Inspired by Layman Pascal, Dimitri Crooijmans, and Cadell Last

Religion and the 21st Century (Part I)

O.G. Rose
8 min readJun 26, 2023

A Conversation on Actual Spirit

Photo by Skull Kat

Religion historically speaking has been central to social formation, and so to investigate religion will I think help us understand what society today needs to look like if a “Community of Absolute Knowers” and Children might be possible. How should we think about religion, which in turn will help us think about the 21st century, after the collapse of “givens” and impossibility of returning to them? What is society after we must find “belonging without belonging” and “givens without givens?” Well, answering this will be aided by better understanding what role religion might play, a consideration I was honored to be invited by Dimitri of Actual Spirit to consider with Layman Pascal and Cadell Last.


On the question of what religion might look like in the 21st Century, my mind went to Why Football Matters by Mark Edmundson, a beautiful man and soul who combines the sensibilities of the poet, philosopher, and athlete all into one, and I cannot help but think that how Edmundson describes football has something to do with what religion should be for us today. This might sound obscene, as if I am supporting a blurring of sport and religion, which is dangerous, but Edmundson is a tragic thinker, who tells us of the benefits of football while also warning us of the dangers. ‘Football is a parmakon,’ he tells us, alluding to Plato’s poisonous elixir, ‘The game gives and the game takes away and it does so for high stakes.’¹ Religion is exactly the same, which to discuss is also to discuss “givens” and “belonging” in general (given the intimate connection between them all, as described in Belonging Again), and as ‘football may be the most potent form of education that American now offers,’ so perhaps the same could have once been said about religion, and for similar reasons (not all good).² As Edmundson sums up his book:

‘The game can make a player intolerant of gentleness. It can help turn him into a member of a pack that mistreats and even scapegoats others — the weak, the differently made. The game can make men unthinking; their football-based character often seals them off from real reflection. They seem to talk and even to think like machines […] Football can encourage illusions about war and heroism. The game’s relation to America’s racial politics is distressing to contemplate. And football’s merger with religion, especially Christianity, isn’t far short of ridiculous.’³

Similar points can be made about religion, and yet in the end Edmundson tells us, with a smile, that ‘I get a look at [my] jersey nearly every day.’⁴ Edmundson captures a feeling that encapsulates how I feel about religion: the dangers of it have become extremely clear, and yet I look back fondly upon my involvement in church, choir, and the like. How do we make sense of this paradox? Not easily, but if we are to think religion in the 21st century, we must.

“Givens” risk “the banality of evil” and “mass,” as does football, but Edmundson makes the point that his fellow teammates, later in life, were the ones who most deeply connected with him. ‘They helped me through, these tough and brutal guys; these guys with their herd mentality; guys locked down in their group mind.’⁵ Religion creates community in profound and unique ways, and yet that very community comes at the risk of us forming “masses” and perhaps “mobs,” which by extension means it can equip people with powerful means of rationalization and thus “ideology creation,” as Žižek will discuss. The ideological potential for religion is perhaps clear in how football and Christianity blend in America, which for Edmundson makes little sense (‘how strange the coupling is’).⁶ Glyn Daly’s book, Conversations with Žižek, is notably clear and useful for understanding Žižek’s thinking on ideology, and Daly tells us, alluding to Lacan, that ‘ideology offers [a] symbolic construction of reality — the ultimately fantasy — as a way to escape the traumatic effects of the Real.’⁷ At the same time, ‘[i]deology not only constructs a certain image of fulfillment […] it also endeavors to regulate a certain distance from it.’⁸ We don’t want to encounter what we want, because then we would have to face the reality that it is not what we want — how do we deny this “balancing act?” It takes training, and the concern is that blending Christianity and football is an example of lacking that training. If religion is to be different in the 21st century, it will need to be training against tendencies to avoid “The Real.”

More can be said on the dangers of how football can train us into ideology, dangers which it shares with religion — but that is basically elaborated on in Belonging Again (Part I). The dangers really emerge when something like football merges with religion and/or politics, and perhaps part of the role of religion today is its desperate need to maintain its space and uniqueness, precisely so that it can relate dialectically to other fields (without distinction, there cannot be Hegel). Edmundson makes the point that football blends strangely with Christianity in America, which causes pathology and dysfunction, and again similar trouble happens when religion and politics mix. It is not that religion cannot influence our political and athletic participation, but to say it should not merge with them. ‘[I]s religion — and Christianity in particular — really compatible with the smashmouth values of football?’⁹ No, and yet Conservatives in America can hold them together, despite the contradiction, which might indirectly train them to “hold together” similar contradictions like political force and religious gentleness. Edmundson writes:

‘When we praise Jesus and then go home to watch the football wars, we are enjoying the fruits of a paradox that we’ve been enjoying for a long time.’¹⁰

When we come to be trained to enjoy “the fruits of a paradox” in one area of life, this can train us to do the same in other areas, and in this way perhaps the connection between Christianity and football helped habituate people to similarly hold together Christianity and politicians like Trump. I’m not sure, but if so, it begs the question of what other problematic paradoxes we might be able to hold because of habits formed around enjoying “the fruit of a paradox?” In Hegel, there is one way where “holding contradiction” is extremely important and necessary, but there is another form of “holding contradiction” like described here which is very problematic. How do we tell the difference? Well, that might be a role of religion in the 21st Century, training that without we are likely not to avoid training ourselves to fall into ideology exactly as Žižek describes. For me, anything that trains us to be “okay with self-effacing contradiction” like this is problematic and will ultimately service ideology in the way Žižek warns about, so religion today will have to prove alternative. Religion can be used in service of ideology, and yet a role of 21st Century religion is precisely to keep “religion” and “ideology” separate. Is that possible? Well, is it possible to keep football away from Christianity? We must try, I think.

Religion is associated with ideology in the Žižekian sense, so religion in the 21st Century must prove to be a force fighting and resisting ideology, but how is that possible? Not easily, and it seems to have something to do with a constant “openness to Otherness,” but what does that mean? I think it ultimately has to mean that religion is an institution of forgiveness and grace, but regardless we have started our consideration of 21st century religion by considering it “a force against ideology,” but how might this occur, and how can anything which helps construct a social order not fall into ideological pitfalls? That seems impossible, but that also seems to be our challenge. Looking ahead, in a world where “givens” have collapsed and Žižek has succeeded in ‘infect[ing] us with […] a fundamental doubt about the very presuppositions of our social reality,’ our shift must move from “social arrangement” to “social agents” — a distinction Miroslav Volf makes in Exclusion and Embrace. After surveying various ‘approache[s] [for] the problems of identity and otherness and of the conflicts that rage around them,’ (the “Universalist Option,” the “Communitarian Option,” and the “Postmodern Option”), Volf writes:¹¹

‘Though in many respects radically different, these three ‘solutions’ share a common concentration on social arrangements. They offer proposals on how a society (or all of humanity) ought to be arranged in order to accommodate individuals and groups with diverse identities living together […] These proposals do entail important perspectives about persons who live in such societies, but their main interest is not social agents, but social arrangements. In contrast, I want to concentrate on social agents. Instead of reflecting on the kind of society we ought to create in order to accommodate individual or communal heterogeneity, I will explore what kind of selves we need to be in order to live in harmony with others.’¹²

I share this sentiment, and the hope of Belonging Again (Part I) was to highlight how society is inherently autocannibalistic, though this tendency was held back for most of history thanks to “givens” but no longer due to Pluralism and Globalization. Thus, we must prioritize “social agents” then “social arrangement,” not vice-versa (or we will lose both). For me, this means we must focus on incubating Children and then pricing mechanisms to sustain Children in their various social arrangements. What this might looks like and entail will have to be the work of Belonging Again (Part II), but overall I resonate strongly with the sentiment Volf expresses when he writes that ‘theologians should concentrate less on social arrangements and more on fostering the kind of social agents capable of envisioning and creating just, truthful, and peaceful societies, and on shaping a cultural climate in which such agents will thrive.’¹³ For Volf, there is no other way for us ‘to place identity and otherness at the center of theological reflections on social realities,’ which means there is no other way to think religion for the 21st century.¹⁴ If we are not thinking “social agents,” all thought of “social arrangement” will be for not.





¹Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 225.

²Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 225.

³Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 225.

⁴Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 226.

⁵Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 207.

⁶Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 144.

⁷Daly, Glyn and Slavoj Žižek. Conversations with Žižek. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004: 10.

⁸Daly, Glyn and Slavoj Žižek. Conversations with Žižek. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004: 11.

⁹Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 114.

¹⁰Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 153.

¹¹Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996: 20.

¹²Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996: 21.

¹³Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996: 21.

¹⁴Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996: 17.




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O.G. Rose

Iowa. Broken Pencil. Allegory. Write Launch. Ponder. Pidgeonholes. W&M. Poydras. Toho. ellipsis. O:JA&L. West Trade. UNO. Pushcart.