The social theorist Charles Taylor says that part of what characterizes a secular age is that there are multiple competing options for what constitutes the good life.
The sociologist Hartmut Rosa argues that modern citizens most often locate that good in optionality, speed, and reach, which creates a phenomenon he calls “social acceleration.”
Professor of theology Andrew Root explores the ideas of Taylor, Rosa, and social acceleration in his work, including in his book The Congregation in a Secular Age. While Andy largely looks at social acceleration through the lens of its effect on churches, it has implications for every aspect of our lives, from work to family. We explore those implications today on the show, unpacking the way that seeking stability through growth leads to feelings of depression, exhaustion, and discombobulation, how we collect possibilities while not knowing what we’re aiming for, and how we’ve traded the burden of shoulds for the burden of coulds. We discuss how social acceleration has shifted the horizons and significance of time, how time has to be hollowed out to be sped up, and how the solution to the ill effects of social acceleration isn’t just slowing down, but finding more resonance.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- AoM Podcast #238: Life in a Secular Age
- A Secular Age by Charles Taylor
- Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity by Hartmut Rosa
- Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World by Hartmut Rosa
- The Weariness of the Self: Diagnosing the History of Depression in the Contemporary Age by Alain Ehrenberg
Connect With Andy Root
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. The social theorist, Charles Taylor, says that part of what characterizes a secular age is that there are multiple competing options for what constitutes the good life. The sociologist, Hartmut Rosa, argues that modern citizens most often locate that good in optionality, speed and reach, which creates a phenomenon he calls social acceleration. Professor of Theology, Andrew Root, explores the ideas of Taylor, Rosa and social acceleration in his work, including in his book, The Congregation in a Secular Age. While Andy largely looks at social acceleration through the lens of its effect on churches, it has implications for every aspect of our lives, from work to family.
We explore those implications today on the show, unpacking the way that seeking stability through growth leads to feelings of depression, exhaustion and discombobulation, how we collect possibilities while not knowing what we’re aiming for, and how we’ve traded the burden of shoulds for the burden of coulds. We discuss how social acceleration has shifted the horizons and significance of time, how time has to be hollowed out to be sped up, and how the solution to the ill effects of social acceleration isn’t just slowing down, but finding more resonance. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/socialacceleration.
All right, Andy Root, welcome to the show.
Andrew Root: Hey, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So you are a theologian who has written books about ministering in a secular age. And I wanted to bring you on the show because your approach to your work is guided by the lenses of two philosophers, sociologists who I’ve enjoyed reading. And what they’ve done is they try to explain why we can sometimes feel discombobulated in the modern world, not only spiritually but just in our family life or work life. And these two thinkers are Charles Taylor and Hartmut Rosa. For those who aren’t familiar, let’s talk about Charles Taylor first. For those who aren’t familiar with Charles Taylor, what’s his big idea?
Andrew Root: Yeah, it’s a great question. And it’s a pretty hard one. In some sense, he has like basic big ideas, but then he writes 600, 700 page books just focusing on one of the big ideas. So I guess you would say his later work, though, he’s like 90 years old and he’s still publishing books. So the ideas are still flowing out of this guy, which is commendable in its own right. But the work that I’ve dealt a lot with is a book he has called A Secular Age, which he’s really trying to explore, well, like you said, setting this up, what it feels like to live in a secular age. And his big question that he’s really trying to explore, which takes up 770 pages, just one question, is why if you just, with a big round number, say 1500, in the year 1500 in the West, was it nearly impossible not to believe in God?
I mean, to live in any of the kind of Western civilizations, Western societies, you had to believe in God to function in the society. And then a short 500 years later, it’s completely flipped. And particularly outside of America, if you live in France or one of the Scandinavian countries, it’s much easier to not believe in God than to believe in God. So he really wants to kind of explore that big idea. And I’ve picked that up and dealt with it quite a bit is how do we get to this kind of society where this thing flips on its head?
Brett McKay: Well, for Taylor, what does it feel like? What does it mean to live in a secular age? Because I think we, everyone hears that idea and they might have their idea. It’s like well, you believe in science and not God, but Taylor had a bigger idea of what it meant to be secular.
Andrew Root: Yeah. I mean, he thinks… I guess this is what philosophers do and maybe this is why I’m addicted to these folks, is that they think that it’s very easy to have our thinking be misconstrued on what’s actually going on. And that that may make situations worse or may lead us to want solutions that actually aren’t much of solutions at all. And he thinks when it comes to secular, that we usually define it as fewer and fewer people going to church. I mean, just to be its most base, there are just fewer people going to religious communities, religious institutions are weaker, that’s usually how we think of it. Like I teach at a seminary, seminaries are closing all over the place, there’s open pulpits everywhere, my gosh, congregations are being turned into microbreweries. Like these seem to be the signs of what it means to live in a secular age and Taylor thinks that’s not quite right. That that is an issue, obviously, that that has happened, the statistics bear that out but really inside the kind of DNA of what it means to be a late modern person or live in a late modern society isn’t that people are just less affiliated. What it really means is that belief itself becomes contested.
Or another phrase he uses that I find quite provocative and interesting is he says, belief becomes fragilized. That we all live with this sense of a fragilization of belief. And that’s what it feels like. Like that’s what it feels like to live in a secular age is that you’re very aware that there are people living with different stories or different belief systems that are functioning okay. Or you’re very aware that you can go a long way without really even thinking about which one you believe. And one of the ways I explain this is you can even hear pastors and others say things like, “Well, I’m taking a break from God for a while.” And the fact that you can say that and that when you do say it, people don’t find it completely incoherent or like saying, two plus two equals 11 banana, like that it has some coherence to it, that you could say, “I’m taking a break from God,” and people go, “Oh, yeah, okay, that makes sense.” That’s what this kind of secular age is, that God becomes a kind of option, that belief becomes individualized. And even when we hold on to certain beliefs, they’re fragile and they’re until further notice.
Brett McKay: Right. So all beliefs, not just belief in God, all beliefs are contested and contestable.
Andrew Root: That’s right. Yeah. So even if your belief system is you don’t believe in God, that you do completely believe in a scientific universe, or you’re a kind of artist who just simply doesn’t think that there needs to be any theistic center to the world or anything like that, his point is, whatever your belief system is, you’ll find that fragilized too. So even if your belief system is that you don’t believe anything, that you’ll have… He says this very prerogative thing that you’ll have these moments where you find that unbelief fragilized and you’ll have these moments of believing. There are these moments where people are yearning for meaning and even when they don’t believe, they find themselves encountered or having, at least open to the possibility that there’s something bigger reaching for them.
Brett McKay: Yeah, Taylor thinks people have that inherent desire for the transcendent. But today in a secular age, there’s all these different beliefs, which he calls cross pressures, there’s all these different things that you could believe in, you can believe that, you can believe this, you have to ask yourself, “Well, should I go to church? Should I not? Should I find meaning in my career, or maybe the self help book?” And it can really leave you feeling discombobulated. And then before if you go back to the 1500s, people were just like, well, you just go to church and believe in God and that’s it.
Andrew Root: Yeah, absolutely. And those were unthought, like you couldn’t really even think yourself into that, you just, this was the way you talk, the way you dressed, it all kind of perpetuated this sense of belief. And I think exactly what you’re saying is really embedded in even his bigger idea, if you will, which is that human beings are moral creatures, that we all live inside of some stories of what it means to be good, of what it means to live a full life, and that we become a kind of evaluator of different ways of living. And the point is, in 1500, the options of having what he calls a strong evaluation or the kind of measure in the story of what makes life full and good, there was basically one. I mean, it was embedded within the church in some ways, or it was embedded within the Crown or the church as it related to you. But now when you enter into a late modern world, there seems to be all sorts of options that could deliver a good life, that could help you reach your deepest desires.
And so that is the cross pressure, is it yoga that does it or is it a Catholic form of the Eucharist? Or is it just the drive in the rituals of getting your kid into an elite university? Or is it hiking in the mountains, all these things are now, in some sense, relativized and similar and you have to kind of negotiate them, but you’re compelled to do so because you are a moral believing animal, you have to have some larger kind of moral vision that you’re engaging. And so he thinks this just becomes a different kind of way we do this now, that we don’t do it inside of just one or two stories that are given to us, there’s just a buffet table of spiritualities that we can pick from to try to live our most full life.
Brett McKay: Yeah, choose your own adventure.
Andrew Root: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s talk about Hartmut Rosa. Where does he pick up where Taylor left off?
Andrew Root: Well, he picks up exactly where we just left off. In many ways, the secularization project, Hartmut Rosa, who is this German social theorist, so we should say like Charles Taylor’s Quebecois, he’s taught at McGill his whole career for the most part, educated at Oxford but is a Canadian, is a Quebec Canadian. And that’s part of his story, is looking at how Quebec used to be really the most churched environment in the West in the middle of the century and then became one of the most secular in a very, very fast time, so that’s Charles Taylor. But Hartmut Rosa is a German and he wrote his dissertation on Taylor, and he really picked up this idea of what it means to be a moral creature, that all human action is based in these moral visions so that we’re always kind of searching for the good life. And we are never kind of, we could be passive in certain ways, but in other ways, we’re always active, our actions are always directed towards some vision, some horizon we have of what it means to live a good life. And so that’s where really Rosa picks up Taylor is trying to make this argument that the ways we act in the world are embedded in implicit, sometimes explicit senses of what we think the good life is.
Brett McKay: Well, in his book, Rosa’s book, Social Acceleration, he makes the case that one of the defining features of modern life is that life has sped up. What does he mean by life speeding up?
Andrew Root: Yeah, he thinks this is the most common condition of late modernity or really the whole modern project from the beginning is to try to go faster. That seems somewhat simplistic, but the more he talks about it, the more it becomes really quite convincing. So he says it’s just this continued speeding up, this continued accelerating process. So somehow, within our own imaginations, we get this sense that what it means to live well, what it means to live a good life is to live a fast life, if you will. This happens at the individual level, but also at the whole societal level so that there is this sense of acceleration in all these forms. When you hear his argument initially, you’re like, “Oh yeah, that completely makes sense.”
I mean, just look at our technology, I have to get a new phone every year, every two years because the technology keeps going faster and faster. Or we just think of the Moore’s processing law works where the microprocessing doubles or triples or whatever it is every 15 months. And it’s like, oh yeah, that makes sense. But Rosa’s point is it’s not just technology that accelerates, but it’s also our social lives accelerate in the sense of our norms and our moral visions, and then just the pace of our lives. So it’s just this constant demand to go faster and faster. And he thinks this is the inherent good that modern society keeps lifting up, that we have to go faster and faster, we have to do more and more. And this really frames our imaginations of what a good life is and even what a good society is.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah, this idea that not only technology is getting faster, technology is allowing us to do things a lot faster. So like you said, new technology is coming out all the time. With AI, you’re seeing that, every day you’re seeing some sort of new app that’s using AI. But then the technology drives social change, the technology allows us to do more in a single unit of time. So that’s why it can feel like it’s time speeding up because you’re doing a lot more within an hour because you can communicate with a whole bunch of people, email, do group me chat, you can shop for clothes and for groceries all within an hour. And that 20 years ago, that’s a day right there.
Andrew Root: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s what he thinks. We keep getting told by Silicon Valley or other kind of innovation hubs that these breakthroughs will give us more time and they’re time-saving breakthroughs and it never really works that way. Like, the more time-saving breakthroughs we have, the more even our refrigerators are on Wi-Fi, the more hurried our lives feel. And his point is what they give us is not actually more time, they give us the capacity to do more actions inside our units of time. So just like you’re saying, it allows us to multitask at an incredible speed. It’s really interesting because I think one of the things he wants to say is that what really draws us into this acceleration, why we can cede our wills to it in many ways, is because we think ultimately, though it may be burning us out, we think it’s good.
And one of the things that it delivers to us is a sense of reach, that we can reach the world more, that we feel like… And I think social media is a good example of this. It’ll be very interesting right now as we’re discovering and some states are looking at suing Meta because they know or they hid that it was pretty destructive to adolescent girls particularly and yet it will be really hard to wean our society off of it because it does give you a sense of being able to reach the world, to have your tweet or your post get out there and connect with all of these people. And we still feel like that’s good. So he has this kind of sense that what the modern world does is speed us up, but it also has this desire to give us more reach, to make the world reachable. And that is a good and that’s very appealing to us, but it turns on us and it kinda promises us something and then bites us pretty hard.
Brett McKay: Okay. So Rosa would argue that in modern life, the good that we’re looking for… So anciently, 1,500 years ago, the good would be whatever God ordains is good. Now, Rosa would say, “Well, no, actually we’ve replaced that.” One of the things that we’ve replaced God with is reach. Is that what you’re saying?
Andrew Root: Yeah. In Rosa’s, it’s interesting, I think he’s been very… Wow, I mean, I’ve used his work to try to make theological assertions, and he’s kind of surprised at how many other theologians are interested in his work. So unlike Taylor who’s just a very explicit Catholic believer, Rosa, who is a kind of German believer and churchgoer, doesn’t really talk about it much. So he doesn’t really get into what we’ve replaced God with, but he would say that our good life isn’t framed around a kind of transcendent quality as much as it’s framed around the way we can kind of optimize ourselves to be able to embrace and reach the world. So there is a kind of sense of a God quality to being able to reach the world in a way that we hope will bring the world alive, but he thinks that actually deadens the world.
Brett McKay: Okay. So by reach, we’re talking like we call it worldly success. You have a career, you have money, you could have reach or influence on social media with the Instagram followers, and that’s what a lot of people are looking for.
Andrew Root: Yeah. Like he’ll say one of the reasons we want money so bad isn’t just even for money or even for status, but there also is this appeal, like if you have enough money, then Tokyo is within reach. You just can book a ticket. If you have enough money, you could fly private. It allows the world to become within to make it have-able, and that is really appealing. And what you’re saying earlier is that no medieval person would ever think that that was even possible, that you could somehow have the world, that you could reach it in cross time and space so quickly to be able to, I don’t know, like kind of suck the marrow of its goodness out. But Rosa’s point, again, is that if we’re not really careful, this becomes a deep temptation that boomerangs on us.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And then the way we achieve reach, like we call imminent reach here in this life is by doing lots of things really fast, getting as much done as possible. That’s the social acceleration part.
Andrew Root: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. The winners will be the fastest in many ways is what the kind of modern assertion says, and Rosa is trying to show us how deep this is in our consciousness, how deep it is in even our structures in our society.
Brett McKay: Well, in your book, The Congregation in a Secular Age, you explore how the social acceleration that we’re experiencing in modern life, what it’s doing to church congregations and in individuals. I think it’s interesting looking at this at a church congregation because you can really see the effects on groups, not just church groups, but I think churches are like the canary in the coal mine for a lot of other social groups. And one thing you talk about in the book is that when you talk to pastors about their church and how their church is doing, they often say that their congregation is depressed. What do they mean by their congregation is depressed?
Andrew Root: Yeah, it’s an interesting phenomenon because this is the boomerang effect that Rosa wants to get to is he thinks, and it’s a very interesting perspective that I think he’s really right on about, is that all modern institutions stabilize themselves by growth or what he calls dynamic stabilization. So he says a company, in our conversation right now, a church, a denomination, a nation state, for goodness gracious, that it stabilizes itself by continuing to grow. And so a company only is stable if it’s growing by 15% or 20%. It’s only investable if it’s growing by 30%. And even every politician runs on, “I can grow the economy, vote for me, I know how to grow the economy.” So his point is that this dynamic stabilization is what holds us, what makes an institution feel like it’s alive. But he says it’s insidious. And I think he’s really right about that. So if your company, if we just stay at that level, your company grows by 30% this year, you cannot, the structures will not allow you to say, “Oh, we’ve grown 30% this year, how about next year we only focus on growing 5% and then after two years we’ll be up 25%, that’ll be good.”
No, if you grow 30% this year, then next year you have to grow 31% or 32%, so it never stops. The need to continue to grow and then grow more can never stop and if you get two years of plateaued growth or only 1% or 2% growth, then you’re dying, you’re dead and if your company is only growing at 3-4%, you should just sell your company for parts, like it has no value. And his point is that this just frames even our own individual imaginations and so first of all, I mean, that kind of dynamic stabilization finds its way into how we evaluate a good church. A church is a place that should be beyond the kind of corporatized dynamic stabilization kind of model and yet we also are tempted that the only ones that have a future will take on this very shape and be able to grow, grow, grow some more and keep pushing to optimize growth. But Rosa’s point is that there’s got to be a speed limit to that. It’s that dynamic stabilization that demands that we have to keep going faster and faster and his point is how insidious this is, is that not only do you have need to grow more, but you feel like you have to expend just as much energy, if not more energy to just stay in the same place.
If you don’t do that, you’re gonna lose and I think even at the family level, parents feel that, like we have to keep our kids involved in like 10 different things and driving them all around the state for different activities and if we don’t, it’s not even that we think our kids are gonna to be a first round draft pick in some sport, they just won’t be able to play middle school baseball with their friends. Like, just to keep some of the goods, you have to go faster and faster and Rosa’s point is, and he really is building off this Parisian scholar named Alain Ehrenberg who’s written this really provocative book called The Weariness of the Self, which is a kind of genealogy of depression. And his point is, is that inside this kind of push for continued acceleration, when you run out of energy to continue to try to optimize, to get more, to keep at where you are at now, that you have to do more just to stay in the same place, that eventually when you run out of energy you find yourself sliding into a state of kind of despondency and depression.
So he has this provocative quote Ehrenberg does where he says he thinks depression is not a ailment of unhappiness, but an ailment of change. In other words, the need to continue to change and change more and optimize that change sucks the energy out of us and when we can’t get enough energy to keep optimizing, we slide into the state of despondency, and that is where I see a lot of Protestant churches, is that they all feel like we need to change, we’re falling behind, we’re losing resources, our reach is less and less and yet that means they have to do more with less and they have to really accelerate and it leads to a deep kind of existential fatigue.
Brett McKay: I think people have experienced that on an individual level where you just think, “Man, in order for me to thrive in this world, I got to not only, I have to keep doing the things I have been doing, but I have to do even more.” And then you start feeling like, was it Alice in Wonderland with the Red Queen where you just like run faster and faster but just stay in place. And then it gets to the point where like, well, is it even worth the effort if I’m not gonna make any progress? If I had to expend so much energy, I just might as well just give up.
Andrew Root: Yeah, absolutely. And I think we see that broadly across society in many ways.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And so in these churches that you visit, like one church you talk about, it looked like a vibrant church. They were adding wings to the building, they had all these great programs in place. But the pastor said like the members just aren’t engaged, they’re kind of just checked out and going through the motions.
Andrew Root: Yeah, I mean, and it was that pastor who said this the first time. He was like, “If I had one word to describe my church, I would just say we’re depressed.” And this was a church in one of the Dakotas. And he’s like, “We’re still in the upper Midwest here. People still show up on Sunday mornings, but they’re just tired. And if there’s any kind of sense of pulling together to be community and kind of living together, there just becomes this utter kind of blank lack of energy. They’re willing to go through some of the kind of civic religion footsteps and just follow some of those patterns but when it comes to anything more than that,” he’s like, “There’s just no energy left.” And I think he was really pointing at how we feel as, at our individual and familial and just societal levels of just feeling that we don’t have energy to keep up, to stay in the same place, as you said.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And he also talked about the members of the church, no one feels like they have the energy to actually affect the change they feel needs to be done to keep the church growing, that dynamic stabilization going on. Part of the problem is, is a lot of these people at these churches, they’re involved in other stuff because, again, we’re in a secular age where church life isn’t the only thing that you look at for a good life, your kids are playing basketball, there’s clubs you could belong to, CrossFit you could do, et cetera. And so you talked about some of these parents, they expect that the church they go to have this really vibrant and active youth program, youth ministry but their kids don’t even go to it because their kids are playing basketball. But they demand that, they just want to know that their church has that there for them if they ever can make it to church. And pastors just feel overwhelmed because like, well, parents expect this, but we don’t have the resources to provide that for them because the parents aren’t there because they’re off doing other stuff.
Andrew Root: Yeah, absolutely. And this takes us back to kind of Rosa’s point about the good life where he says that inside this kind of accelerating mode, the good life gets framed as what he calls the AAA, which is availability, accessibility and attainability. So there’s a sense where all that you’re saying in the context of a family, it will be really hard to convince a parent in a kind of an unthought way, like not in a reflective way, but as a kind of reflex, it’ll be very strange for a parent to have a reflex where church is more important than, say, AAU Basketball or being part of the drama troupe or learning a musical instrument, because those things have some kind of resource value that can give your kid more availability, accessibility and attainability to the resources that they can cash in to live their dream, where being part of a youth group or learning Luther’s Small Catechism or going through confirmation class or whatever, those are good.
I mean, that’d be great if we could add that to our child’s life. Like, there’s value added there, but it doesn’t seem in a kind of tacit way, it doesn’t seem to deliver these resources towards a good life, it doesn’t seem to to really play the tune of availability, accessibility, attainability of these kind of resources that will help my kid live a good life. And what Rosa says, which I think is really informative for us broadly, is like we’re weird, us late modern people, we’re like painters who keep getting our easel set up the right way and going back to the store and buying new paintbrushes and then mixing colors and then mixing them again and then going and hearing there’s a new kind of paintbrush out, so go buying that and and then kind of moving our easel again. And we’re very into all the accoutrements of painting but what we never do is paint. So we want to give our kids all these resources, all of this access to a good life but we almost never tell them what it means to live a good life.
And so living a good life, the most content it takes on is, live your dream, whatever your dream is, go for it. And we’re driving all around the state for all these activities so that you could live whatever dream you want to in the future. And so there’s a kind of contentlessness of this. But there’s this accelerated mode of just try to accrue as many resources as you can and cash those in. And my big perspective when it comes to products and congregational life is that we tend to feel ourselves in a kind of resource desert and we often play the game of resources and then we’ll lose every time. And yet both Rosa and Taylor want to remind us that trying to play this resource game will, well, will give us more and more of an imminent frame and it will eventually burn us out and push us into a sense of despondency where it will perpetuate the imminent frame because it will feel like the world isn’t alive.
Brett McKay: We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. And a related point you make in the book is that the speeding up of time and the pressure to always be growing not only makes you depressed, it just, you just feel tired and overwhelmed. So maybe you wanna go to church or you wanna take part in some other organization or interest, but you just, you feel like you don’t have the time for it. People just feel like they’re busy, that there’s too many other things going on in their life. But you point out that if you look at time studies that people have done, people today have more free time than previous generations did. So people do have enough hours in the day, but it’s more like it’s a bandwidth problem, right? There’s so many options we’re thinking about doing, we just, we feel really tired even when we’re not doing them.
Andrew Root: Yeah. And you carry the burden of really articulating. I mean, this takes us back to Taylor a little bit, you carry the burden of living an authentic life that is measured by you yourself. So there’s this kind of transition that other social theorists that Rosa draws on particularly have talked about this shift that we used to live in a should based society, like you should follow the Ten Commandments, you should obey the laws of your society, you should do what your parents told you, you should follow your ancestors, but that really we don’t live under shoulds as much anymore. I mean, obviously in some ways they’re still there, but we don’t feel the burden of those shoulds anymore. But we do live under a burden and the burden has shifted into could. And people feel quite guilty not because they’ve broken some should, but because they didn’t optimize their could. “Oh, I could have, I could have been the one that started that business. Oh, I could have, I could have started that podcast. I could have finished the degree and look where I would be. I could have started the restaurant.”
I you know, I could have, I could have, I could have and they live under that kind of burden of the could. And yeah, and I think that’s really kind of where people feel just absolutely exhausted and really quite guilty inside of the fact that they weren’t able to optimize their could. So there is more time in some sense, but you feel more exhausted because what used to be kind of offloaded onto the should and inside the rituals and the practices of living in a should based society now all lands on your shoulders. And you have to figure this out and you have to figure out who you’re going to be and what your identity is and how you’re going to live your own life authentically inside of all the coulds that are before you. And how are you going to take more W’s than L’s on all of these coulds that you could make out of your life?
Brett McKay: Yeah. Kierkegaard would call that the despair of possibilities, all that coulding.
Andrew Root: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And then Rosa calls this feeling of, you know, this sort of guilt that you could be doing more with your life, he calls it time sickness. Is that right?
Andrew Root: Yeah, zeitkrankheit. I don’t know if that’s original to him, but, yeah, he draws on this concept of that we have a kind of a time sickness.
Brett McKay: Another thing you talk about in the book is that with social acceleration, it has been shrinking the way we think… It’s been shrinking our time horizons. And you talk about, there’s been these three shifts you can see throughout history which shrunk from intergenerational to generational to intragenerational. Walk us through that, in that sequence.
Andrew Root: Yeah. And as I understand, that is original to Rosa and it’s a sense that, being a theologian and putting this in a kind of historical sense of the church makes it, I think, sing in a certain way, but that we used to live in a deep kind of perspective of intergenerational. And now we say intergenerational and we think, oh, in a church there should be six year olds and 60 year olds sharing space together and reading the Bible or something like that. And that’s not what he means. He means we used to live with this deep sense that even the dead were not dead, but that they had given us these practices. So even a church that, where we buried our saints were right next to the place we worship because they were still worshiping too, as we at cross generations were waiting for the return of Jesus Christ, whatever. There was a deep sense that you were living in footsteps with your fathers and your mothers and your ancestors.
There was a sense that time was intergenerational. And if you were gonna marry someone, it was an intergenerational reality that way. But he says once the modern era comes, that gets shifted. So time is not kind of thought in the horizon of intergenerational, but it becomes thought of as generational. In the example I use in the book is Kennedy’s speeches in the 1960s are like, ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country, essentially saying in your generation, in your generation, in your lifetime, what can you do for your country? Or when he says we’re going to put a man on the moon, he means we’re going to do this in this generation, where someone in intergenerational time, there would be a kind of apocalyptic, eschatological longing for what will be. But no, now it needs to happen now. And that makes sense because we’re now citizens, we’re citizens who will vote and it will be important what we do with our lifetime.
And part of my point is, like the institutional structures we have, particularly within Protestantism, but I think within all kind of Christian life, is really built for generational time, like particularly the mainline denomination, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, all their structures are built for generational time, that you will get married fairly young, that you will have basically one job, that you will have one partner and that your kids will grow up, go to high school and that kind of basic 1950s, 1960s life that you’ll have that as a generational experience. But Rosa’s point is we now enter into a time towards the very end of the 20th century, into the 21st century, where we do kind of think you can live more lifetimes than one, that people do. I mean, it’s rare now for people to stay with one partner their whole life, particularly even rarer to stay at one job their whole life.
In intergenerational time, like you work the same land that your father and his father and his father worked, now you quit a job and take another job, start one business and so you can live multiple lives. And my point is, kind of structurally, our religious lives are just not really shaped for this intragenerational, the fact that you can live multiple lives, that you can be living one life and then go through a divorce and move to Miami and have a very different kind of life. And that does really change our imagination of what it means to kind of faithfully be part of a church, a congregation, what religion is for.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I saw that intergenerational thinking. I went to a, there’s a monastery here in Oklahoma, Clear Creek Abbey, and went there to spend the night with some friends, read Thomas Aquinas. But while we were there, the Abbott took us on a tour of the grounds and he was showing us the cathedral and it’s like halfway done, the outside’s done, but nothing else has been inside and they’re still working on other parts of the monastery. And we asked him, “Well, how long is this going to take?” And he just looked, he’s like, “Oh, about 500 years.” And I was like… [chuckle] And he just said it sort of matter of fact, but he had that intergenerational thinking and that was really profound. It was like, man, it left me thinking like, “What’s my 500? Do I have a 500 year project?” And I said, “I probably don’t. I probably should get a 500 year project.” And to your point about how things have shifted from generational to intragenerational, this idea of living more than one life, this, again, this is social acceleration, not only trying to cram more into our hours, we’re trying to cram more into a single life that we have.
Andrew Root: It is interesting to think about, even our building projects, that… Yeah, I mean, we really forget this and this kind of connects us to Taylor too, is that Notre-Dame and Sainte Chapelle, that island in Paris, they’re both built as reliquaries. I mean, they’re built because King Louis has Jesus’ crown of thorns. One of the crusaders brings Jesus’ crown of thorns back. And so they build these incredibly beautiful, massive, articulate intricate buildings all to house this holy thing. And we tend to build buildings for their function, not… And that’s how we justify the spending, not because they’re going to house some kind of holy thing, or it’s going to take… We don’t even, we’re going to start building it not knowing, like in Florence, how we’re gonna… We don’t even know how to build a dome that could actually cover this, but that’s okay because it’s going to take us 500 years. We’re now at a point where we think like, “Well, if this doesn’t have payoff in 10 years, or it doesn’t have payoff in five years, then this is a waste of time. Why would I wait that long?” It’s a very different kind of mode of what the good is and what a good life is about.
Brett McKay: And to your point that Protestant churches, maybe just all churches in general, aren’t set up for this new timeframe of intragenerational time horizon. Some of them have tried to accommodate that. So I think I’ve seen some of these mega churches where they’ll have small life groups that are based on affinities. So it’s like, here’s mountain bikers who love Jesus or here’s CrossFitters who do this. So you’re able to capture someone at a moment in their life and then if they move on to something else, you’ll still be able to get them but it’s not working out for them ’cause I guess the wider business world is more effective at that.
Andrew Root: Yeah, I think that’s right. And it had, kind of in classic kind of frameworks, evangelicals have done far better than mainline at being able to address those realities. And I particularly think mainline Christianity just isn’t set up for that, but we have seen, and as you point to at the end there, is that even evangelical congregations, there’s a certain theological problem that comes to bear when we do that, when we kind of turn things into small groups that are based on affinities, there’s a certain sense, a certain logic that we can see to that the gospel itself is an idea amongst other ideas.
So to take us back to Charles Taylor, the problem with it is there’s a certain cultural sensitivity, there’s a certain missional impulse that’s right on, but it tends to say that, well, you’re searching for purpose and whether it’s Jesus or whether it’s hiking or mountain biking or whatever it might be, fantasy football, they’re all essentially the same but we just think… They’re all on the table of the buffet, we just think that Jesus will really fill you, Jesus will really be the right one but you have to start by relativizing the gospel to just one other kind of spirituality amongst other spiritualities and really have it play in the kind of cadence of one idea amongst other ideas. And that has its own kind of theological problems that have unfortunately come home to roost in a lot of those communities.
Brett McKay: Connected to this intergenerational, generational, intragenerational time horizon, you talk about we’ve had three big shifts of concepts of our time. And the first idea of time that we had up until about 1500 was this idea of sacred time. What did sacred time look and feel like?
Andrew Root: Yeah. Well, at its most sacred, time just felt like it was full of something significant, that there was this deep sense that first of all, was ordered by God, that God was the one who set sacred time an order. It divided our work between those who prayed, those who killed, and then those who worked the land really, so you either could be a peasant, you could be a knight or you could be a monk in its broadest form, but there was the sense within the sacred that time became full, that it couldn’t be accelerated, was too heavy to be accelerated, it was full of significance, it was full of purpose, and it was ultimately full of very reflections of divine being and divine act.
Brett McKay: Then what came after sacred time?
Andrew Root: Well, I think what ultimately happens, and I guess this is kind of Rosa’s point, is that the modern project really wants to hollow out time from being sacred, and this is where I would put where Taylor’s secularization project and Rosa’s start to really mutually feed each other, is that there’s the sense that time has to be hollowed out so it can be sped up. And what it needs to be hollowed out from is any defined significance, God becomes a private reality that maybe you hold, but in a larger societal form, that isn’t there anymore. So there is a sense where instead of the church keeping time, that it becomes something like the state keeps time and time really becomes about the kind of acceleration of having a society where we the people decide the shape of it, not that we have to feel like we have to mirror the divine reality now in our human society.
Brett McKay: Okay. So the nation state takes over from the church, but then you are, and Hartmut argues that another entity has taken over our time, and that’s Silicon Valley. How did silicon Valley become the timekeeper for us?
Andrew Root: Yeah, and I actually don’t know if Rosa would agree with this or not. This is probably more me than him, I mean, the progressive move, I think, is him, but I do see that there is the sense that someone has to keep time for us, and where the church used to keep time and then the state keeps time, but really the post-1960s, really the post-1968 was a critique that you couldn’t trust the state, that you couldn’t trust the state essentially to keep time, to hold the order for you, and that just means that you start to get a conglomerate of time keepers and it becomes kind of certain capitalist forms of life, the corporation keeps time or the media keeps time, or Madison Avenue keeps time, and that pretty much goes for a few decades after the 1960s. The ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s are kind of a conglomerate of different consumer entities that kinda keep time for us, Hollywood keeps time, but eventually I think it’s… I’m trying to make an argument that by 2010, maybe earlier, a little earlier than that, by the 21st century, Silicon Valley, it becomes the Revenge of the Nerds.
They take control and they really take control by taking everyone else’s business for the most part. And now we do kind of have this sense that really glues on perfectly with this acceleration, that Silicon Valley is the place where one can accelerate their lives and win at acceleration, and so now time really becomes about optimization and innovation and drives towards creativity and individually-based creativity and they keep time for us, they keep a sense of what it means to live well. And now everyone kinda has their eyes turned towards big tech as the people who kind of dominate. So even on the Apple TV+ Morning Show, the legacy media is being bought up by big tech people, by the John Hamm character who’s supposed to be Elon Musk. There’s a sense that now the most powerful purveyors of our culture become the tech giant, the tech founder.
Brett McKay: Right, so yeah, Silicon Valley, they’ve introduced one click shipping, next day shipping, you can get all sorts of information with just a click, you can do all sorts of things, but it’s speeding up or it feels like we’re just rushed and overwhelmed. And so individuals, they’re stewing in this Silicon Valley time, they expect things to be fast, frictionless, and so they go to their, could be their church and be like, “Hey, we need to be doing this as well for the church, it would be awesome if we innovated, make things frictionless, a good experience for everybody,” and they try to bring that to their church, and then you argue it typically doesn’t work out, again, ’cause you bring in this time sickness, like it’s just so overwhelming to keep up the pace that people don’t feel like they can so they just feel depressed.
Andrew Root: Yeah, and that the depth of the Christian practices can’t be frictionless. In many ways, at the heart of the Christian story is a deep friction, it’s the friction that what you need to save you is outside of you, you can’t optimize yourself into it, like the kind of friction-less, smooth dispositions that come out of the shape of Silicon Valley time make the gospel incoherent in certain ways and the practices of silence and prayer and confession and things like that seem antiquated and potentially problematic to the drives of identity acceleration.
Brett McKay: Right. So if you told a monk, a Catholic monk, “Hey, you need to innovate, you need to do more,” whatever. They’re like, “What are you… I’m on sacred time, I don’t really care.” That’s probably why they close themselves out of the world ’cause they wanna stay on that sacred time, but people out here in the lay world, they might not think that it’s worth going to church or even keep a church going if it gets below a certain amount of membership because it’s like, “Well, what’s the point?” A monk would say, “Well, no, the point is you just get together and you do the ritual, that’s all that matters. It doesn’t matter how many people are here and how much we’re growing.”
Andrew Root: Yeah, and that’s the complete opposite of dynamic stabilization, that for a monk, for a medieval priest, you do the mass, the mass is what stabilizes, that this sacred mass is what does that, not how many people show up. They would be worried if no one was showing up, maybe the devil had gotten to the village, but for the most part, what they think makes something worth doing isn’t that it’s won an audience, that it’s got reach and people are interested in it, it’s the mass itself is what stabilizes, that’s a very different imagination.
Brett McKay: So what do we do about social acceleration? Did Rosa have any ideas?
Andrew Root: So it’s fascinating ’cause we’ve been talking all acceleration and Rosa became known in the German press as the slow down guru because of this, his warnings that we’re going too fast, we’re pushing for speed and it’s a problem, he became known as the slow down guru. And at first he felt good about that, and then I think he started to realize something was unsettling about it, and what became unsettling is he realized that we do need to slow down. I mean, if you can slow down, slow down, but that won’t be enough, that you can’t confront the insidious nature of this acceleration by just slowing down.
And so the second half of his project has been to look at a very different form of action than acceleration that we might need, and this is what he’s called resonance. But he does think we still have these experiences, even in a modern world where everything is about speed and optimization, where we still do have experiences where we feel connected in, drawn in, and we just need to find those again and live with those again. He says, like this is an experience of resonance when we see a painting or hear a song or have a deep conversation that opens us up and that connects us and in those experiences, time doesn’t feel accelerated, it feels full. And so he wants to move us into this kind of action he calls resonance.
Brett McKay: So what are the factors of what makes up… What makes an event have resonance?
Andrew Root: Well, he has four of them and they do get a little obscure. I mean, they don’t get obscure, it’s just, it’s such an inexperience that we have that it’s sometimes even hard to describe because we just have this experience. I mean, he wants to say it’s like a conversation, a dialogue where we feel both spoken to and we speak. So he says there’s this sense of feeling connected and a sense of feeling efficacy where, again, where we feel called to but we also have a deep sense of being able to respond, and that’s not always a good experience. Sometimes you go to a movie, he uses this example often, and you come out of it just having cried through the whole movie, it was the saddest movie you ever saw. And someone asked you, “Did you like it?” And you’re like, “Yes, I loved it.” And you loved it not because it was a joyful experience necessarily, a happy experience, but because you felt connected, you felt like something called to you that was beautiful or moving, and you responded in some way.
So it has that dynamic of a kind of conversation of a calling response, but it also then has a dynamic of feeling transformed by it, that we leave the experience changed in some way, maybe it’s just by a degree, but we see the world differently, we recognize something in a new way. But then the fourth one is the most important one, which he wrote a little book to just highlight this ’cause it gets lost, is that the other reality of resonance, and this is very hard for us late moderns, is that it’s uncontrollable. And if you try to control it, it goes away. You can have semi-controlled experience, like you go to that movie and you hope that it moves you, but you can’t guarantee it will happen. Or like in church life, a worship experience is a semi-controlled experience, the liturgy is semi-controlled, but it’s not a controlled experience.
There’s no guarantee in any Christian theology that if you do this liturgy, God will show up, you can’t control it. And the same happens in a conversation with a friend, you can’t… If you go into it saying, “I’m going to get something out of this, I’m going to feel this way after this conversation,” there’s a good bet it will not be that. That it will be… It becomes instrumentalized, and that’s what he really wants to avoid, is the sense that our interactions with the world, and he worries that this happens in acceleration, they all become instrumentalized. In resonance, it’s an experience, it is a relationship with the world, with a piece of art, with another human being, with God that is beyond instrumentalization, it just becomes an encounter of a full relationship.
Brett McKay: Yeah. With resonance it would be like, CS Lewis says you have to be surprised by joy, right?
Andrew Root: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Like you just, suddenly you weren’t expecting it but it’s a grace, again, in the Christian language, it’s a grace.
Andrew Root: Yeah, absolutely.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And I think, yeah, you’re right, us post-modern, modern people, whatever you wanna call us, we think we can like, oh, you put this on a schedule. “I’m gonna have this great moment with my kid and with my spouse, we’re gonna create the best Christmas in the world and everyone’s gonna feel great,” and then it ends up being like Clark Griswold, like you tried so hard to make it happen, make the Christmas magic happen, but it ends up being miserable, and then he experiences resonance at the end where Santa Claus is flying over the house aflame, and he didn’t plan that.
Andrew Root: Yeah, it was uncontrollable, but this is like that Silicon Valley logic, again, it’s like, okay, we could make an app that could optimize and schedule your resonance experiences. Like, it will be a resonance app and then you’ll get on it and then you’ll get three hits of resonance a day and his point is it just does not work that way, you can’t control it. It is, like you said with Lewis, you get surprised by it, it’s an event of encounter. Again, you can put yourself in a kind of disposition, in a kind of place to be open to it, but even doing that doesn’t guarantee it’s gonna happen. And that’s hard for us, kind of middle class consumers is that we won’t even wanna go on our vacations and we’re like, “Will you guarantee me that this will be a great experience?” “Well, we went to Hawaii and it rained the whole time, we should get a refund.” Well, you can’t control it, it becomes uncontrollable.
Brett McKay: Okay, so unless you’re a monk, it’s probably impossible to completely escape Silicon Valley time, so we have to live our lives in a way that accommodates to it. Even your church life, you kinda have to accommodate. There’s a lot of people who are doing all sorts of things outside of church so you have to schedule things to sync things up with other people. We have to be efficient and productive, and I think Rosa would even argue that, you probably have to accommodate that to an extent but how do you find a balance with that and finding moments of sacred time in your life?
Andrew Root: Yeah, I mean, there is a way that Rosa here is connecting back and kind of echoing Martin Buber’s work, which I’m sure a lot of your listeners know from the kind of the I-Thou to the I-It, and I do think he does think that you are gonna have some relationships that are relationless, like with an airline, when you call an airline to change your flight, there isn’t a huge sense that that has to be a resonant experience, but we also do need to have the kind of relationships that are full of relationship, that aren’t instrumentalized. And I think his point is we just need to be in a position and take on the practices and really reframe what we think a good life is, that we might be open to those kind of encounters, that we might have the kind of eyes to see them and be drawn into them. So Rosa is a good Protestant that way. He doesn’t have the kind of Catholic sensibilities of Taylor, so he’s very much wants that firm, ordinary life. He just thinks that we lose the gift of ordinary life when our good life becomes framed by acceleration and he wants us to start framing the good life more around these experiences of resonance and discourse and dialogue that are much deeper.
Brett McKay: Well, Andy, this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about your work?
Andrew Root: Yeah, with the risk of performative contradiction, people can find me on the internet, I have a website that’s just andrewroot.org and people can find me there and, yeah, that’s probably a good place to start.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Andy Root, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Andrew Root: Hey, it’s been a great conversation.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Andrew Root, he’s a Professor of Theology and the author of the book, The Congregation in a Secular Age. It’s available on Amazon.com. You can find more information about his work at his website, andrewroot.org. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/socialacceleration where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast, make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives. And while you’re there, make sure to sign up for our newsletter, we give a daily option or a weekly option, and they’re both free. It’s the best way to stay on top of what’s going on at the Art of Manliness. And if you have done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to AOM Podcast but put what you’ve heard into action.