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Drew ChristiansenJanuary 24, 2011

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).

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11 years 5 months ago
Thank you for posting this piece again.  The last paragraph is really worth reflecting on.  This piece reminds me so much of what Karen Armstrong wrote about in The Case for God. 
11 years 5 months ago
Does one need religion to be religious? After reading Editor in chief Drew Christiansen's "Of Many Things," I answer "No!" if by "religious" one means "spiritual." What does "spiritual" mean? Certainly not "wooshing up."  Rather its the ability to show awe-filled SURPRISE at discoveries, the way little children do, with wide open eyes and  the "WOW!" expression, sometimes spoken! That's an authentic religious experience available to everyone and has nothing to do with an "arena spirituality" sometimes viewed as a "religious" experience in a secular age like ours.

Also linked to this I suggest is a reason why atheism is so untrue to reality, locked as it is in the prison of the inability to recognize, much less accept, the many "WOW!" moments of life. Restricted through self-imposed myopia atheists are unable to grasp the "ever ancient ever new" "WOW!" moments that try to set them free. What a shame, is freedom spurned! Opportunities to soar are offered - opportunities to soar beyond the touchable, to the Untouchable Who ever seeks to touch and be touched!

For the "religious/spiritual" person, truly  "Deep calls to deep" and in the cataract's gush little children play, wide-eyed and  gleefully, shouting as children do ever eager to share, "Come, let's play!" But the self-absorbed nihilism of atheism replies, "How childish!" They never get to know - that's really sad!  So it seems to me.
11 years 5 months ago

Briefly, a note to let it be known I did not intend to be critical of Fr. Christiansen's article which I consider to be excellent. So if my posting appears critical it's due to poorly expressed thoughts. 

Norman Costa
11 years 5 months ago
@ Father Drew:

"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."

Interesting thoughts and worth a few moments of reflection.  Thanks.

@ Bruce:

"...[T]he ability to show awe-filled SURPRISE at discoveries, the way little children do, with wide open eyes and  the "WOW!" expression, sometimes spoken! That's an authentic religious experience...".

"...[A]theism is so untrue to reality, locked as it is in the prison of the inability to recognize, much less accept, the many "WOW!" moments of life. Restricted through self-imposed myopia atheists are unable to grasp the "ever ancient ever new" "WOW!" moments that try to set them free."

Your experiences with atheism and atheists are different from mine.  Christopher Hitchens, himself, talks about the experience of the numinous with respect and validity.  

I have had many occasions to note the reactions of young people to their first real course in one of the sciences, usually at the university level and usually in one of the life sciences.  The reactions are fairly typical.  There is awe, and reverence, and incomprehensibility, and a sense of being overwhelmed with the complexity that seems to defy human (or at least their own) understanding.  There must be, so goes the follow-up remark, only an infinite God that could create something of infinite complexity.

But, this Wow!, and being awe struck is short-lived, especially for those who continue in a more in depth study of the science.  There is a lot, if not most, of this awe-full reaction to initiation into new knowledge that IS child-like without it being, necessarily, a religious experience.  

In my opinion, one has to be careful to distinguish between the Internet atheists, an extremely strident and most vociferous group, whose hatred of religion is pathology, and all the rest of the population of atheists.  This first group is a minority, and small at that.  There are many atheists who will describe their own experience of the numinous and transcendent.  Far from being untrue to reality, they will describe experiences of connectedness with all of the universe, that they describe as spiritual, and that inform their lives, and relationships, and acts toward others.

What I find interesting about this group, is their respect and acceptance of the 'holiness' they find in others.  They can rejoice when a Jew finds God in the study of Torah.  Similarly, the Buddhist can rejoice when a Christian finds enlightenment in the risen Christ.  

I think it is unfortunate that Catholics, as shown by the Vatican a few years ago, can be dismissive and disrespectful of Buddhism, as an example, by saying that it is not a proper religion because they do not have a God that is apart from creation.  Yet, as Karen Armstrong put it, when we try to understand the idea of Nirvana, it starts to sound a lot like the idea of the Beatific Vision of St. Thomas Aquinas.

You might be interested in a non-fiction piece I wrote, "A Scientist Goes to an Ashram for a Personal Retreat."  Part-1, Part-2, and Part-3.  It is one of a series of essays I wrote on psychological science.

I was very moved, recently, in a conversation with a priest who is a decades long veteran of the Church's ecumenical work.  He said, "You can find the Holy Spirit in the most unexpected places."  The theologian, Msgr Albercetti (sp?) says that when he is asked for advice on living by atheists, his reply is, "Be a good atheist."
11 years 5 months ago
Norman -

Thanks for your erudite reply to my posting, a multi facetted teaching yours,  that would require lengthy postings to adequately reply. I don't have the stomach for that sort of thing so please accept this sketchy response in conclusion.

Often as people get older they become jaded by the harsh rtealities of life and get embedded in a "Yeah!, Yeah! Yeah!" attitude. Thinking they understand or worse giving up on ever understanding, they lose sight that "WOW!" moments generate their own proofs and need nothing else. Really? Yes, really!

The remark by theologian Msgr. Albercetti to atheists, "Be a good atheist" is perfect - a good theological friendly slap on the back, exhorting in effect that according to Jesus, "Only God is Good" meaning that sooner or later in goodness we all come to God and through that arrival atheism evaporaters. There's a little bit of atheism in Believers and a little bit of Belief in all atheists. The difference is, Believers admit this, and atheists do not, which would immediately wilt atheism.

Yes, the internet brand of atheism is especially unreasonable, among which many list the so-called "new atheism. These people who put so much focus on reason, seem to be so unreasoning!

Finally, the other day in NYC waiting for a City bus, when one arrived I noticed with amazement the intricate workings of the mechanics on the wheelchair lift that transport the handicapped from the street to the bus. I watched its several moving parts all working together with precision to make sure the platform emerged ready for use. I'll be 80 this year had a "WOW!" experience watching the lift work, saying to myself, "This thing just couldn't put itself together - it had to be put together by someone with skill, with intelligence." It took a plan - hmmm, so Godlike!

Peace to you and all that's Good!

Norman Costa
11 years 5 months ago
@ Bruce:  Thanks.
Norman Costa
11 years 5 months ago

Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete is a professor of theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in New York, and formerly served as associate professor of theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family.

"Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero [9/11] - An Interview with Monsignor Albacete"

HERE, he discusses the "two faces of God" - the compassionate and the destructive - and his ongoing quest to reconcile the two. He candidly acknowledges that he recognized the ruinous forces of religion in those first moments after the attacks on Sept. 11. This interview was conducted by FRONTLINE producer Helen Whitney in the winter of 2002.
James Murck
11 years 5 months ago
Like infatuation signals the beginning of Love, so the "Wow" moments signal the beginnings of Spiritual awakening.  But it is the ongoing experience of Holiness that nurtures and sustains a maturing Spiritual/Religious sensibility.  I have, indeed, experienced such Holiness in the lives of people who would call themselves Atheists.  This does not make me want to become Atheist, for I have thrown my lot in with Christ.  Nonetheless, striving to see life and holiness through the eyes of Christ, I find no reason not to explore the holiness evident in any Spiritual/Religious tradition.  The axiom for witnessing True religion of any sort is, "See how they Love one another." - not just a beginners "Wow" love but the ongoing, persistence in travail, get yourself back up when you fall down again and again Love...
Norman Costa
11 years 5 months ago

Here is a wonderful interview of Msgr Lorenzo Albacete by Robert Wright.


Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, formerly a physicist, a professor of theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in New York, and president of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, is now national director of the lay movement Communion and Liberation. His essays have appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine.

Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete? - Hitchens and Albacete

Here is a "debate" between Albacete v Hitchens.  See if you do not sense a great personal regard for each other.   Before the scenes shown here, Hitchens lodged a protest, with great humor, because Albacete was being too accepting and not sufficiently disputatious. 


11 years 5 months ago
Jamez  - As I told Norman (Posts #4 #6 ) relative to mine (Post #2 #5) I don't like to do multiple Postings, but I find myself backing away from that preference because something you said in Post #8 makes me "itchy!" I have to write.

theism can demonstrate personal holiness. Atheists deny the existence of God the source of all holiness and as such they negate in their lives the theological vitues of Faith, Hope, Agape. So, how is that spiritual aridity watered?  How does it bloom?

I understand that atheists along with the rest of humanity possess natural goodness, all of us able to believe, hope and love naturally. This ability is, I think, part of our natural genetic inheritance, part of the human DNA which gives foundation on which the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, Agape, can become tangible, showing yet again, that, "Grace builds on nature."

As I understand it, the Three Theological Virtues are activated in Baptism, received in one of three ways WATER, DESIRE, BLOOD. which in turn synthesized what Scripture calls "Good Will." 

When an atheist has Good Will the kind of which Scripture speaks (atheists can have natural good will, not the same as that which comes from belief in God) then they cease to be atheists at least "in pecto" and becomes agnostic able to pray, "O my God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul!" Atheists cannot be supernaturally good and so, cannot be supernaturally holy. They can become so through belief in God. God is an equal opportunity provider!

I don't know whether I've clearly made my point but in  a nut shell, atheists can be naturally good, not supernaturally good and only those who are supernaturally good can emulate holiness as only God is holy, Whom atheists say doesn't exist.

God bless you and God bless atheists too as God is ever willing to do. No more comment,  
11 years 5 months ago
Having just read or reread a large swatch of Teilhard de Chardin's writings (ain't retirement grand?) I can only add that what may truly unite us is our future.  Staying consciously on the evolutionary path we both know and grow ourselves.  We advance ahead toward human fullness and constantly find God approaching us.  Someday  there'll be a great wave of all humanity experiencing itself as one.
11 years 5 months ago
Norman Costa
11 years 5 months ago

Some of us might want to continue this discussion (or add to it) over at "In All Things," with Father Jim's 3rd installment on "The Path to God,"  the path through atheism.  Now there is a great teaser if I ever heard one.
Also, Christopher Hitchens recently debated Tony Blair, former British PM, and a recent convert to Catholicism.  I'll go hunt it down and post the link if there is one.  I like these, not as debates, but as good discussions of important issues.

If you haven't listened to Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, above, you are denying yourself a real treat.

James Murck
11 years 5 months ago

As I see it, a Sacrament is the outward sign of an inward Grace, i.e. - the manifestation of a Divine Action that already is.  The Sacraments aren't something we do to make to God give Grace, rather they are a celebration that manifests God's Graciousness in our lives.  In a sense then, all are graced with the sacrament of baptism.  Atheist may not acknowledge that and perhaps then are less able to cooperate with such Grace but Holiness - being a natural skill imparted through the Grace of God is certainly present in someone who calls themselves Atheist.  God Transforms, people convert and the Christian Manifests God's Grace...  Manifestation is our primary tasks as Christians,  cooperating with the Grace of God to show the world the Light of Christ  through acts of Charity, Virtue, Justice and Love.  "See how they Love one another?" This is the greatest phrase a Christian could have directed toward the manifestation of his/her life.

11 years 5 months ago
Oh I love post #14 comment.  Thanks Jamez.  I think for a lot of people being convinced or believing that God truly loved (and loves) us first, is the problem, especially for those who have been hurt badly.
Bill Mazzella
11 years 5 months ago
"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."

Too bad Augustine of Hippo did not realize this. This would have helped prevent 1600 years of polemics, the killing of Christians by Christians and the Crusades. Unfortunately, this does not help those who are into empire because it will make them less significant. 

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