table, that kind of ancient Catholic expression. On an individual level, I think yeah, it’s the difference between thinking of discipleship mostly as intellectual content uptake, and imagining it as a way of life, where you are practicing these disciplines that re-habituate you. In that sense, the work of, say, Dallas Willard, and Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, classic disciplines of fasting, morning and evening prayers, the liturigcal calendar, I think these are all ways that are actually re-habituating us, not just informing us. Reforming us, not just informing us.

Brett: Right. Yeah, shape the character. Shape the soul.

Jamie: Yeah. Yeah, which takes practice, and takes repetition, and takes time.

Brett: Yeah, that’s the other I think problem that people have with modernity, this mindset that things can happen just right away, but Aristotle said no.

Jamie: Yeah, because if you know what you think, you just go to the lecture, you finally get the piece of information you need, and okay, I’m good to go. Except we all know that that doesn’t work. It’s taking seriously the fact that I’m more than what I think, which is why I need to learn to re-habituate my hungers and longings, and that takes times. It’s a workout of the soul, and you keep exercising. You can’t go work out for three mon … If you’re 45, you can’t go and work out for three months, and say, “All right, I’m good to go, right?” You know in six weeks, you’re right back to the flabby self that you were.

Brett: Right. Jamie, this has been a great conversation. I would love to talk to you for longer, because there’s so much we can talk about, but where can people find out more about your two books we talked about, and the rest of your work?

Jamie: Oh, yeah. Probably the easiest place is if you just went to jameskasmith.com. My publisher has got pretty much all the info that you would need on there. Speaking engagements, when I’m out and around the country, and stuff about the books, and articles, and things like that, and some videos that might help people get a grasp of the book, too.

Brett: Awesome. Jamie Smith, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Jamie: Thanks, Brett.

Brett: My guest today was Jamie Smith. He is a professor of philosophy at Calvin College and the author of several books. Today, we discussed How Not to be Secular and You Are What You Love. You can find those books on amazon.com. Check now. They’re really fascinating. You could find out more information about Jamie’s work, because he’s written a ton more, by going to jameskasmith.com. Make sure to check out the show notes at aom.is/secular, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com, and if you enjoy the show, I’d appreciate it if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. Helps us out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.

Last updated: November 29, 2016

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