Courtesy of the author
Courtesy of the author

Perhaps it is in the nature of freedom that things can be different than they are. Considered in terms of will, one can celebrate this possibility of difference (or not) as a victory of individuals, democracy, and the market. But it does pose a problem for the nature of reality, and one that becomes increasingly acute insofar as the possibility of difference infuses the actual. The increasing complexity of society, expressed both economically and culturally through the trope of capitalism (e.g., the free exchange of money and information), manifests just such an infusion. For one who would understand the social, this historical event and trend does not just make for a finer-grained puzzle, although it does do this. It makes for greater difficulty of seeing the puzzle. Thus the increasing complexity of society has its objective dimension (increasing fragmentation) and its subjective dimension (graying of outlines). These two dimensions, further, are linked, distinct, and asymmetrical. They constitute one another, cannot be reduced to one another, and do not accord with one another.

In this way a logical, or more specifically, phenomenological problem comes to characterize a historical epoch and social condition: the secular. When the freedom to choose extends into lifestyle and worldview, the mechanism of freedom—its motives and operation—becomes radically opaque. Religion’s address of this problem, a component of multiple and varied traditions, enters into a realm of both higher stakes and paradoxical logic. I am reminded here of Niklas Luhmann’s theorization of religion, one born out of his contemplation of the secular: “In the realm of the observable (where else?), the difference between the observable and the non-observable must be made observable. [Religion] does not deal with the one or the other side of this distinction but with their form: with the distinction as such.”

Enter Spirituality

Seeing me alone one evening in Joshua Tree National Park, some campers invited me to join them around their campfire. When they asked me what I did, I told them that I studied religion. My neighbor’s eyes lit up. He made a broad, sweeping gesture toward the tumbleweed, cactus, red rock, and sand of the surrounding desert and said, “This is my church.”

The somewhat theatrical nature of the pronouncement betrayed a more-than-constative intention. It was a statement that recognized its oblique character, presenting that obliquity in full frame. I had the sense of being an audience. I am reminded here of Laurie Anderson’s description of her religious upbringing. She discussed her early encounters with the Bible whose “stories were completely amazing, about parting oceans and talking snakes. And people really seemed to believe these stories and would sit around and discuss them in the most matter of fact way. So in a way, I was introduced to a special local form of surrealism at an early age. And so there was always a question in my mind about what is actually true and what is just another art form.”

Of course there are many ways the sentence “This is my church” can make sense. But what if we interpret the sentence as absurd, something closer to “This is not a pipe”? What if we read the phrase “This is my church” when there is clearly no church in sight as an expression of surrealism of whatever special local form? What if our question is not about whether and how the statement is “actually true,” but instead about what kind of art form such a statement constitutes?





Not only did the man point to a church where there was no church. He also claimed a religion that was not a religion. He described himself as “spiritual” as opposed to “religious.” Again and of course, there are many ways that this distinction can make sense. But what if we take it as a paradox, a contradiction meant to stand unresolved? What then might it mean to have a church that is no church, a religion that is no religion?

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