Thursday, Sept 13, 2018
Tags: Audio, CrossFit, Culture, Secularism
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Thursday, September 13, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Even in an increasingly secular age, most voters look for politicians to acknowledge something beyond politics
There has been ample documentation over the last several decades, and specifically even over just the last several years, of the growing number of Americans that are self-identifying as secular in one way or another. Many of them are identifying as atheists, even more as agnostics, but more than atheists and agnostics together we're looking at an increasing number of Americans who just don't identify with any religious affiliation whatsoever. For some time, they've been described as the nones, but more recently they're being openly described and labeled as secular.
Now, I think there's a bit of honesty there and accuracy because secularity is the very essence of the worldview that is represented here, but when you're thinking about the reality of the culture around us, a culture that is being increasingly populated and shaped by secular ideas and secular people, well eventually it shows up in every dimension of life, and one of the most important dimensions is politics. So you won't be surprised, for instance, that this Monday the Wall Street Journal ran an article by Ian Lovett and Erin Ailworth entitled Nonbelievers Seek Increased Political Power.
Now, that's really interesting. When you see a headline like this, it tells us that there are probably at least two to three dimensions of the story that will immediately demand our attention. For one thing, what does it mean that nonbelievers are seeking increased political power? Does that mean that they have little now, or does it mean that they have a great deal and want even more political power? Furthermore, how are you defining nonbelievers, and if the nonbelievers, as identified here, are taking political power, from whom are they taking it? Lovett and Ailworth report: "As November's midterm election approaches, nonbelievers in the U.S. are trying to build something that has long eluded them: political power. The proportion," we are told, "of U.S. adults who don't identify with any religious group rose to 24% of the population in 2016 from 14% in 2000, that according to research published by the Public Religion Research Institute. But," write the reporters, "their political influence," that is, the political influence of these secular voters, "has lagged behind." One statistic noted here: Just 15% of voters in 2016 identified as not belonging to a religious group, that according to exit polls.
So where's this headed? Well, as Lovett and Ailworth report, "A coalition of secular organizations is now determined to close that gap. This summer," we are told, "they kicked off a nationwide voter registration drive, which will culminate with a get-out-the-secular-vote campaign in the fall. Their goal," we are told, "is to politically galvanize nonbelievers around issues like separation of church and state and access to abortion."
Now, this begins to clarify the situation considerably. One of the most basic affirmations we make over and over again on The Briefing is that Christians must always understand that worldview is being invoked. There is a worldview behind every single human being, a worldview that shapes our understanding of the world, our most basic perceptions of reality. This worldview includes the master narrative that we understand is the story of the cosmos, right down to the story of our own lives, and eventually it is the structure of this worldview morally and otherwise that determines our understanding of politics, right down to the question of how we will vote in any individual election.
Now, as we shall see even more so a bit later, every single political candidate becomes a symbol of worldview aspirations and expectations. Furthermore, every organized political party is, just by the very virtue that it's organized, organized around certain commitments that generally are at least cohesive, to some extent, explained by Worldview. But just a few lines into this article in the Wall Street Journal, a couple of things immediately leap out at us. For one thing, we are told by the Public Religion Research Institute that 24% of the population now identifies as nonreligious or secular, but we are told that's to be contrasted with the fact that, in 2016, just 15% of voters identified as not belonging to a religious group. Now the data point there is from exit polling. So you're looking at a significant differential, a fall off of 9 to 10 percent between the number of Americans we are told are secular and the number of Americans who turned out to vote in 2016, so is this an underrepresentation of secular voters, or you might ask, are secular voters less motivated to vote?
But in the very next paragraph of this Wall Street Journal article, there's a clue as to what just might be going on here. Speaking of the effort to try to politically organize the seculars, the reporters tell us, "There's just one catch: How to unite a group of people whose common denominator is what they don't believe? And," the reporters write, "even on that point, they are heterogeneous: 16% of religiously unaffiliated Americans still describe themselves as a 'religious person,'" according to that same organization, PRRI. Ron Millar, identified as the PAC coordinator for the Center for Freethought Equality, said, "We don't meet every week. That's an issue."
Well, yes, we understand that is an issue. It is an issue that identity and worldview are reinforced by the fact that Christians, just to take one example, do meet together, that we are together in worship, that we are confronted by the preaching of the word of God. We are in the context of the Communion of the Saints, of the Fellowship of Believers. We are in a situation where our peer relationships and our ongoing conversation is likely to be shaped by those who also hold to our most fundamental, spiritual, and theological convictions. That's not unimportant, and of course, that is a significant hurdle for secular people who do not gather together on any regular basis.
Now, as this story unfolds, you'll come to understand that a part of the effort to politically mobilize secular people is going to require secular people to have some means of gathering together for the very same kind of process. But here's the problem, as we have seen over and over again for secular people: it turns out that being secular, as this Wall Street Journal article indicates, being fundamentally defined by what one does not believe turns out to be a major impediment in gathering together in any regular pattern in an ongoing way. Why? Well it is because not believing in something is a far less powerful motivator than believing in something, or for that matter, believing in almost anything.
One of my favorite sections in this Wall Street Journal article begins this way: "The Secular Coalition for America late last month held one of the first voter registration drives of the campaign at the University of Houston-Downtown. A few students were eager to get involved." One of them was named Jeff Cayax, a 19-year-old biology student. He said, "What they're doing is the answer to many of our problems—being inclusive to everybody." Now the reporters pick up the story, "But others were left confused about what the group stood for, illustrating a problem secular groups often confront." But one young person illustrating the secular predicament was identified as Ashley Amaya, an 18-year-old, who just moments after she was motivated to register to vote by this secular group forgot what they represented, and she said, "I forgot. It's like everyone gets a voice?"
It turns out that perhaps one issue here, not to make light of the issue, is that not believing in something makes it difficult to communicate quickly exactly what it is in which one does not believe, and even those who are initially attracted to the idea tend to lose traction as to what exactly is being rejected or not believed in within just moments of a conversation.
But the longer you look at this article, the more interesting it becomes because one figure identified as a freelance writer who was registering students, she tried to explain in these words: "We advocate for the separation of church and state in Washington. It's just making sure," she said, "that everybody, no matter what religion, or no religion, is represented." But then the reporter's tell us that this individual "rarely uttered the words atheist, agnostic or skeptic," and they said, these are their words from the journal, "part of a deliberate shift in messaging secular groups have made to focus on their political values." So that also tells us something. It tells us that these secular groups are at least somewhat masking or avoiding their secular identity in order to attract more people who would otherwise perhaps be drawn to their political ideas but offended by their secularism. That's an incredibly straightforward statement here.
So what might be the political goals, the specific kinds of policy concerns of this group that, to a greater or a lesser extent, does or does not identify itself as secular? Well, that takes me back to an early paragraph that I cited from the article in which we are told, "Their goal is also to politically galvanize nonbelievers around issues like separation of church and state and access to abortion." Well, another one of the points we try to make over and over again is to remind ourselves that there is no moral neutrality in worldview. There's no worldview that doesn't come down to moral judgments, and to one degree of consistency or another, an ongoing moral evaluation. In this case, the secular worldview represented behind this effort to galvanize secular voters lists as one of its major concerns: protecting what they define as a woman's access to abortion.
Now to state the matter just as bluntly as we must, that is not a value-neutral position, but that raises a huge question of immense worldview significance. Is the question of abortion integrally tied to a secular worldview? And that's where we really need to think for a moment because a good argument demands to be made that the secular worldview and the question of abortion are linked together. Why would support for abortion be tied to a secular worldview? Why would it be one of the very few specific policy issues even identified in an article like this? Well, the answer should become very clear to us.
If you really do hold to a secular worldview, a secular worldview which is tied to a naturalistic and materialistic view of the cosmos, a secular worldview that holds that there is no supernatural creator and thus there is no claim that human beings are made in God's image, a secular worldview that tells us that we are cosmic accidents in one way or another, whether that's a straight forward assertion or just a background implication, the fact is that human life is then robbed of any inherent, that is to say as theologians, ontological reality, a reality in being, real being, and instead it is a fiction that dissolves once the secular worldview is fully understood.
Now that leads to another very important dimension that is fully demonstrated in this report. For example, the reporters cite David Campbell, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame. He said, and I quote, "The fact that there's an awful lot of overlap between those who are not religiously affiliated and the political left makes them ripe for mobilization." Really interesting. What's cited here is an awful lot of overlap between those who are not religiously affiliated and the political left. That's interesting, but it simply affirms what we see in other patterns and that is that a secular worldview tends to be a politically and morally liberal worldview, and not by any kind of accident.
The quality of this kind of report in a major newspaper like the Wall Street Journal often also demonstrates a certain irony, which can even at times appear as a bit of humor. Implicit humor, perhaps. For example, this is how the article ends: "Unlike many religious groups, however, many nonbelievers have an aversion to proselytizing, which makes it harder for them to bring new members into the fold. Elizabeth Rose, a member of the Inland Northwest Freethought Society, was part of an Idaho voter registration drive in June. She had materials about her group on hand, but didn't hand them out unless someone asked. 'We're not recruiting. We've never done that.'"
Now, Christians thinking about that statement should understand there's a certain logic to it, and that logic comes down to this. If you believe that in a conversation, eternity, heaven, and hell are at stake, then there is a greater motivation for you to speak about what you know and want to help others also to know, but if your identity is more defined by what you do not believe, and if your horizon is more or less merely the next election, then it turns out maybe you're not really going to be driven by any urgent motivation to hand people your materials.
One final observation from this report in the Wall Street Journal by Ian Lovett and Erin Ailworth has to do with the fact that there is still a very documented reluctance on the part of political candidates to identify themselves as secular. Indeed, this is so much the case that, until just a few years ago, there was not a single member of Congress, either party in either chamber, who openly identified as either an atheist, or for that matter, publicly identified as an agnostic. But that's changed somewhat, but not very much, as illustrated by this paragraph in the report. "Last year, Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat, became just the second member of Congress in modern times to publicly call himself a nonbeliever. Mr. Huffman this year co-founded the Congressional Freethought Caucus, along with three other Democrats, because he said he had grown frustrated by the way some politicians on the right were using the Bible to justify their agenda." But the key words in that section of the article come down to the fact that evidently this new caucus, identified as the Congressional Freethought Caucus, includes ... Well, just taking this article seriously ... only four individuals.
So what does that tell us? It tells us, and this is extremely important, that there is still a sense among candidates for political office that they are likely to pay a price, perhaps even a very significant political price, for identifying as secular. Now why would that be the case? It is because even in this increasingly secularized age, most voters still believe that it's important that there be something acknowledged as beyond politics, even by politicians. While that might not be, and in many cases surely is not an articulated worldview principle, it is something of a moral or spiritual intuition, a powerful intuition, which explains, perhaps most importantly, what these secular groups are up against as they're trying sort of to mobilize sort of secular voters.
The modern cult of fitness: Why physical activities are a poor substitute for spiritual realities
But next we turn to an article that appeared in the website Vox, the headline to this article, How Fitness Classes Provide the Meaning that Religion Once Did. The article' by Tara Isabella Burton. But before looking at the article, let's simply understand that sometimes when you see a headline like this, the story that follows the headline is even more important than the headline. Sometimes the story is less important. In this case, it's really the latter, but to say that the story really doesn't justify the headline is not to say that the story isn't interesting. Certainly to Christians, trying to understand the worldview of those around this.
The point being made by Tara Isabella Burton in this article is that even in an increasingly secular society, there is still a spiritual impulse, which she argues is now sometimes taking the form of fitness classes, most importantly rather extreme fitness classes, in context. She cites research undertaken by Casper ter Kuile, a researcher at Harvard Divinity School, also identified as Executive Director at On Being's Impact Lab. "This group," we are told, "overwhelmingly young, progressive, and spiritually open, is still looking for elements of religious experience."
Well, this far into the article we are told that a researcher at the Harvard Divinity School is interested in how modern spirituality is taking the form of these kinds of rather extreme fitness courses and programs on the part of a population identified here in the United States, but also we could expect in Europe, as overwhelmingly young. Also, morally progressive. That might mean politically progressive as well, and spiritually open. But what marks them? Well again, the article says, "They are still longing for elements of a religious experience."
Now before looking further in the article, we need to recognize that this is exactly what biblical Christians would expect. We would expect, given the fact that every single human being is a spiritual being by God's creative act, that every single human being made in the image of God has a spiritual longing, whether or not the individual even recognizes that spiritual longing for what it is. What's interesting here is that we have further secular documentation of the fact that that spiritual impulse is going to work its way out one way or another, that spiritual hunger is going to look for satisfaction one way or another, and amongst this rather young, rather politically and morally progressive population, it turns out that extreme fitness is one way that spirituality may come to the fore. But as we shall see, there's not a great deal of spirituality in the supposed spirituality.
Ter Kuile argues that institutions like CrossFit and SoulCycle, just to take two identifiable brand names, "are offering their students more than just a chance to lose weight or tone up. They function," he argues, "like religions." In his words, "People come because they want to lose weight or gain muscle strength, but they stay for the community. It's really the relationships that keep them coming back." Now, wait just a moment. Here he's talking about relationships and community while trying to explain how this is a manifestation of a spiritual hunger.
What does that tell us? Well, in one sense it's a warning. It's the kind of warning that we can see realized as a danger in denominations and churches affiliated with Liberal Protestantism. If all you really offer is relationships and community, eventually someone can find relationships and community elsewhere. They don't need your church. What makes the church the church is a truth claim. It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a set of doctrinal convictions that are passionately held. It is the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is community that is established in our common redemption in Christ and our common confession of the Christian faith, which is to say we should expect that that kind of community and those kinds of relationships are going to last long after the kind of relationships established, and something claimed to be spiritual, like CrossFit, will disappear.
As we think of demographics, a very important sentence in this article is this. "At up to $40 a class, places like SoulCycle and CrossFit often cater to a particular demographic: urban millennials with high paying jobs and disposable incomes, the same group," says this article, "that tends to identify as religiously unaffiliated." Well, there's another very interesting worldview issue we need to look at closely. It turns out that the more educated and the wealthier one is, the closer one gets, as we have often seen, to a college campus or to a major city or to the two coasts, the closer you get to a young, politically liberal population, the more likely you are to find secular people. It turns out that they also have the disposable income for expensive programs such as CrossFit and SoulCycle, especially in major metropolitan areas.
One of the stranger aspects of this article at Vox is the fact that the embodiment of this kind of experience at CrossFit or SoulCycle is claimed to be a very important part of the proposed spiritual dimension. A statement by Casper ter Kuile is this: "The body feels like one of the last vestiges of how we can actually access spirituality. So much of our culture is so rational about how to think about every area of our life. The death of God movement," he said, "has made it very difficult to engage belief for a lot of people, and the body feels like one of the last vestiges of how we can actually access spirituality. It's beyond language," he said. "There's nothing we can react to, like, 'I don't like this 'God' word' or 'this word is oppressive' or 'this word is traumatic.' When we're in our bodies, it feels like the most direct link to our spiritual experience."
Now a part of what's reflected here is the basically eastward direction, that is Asian direction, in worldview that is represented by so many of these fitness programs and by so much of modern meditation and what's claimed as modern spirituality, but this is where Christian's should recoil almost instinctively at this kind of suggestion that our major way of communicating and contacting, making a manifestation of the spiritual, is our bodies.
But when you think about it, this does help to explain the cult of fitness, the religion of health, that is found throughout so much of the more secular sectors of American society. And again, this is where Christians should have an immediate reflex to know there's a major problem when we read a sentence such as: "The body feels like one of the last vestiges of how we can actually access spirituality. It's beyond language." Casper ter Kuile then goes on to tell us about all the God language that might be offensive, but says the body doesn't require that kind of language, but this is where Christians understand that we are dependent for our worldview, not on any kind of realization that comes from looking within, much less to experiencing our bodies, but rather to revelation that is addressed to us from without.
In a world filled with people created in God’s image, no worldview, no culture, and no individual exists as an island
But finally I turned to yet another article on a spiritual theme that appeared in the pages of the Wall Street Journal just a few days ago. An article by Kwame Anthony Appiah entitled Cultural Borrowing Is Great; The Problem Is Disrespect. Here's the subtitle though: "Who owns yoga—or 'talking black' or Samurai regalia? No one, but that doesn't mean it's OK to use them in ways that ridicule or exploit the cultures they come from."
So Kwame Anthony Appiah, who by the way is a professor of philosophy and law in New York University and a very well known philosopher and writer these days, he tells us that borrowing from other cultures is not wrong, so long as it is respectful, but borrowing that is disrespectful is morally wrong. Now, this comes in the midst of all kinds of conversation, especially on the cultural left, about the danger of what's now defined as cultural appropriation, which is often actually alleged as cultural misappropriation. The argument is that it's wrong to borrow food, music, culture, all kinds of artifacts from another society and another tradition because that is simply stealing from them. Arguments like this have come down to questioning, who can really open a Mexican restaurant? Only Mexicans, or it's cultural appropriation. Who can sing certain music? Only those from the culture or the ethnic group from which the music emerged.
But as Kwame Anthony Appiah points out, this is actually a losing argument, primarily because, in virtually every culture you can find these days, certainly the cultures producing most of the mass culture in a global context, there's already so much borrowing it's almost impossible to say who originated anything, who took something from whom. But as one who has spoken and written a great deal about the inherent theological issues involved in yoga, especially understanding the explicitly Hindu roots of yoga, it is interesting to wonder how so many people who will claim themselves absolutely opposed to cultural appropriation are going to be having these arguments just after they have left their yoga class.
Professor Appiah I think is absolutely right when he says there is a distinction between borrowing something from another culture with appreciation and borrowing it with disrespect. I think we can understand that, even though it might be hard to draw a clear sense of rules that would be accepted by everyone about what that would mean. It might mean that we would just be extremely careful to make certain that we are respectful rather than disrespectful. There's something basic there Christians understand in love of neighbor, but it's also important that Christians understand that in a world made of human beings all made in God's image, all inherent culture makers, we are all inveterate reflexive borrowers from one another. But even when it comes to worldview, maybe especially when it comes to worldview, we come to understand that no worldview, no culture, indeed virtually no individual, exists as an island.
There's an excellent biblical and Christian argument to be made for being respectful rather than disrespectful in all things at all times, but it's really hard to take an argument against the supposed sin of cultural appropriation from someone who's making the argument fresh from his or her yoga class.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
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