Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It. By David Zahl. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2019. 211 pp. Hardcover, $26.99.
Every page of this book hit a nerve. David Zahl demonstrates how salvation by works has been rebranded and promoted by secular culture. To describe this phenomenon of secular religion and to translate it in language modern people can understand, Zahl coined a new term: seculosity.
Zahl argues that, despite what the polls may say, people have not become less religious. Instead, they have turned their desire “horizontally rather than vertically, at earthly rather than heavenly objects” (p. xxi). Instead of seeking the gifts of justification and righteousness before God through faith (cf. p. 62), seculosity tries to manage its guilt by seeking “enoughness” (Zahl’s language for self-justification) through secular pursuits such as careers, parenting, food, romances, and so on.
Drawing on the work of Jonathan Haidt, Zahl notes that “the human psyche instinctually seeks righteousness” (p. 143). Christian or not, we all seek to be vindicated. Rather than find that through faith in Christ, people look to objects of seculosity which have become “replacement religions” (p. 137).
In nine chapters, Zahl uncovers how each of the categories of replacement religions mentioned in the subtitle function analogously to the Mosaic Law, i.e., as demands for perfection (what Zahl calls “performanticism”) that we inevitably, terminally, fall short of meeting. Instead of enoughness, these pursuits create a deep sense of anxiety, guilt, and despair, or “not-enoughness.”
Each chapter has a similar structure.
Zahl quotes non-religious authors who make salvation claims about each “object of seculosity.” For example, in the chapter on food, Zahl quotes Alice Waters who said, “every single choice about food matters, at every level. The right choice saves the world” (pp. 124-125). So food is a secular salvation issue.
Then Zahl illustrates how these objects function as standards of performance (i.e., as law) that we fail to live up to. We buy organic, locally sourced, gluten-free, cage-free, farm-raised food (when we can afford it!). We shame each other for eating poorly or wrongly. We feel self-justified when we shop at the farmer’s market while our neighbors eat frozen dinners. We take pictures of our food so others can admire what, and how, we eat. But it is never quite enough to save ourselves or the planet. As with all law, there is always more to do, and we always come up short.
Finally, every chapter ends with a brief quote from Scripture or from a theologian who explains the “nonperformancist” approach (p. 133). For example, in the chapter on food, Zahl quotes Paul in 1 Cor 8:8, “Food will not bring us close to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” Zahl concludes, “We are not what we eat. And that is good news” (p. 134).
In each chapter, Zahl summarizes the way that secular religion operates as religions of law in the life of secular culture: “You may have noticed that the strands of seculosity we’ve explored thus far all operate more or less identically. They cast a vision of enoughness and then implore us to realize that vision with forbearance, grit, and hard currency, for the sake of existential reward. If you eat well enough, love well enough, parent well enough, stay busy enough, you will be enough. This is the promise at the heart of what we might call a religion of law, and it applies to every replacement religion under the sun” (p. 164). Later he writes, “Religions of law promise wholeness and peace, but as the preceding chapters illustrate, they ultimately deliver anxiety, self-consciousness, and loneliness. A culture awash in seculosity is therefore a culture of despair” (p. 166).
In the last chapter, Zahl proposes what to “do” about seculosity. He suggests three things. First, Christianity should speak more about death and eternal things. Second, Christianity should focus on human motivations, by which he means sinful motivations, with an emphasis on how this hurts the person himself (“Everyone you meet is in some kind of pain,” p. 190). Third, Christianity should be Christ-centered announcing “the good news that nothing that needs to be done hasn’t already been done” (p. 191).
I think the conclusion was a missed opportunity. Readers will likely find it to be the weakest part of the book. Here was a chance to follow up the devasting news of the law with the good news of what Christ has done (e.g., justification by faith in Christ apart from works, or the promise of eternal life). This was the chance for Zahl to translate the thick theology of grace found in, say, his father’s book, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life, to a reading audience who would be, by the end of Seculosity, very hungry for good news. Instead, we get the barest outlines of something we-know-not-what. Without a strong and clear explanation of the grace-based alternative to seculosity, I suspect most readers who are convicted by the book will simply commit themselves to new programs of self-improvement and self-acceptance, or some amorphous version of “grace,” because that is all they know—even if they attend church. Hopefully, though, they will be interested enough to seek out what Zahl has written about grace elsewhere and come to find it in Christ and Him alone.
Some JOTGES readers will be disappointed that Zahl’s book is very light on the Bible. They should understand this book is a work of sociology and social commentary, not Biblical theology. Nevertheless, I believe every pastor or ministry worker would benefit from reading it. Seculosity will help you understand how the pursuit of secular forms of righteousness are at work in your life and in the lives of those around you. Strongly recommended.
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society