Inspired by Layman Pascal, Dimitri Crooijmans, and Cadell Last

Religion and the 21st Century (Part III)

O.G. Rose
18 min readJul 10, 2023

A Conversation on Actual Spirit

Photo by Skull Kat


Religion has traditionally been associated with a “quest for certainty,” but this is “an epistemological Achilles,” per se (as we will explain). Now, religion needs to be “a quest for proper confidence,” which means we might be wrong and hence “an epistemological Hector” (and please note epistemology always has ontological consequences). Though the topic of “confidence” is described in The Conflict of Mind, Lesslie Newbigin provides an elaboration that is particularly clear, helping us see why we need a road between believing ‘doubt is sin’ and ‘doubt [as] a measure of intellectual integrity’ (which easily leads to empty skepticism).⁴⁵ Whenever we are dealing with a ‘radically new starting point for thought,’ time will be needed for the thought ‘to be grasped,’ but neither hard doubt nor radical openness will provide the right soil for that development, for we will either deny the new premise from the start or totally accept it as it is without skepticism to help to refine itself and grow (like weeding and watering a garden).⁴⁶ The very notion of authority and “Absolute Communities” are themselves “new starting points” which will require “time to develop,” and so these very notions require a certain mode to even be realized (a mode which these Communities might be needed to help create and spread, paradoxically, suggesting why perhaps they must start small before growing, necessarily being started by those who “just happen” to gain the right epistemological mode from their own life circumstances). For many, evidence that ‘knowledge is accurate’ is found in our capacity ‘to predict the future,’ and though this can be true in some circumstances, Newbigin makes the point that ‘if we find ultimate truth in a story that has not yet been finished, we do not have that kind of certainty.’⁴⁷ To live in a story requires negating/sublating “certainty” into “confidence,” and certainly “Absolute Communities” will require a more “storied” ontoepistemology. We must be open and changeable, and yet we must not lose ourselves, a state “confidence” allows but not “certainty.”

What are “religions of confidence” versus “religions of certainty?” Confidence feels easier to associate with skills, sports, abilities, and the like, so this shift might further help us associate “religion” and “sport,” like we have in considering Edmundson. Newbigin suggests we need now ‘a kind of certainty which is inseparable from gratitude and trust,’ and perhaps this is what we naturally feel when someone uses a skill or ability that the person has developed which helps us — this “kind of certainty” is also based on the experience of being so helped, so it is more concrete and fact-based.⁴⁸ Newbigin goes on in his book to make the strong case for how “certainty leads to nihilism,” and why the “epistemological mode” of Modernity (and hence “ontological,” for we are ‘not a mind attached to a body but a single psychosomatic being’) has logically led into what has been called “The Meaning Crisis.”⁴⁹ There is no such thing as certainty, and so if certainty is our standard of knowing, we will know nothing, and when we know it intimately, we will become nihilists.

Newbigin elaborates on the work of the great Michael Polanyi, who emphasizes ‘the personal participation of the knower in all acts of understanding,’ which suggests that if we think in a way that leads to nihilism, we will naturally become nihilists and form ourselves accordingly.⁵⁰ Newbigin quotes Polanyi at length from Personal Knowledge):

‘But this does not make our understanding subjective. Comprehension is neither an arbitrary act nor a passive experience, but a responsible act claiming universal validity. Such knowledge is indeed objective in establishing contact with a hidden reality, contact that is defined as the condition for anticipating an indeterminate range of as yet unknown (and perhaps yet inconceivable) true implications. It seems reasonable to describe this fusion of the person and the objective as personal knowledge.’⁵¹

‘Polanyi’s concern was to alert the scientific community to a danger which, if not faced, would destroy it,’ and indeed, that is what has occurred.⁵² And since much of the world fell under Scientism (as I would argue), the world has suffered destruction with science — ergo, “The Meaning Crisis.” To avoid this fate, there is only one road, epistemologically speaking: the road of “Proper Confidence” (Newbigin) and “Personal Knowledge” (Polanyi). This is not the character though of “a religion of certainty,” and so if 21st Century Religion is to avoid the same destruction, it must accept that life is a story in which we are storytellers and thus fundamentally uncertain. Hegel teach us this as well, and if we cannot learn that Polanyi was right to suggest ‘possible confident affirmation of belief in matters which can be doubted,’ then we will never escape nihilism.⁵³ Where a more sophisticated epistemology fails to emerge, so will never emerge a more sophisticated ontology, and we will self-deconstruct. We must learn that Augustine was wise in saying ‘I believe in order to know’ — this must be part of religion, and the skills which rationally follow.⁵⁴ To quote Newbigin:

‘Polanyi emphasizes the fact that knowing is a form of activity. Like all activity, it involves the interaction of the personal with the [world] beyond him or her. It is an activity which […] involves the whole person in a passionate commitment to make contact with reality. Knowing is not something that happens to us; it is something we seek to achieve. As with all activities, there is always the possibility of failure.’⁵⁵

Sounding like Hegel, Polanyi tells us that ‘[t]he possibility of error is a necessary element of any belief bearing on reality, and to withhold belief on grounds of such a hazard is to break off all contact with reality.’⁵⁶ An “Absolute Community” organizes itself around this instead of “dogmas,” per se: “Personal Knowledge” and “Proper Confidence” describe the epistemology of its “first principles,” a relation that I think is captured beautifully where Newbigin writes:

‘Only statements that can be doubted make contact with reality.’⁵⁷

This would suggest that religion today must be in the business of crafting doubt to refine relations with the real. It is natural for all institutions to remove doubt — politics, science, ideology, family, etc. — there is something about the human which seems organized in this manner. Religion could be different precisely in honoring doubt, which would mean religion was unique in enabling “contact with reality.” In seeking to make religion dogmatic, believers have paradoxically made it less real. Doubts realize, while nihilism is certain in doubt itself.

Newbigin will then describe Polanyi’s “nonreductionism,” which brings to mind “The Vector Theory” of Bard and Elung (‘physical, chemical, mechanical, and biological principles are all valid and necessary at their respective levels but are not adequate at the levels above them’), as well as the role of “grace” given uncertainty.⁵⁸ More can be said on Newbigin and Polanyi, but I think we have said enough to establish why the ontoepistemology of religion today must be “Personal Knowledge” and “Proper Confidence,” which makes room for authority based on skills and the like, seeing as there is no way to gain certainty regarding “an assessment of skill.” Yes, the reality the person won the wrestling match is very concrete (and we need degrees of concrete), but what “winning that match” means is something we can only be confident in. What we learn from Newbigin and Polanyi is that confidence is not “weak certainty” but instead a sign of personal strength. The fact Hector loses to Achilles is evidence that he is a better leader. The death is the life.


Following James K.A. Smith, our habits are formed by our loves, and ultimately our habits are what we believe. Hence, 21st Century Religion must form habits which participate in “Personal Knowledge” and “Proper Confidence,” which at the same time help us master “meta-skills” (like Attention, “dialectical thinking,” etc.) according to which “authority” can be assessed. This topic is explored both in “The Postchristian Church” and “The Fate of Beauty,” both by O.G. Rose, and here I only want to note the general structure of Dr. Smith’s thought. Please also note that I am not entirely against thinking new structures, systems, and the like when I embrace “social agent” over “social arrangement,” but rather my point is that all “social arrangements” must be for the sake of cultivating and training “social agents.” Again, we can think of sports: if a school spends a lot of money on a football stadium but the team is still awful, who cares? In fact, people might get angry. Likewise, we need to think about spending money on churches, schools, etc. for the sake of cultivating “kinds of people.” Yes, this is what people say they care about, and maybe they do, but our metric today must be the emergence of “Absolute Knowers.” If our money is not being spent on “liturgies” (as Dr. Smith puts it) which cultivates such people, we are buying sports equipment for a team which doesn’t improve.

Belonging Again (Part II) consists of the paper “The Postchristian Church” as a case study of what “social arrangements” might look like in Christianity to help generate “social agents,” but the implications of that paper are not limited to Christianity. We become what we enter, and today there seems to be little we can “enter” and consequently become “Absolute Knowers.” Religion today must offer a door; otherwise, we will stay in the space which incubates nihilism. Belonging Again (Part I) argued that belonging according to “givens” is no longer possible, which means we must move from “social arrangement” to “social agent,” which suggests “belonging in not belonging.” This is very strange, and I will be vague with a nod to Nietzsche in saying that we require a negation/sublation of Belonging into Dancing, it seems. Dancing requires grace, forgiveness, attention, artfulness, skill, openness…Dancing is what must come next, something in “the image and likeness of the Trinity” (if an image of The Space Trilogy of C.S. Lewis is justified — a topic of “The Net (14)).”

Religion of the 21st century must be in the business of thinking prayer/sacrifice, grace, “meditated mysticism,” resisting ideology, forgiveness, etc., as well as the skills and “meta-skills” that follow from these emphases. Hegel tells us that ‘Religion presupposes that [moments of Spirit] have run their full course and is their simple totality or absolute self,’ but we must still sequentially “realize” what is “always already” the case for Spirit, and the so mentioned acts and skills could “point toward” the competition of Spirit.⁵⁹ ‘Only the totality of Spirit is in Time, and the ‘shapes,’ which are ‘shapes’ of the totality of Spirit, display themselves in a temporal succession; for only the whole has true actuality […]’ An act of grace, an act of forgiveness, an act of sacrifice — one by one, “the totality of Spirit” might be “realized” one after the other (as if sequential when really total), but this can only occur if we know what it is we need to realize, hence the need to explore what might constitute 21st Century Religion.⁶⁰ ‘Bad things happen fast,’ Edmundson tells us (temping us with authoritarianism), ‘The brakes give out; the stroller goes bouncing down the steps […] Good things are all about progress: effort, expectation, and desire,’ and thus if Religion is to be good it must be slow and dedicated. It must be more like an athlete than “a true believer.” Religion that isn’t training and slow is likely a bad thing happening too fast.⁶¹

Simone Weil told her Catholic friends that she thought it was ‘the will of God [that she] not enter the Church at present,’ a move many have questioned, for is this possible for God to will?⁶² Perhaps, but the main question I have is if it might be possible for God to will that religion focus on “social agents” versus “social arrangements?” If so, perhaps Weil is not wrong, because perhaps there is a certain development of “social agents” that can only happen outside the Church? If this is so, perhaps then the future of religion requires the space outside of religion to find itself? That seems plausible to me and suggests something Hegelian, a need for negation for us to realization sublation.

Weil loved Hinduism, and a line from the Upanishads comes to mind: ‘Breath is made of water, so it will not be cut off if one drinks.’⁶³ Might “outside religion” be made of the Spirit which makes “religion”? If so, living outside religion would not be to live outside religion. Peter Rollins comes to mind here as someone who doesn’t fit easily “in religion,” and yet by being “outside religion” he seems to be exactly where religion (not merely spiritualism) is finding new life and organization. This is a tricky thought, because it could be taken to mean that institutions like church are not necessary, when I think exactly the opposite. Rather, my point is that if God has Created everything, then it is not only inside the church building that the Church could be found, and a time might arise where being inside the church makes it hard to imagine the Life of the Church. We might need to look to Hegel to think Christianity today; we might need to look to economics. All of these might be made of Spirit, and if Religion is to be made of Spirit, we must understand where the Spirit moves so that we might make Religion in its image. Then, we might drink of Religion, and not be cut off from Spirit.

Cadell Last says that religion is “a meditation of instinct across a lifetime” — a beautiful and succinct understanding which suggests that religion will help us meditate our instincts to (subtly) make ourselves into Achilles versus Hector (as we will discuss). Religion must always help us avoid the temptation of experiencing art, philosophy, and religion in a way that makes us drunk on abstractions and beings who avoid “the concrete” — it is an instinct to avoid danger, and what better way to avoid the danger of the concrete than by fleeing to abstraction? Art, philosophy, and religion can “break” us from the everyday which Heidegger warns us can shrink our being, but these three can also cause us to “break away” from the earth (and so “cut off” from Spirit). How might we undergo “breaking” without “breaking away?” Religion will need to help us navigate that problem, and we will also need to somehow live a life in which we become ‘aware that […] we receive more than we project. Reality is more fundamentally a gift than it is a construction by us.’⁶⁴ Hans Balthasar believed beauty could help us know this, and perhaps ultimately the question of religion in the 21st century is a question regarding “the fate of beauty.” The fate of beauty is the fate of us, after all.


‘Forgiveness is the boundary between exclusion and embrace,’ and might we forgive ourselves in failing to always be “Absolute Knowers” so that we might “fail better?”⁶⁵ Might Spirit forgive Religion and the two learn again to embrace? That seems to be our question, but if it is to be reformed versus replaced, religion must seemingly be more a gymnasium with a focus on skills and practices. Yes, metaphysics and worldview will inevitably play a role, but concerns of “Phenomenological Pragmatism” (as I broadly call it) must be paramount and central. The skills we learn should be in the realms of “libidinal economy,” “The Real,” interpersonal, and the like, which is to say we must train in the realms of sex, money, power, and relationships. To allude to Hegel, we must reason on “the negation” (so that it is a sublation), not just to “the negation,” which leaves much to be desired. A role of religion has always been to consistently “point us beyond” our immediacy, to make us attune ourselves to A/B not just A/A, but this “pointing” has mostly been found in walls, static locations, and teachings. What would it mean for us to develop skills and practices by which we could “point” ourselves and others “toward” A/B? It would risk chaos and relativism, no doubt, but what would it mean for this risk to generate value and community? What kind of people might we be thanks to this risk?

Where there is mysticism, there is a risk of “magical thinking,” but where mysticism is lacking, there can be “the banality of evil.” Helping us avoid these pitfalls can be “the deadlock” and “contradiction” of “The Real” and A/B themselves, and our “ultimate concern” (to allude to Paul Tillich) can precisely be this “deadlock” which we then “bind” ourselves to and muster “the courage to be” in its presence. Might prayer be what religion needs to look at in the 21st century, a “middle” between Religion and Spirit? But what is prayer? What does it mean to live a life of prayer? A life of talking to ourselves?

Religion must be profoundly invested in “The Real,” which is that point where desire fails, and the most natural response to “The Real” is to disown it, demonize it, and avoid it. “The Real” upsets us, and if religion is to matter, it seems to me like it will have to do a lot with topics like redemption, accepting lack, and forgiveness. The other is arguably most “other” when we have to ask ourselves if he or she should be forgiven, which is when we have been wronged. Perhaps we shouldn’t forgive, but maybe we should? Only in response to redemptive acts, perhaps.

Enlightenment might be possible for the individual, but “group Enlightenment” might be thought of as religion, and that brings to mind Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a text we must take seriously if we are to be Children. Perhaps a reason religion has often proven inadequate is because religion has “hyper-specialized” into dogmas, denominations, and the like, where the key concern has been “What do you believe?” and “What do you know?” versus “How do you live it?” Academia has suffered with the loss of generalization, and perhaps religion would thrive better if it was allowed to reach and see outside its own domain. But “going outside” requires courage.


After the collapse of “givens” described in Belonging Again (Part 1), what will have to be “given” is the very way we act when we encounter “the Other” and/or “the Unknown,” which is to say it is “given we will employ meta-skills and so give gifts.” It is a “gift” in the 21st Century to use meta-skills like Weil’s “Attention” or the “Proper Confidence” of Newbigin, for these skills help us organize our lives in a world that seems incapable of organization or sensibility. Religion needs to become a place for training these “gifts,” which means churches become places which train “social agents” capable of meta-skills versus only buildings which “do our believing for us” (which to say that we as Christians can feel as if Christianity must be true because we know there are churches out there operating, and how can there be churches if Christianity is false?). A temptation of “social arrangements” is that they can function in an ideology to “do our work for us,” while a “social agent” is their work: there is much less “gap” for fantasy. A football field “does our work for us” less readily than does a church, and if we think of 21st Century religion as more of a gymnasium, this will in itself help fight ideology — which is precisely why ideology will be against the move. But we must go “outside” our comfort zone.

Equipped with “Proper Confidence” versus (fragile) certainty, we might fear what is “outside religion,” but what do the Religious have to fear? We must be capable of fear to be human, and to be great at being human we must overcome that fear. On that point, I will close this work with an elaboration on what Edmundson wrote on the difference between Achilles and Hector (as I’ve been alluding too), and I will note that to be a Child, an Absolute Knower, and Christ-like is for us to be more like Hector than Achilles — which we might not like. For ‘[t]here is one problem with being Hector: Hector loses.’⁶⁶

‘Hector was probably born to be a statesman […] and it is clear that he would go on to be a superb king of Troy sometime in the future — if Troy had a future, which it does not.’⁶⁷ Hector must face Achilles, and Achilles is ‘purely a warrior,’ while Hector is a warrior and a statesman. This is why Hector would be a better leader than Achilles, but it is also why he is doomed to lose to Achilles.⁶⁸ To be Hector is to be vulnerable, but to be Hector is only the way to be an authority without being authoritarian like Achilles (and the question of authority today is a dire one regarding social organize, “social agency,” and religion). ‘When Achilles and Hector meet outside the walls of Troy, with both armies looking on, there is no real contest.’⁶⁹ Hector even runs, knowing he is doomed, but funny enough it is arguably Achilles who is incapable of bravery. ‘Is Achilles brave?’⁷⁰ Edmundson suggests Achilles is not, only whipping himself up into a rage, while Hector in his weakness is capable of bravery. ‘Hector reveals another self when his helmet comes off,’ which is why he is doomed against Achilles, but this is also why Hector is capable of courage while Achilles is only capable of rage.⁷¹ The choice for authority is the choice for bravery but also vulnerability. But of course there is a problem with Achilles’s sort of victory. Achilles is authoritarian.

With all this, we can see why the football, wrestling, and sports metaphor in general might be problematic for our purposes in understanding religion and authority today, for mustn’t we resist the temptation to be like Achilles? If a wrestler loses, his authority might weaken, and doesn’t Hector lose? Indeed, but the metric we judge Hector by is not simply on the battlefield, but relative to who he is entirely as a person; in other words, the “meta-skill of discernment” we need is “the facticity of Hector,” per se, not Achilles — which is arguably far harder to discern (for we must see Hector’s “concrete potential” through his loss). Hector would be a better leader, but this requires him to be less of a warrior, and this is what we must judge as qualification to lead. A strange paradox, what we must discern where the possibility of courage is present. How might we have the refinement of judgment to discern this in favor that Hector should lead a people over Achilles? Not easily, but it does judge that we must judge something that isn’t so “given on the surface,” per se. Just because a million people claim that someone is a leader, it doesn’t follow that he or she is; just because a person has a million fans and always wins the election, it doesn’t follow that this person is fit to rule. We must discern at a deeper, more paradoxical, and more subtle level.

So, what will we choose? Do we really want church to be religion and submit ourselves to the work of discerning that it is such? That would require religion to be potentially lose like Hector. Are we able to handle a religion that doesn’t seek to be Achilles? How can we balance learning to fight but still have something to fear so that we might still be capable of courage and thus possibly qualify for leadership? Achilles is authoritarian. Hector is an authority. And we are all authors. We write our scripts. Shall we author ourselves as Achilles or Hector? Perhaps we will claim “Hector” while secretly authoring Achilles? Might we resist these self-deceptions so that we could prove vulnerable? Sports like football might be great to teach us tragedy and the limits of our minds, because, regardless what we think and all the hours of practice we put in, we find ourselves sacked. We are vulnerable. We can be taken down. And yet that is precisely why it is noble when we step out on the field — that is precisely why we can stand back up. Vulnerability is the road to life because it is a road on which we can die. And the only life lives on.





⁴⁵Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence. Grand Rapids, MI. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995: 1.

⁴⁶Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence. Grand Rapids, MI. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995: 5.

⁴⁷Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence. Grand Rapids, MI. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995: 14.

⁴⁸Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence. Grand Rapids, MI. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995: 28.

⁴⁹Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence. Grand Rapids, MI. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995: 39.

⁵⁰Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence. Grand Rapids, MI. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995: 43.

⁵¹Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence. Grand Rapids, MI. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995: 43–44.

⁵²Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence. Grand Rapids, MI. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995: 44.

⁵³Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence. Grand Rapids, MI. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995: 47.

⁵⁴Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence. Grand Rapids, MI. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995: 48.

⁵⁵Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence. Grand Rapids, MI. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995: 50.

⁵⁶Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence. Grand Rapids, MI. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995: 50–51.

⁵⁷Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence. Grand Rapids, MI. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995: 52.

⁵⁸Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence. Grand Rapids, MI. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995: 59.

⁵⁹Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller. Oxford University Press, 1977: 413.

⁶⁰Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller. Oxford University Press, 1977: 413.

⁶¹Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 105–106.

⁶²Weil, Simone. Waiting for God. Translated by Emma Craufurd. New York, NY: First Harper Perennial Modern Classics Edition, 2009: 6.

⁶³Upanishads. Translated by Patrick Olivelle. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008: 151.

⁶⁴Nichols, Aidan. A Key to Balthasar. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Publishing Group, 2011: 5.

⁶⁵Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996: 125.

⁶⁶Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 53.

⁶⁷Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 52.

⁶⁸Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 54.

⁶⁹Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 54.

⁷⁰Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 63.

⁷¹Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 55.

⁷²Edmundson, Mark. Why Football Matters. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014: 55.




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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.