Can We Be Spiritual and Not Religious?

Caroline Henley on David Zahl

David Zahl coined the term “seculosity” to encompass the everyday activities of the 21st century that attempt to replace religion. His book, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It, argues that although church attendance is down, the search for purpose, identity, and meaning in our lives is more ubiquitous than ever. The resulting abundance of ‘doing’ in our culture—a constant striving in work, in relationships, even in leisure—is leading us to anxiety, narcissism, guilt, loneliness, and despair. And he has the Seinfeld references to prove it.

The book’s chapter outline could also serve as our country’s value system: Busyness, Romance, Parenting, Technology, Work, Leisure, Food, and Politics. Zahl argues that each of these topics supplies a false hope that succeeding will make us feel ‘enough,’ or morally satiated. Each holds us to its own set of ridiculous standards, all of which set us up to inevitably fail.

These standards of success build into a ridiculous crescendo of the absurd. Fitbit advertises itself as the “sum of your life.” Parents comb over books on French parenting to fix their kids’ picky eating habits. The idea of ‘peformancism’ is explained with a reference to the sadism of Amazon—the company’s toxic work culture summed up by its employees’ own joke: “Work/life balance is for people who do not like their work.” In light of sin and death, the author argues, these distractions look not only damaging, but downright lame.

Americans have always treated work as a means to spiritual salvation; it remains fully hard-wired and exploited, not only in our performance reviews, but in all of our relationships.

Zahl reminds us that when we talk about success and failure in life, we are always talking about work, “which means that a job is never just a job but an identity. It is where we locate our enoughness, and as such, the spring from which our strictest pieties flow.” Amazon slavery aside, many workaholics slip into the round-the-clock schedule because they actually prefer it to downtime. A successful career creates the illusion of fulfillment.

Zahl introduces the burdens that follow those who make romance a spiritual endeavor. We are living in a time that mythologizes the ‘soulmate’—and this idealization of romantic love consumes us for good reason. “It is the closest most of us will get to transcendence in this life and, as such, is the single best approximation of salvation available to the human creature,” Zahl writes. Can any husband or wife replace the needs, resources, and comforts a person demands of a full community? It is a paralyzing thought.

With all the advancements of technology, Zahl zeroes in on our culture’s deep desire for distraction. The internet’s deep abyss can serve as an act of rebellion. With a phone in hand, no one ever has to be constrained again, and no one ever has to be made to wait. The chapter includes the author’s adventures in downgrading to a flip phone, an attempt to free himself from his own tech addiction. Zahl cracks when his car stereo breaks, and he can no longer listen to music on the go. He realizes his flip phone decision was also hurting his relationships: he sent one too many minimalist text messages that were perceived as dismissive.

Zahl is the founder of a nonprofit called Mockingbird, a Christian ministry that publishes a blog, a print magazine, and an ongoing booklist, and produces semi-annual conferences. I have attended many of their events since the organization’s inception in 2007. I’ve heard author Mary Karr speak on addiction, and minister and theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber on outsiders and outcasts. I’ve watched the “Resident Conference Magician” Jim McNeely pull a long handkerchief out of his nose in between panels. Zahl, along with the like-minded people at the helm of Mockingbird, is a master curator: Conference participants greet one another over farm-to-table meals, the tables are lined with twine and succulents, and, with so many Episcopalians signed up, attendees enjoy local wines and beers throughout the three days. Speaking of Episcopalians: the conferences are known for their “Episco-Disco” dance parties, led by Zahl’s older brother John, who was once profiled in a Vice article entitled, “This Minister Turned DJ Thinks the Dancefloor Can Save Us All.”

A few years ago, Mockingbird moved its base from New York City to Charlottesville, VA. When news of the “Unite the Right” rally broke in 2017, I anxiously refreshed Mockingbird’s site for Zahl’s grace-filled take, his on-the-ground experience.

“I am (we are) still very much dealing with the local fallout. I’m referring to the incredibly kind teaching aide at my son’s elementary school who was jumped and beaten because of his skin color… my friend’s daughter who is still in the hospital down the road after being hit by that car… my Jewish bartender friend who never in a million years dreamed he’d be waking up to shouts of ‘First stop Charlottesville, last stop Auschwitz’… I’m thinking about the battering ram-barricade device that the antifa so kindly left on our church property for us to dispose of.”

Which leads us to the chapter, “The Seculosity of Politics,” introduced with a scene from Seinfeld. Elaine is desperately in love with a new guy until Jerry questions his stance on abortion. The rest of the episode follows the bitter arguing and inevitable breakup of the once-happy couple. His point: politics are quick to divide us from one another, and too easily flatten, objectify, and alienate.

American politics are much more heated than they were in the 90’s, and Zahl knows this very well, with self-proclaimed Neo-Nazis marching through the same streets his young children play on. But Zahl is staunchly apolitical, a point he confesses upfront, while also anticipating my criticism of privilege: “Today, to claim you’re apolitical means that you believe yourself to be a person whose life isn’t informed and shaped by power dynamics—thus revealing that you benefit from those power dynamics to the extent you’re not aware of them.”

The author is more interested in the tribalism, the sense of belonging, the love and acceptance that political groups offer. Zahl writes that yes, voting and organizing do have meaningful consequences for individuals, nations, and the planet. His argument is that forcing politics into a religious endeavor, the crusades of which define one’s identity, will immediately drive anyone straight into the arms of self-justification. While certain civic activities are certainly worthy to pursue, the ‘right’ politics will never lead anyone to paradise.

I bristled.

There is a chapter in Seculosity that will serve as a litmus test for any reader. I’m not a parent, and I’m not one to boast about a busy schedule. But the idea that politics can never bring about full justice offended me. The message asks me to cede control. And there it is: the Gospel message that the author aims to relate. Any replacement religion will fail, because self-reliance will always fail; “a culture awash in seculosity is a culture of despair.” We will always use the idea of God to try and fix the world or fix ourselves, rather than simply enjoy our forgiveness.

But such an epiphany can be a tremendous relief. It’s a freedom that will allow one to pursue their passions, and when they fail, or let others down, they can hold onto a hope rooted in something deeper. That is why this book is so powerful in connecting the spiritual to the practical level. Seculosity defines the desperation of our current culture, a feverish yearning to live a spiritual life absent the sacred. Despite what we might claim to friends at the office, or to strangers on Instagram, our careers and our romances do not appear to replace spiritual fulfillment.

Caroline Henley has been published in Entropy, Mockingbird Magazine, The Outline, and elsewhere. She is pursuing an MFA in fiction at the Mountainview program, and co-hosts The Farm Reading Series monthly in Brooklyn with her husband. She is on Twitter: @crlnhnly.