The Magic of Secularism

Contemporary paganism meets modern individualism.

Alan Jacobs recently linked to a concise summary by Charles Taylor of “buffered selves” vs “porous selves.” The dichotomy is crucial to Taylor’s thesis in A Secular Age. Taylor argues that the essence of secular modernism is the transition from an enchanted world—which creates porous selves—to a disenchanted one, which creates buffered selves. Here’s how Jacobs puts it:

The porous self is open to a wide range of forces, from the divine to the demonic; the buffered self is protected from those forces, understands them as definitively outside of it. The attraction of the porous self is that it offers a rich, multidimensional cosmos that’s full of life and saturated in meaning; but that cosmos also feels dangerous. One’s very being can become a site of contestation among powerful animate forces. The buffered self provides bulwarks against all that: it denies the existence of those forces or demotes them to delusions that can be eradicated through therapy or medication. But the world of the buffered self can feel lonely, empty, flat. “Is that all there is?”

Sometimes this contrast is referred to as the difference between paganism and modernism. Paganism is a magical worldview, where spirits roam the cosmos, elixirs heal body and mind, and the self is open to the influences and effects of a whole spectrum of metaphysical forces. Modernism is the age of science, logic, and rational belief. Spirits do not roam, bacteria and viruses do. The world is disenchanted in the sense that it can be explained without reference to things beyond the material.

Almost everyone would say that we live in a rationalistic age. We are buffered against the superstitions of our pre-modern ancestors through modern science, medicine, philosophy—the heritage of developed Western thought.

Or are we?

Consider a thought exercise. Ask yourself this: Is the individualistic, self-determining, self-expressive ethos of modern society a porous worldview, or a buffered one? In other words, is “follow your heart” the logical sum of rationalism or is it closer to a mystical mantra? If you’ve read many books on this topic, especially books about identity, you probably got a good dose of “From Descartes to Nietzsche” history of ideas. These books argue that Western rationalism created the modern self. I think that’s probably true and as reliable a narrative of how-we-got-here as we’re going to get.

But here’s where it gets interesting. There is a cultural rise right now for actual paganism (witchcraft). In this Atlantic piece, the author and her interviewees frame the contemporary pagan self in explicitly fashionable terms. It seems there’s a seamless continuity between being a witch and “telling your truth.” Stay for the final sentence:

Now 38 years old, Diaz remembers that when she was growing up, her family’s spellwork felt taboo. But over the past few years, witchcraft, long viewed with suspicion and even hostility, has transmuted into a mainstream phenomenon. The coven is the new squad: There are sea witches, city witches, cottage witches, kitchen witches, and influencer witches, who share recipes for moon water or dreamy photos of altars bathed in candlelight. There are witches living in Winnipeg and Indiana, San Francisco and Dubai; hosting moon rituals in Manhattan’s public parks and selling $11.99 hangover cures that “adjust the vibration of alcohol so that it doesn’t add extra density and energetic ‘weight’ to your aura.”

…To Diaz, a witch is “an embodiment of her truth in all its power”; among other magic practitioners, witch might embody a religious affiliation, political act, wellness regimen, “hot new lewk,” or some combination of the above. “I’m doing magic when I march in the streets for causes I believe in,” Pam Grossman, a witch and an author, wrote in a New York Times op-ed.

“I’m doing magic when I march in the streets” is about a clean a summary of the post-Christian West as you could ever read. The porous theology of Wicca is transposed onto politics-as-religion, and the essence of telling one’s pagan truth is to become an activist. The only question is whether it’s the secular, political identity that is masquerading as a witch, or if the paganism is putting on an activist front. I think somebody committed to the Cartesian theory of self-expressionism would say the former. But what if it’s the latter? What if modern witches reach for political self-actualization precisely because the Modern Self is not a rationalistic creature but a mystical one?

There are clues that point me toward that theory. For one thing, the liturgical and creedal nature of social media culture strongly suggests that many in the contemporary West are becoming less shy acting on impulses and habits that are religious in shape. For another thing, the ecclesiastical personality of spaces like university campuses—featuring excommunication, defenses of orthodoxy, etc—reveal not so much a secularized public square but a religiously redirected one. Yes, in one sense formal religious affiliation is thinning, but in another sense, religious practices have arguably never been more mainstream.

I’m reminded of a great blog post a few years ago in which Ross Douthat flagged a feature essay in Elle magazine about a woman’s experience with mediums. Pointing out that irreligious Americans tend to show interest in things like spiritualism and astrology, Douthat argued that the best way to understand modern secularization is not as a negation of the numinous, but as an ambivalence toward it. I think that’s a compelling theory, and it stands as a challenge to Christian observers of culture to get too sucked into a “transition” narrative—from porous to buffered, from pre-modern to secular—without accounting for the ways in which human nature falls back into contradiction in order to meets its felt needs. As tidy and seamless as the line from Descartes to Disney may seem, there are complications along the way.

And one of those complications is the impure alchemy of many modern worldviews. If the dogma of modern paganism is to be “an embodiment of your truth in all its power,” then we should ask whether the porous selves of the witch coven are plagiarizing expressive individualism, or whether the whole time expressive individualism was actually plagiarizing the porous Self. It could very well be that the arc of post-Christian history doesn’t finally point toward the scientific laboratory or transhuman technology, but toward Amazon, Oprah, and activist witchcraft.

Religion Is Inevitable

Today I have a new essay up at National Review discussing why American progressives can no longer refer to themselves as “the party of science.” If the last few years have revealed anything, it’s that our ideological battles are inescapably religious.

Here’s an excerpt:

The inconvenient truth is that there is no “party of science,” just as there is no “right side of history.” All ideological tribes use scientific research when the result supports their priors and downplay it when it doesn’t.

There is a meaningful difference, though, between cultural conservatives and progressives. Conservatives, at least historically, have been willing to take their ideas above the rim of materialism, to argue against scientism and emphasize the transcendent and spiritual. For almost a century, arguably dating back to the Scopes trial, progressives have taken the opposite approach, forming an unwritten alliance with irreligious partisans of higher ed and instinctively deferring to science when it collides with faith or tradition. It’s not that one party believes in science and one party disbelieves it. It’s that only one party claims that’s the case.

Read the entire piece here. Thanks to the kind folks at National Review for the opportunity.

Doctrines We Lost in the Fire

The following is a guest essay by my friend Caleb Wait.

What does one do when their house is on fire?

Californians, such as myself, have to think about this question more often than most Americans. While there may not be one correct answer, one generally is inclined to salvage the essentials, whatever is priceless, and let the rest go up in flames. Easier said than done. In the recent Kincade fire in Sonoma, CA, 180,000 residents were forced to pack up their belongings and say goodbye to their homes. After getting to safety, some residents realized that what they salvaged in their panic was far from the essentials: folks have been recorded grabbing cucumbers, cleaning supplies, and bike helmets.

Panic is a strange and disorienting phenomenon. Per Mariam-Webster, panic is “a sudden unreasoning terror often accompanied by mass flight.” This seems to make sense of the residents of Sonoma. Likewise, it might make sense of those in the church’s history when faced with new cultural and philosophical fires, as it were: the East and West had different reactions during the Great Persecution in the 4th-century, Roman Catholics and Protestants reacted to Humanism and Voluntarist philosophy differently, and Christians today continue to react to the Enlightenment and modernism in their own ways. Some more successful than others.

Perhaps when Hume awoke Kant from his “dogmatic slumbers,” it was an awakening full of panic and violence, s0 much so that Kant salvaged the wrong pieces of furniture from the perceived fire of Hume’s project. The empiricist project that said we cannot reason our way to God or know anything about him, rather, we can only trust our sense experience and passions. Either way, Kant wanted to hang on to morality, a priori. And he knew you needed God for that. But do we need orthodox doctrine? While Kant left dogma on the kitchen counter to await the flames of modernity, we might not want to be so hasty.

Right Belief vs Right Behavior

While modernity is now old hat, it is no less easy to buy into the same dichotomy Kant did; that doctrine and moral obligation are irreconcilable forces. Conservatives and progressives both do this. For many, orthodox doctrine encumbers the ability to ‘just love’ one another. It gets in the way of caring for hurt people and it doesn’t do enough to combat injustice and oppression. For others, doctrine is used abstractly as a means to remove one’s moral responsibility. For the former group, what we believe and why is not as important as loving your neighbor; for the latter, doctrines are merely tools for demarcating who you can associate with and who you must make highly edited videos of, placating them as dangerous liberals.

However, what if orthodox doctrine is a primary way we love our neighbors? What if the implication of our confessions propel is toward our moral responsibility? In Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation, Peter Cotterell & Max Turner give the following summary about implicatures:

Language is interesting in that what is implied may be as informative as what is said…. The notion of implicature is of importance in the interpretation of utterances in general and of conversations in particular…conversations are governed by certain principles, amongst context-appropriateness. The actual words used in conversation might appear to run contrary to those principles. My wife asked me: ‘Are the girls in yet?’, and I replied, ‘The porch light is still on.’ Taken out of context the two utterances appear to be unrelated, and my response would appear to disregard both principles. However my response required an implicature which did not require to be expressed: ‘The porch light is still on, the girls would have switched it off had they come in, and so I can say that they are not yet in.’ The conversation principle that I should not include unnecessary information is observed and so are the two earlier principles (p. 47-48).

In light of Cottrell and Turner’s principles, we can see the connection between orthodoxy and orthopraxy laid out in several biblical texts.

Paul’s Theology of Love

In 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks to the kinds of issues an immature and multicultural church might face. One such issue is the matter of idol-food. Those who partake in eating idol-food without a troubled conscience do so because they assent to the truth of the Shema:

Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist (1 Cor. 8:4-6).

The ‘strong’ in the church feel justified in their consumption of idol-food since the so-called gods represented by idols don’t really exist, unlike the one true God. The ‘strong’ read an implication into the Shema which Paul grants; nevertheless, that is not the only implicature Paul reads into this orthodox claim.

In 8:6, Paul sets out to qualify some of the assertions represented in v. 4-5a. His goal is to help the Corinthians form a full-orbed understanding when they confess “there is no God but one.” To know God constitutes a love for God and a love that overflows in building up the brethren (8:1b). I am indebted to Chris Tilling’s helpful work on 1 Corinthians here. He summarizes that Paul reworks the Shema subtext from Deuteronomy in terms of Christ, and does so, “in light of the contrast between the Corinthian ‘knowledge’ and true ‘love for God’ in 8:1-3.” (Paul’s Divine Christology, p. 91).

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God (1 Cor. 8:1-3).

Paul then utilizes the Lord/Christ in the Shema (v. 4-6) to contrast its covenantal implications between God and his people against the rational Corinthian gnosis. The context in which the contrast plays out, of course, is in the case of eating idol-food. If one truly loves the one God and one Lord, one will build up those whose conscience is weak, instead of using their “knowledge” to destroy the other (v. 11).

1 Cor. 8:6 introduces Paul’s use of Deuteronomic imagery, which he continues to use as a parallel with the church, adding that “these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction” (10:11a). Thus, from 10:1-22, Paul moves back and forth between the current issues the church is facing and the issues Israel faced in the wilderness. After consideration of Israel’s circumstances long ago, Paul says, “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” (10:14). How does one flee from idolatry? Paul answers by harkening back to the contrast of the Corinthian “knowledge” and true knowledge: “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (10:23). To sin against a brother, then, is parallel to the idolatry of Israel in the wilderness.

Paul’s scriptural allusions, starting with God’s knowing of his people in 8:3, shows his work to weave the themes involved in the experience of Israel’s relation to YHWH with the experience of the church in Corinth. Tilling summarizes:

Just as Deuteronomy 6’s monotheism was susceptible to the destructive power of sin, by ‘following other gods’ (6:14), by testing YHWH (6:16), just as loyalty to YHWH was always threatened by rebellion, so, Paul’s argument shows, is loyalty to Christ, the one Lord of the Shema. By sinning against your brothers, you sin against Christ (p. 92).

Knowing Jesus Leads to Orthopraxy

While Tilling goes on to extrapolate the vertical as well as horizontal dimensions of sinning against your brothers and sinning against Christ (8:12) in the Supper, the point at hand is that there is a connection of right belief and behavior and devotion and understanding of who Jesus is. In 1 Cor. 8 Paul sees the driving force leading to proper love of the brethren as a true understanding of Christ as the Lord of the Shema. Which is quite striking, really. When you confess who God is, the obvious conclusion for Paul is that we must love our brothers and sisters. And if you mishandle the base facts of orthodoxy, you are prone to the same idolatry the wilderness generation was prone to. Those in Corinth know orthodoxy as lip-service, but they do not know orthodoxy for what it is: a way to know and love God and neighbor.

These themes are especially pertinent to those of us in the malaise of evangelical and modern culture. As Molly Worthen pithily summarizes, “Winning the war against modernism became more important [for the later fundamentalists] than illuminating orthodoxy.” We all know there is a fire of sorts, but we are busy debating what needs salvaging and what needs leaving behind. Some wish to leave doctrine behind, others wish to lock the doors of the burning building and leave the brethren behind.

This clarion call of orthodoxy is not a ploy for us all to just get along. Much more than that, we must take our confession and its implications even more seriously; so much so that when those of us who are tempted to use orthodoxy as a tool for demarcation in the culture wars, we must tell them to “flee from idolatry.” Perhaps then we can stand in the midst of our fiery furnace, demonstrating to the world that its fire has no power over our devotion to God and love for one another (Dan. 3:27).

The 4 Books You Probably Shouldn’t Write

What a writer refrains from doing is not a criticism of them. What a writer agrees to do, but does poorly, is another matter.

One of the hardest pills to swallow in this life is humility. Note that wanting to be humble is not a hard pill to swallow, nor is agreeing that humility is a positive trait. It’s actual humility that’s difficult, because actual humility is what puts me and you in so many situations of sacrifice, honesty, wounded pride, and generally looking very small compared to how we want to appear. And one of the truest things that can be said of humility as it relates to the kingdom of God is this: If you belong to Christ, you will be humble. The question is, are you going to humble yourself, or be humbled?

For Christian writers this couldn’t be more salient. The most common temptation away from humility in Christian writing and publishing is the temptation to write on topics that you are objectively not qualified to write on, but that you know would make money/look good/present you as a guru. Within Christian publishing there are a few “money topics” that are always selling well or going viral and, thus, always alluring to ambitious Christian writers to put two cents that they really haven’t earned. When writing comes from a place of literary thoughtfulness AND lived experience, it has a certain potency that writing that is merely thoughtful and theoretical doesn’t have. Writers, though, are often not the best judges of their own expertise, especially in an online writing economy that prioritizes speed and volume.

In the spirit of offering us all a dose of preventative humility, I’d like to offer four books that you probably shouldn’t write. Note three important words in that sentence: “You,” “Probably,” and “shouldn’t.” You probably shouldn’t write them. That doesn’t mean nobody else should. That’s the biting part of humility in the writing life: recognizing our limitations relative to others. You probably shouldn’t do it, although it’s possible you are indeed at the right place to do so helpfully. If that’s you, go for it. You probably shouldn’t write these books, not: you probably can’t write these books. If you have an ego like mine, you hear a statement like “you probably shouldn’t write this” as a dare or a motivational reverse psychology. But no, this is about should, not can’t. What a writer refrains from doing is not a criticism of them. What a writer agrees to do but does poorly is a criticism.

So, here are the four books you probably shouldn’t write:

1) Parenting

Parenting is hard. Really hard. It’s hard to do in the abstract, i.e., coming up with principles and strategies that make sense to a broad spectrum of people. It’s way harder to do in reality. The fruits of parenting take a lifetime to see. What seems like it’s working in one season will look imploded in another. This is simply one of the most intense, spiritually fraught, and difficult topics to be a reliable guide on, because the vast majority of us are still figuring so much out. You probably shouldn’t write this book. Who should? Someone who is on the far end of this journey, whose children rise up and call them blessed, and who demonstrates an ability to confess what didn’t work for them and where they needed help.

2) Why Group XYZ Is The Way They Are

This is a very popular genre of writing that addresses a particular group of people and does a deep dive into their psychology, motivations, beliefs, etc. Recently I was sent (unsolicited) a book like this by a publisher. The book compares conservative evangelicals to John Wayne and attributes their political and theological views to toxic masculinity, American nationalism, and fear and loathing of minorities. Sounds great, right? Literally the first time I skimmed the book I found multiple sweeping claims that were unverified, assertions offered without evidence, and, predictably, almost no member of this group interviewed or meaningfully interacted with. That’s par for the course with this genre. It exists to make non-members of group XYZ feel better about themselves. Don’t write this book. Who should? Proabably nobody, but if you’re a PhD in group XYZ-ology, have spent years listening to these people and trying to understand them, and can write dispassionately….actually, forget it. Don’t write it.

3) Marriage & Sex

You probably shouldn’t write a book on marriage and/or sex. First, see the above entry on “Parenting.” Second, what’s probably going to happen is that you’ll write with the assumption that your readers need exactly what you need(ed). You’ll be tempted to normalize your experiences in such a way that the book will be great for people just like you and basically no one else. Third, in order to compensate for your limited vantage point, you’ll be tempted turn this into a book of ideology. You’ll lean into the Facebook fights and Twitter outrage machines and forget to actually talk about these topics, because you’ll be so busy talking about talking about them. Who should write this book? Someone with a seasoned marriage and seasoned ministry, who’s talked to hundreds of couples and counseled in hundreds of different situations. And someone who is reasonably removed from the social media drama.

4) What’s Wrong with the Church Today

First, a caveat. There is some sense in which every Christian book worth reading is about something that’s wrong in church culture today. To the degree that a book is able to name its target and speak with expertise and care into a specific issue, that’s great. The book you probably shouldn’t write is a book that makes really broad claims from a really narrow perspective. What I’ve found is that Christian writers want to make their pet topics feel meaningful to everyone else, so they pepper their writing with grandiose claims. The problem with this type of book is precisely its appeal: It can be written by literally anyone and addressed to literally everyone. It is a toothless kind of writing. It takes years to discern whether what you think is “the problem with church today” is in fact “the” problem, or whether it’s a problem you’ve experienced in a particular way. Some of the most valuable books are also the least sweeping. Who should write this book? Somebody with a rich combination of letters following their name, and somebody with an ability to think specifically.

Jeering the Devil

I have a new piece up at The Gospel Coalition today on the power of sanctified laughter. With the help of Peter Hitchens and a very bad novel, I make the case that some sin deserves mockery rather than hand-wringing solemnity.

Here’s an excerpt:

I get why the suggestion that sometimes we ought to laugh at sin sounds errant, perhaps even mildly heretical. Shouldn’t we be killing sin? Isn’t laughing at sin what millions of Americans do during primetime TV sitcom hours? There is, however, a tradition in Christian thought that goes like this: all sin is ultimately absurd, and there are occasions when the absurdity of sin is disguised as seriousness, and on these occasions one of the best things steadfast believers can do is rip off the disguise.

Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal as they uselessly called out to their false god. Commenting on this passage, Matthew Henry writes, “The worship of idols is a most ridiculous thing, and it is but justice to represent it so and expose it to scorn.” The only biblical reference to God’s laughter occurs in Psalm 2, in which rebellion against the Lord and his anointed is met with a ridiculing mirth. Solemnity is occasionally an insufficient response to what is sinful and destructive. Sometimes the best response is to point out sin’s ridiculousness.

Read the whole thing here.