Inspired by Layman Pascal, Dimitri Crooijmans, and Cadell Last

Religion and the 21st Century (Part II)

O.G. Rose
15 min readJul 4, 2023

A Conversation on Actual Spirit

Photo by Skull Kat


In Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A Smith poises a series of questions that must be asked if we are to meaningfully and constructively inquire into “religion in the 21st century” (which, again, for me is to ask about “society in the 21st century”). Engaging in what he calls cultural exegesis,’ Dr. Smith writes:¹⁵

‘What vision of human flourishing is implicit in this or that practice? What does the good life look like as embedded in cultural rituals? What sort of person will I become after being immersed in this or that cultural liturgy?’¹⁶

These are religious questions, and these are our questions. The answers seem to have something to do with Children, identifying with lack/otherness, and the corresponding institutions needed to incubate these “ways of being,” which will come with various skills, practices, and abilities. For me, to be very vague and without elaboration, a list of possible “skills” and “practices” (think football and Plato’s gymnasium) which will be needed for “social agents” as Children to be possible:

1. Integration with lack. (“The Philosophy of Lack” series).

2. “The Attention” of Simone Weil.

3. “Proper confidence” of Lesslie Newbigin over (fragile) certainty (as discussed in The Conflict of Mind).

4. The capacity for ‘nonexclusionary judgments,’ the capacity to ‘struggl[e] against exclusion without perpetuating exclusion by the very struggle against it.’¹⁷ (Volf follows Girard and makes an example of Cain and how ‘God both relentlessly questions and condemns Cain and [yet] graciously places a protective mark upon him.’)¹⁸

5. The conscious cultivation of habits according to a logic of love and liturgy (as discussed by James K.A. Smith).

6. A new vision of sexuality, which must draw on works like Lacan, A Theology of the Body by John Paul II, Alenka Zupančič…

7. Meta-skills (described in the Topics series)

8. Improvisation (as described with Emilio in Topic IV)

9. “The Absolute Choice” and “(be)coming (other)” (A/B) (as described by Hegel and discussed in The Absolute Choice by O.G. Rose).

10. Prayer as sacrifice (‘a phenomenon ever so closely linked to prayer [for it is] virtually inconceivable without accompany prayer […] Sacrifice can be viewed as ‘prayer which is acted’ ’).¹⁹

11. “The Phenomenology of Voice” (as discussed with Tim Adalin).

And so on. If religion is to be useful under Pluralism, it will have something to do with “encountering/choosing Other-ness” (“The Absolute Choice”), but arguably the deepest form of encountering Otherness involves forgiveness, for that is when we feel wronged and thus the other is really other. This will bring us to discuss a doctrine of “acceptance” (as needed for any community to exist) and also “forgiveness” (so that a community might coexist with other communities and also prove sustainable). In “social arrangements,” the question of “exclusion and embrace” is mostly determined legislatively, but this will not work for “social agents” (as argued in “Equality and Its Immoral Limits” by O.G. Rose). The only possible forgiveness is that which is at risk of enabling evil, as the only way to “contact reality” is with notions that could be doubted. There must be risk where there is forgiveness, but that also means we can’t just forgive noncontingently without question, for if it is “always right to forgive,” there is no risk. There must be times when we should hold forgiveness back, for otherwise we don’t risk making a mistake. In Christianity, where a person doesn’t seek “redemption,” which is to “turn from” evil, then forgiveness would enable the person to keep acting immorally. But this requires us to discern when a person engages in “redemption” and thus we should forgive (even if the Christian doesn’t want to, when a person seeks redemption, the Christian is called to extend grace). We must make a choice, acts we avoid if we either “always forgive” or “never forgive.” The topic of “forgiveness and redemption” is critical and will need to be elaborated on, but the point is that we must always be at risk. We must always be willing to forgive, but we also must be willing to keep that forgiveness held back (sometimes its easier to forgive and harder to wait on redemption).

Anyway, religion and society have, like prayer and sacrifice for Merold Westphal, often ‘been convinced as a form of contract,’ which is to say if we do x, we will receive y.²⁰ If we go to church, we will ascend into heaven; if we work hard, we will earn middle class life; and so on. This is a “logic of exchange” which Javier Rivera critiques, and today religion will need to be an enterprise that helps us move beyond “exchange” into something else. We know today that justice often fails, that freedom is rarely free, that working hard doesn’t always pay off, and so on — we know that “exchange thinking” can set us up for disappointment. What would it mean for us to focus on something else? What else should the logic of society and religion be if not exchange? Training? Practicing? Perhaps this is why learning lessons of sports and football, where athletes know that working hard doesn’t entitle them to victory or anything, could prove useful. “The love of the game” itself must be central, but is that a delusion? It might be, but life without risk will struggle to create value.

Westphal tells us that Heidegger understood how ‘everydayness [could be] a bondage of the will even more fundamental than the acquired habits which weighed Augustine done,’ and Westphal makes the point that ‘[i]f I should become aware of the sacred and be powerfully drawn toward its promise of an eternal happiness and toward the transformation of my existence which goes with that, I will find everydayness to be a power resisting that movement and that change.’²¹ “Everydayness” becomes “invisible” and I find myself “inauthentically captured” by the world and corresponding ideology: religion is meaningful when it helps subjects not fall into such “invisible bondages of the will.” And yet “givens” cause that problem, suggesting that a role of religion is to stop something it causes. How might that paradox be resolved? By doing religion differently and with a focus on “social agents” — but even then we play with fire. To speak of society is to speak of risk, but to not speak of it is to accept an isolated world with speech. How might we regain Something which awakens us from “everydayness?” Is this what Hegel, Deleuze, Jesus, and/or Nietzsche might provide? Possibly.

The Upanishads teaches that ‘by reflecting and concreting on one’s self, one gains the knowledge of this whole world.’²² Now, the thought is far more complex than that, but the idea is that we must understand agent to get world, versus world to agent. Once we work through the matter of “social agency,” we can then inquire into the question of “social arrangements” — but I do think “social agency” must come first (as “true’ must come before “values” or we end up in trouble, as argued in The Conflict of Mind). After which though, the question becomes what is the nature of society, religion, and the like where “social agents” are “in the image and likeness” of Children, Absolute Knowers, Deleuzians, etc.?²³ Will the world look more like tribes, networks, communes — what? Dr. Cadell Last speaks of “scenes,” inspired by the great Theory Underground, and perhaps what is needed is a world of “scenes” undergirded by an economic system which makes sustaining those “scenes” possible (which for me would be a new pricing mechanism, as Anthony Morley at Intrinsic Research Co. works on). Like football, such “scenes” will be places of “practice” and “training” (while needing to avoid ‘idealization’), but how and for what?²⁴ That takes us back to our list and the details of it, but let us talk more of what we can lose.


Sounding Hegelian, Miguel de Unamuno in Tragic Sense of Life tells us that ‘[c]onsciousness of oneself is simply consciousness of one’s own limitation […] to know and to feel the extent of my being is to know at what point I cease to be, the point beyond which I no longer am.’²⁵ Indeed, for Hegel there is no possibility of Reason without Self-Consciousness confronting and “choosing” it’s limitation (A/B), and without Reason there can be no Spirit or Religion. Unamuno asks, ‘[H]ow do we know that we exist if we do not suffer, little or much?’²⁶ This question brought a phrase to mind: while perhaps we can say philosophy follows “I think, therefore I am,” perhaps religion follows, “I suffer, therefore I am” (hence the sermons, the hopes of eternal life, redemption, grace…). After Lacan, philosophy today seems much more interested in suffering versus just thinking, as religion seems more interested in “conceptual meditation” after examples of its corruptions: both “ways of being an ‘I am’ ” approach.

As Cadell Last calls it, Hegel’s “Phenomenological Journey” is rightly associated with “the stations of the cross,” for Hegel is constantly an exploration of failure, incompleteness, and “becoming other (‘[c]onsciousness knows and comprehends only what falls within its experience […] But Spirit becomes object because it is just the movement of becoming an other to itself, i.e. becoming an object to itself, and of suspending this otherness’).²⁷ If it is right to say that to be religious is to say “I suffer, therefore I am,” Hegel can be viewed as a writer of religious text. And what better way to learn the limits of the self and reality of “otherness” than by being tackled? Or to learn about tragedy than by losing a game because the referee made a bad call or because even though you worked your hardest the other team just had more talent? Indeed, there is something about sports that seems uniquely able to help us say constructively, “I suffer, therefore I am.” In sports, we seem poised to possibly learn deeply that ‘self-consciousness knows the nothingness of the object,’ whether it be in how sports forces us to confront loss, how sports helps us learn to face and live with the Real, and/or in how sports can make us face how little it is we control and yet how there is still honor in doing our best with what we have.²⁸ There are a number of lessons Edmundson learned from football, and I think they are of a nature like what religion needs to teach us all today. I would encourage everyone to read Edmundson, though here I will list some quotes from the book and thoughts to provide more flavor of what I think the role of religion today is like:

1. ‘I was willing to sweat and strain like a country mule all that summer in pursuit of a goal, but I couldn’t take one simple, sincere piece of advice that might have closed the deal for me. I could work and work, but I couldn’t see the truth in front of me. I was, as it were, blind to my blindness.’²⁹ (‘But if that perceptive observer told you, you wouldn’t listen’)³⁰

2. ‘I recognize in myself a capacity for violence that’s well beyond that of most middle-class guys in middle age, and I have to be vigilant about it. But I also recognize in myself a willingness to go my own way, say what I think, and take inevitable hits […] We pay for our sins, to be sure. But even for our virtues there is sometimes a price.’³¹

3. ‘I cried in my sleep one night at the thought that the next day I would have to go back to practice […] But I loved it too.’ — Religion must think how humans can be the kind of being for whom this “both-ness” can occur and even seem to need it to occur.³²

4. ‘Son, run through your pads. Run through them!’ — Religion must help us collapse “the subject/object divide.”³³

5. ‘Character is about wall building. It can grant security, autonomy, a stable life. But it imprisons you too. What we call character can be the enemy of imagination, empathy, invention, and of plain, pleasant dreaminess. Character preserves, but it also limits and depletes; often it does both at the same time. The coaches may not tell you so, but it’s true.’ — Religion today must navigate this “tragic tradeoff,” which overlaps with the tension between “givens and releases.”³⁴

And so on. Religion today I think must have something to do with training the difference between mourning and melancholia (‘[a] genuinely profound lesson about loss and mourning was there is front of my eyes […]’), about being able to say “We lost” not just ‘ ‘We won’ and […] ‘You lost,’ ’ about seeing the humanity in a person who responds to his daughter’s death by ‘drinking and drinking more’ and yet is still ‘really trying,’ about facing the reality that a ‘four-year-old child’ can die of strokes for no reason, about how we all need something ‘to educate [us] into becoming [ourselves]’ amid all this Real — on and on.³⁵ ³⁶ ³⁷ ³⁸ ³⁹ Religion that is not in this business is a waste of time and hopefully doomed (such loss is gain). Edmundson wrote that for him ‘[football came to be] much more about practice than about the Saturday afternoon contests,’ and similarly religion must come to focus on practices and training versus dogmas and metaphysical certainty.⁴⁰ Yes, these things have a role, but athletes know that games are decided in practice; likewise, spiritual life is decided outside mysticism.

There is no way to systemize a football game. Yes, we can be “systematic” in our play-calling, our strategies, and the like, but ultimately a football game is “live” and will require fresh assessments, decisions, actions, etc., every single time. Karl Barth wrote in a letter to Emil Brunner (June 6th, 1948) that:

‘the church never thinks, speaks, or acts ‘on principle.’ Rather, it judges spiritually and by individual cases. For that reason it rejects every attempt to systemize political history and its own part in that history […] it preserves the freedom to judge each new event afresh.’⁴¹

This can sound weak and “relativistic,” but we can better understand Barth if we think of a football game. A football game never unfolds “on principle”: there are “principles,” yes, but they are hardly make up the whole of the game. The majority of the game is live, unpredictable, and messy — so it should go with religion, not because we are weak in our convictions, but because “convictions” are not the central exercises of religion. Skills are, and skills are always messy (that’s partly what makes them skills), but there must be the possibility of error if there is to be “contact with reality,” as Newbigin taught.

But this is where some of our challenges arise, for the “skills” we need today from 21st century religion will not always be observable skills like woodcutting, fixing cars, or the like — these skills which helps us “integrate with lack” and “open to the Other” will often prove invisible, individual, and unknowable outside the situation in which they are practiced (which will spread into the problem of “authority” — a significant issue). Krishnamurti tells us:

‘life is a battle of ideas, a battle of influences, and your mind is the field of that battle. The politician wants your mind; the guru wants your mind; the saint says, do this and not that, and he always wants your mind, and every tradition, every form of habit or custom, influences, shapes, guides, controls your mind.’⁴²

To lose in the realm of ideas is to lose, and yet we can forgo that realm precisely because it is invisible, unobservable, and unclear. On a football field, I generally have a sense of the rules, for the rules are “football,” basically. But what is the mind? We have to think of the “rules” to say, and yet don’t we need the “rules” to say? At lest the football field, ball, uniform, team — all these are “there” to help us begin the investigation and process. But “the life of the mind?” Where do we start that doesn’t always need “the life of the mind” to start? This is not easy to answer, and it suggests why we start vulnerable and can easily be “captured” into being a person of a ‘self-centered ego [to whom] the world [can] look like [just] raw material,’ for example (as the economy might naturally have of us).⁴³ Keiji Nishitani writes ‘[w]ater is neither the life of the fish as such nor its body, and yet it is essentially linked to both of them’; likewise, thought is neither the life of a person nor the body of a person, and yet thought is essentially linked to keeping us alive and enabling our bodies to act creatively, spiritually, and constructively.⁴⁴ As water is and isn’t divisible from the fish, so thought is and isn’t divisible from us, and so it is easy for us to forget about our need to prioritize it and “win” on its battlefield. Religion of the 21st century must not let us forget this reality, and it must help us also master it. But by what metric? According to what authority? Who can say?

The question of “authority” and “metric” is a difficult topic, especially for us today aware of the human tendency for “totalitarianism” and dangers of power. As has been mentioned, the “authority” of a wrestler is not based on his political position or some metaphysical construct: his authority comes from winning on the mat. His authority is facticity-based, and when it comes to wrestling that’s easy enough. But how do we judge “mastery” in meta-skills which are also “invisible” and seemingly more “subjective?” Will we all have to be like wine-tasters, able to discern very fine differences in taste? Not only will the wine itself have to be good, but we ourselves will require the refinement of palate to tell.

If “invisible skills” seem needed for a leader to be a leader today, then authority must be more “gifted” than worn as a badge, per se. The community seemingly must “see” someone is capable of various meta-skills, and then the community must determine who has the most authority based on their exercise of these meta-skills (like Weil’s “Attention,” the “Proper Confidence” of Newbigin, and so on). “Authority as gift” might be what we are heading toward versus “authority from position” (more “given”), which will require those being told by the community that they have x, y, or z authority to be willing to accept the “gift” and trust in it. Yes, people might then try to manipulate others to “vote for them,” but if the authority is based more on a skill that is more concrete, this might place “checks and balances” on manipulation. Perhaps not, and this topic will require its own paper and focus (“On Authority” might be the title), but the point is that “thinking religion today” will also require us to think authority and leadership. As categories, there is “Author,” “Author-ity,” and “Author-itarian,” and indeed all of us as Children must be more creative and “like an author” then in the past: though we have called “authorities” people who did not create the institutions in which they have authority, perhaps increasingly only those who “author” something will be able to gain “author-ity,” and in that place they will have to resist the temptation to be “author-itarian” to protect and save what they create. We must be like Hector. We must learn to be fearless, which means we must be able to lose. The “courage to be” of Tillich might soon be the only way to “be” at all.





¹⁵Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic: 2009, 89.

¹⁶Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic: 2009, 89.

¹⁷Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996: 69.

¹⁸Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996: 93.

¹⁹Westphal, Merold. God, Guilt, and Death. First Midland Book Edition, 1987: 146.

²⁰Westphal, Merold. God, Guilt, and Death. First Midland Book Edition, 1987: 147.

²¹Westphal, Merold. God, Guilt, and Death. First Midland Book Edition, 1987: 56.

²²Upanishads. Translated by Patrick Olivelle. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008: 29.

²³Daly, Glyn and Slavoj Žižek. Conversations with Žižek. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004: 1.

²⁴Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 131.

²⁵Unamuno, Miguel de. Tragic Sense of Life. Translated by J.E. Crawford Flinch. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc., 2006: 124.

²⁶Unamuno, Miguel de. Tragic Sense of Life. Translated by J.E. Crawford Flinch. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc., 2006: 124.

²⁷Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller. Oxford University Press, 1977: 21.

²⁸Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller. Oxford University Press, 1977: 479.

²⁹Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 110.

³⁰Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 111.

³¹Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 69.

³²Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 23–24.

³³Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 27.

³⁴Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 41.

³⁵Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 93.

³⁶Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 87.

³⁷Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 31.

³⁸8Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 29.

³⁹Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 33.

⁴⁰Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 35.

⁴¹Barth, Karl. Theologian of Freedom. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1991: 297.

⁴²Krishnamurti, J. To Be Human. Boston, Mass. Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2000: 90.

⁴³Nishitani, Keiji. Religion and Nothingness. Translated by Jan Bragt. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983: 11.

⁴⁴Nishitani, Keiji. Religion and Nothingness. Translated by Jan Bragt. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983: 77.




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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.