Reviews of All Things Shining (Simon and Schuster) have got me ruminating again on the forms of religion today. The book, by the philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, explores possibilities for religious experience in our secular age. David Brooks brought the book early notoriety by focusing on “whooshing up,” the collective emotion experienced by fans at sport spectacles, as the authors’ paradigm of religious experience in contemporary America.
“Whooshing up” may demean the Dreyfus-Kelly argument more than it merits. To be sure, the collective experience of sports is very real and expresses itself in all sorts of ways besides the cheers of the arena: in jerseys and jackets, stories of heroes and collections of relics. To be fair, moreover, even if Dreyfus-Kelly do not distinguish the Super Bowl from a Nazi rally, collective emotion does provide one, limited mode of self-transcendence. As Wesleyan University’s president, Michael Roth, notes, the two philosophers try to evoke “whatever stands beyond us that requires our gratitude.”
Just a few years ago Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age, identified the “festivity” of mass events as an aperçu on the sacred, but he was thinking of pilgrimages to Taizé and World Youth Days, events already laden with some religious significance, different in kind from arena spirituality. They demand more of the participant: the exertion of travel, especially on foot, the burden of repentance and the challenge of taking on a new way of life—in short, conversion. It is the personal cost of such activities and the risk of transformation of character inherent in them that distinguishes them from the cheap grace of being whooshed up in a stadium wave. They place demands on the self in a way being a sports fan does not.
Another philosopher, the late Iris Murdoch, in a fictional Platonic dialogue broadcast on the BBC, has her character, Acastos, make the case that genuine religion transforms us. Religion, Acastos says, “is beyond us, it’s more real than us, we have to come to it and let it change us, religion is spiritual change, absolute spiritual change.” Being religious means “always looking further and deeper,” feeling “everything matter[s] and every second matter[s].”
It is on another issue that Murdoch differs most emphatically from the authors of All Things Shining. They reject any unitary experience and regard monotheism as a cultural dead-end. They want readers to settle for something more modest: relishing everyday enjoyments. As Michael Roth summarizes their view, “When we try too hard, we lose touch with the world.”
Writing off religion as “trying too hard” shows that the promoters of the new paganism do not understand religion. Orthodox religion condemns excesses of effort as in Pelagianism and scrupulosity. But being religious also involves a holiness that both refines and integrates one’s personality and one’s experience of the universe. As Acastos tells Socrates in Murdoch’s dialogue, “Religion is believing your life is a whole....” There is “a reverence for things—a religious person would care about everything....” Socrates reflects back, “So a religious person sees life as an interconnected whole, and a religious man would feel responsible for the quality of all his thoughts and experiences, even his perceptions....”
What is integrating and unifying for religious people is not some theological framework but their experience of holiness in others and the striving for holiness in their own lives, and through the prism of that holiness the overwhelming holiness of God. The antidote to nihilism in our secular age is not the ersatz religion of the playing field but the real holiness of flesh and blood men and women. “Deep calls to deep” (Ps 42:8).