Did anyone actually see Miss Sloane in theaters? I remember seeing a trailer for it some moon cycles ago, but never did hear much buzz about it. That is, until last weekend, when, after some coaxing from my sister, I watched it on Amazon.

In any case, you don’t have to see the movie to know, essentially, who Miss Sloane is. You’ve likely encountered her “type” before, whether in movies or daily life. She’s a ruthless fast-talker, wicked-smart, but terribly lonely. The kind of person some would call a strong, independent woman and others would call an obsessive-compulsive conniver. A notorious lobbyist in DC, her career relies on rational argument and tongue-twisting wit. Personal experience, in her mind, is no basis on which to form an opinion; it’s logic, not emotion, that governs her life.[1]

Regardless of Miss Sloane’s personal beliefs (which are ultimately pretty unclear), the conditions for whatever beliefs she may have are made evident throughout the film. Those conditions, the “given” aspects of her world, belong to a perfectly rational, thoroughly un-magical universe. Her world is “disenchanted.” Which helps account for her complete disinterest in anything even remotely smacking of transcendence—relationship, emotion, etc. She is impermeable, uninfluenced by anything other than cold hard facts… Whatever traces of vulnerability that may crack her strong, autonomous shell are readily suppressed.

This designation, of a disenchanted modernity, was recently illuminated for me by James K. A. Smith’s book, How (Not) to Be Secular, in which he distills Charles Taylor’s seminal work, A Secular Age. Smith (with Taylor) explores the shift from an “enchanted” world—a divinely ordered “cosmos” in which religious belief was the default—to the modern world, in which a-theism is not only possible but expected.

Reading all this, I was, of course, reminded of a scene from The Lion King in which Timon, Pumbaa, and Simba lay out in a field, looking up at the stars:

PUMBAA: Timon, ever wonder what those sparkling dots are up there?

TIMON: I don’t wonder, I know.

PUMBAA: What are they?

TIMON: They’re fireflies. Fireflies that got stuck up in that big bluish black thing.

PUMBAA: Oh, gee, I always thought they were balls of gas burning billions of miles away.

TIMON: Pumbaa, with you, everything’s gas.

Eventually Simba admits, with some reluctance, that he once imagined “the great kings of the past” inhabited the stars. Timon and Pumbaa, being the enlightened animals that they are, howl with laughter. But there you have it: “the great shift” in Western civilization over the last 500-or-so years. If the kings of the past aren’t watching over us, rooting for us, giving us purpose, what in the world are we living for? If we live in a disenchanted “universe”—not a mysterious, divinely-ordered “cosmos”—where does our significance come from?

Smith investigates how this shift came about:

How, in a relatively short period of time, did we go from a world where belief in God was the default assumption, to our secular age in which belief in God seems, to many, unbelievable? This brave new world is not just the old world with the God-supplement lopped off; it’s not just the world that is left when we subtract the supernatural. A secular world where we have permission, even encouragement, to not believe in God is an accomplishment, not merely a remainder. Our secular age is the product of creative new options, an entire reconfiguration of meaning.

As both Taylor and Smith insist, our history, albeit arcing from religious to secular, is not a “subtraction story.” Western civilization didn’t wake up one day, messy-haired and jaded, after a long night on the town, announcing, “I just don’t believe this crap anymore.” Make no mistake, the disenchanted world believes; but not in something transcendent.

Smith explains:

…it’s not that our secular age is an age of disbelief; it’s an age of believing otherwise. We can’t tolerate living in a world without meaning. So if the transcendence that previously gave significance to the world is lost, we need a new account of meaning—a new “imaginary” that enables us to imagine a meaningful life within this now self-sufficient universe of gas and fire. That “replacement” imaginary is what Taylor calls “exclusive humanism”…

With what, exactly, have we replaced the enchantedness of the cosmos? To some degree, the answer seems to be…ourselves. And, well, that’s a lot of pressure!

Note that this shift doesn’t necessarily distinguish Christians from non-Christians. Regardless of our churchy affiliations, most of us live among the conditions of a disenchanted world: sure, we may believe some of the same things as the early church but likely for different reasons, and certainly under different circumstances.

The way we discuss politics reveals one such condition. Consider how it is no longer acceptable to be uninformed. That our opinions matter, that we must be informed individuals suggests that we must, first of all, be individuals. But this hasn’t always been so.

Last week, The Atlantic published an article entitled, “Reading the Bible Through Neuroscience.” In it, Sigal Samuel interviewed James Kugel, a biblical scholar whose recent book, The Great Shift, unpacks much of these themes. Primarily, Kugel discusses the difference between the sufficient “individual” self and the more fluid, communal self. “If anything,” Sigal writes, “our modern Western notion of the bounded, individual self is the anomaly; most human beings throughout history conceived of the self as a porous entity open to intrusions. In fact, much of the rest of the world today still does.” To describe the non-Western self, Kugel uses the term “semipermeable,” meaning, it’s vulnerable to external influence. “Porous,” is the term Taylor uses.

True enough, there remain traces of the semipermeable self within the church, which has found itself on both sides of this shift, at different points in history. Nadia Bolz-Weber said in a 2013 interview:

I don’t think faith is given in sufficient quantities to individuals. It’s given in sufficient quantities to communities. So that whole thing that God won’t give you more than you can handle…I think it’s like—my husband’s from Texas, so he says, like, “God won’t give you more than y’all can handle.” Faith is a team sport. It’s not this individual competition, right? People can be tormented by, like, “I don’t feel like I have enough faith…my belief should be stronger.” But it’s kind of like with the creed, people will say, “Well, I can’t say the creed, because I just don’t know if I believe every line.” I’m like, “Oh my God, who believes every line of the creed?!”…but in a large group of people, for each line of the creed, someone believes it. So you’re covered, right?

Nadia’s sentiments exhibit that collective identity that has formed so much of our history and certainly the history of Christianity. Believing in this way suggests some sort of divine order by which one person can metaphysically “cover” another.

Kugel’s study of the biblical writers emphasizes this. He argues that if ancient Israelites were to meet us today, they would be mostly shocked by our sense of individual self-importance:

…apart from our living in a world in which God plays no obvious part, they would be astounded at encountering a sense of self that is just huge, virtually filling the heavens. Each of us would seem to them so important, so big! Their sense of self was far more collective than ours; their own existence was tightly connected to that of siblings and cousins and clan-mates far and wide, and who they were was very much defined by who they came from as well as by their inherited social roles. All this, quite apart from semipermeability, simply made them much smaller than we are today. In fact, from this perspective the semipermeable mind was just another aspect of human smallness. I think the challenge facing religions in the West nowadays is to try to help people shrink down to a more realistic size, and then to let the divine take over where the human leaves off.

If we were to shrink our selves, we might be freed to say of politics, “Well, my God, I don’t know.” We might not be embarrassed to say, “I didn’t hear about that.” We might likewise be freed to break a few rules, to make some mistakes, because we would be small enough to be, in Nadia’s words, “covered.” I once read something from an early Christian mystic who wrote that all he wanted was to become like a drop of water dissolving into a glass of wine—the wine, of course, being God. I can’t remember who wrote that, but I have never forgotten it.

But say I’ve tried that. Say I’ve tried to dissolve, to shrink away, and all I’ve gotten is self-loathing and, ultimately, more self-focusing. The more I’ve tried to abandon my self, the more consumed by that self I’ve become. True, there is something innately good, some treasure to be found, in the humility of smallness…but I can never seem to get myself there. If it happens, it is a gift.

When Miss Sloane gets into a bit of trouble, and is put on trial before the Senate, she intends to sit quietly, to plead the fifth, to stay small before the jury. She tries, she tries, she tries…but she can’t stop herself from speaking up. She defends, accuses, asserts. While in theory it may be freeing to dissolve, practically, it’s not so easy. It is so hard to say “I do not matter.” To some degree, we need to matter; I, for one, want to mean something.

So one final thing about Miss Sloane. Having no use for relationships, but needing, at the same time, to keep her isolation at bay, she regularly hires a “man of the night.” Ay caramba, Miss Sloane! Since she’s a public personality, with news anchors following her every move, her “correspondence” with this fellow becomes the ultimate threat to her career. His very existence risks undoing all that she’s worked for. But when the time comes for him to rat her out, he doesn’t. He doesn’t knock her off her high horse, or call her down from her self-made throne. He doesn’t shrink her. Instead, he defends her, comes to her side, and suggests that for this little while, she is not alone.

[1] Off the top of the head, she actually reminds me a lot of Chastain’s Maya from Zero Dark Thirty.