In the first half of the 17th century, Rene Descartes put forth a new method of philosophy, inaugurating what would come to be called the modern age. His philosophy was driven largely by skepticism about the reigning religious and philosophical traditions of his day, and his method was geared toward weakening their influence. Over the last four centuries, Decartes’s work has become deeply embedded in Western culture. As a result, we are increasingly alienated from the places, stories, and traditions through which our ancestors made sense of the world.
Descartes’s philosophy has a surprisingly contemporary feel in the 21st century. A recent re-reading of his work gave me the sense that he might feel right at home with those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” (or simply, the “nones”). Like many nones today, Descartes likely saw the senseless devastation that was done in the name of religion. (He was, after all, born less than a century after the dawn of the Reformation and undoubtedly knew the religious violence that saturated Europe in the early 17th century.) Today, we still see our share of religious violence and inconsistent or abusive behavior by prominent religious leaders, which rightly makes us shudder, if not roil with anger.
David Dark is sympathetic to all these anti-religious emotions, and yet in his new book Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious, he suggests that try as we might, we cannot completely sever ourselves from religion. Branding someone as “religious” in public discourse, he observes, often becomes a surefire way to dismiss what that person is saying. Dark wants to drain the stigma from “religion,” restoring its status as a meaningful term for the relationships and connections by which we all make sense of the world. Our English word religion, he reminds us, comes from Latin roots meaning “to bind again.” “For my money,” he says, “religion is the farthest-reaching readily available concept for looking hard and honestly at our own lives, for really leveling with ourselves and for abandoning our dysfunctional ideas for better ones, truer, livelier, more sustainable ways of negotiating our existence.”
Religion, as Dark describes it, points us toward not only a richer and more meaningful life as individuals, but also toward a life more deeply embedded with that of others and with that of the creation as a whole. “The stories and songs that give us life,” he writes, “that render us more attentive to the lives we’re living—what are they if not religious?”
Born Again and Again
The sort of religion that Dark proposes—with more questions than it has answers—is hardly the sort of neat and tidy faith that is common in many corners of evangelicalism. Even so, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious is a deeply evangelical book, stirring our imaginations with a poignant vision of God and creation that is decidedly good news. Just as God is trinity, three beings in one interdependent community, so we too have been created to flourish within the inescapable “network of mutuality that makes our eating and breathing and welfare possible.”
Dark emphasizes our need to be born again. Granted, for him this means less a one-time event than an ongoing commitment to follow in the Way of Jesus. He thus cautions us about being too quick to wear the label Christian, because we are always being refined through the process of being born again and again. Christian is an identity, he argues, that we are always becoming, yet never fully attaining—at least on this side of heaven. The humility driving these convictions is refreshing, especially in an age when presidential candidates—and so many sons and daughters of Western culture—are superficially quick to don the mantle of Christianity. He reminds us of Maya Angelou’s description of herself as a “practicing Christian,” an apt image of the already-and-not-yet paradox of Christian identity.
Good religion, Dark argues, is our guide on this journey. It clears away the obstacles that keep us from the sort of inter-connected flourishing for which we were created. Indeed, Dark excels in precisely this sort of obstacle-clearing. He is one of the keenest and most eloquent social critics working in the Christian tradition today. Consider, for instance, his naming of the destructive powers of speed:
[There’s] hardly a sin I can think of that isn’t somehow born of misperceived need, of haste and its accompanying inattentiveness, of some feverish variation once more of Hurry up and matter! Being true—ringing true—will have to involve a slow work of recognition and resistance to that mad and nervy, deluding spirit. To begin to be true is to try to choose—or risk choosing—presence over progress, really showing up, and taking the time to wonder what we’re really up to, what we’re doing and why.
In a similar, critical vein, Dark takes on the modern rejection of history that we have inherited from Descartes and his successors. Borrowing a turn of phrase from novelist Ralph Ellison, he argues that we should “choose our ancestors carefully.” Part of religion’s task in the 21st century, of binding together that which has been ripped apart by the forces of modernity, is understanding those who gone before us and whose lives are essential in helping us make sense of the world.
Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious could be read as Dark’s own attempt at religious memoir, a confession of the delightfully wide-ranging host of ancestors on whom he himself relies. In this way, it is a fitting follow-up to his previous books, including The Gospel According to America (2005) and The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (2009). Throughout all his books, Dark is quick to bear witness to the theological, literary, and diverse pop culture luminaries who guide him. This new book is no different: On one page he is telling the story of Jesuit peace activist Daniel Berrigan, on the next he turns to reflect on TV’s Breaking Bad. Ursula Le Guin, Doctor Who, David Bazan, Phyllis Tickle, Don Draper, Wendell Berry, a particular sketch from Saturday Night Live: they are but a small sample of the great cloud of witnesses to which Dark appeals.
A Vital Conversation
Dark has given us a book that is beautiful and timely, one that initiates a vital public conversation about the nature of religion and its benefits. I suspect many of those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” would discover a winsome conversation partner, even if they do not agree with the way he defines all his terms. Because of its conversational nature, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious begs to be read and discussed in churches, coffee shops, homes, and libraries across North America.
On a few occasions, I wish the book had gone a little deeper into certain practicalities. How, for instance, can churches help cultivate the sort of “good religion” Dark envisions, especially among those who are seemingly quite content with today's prevailing forms of consumer religion? That sole qualm aside, Dark has given us a compelling and meaningful understanding of how religion can lead to a more connected life of flourishing. And I’m not ashamed—indeed, I’m delighted—to wave that banner in the public square.
C. Christopher Smith lives on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis, and is founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is co-author of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (InterVarsity Press), and author of the forthcoming Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (InterVarsity Press).