What Is The Future Of Religion? Essays & Opinions
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James K. A. Smith

The Future of Religion in a “Secular” Age

Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College

But if every faith is fragilized and contested, then unbelief itself is contestable. If the believer is haunted by doubt, the unbeliever can be haunted by faith. Even atheists might be surprised to find themselves tempted to believe. Despite the saber rattling of fundamentalists—whether Christian or New Atheist—the landscape of a secular age is a messy middle space in which we are spiritual but not religious. Our so-called “secular” age is a time characterized not so much by disbelief as an explosion of a thousand different ways to believe, where even atheists want to worship

So what makes ours a “secular” age is not that it is an age of disbelief but that it is one in which our beliefs are contested and fragile—and yet we cannot stop believing. The writer David Foster Wallace captured this point in his famous commencement address at Kenyon College:

[I]n the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

So what future would there be for religion in a secular age? Given the breadth of that subject, let us focus specifically on the future of Christianity in America.

Charting a future for Christianity first requires some genealogical work: How did we get here?  In this respect, Taylor highlights a particular strand of modern Christianity that has had a significant impact on contemporary expressions, particularly evangelicalism. Taylor describes this as a dynamic of “excarnation.” 

Now the term is deliberately provocative, running counter to a central tenet of the Christian faith called the “Incarnation”—the idea that God became human, taking on flesh. This is the reality that Christians celebrate at Christmas: that the eternal, immaterial God would condescend to become embodied, enfleshed, incarnate. This notion of incarnation is behind traditional Christian understandings of the sacraments—the conviction that material, embodied stuff mediates the eternal and divine. So in addition to the conviction that the human Jesus embodies God, Christians have also traditionally emphasized that creation itself is enchanted by the Spirit’s presence.

But one of the unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation, Taylor argues, was a disenchantment of the world. Critical of the ways such an enchanted, sacramental understanding of the world had lapsed into sheer superstition, the Reformers emphasized the simple hearing of the Word, the message of the Gospel, and the arid simplicity of Christian worship. The result was a process of excarnation—disembodying worship and religion, turning it into a “heady” affair that could be boiled down to the message and grasped with the mind. As I have described it elsewhere, religion was reduced to something for brains-on-a-stick.

The “spirituality” of the spiritual-but-not-religious often imitates this sort of excarnate religion, often without realizing it. Our self-help spirituality is remarkably “Protestant,” one might say.  Give us a few inspirational aphorisms, a few “thoughts for the day” to get us through the grind, a couple of poignant one-liners on the side of our Starbucks cups, and that’s the “message” we need to keep significance alive. This is spirituality cut to the measure of thinking things who inhabit a disenchanted cosmos.

Why does this matter for the future of Christianity? Because now that the whole world has been disenchanted and we have been encased in a flattened “nature,” I expect it will be forms of re-enchanted Christianity that will actually have a future. Protestant excarnation has basically ceded its business to others: if you are looking for a message, an inspirational idea, some top-up fuel for your intellectual receptacle—well, there are entire cultural industries happy to provide that. Why would you need the church? You can watch Ellen or Oprah or a TED talk. 

But what might stop people short—what might truly haunt them—will be encounters with religious communities who have punched skylights in our brass heaven. It will be “traditional” Christian communities—drawing on the wells of historic, “incarnate” Christian worship, with its smells and bells in all its Gothic strangeness—who embody a spirituality that carries whiffs of transcendence that will be strange and therefore all the more enticing. I make no claims that such communities will be large or popular mass movements. But they will grow precisely because their ancient incarnational practice is an answer to the diminishing returns of “excarnate” spirituality. 

And when the thin gruel of do-it-yourself spirituality turns out to be isolating, lonely, and unable to endure crises, the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd might find itself surprisingly open to something entirely different. In ways that they never could have anticipated, some will begin to wonder if “renunciation” isn’t the way to wholeness, if freedom might be found in the gift of constraint, and if the strange rituals of Christian worship are the answer to their most human aspirations. The haunting of the secular will be mutual, we might say. 

What Christian communities need to cultivate in our “secular age” is faithful patience, even receiving a secular age as a gift to renew and cultivate an incarnational, embodied, robustly orthodox Christianity that alone will look like a genuine alternative to “the spiritual.”

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