A few years ago, when researching the relationship between faith and work in the lives of Christian corporate professionals, I was surprised to hear many of them describe themselves as mercenaries. “We’re not loyal to the company,” they would say. “We’re loyal to the cash.” They described their work environments as toxic spaces where everyone was out for themselves, pursuing upward mobility at any cost. You planned your exit from a company the day you arrived; you learned to mistrust everyone; you played your cards close to your chest and aimed to sabotage your co-worker before they did the same to you.
Yet these same professionals were lay leaders in their churches, trying to build communities of trust and healing. Most of them truly sought to live integrated and coherent lives—indeed, they thought they were doing so—but were straddling starkly opposing commitments in a way that had come to feel natural.
Fragmentation is a defining feature of modern life. Most of us find ourselves constantly pulled in different directions by our myriad social roles, which make demands not only on our time and energy but also on our sense of identity. We take this state of affairs for granted. Incoherence is now the norm.
Most of us find ourselves constantly pulled in different directions by our myriad social roles, which make demands not only on our time and energy but also on our sense of identity…. Incoherence is now the norm.
According to sociologists like Max Weber and Peter Berger, religion once served as the “sacred canopy” under which the various “value spheres” or institutional orders were subsumed: politics, the economy, the arts, and so on. But modernity entailed the functional differentiation of these spheres: now that each one has its own autonomy and inner logic, they argued, these logics would come into necessary conflict. The main loser in this battle would be religion.
While differentiation didn’t lead to the inevitable decline of religion that secularization theorists anticipated, it did create the conditions under which fragmentation became normal. Berger, recanting his earlier predictions that differentiation would lead to religious decline, still argued that “modernity is not necessarily secularizing [but] it is necessarily pluralizing.” And plurality, he insisted, poses a necessary challenge to religion. No longer the ordering force that governed the different spheres, it was consigned to become one sphere among many—one option among others. This situation, Charles Taylor noted, is the condition of religion in a secular age. We’re left, therefore, with what Weber aptly described as a sort of polytheism: “Today the routines of everyday life challenge religion. Many old gods ascend from their graves; they are disenchanted and hence take the form of impersonal forces. They strive to gain power over our lives and again they resume their eternal struggle with one another.”
It’s not merely the existence of multiple “options” that makes coherence a challenge, as though the problem were about some inability to make up our minds. Nor is it just that the plausibility of belief is weakened now that religion isn’t the default option. Rather, the problem is at the micro- and meso-levels: We now regularly inhabit a plurality of domains that socialize us into different and often incompatible ways of being—home, school, work, church, Twitter, the metaverse, and so on. Each of these is what Christena Nippert-Eng calls an “experiential realm,” with characteristic spaces, objects, roles, norms, and expectations.
We now regularly inhabit a plurality of domains that socialize us into different and often incompatible ways of being—home, school, work, church, Twitter, the metaverse, and so on.
In each of these domains, three cultural mechanisms are at work, subtly molding our sense of self through different cues about what “good” looks like in that realm, what we ought to value or desire, whom we ought to emulate, and how we ought to carry ourselves in order to navigate that domain with ease. Because of these mechanisms, maintaining a coherent sense of self in late modernity (or whatever we want to call our present epoch) feels nearly impossible. These mechanisms are narrative scripts, mimetic models, and habituation.
Humans are storytelling animals. We can’t do without inhabiting stories. Some of these are grand narratives such as Christian or liberal or American or Marxist narratives. The “American dream” script, for instance, invites us to inhabit a story in which any individual, regardless of his or her circumstances, can through sheer hard work and determination attain success—white picket fence and all. But we also often live micro-narratives, internalizing stories about what strategies to pursue to be a worthy or successful inhabitant of a particular domain. Think of any commercial you’ve watched lately: each of them provides you with a mini-story that you can readily inhabit, where you go from the frustrated person with the problem at the beginning of the ad to the smiling and fulfilled person at the end.
Narrative scripts provide us with information about who we are in a particular realm and the sort of person we should want to become—“a professional,” “a good mother,” “a disciple”—thus allowing us to evaluate progress, success, or failure. They are the sorts of things we tell ourselves (and sometimes others) to morally orient us to how we should act. They often contain scripted imperatives, which include qualitative distinctions of worth between what is noble or vile, worthy or unworthy.
For example, as one of the corporate professionals I interviewed told me, the conversation at work featured perpetual comparisons of how much real estate one owns, where one is aspiring to “jump” to next, whether one’s colleagues have been promoted to executive roles, or what types of cars one owns. These narrative scripts are the building blocks of a particular conception of professional selfhood, in which a “good” or “worthy” self is the self that has material wealth and a prestigious position.
The people I talked to would say the following sorts of things to themselves at work:
“You may not agree with it, but you need to do it to get that promotion.”
“The company doesn’t care about you, so why should you care about the company?”
“What matters at the end of the day is to become more employable.”
Meanwhile, at church, they would say things that seldom penetrated their workplace scripts:
“Jesus has to be Lord of all aspects of my life.”
“You have to embrace your cross and die to yourself.”
“I have to forgive even the people who have severely wronged me.”
Narrative scripts also derive from the “hidden curricula” in those realms regarding what it really takes to survive or succeed in an environment, which are often at odds with the formal scripts these institutions espouse. Your company may tell you, “We’re all one family here,” but your experience there teaches you (or a supportive colleague may warn you) that you need to avoid this person, suck up to this other person, and so on. These tensions only add to our sense of incoherence—and build our tolerance for it.
While narrative scripts are the sorts of things we can consciously articulate, we are also vitally shaped by models we unconsciously imitate. This process is part of the implicit socialization that takes place in any context with sustained interactions. In situations of flux and uncertainty—as people begin to navigate new experiential realms, like corporate life, for instance—people find their bearings by adopting qualities of those whom they perceive as “successful” in those contexts. As John Knapp notes, “Individuals at work tend to adopt the habits and attitudes of the group without recognizing the subtle coercion and pressures that cause them to do so.” How does this happen?
René Girard and more recently Luke Burgis have shown that our desires are unconsciously borrowed from others. The desire we experience toward any object, they argue, isn’t generated by the object in itself, but is borrowed from and mediated by someone else who desires the same object. At its root, then, the pursuit of the object is the pursuer’s attempt to become like the one who possesses it. Desires for positions and promotions are not simply for the material rewards they bestow. Rather, they are an attempt to gain a sense of worth that the aspirant feels she lacks herself but that the other person possesses. The object is only a proxy. As a result, such objects, once obtained, leave us disillusioned, while our desire shifts to something new that our mimetic model desires.
The scarcity of desired objects gives rise to mimetic rivalry. We see the effect of this in teams in which everyone has to work together to deliver results but only a small fraction will be promoted. Rivalry is rife in these workplaces. People feel the need to keep relationships with colleagues in the workplace at arm’s length, no matter how “friendly” their interactions are.
“You just make friends at work and you’re friends at work but you just stay as ‘work’ friends,” said one manager I interviewed. “That’s the best way to be, trust me!” Her colleagues, striving for the same promotions that she was, would use anything she inadvertently said or did to their advantage, like snitching to the boss about her mistakes.
Desire and rivalry generate a mimetic contagion as rivals become more and more alike. “The atmosphere in the workplace will be absorbed by you,” insisted one sales manager. “You will be like them also!”
The increasing similarity of rivals competing for the same objects of desire tends toward violence, and finds resolution in the selection and expulsion of a scapegoat. This allows the restoration of order, if only temporarily. Victims are usually those who are unable to play the game well. In many corporate evaluation systems, someone always has to be ranked at the bottom, revealing who needs to be reprimanded and possibly terminated. Managers and decision-makers fire the scapegoat while portraying themselves as powerless in the face of external rules and pressures. Such mimetic processes shape action within experiential realms in ways that keep external logics (such as those of religion) at bay.
Mimesis is inescapable. One of the curious things I observed over time was how some members begin to adopt the same expressions, tonal inflections, and bodily gestures of the leaders of their groups. This was particularly the case in prayer groups, when members started talking about spiritual matters. In interviews with some of them, there were distinct moments when it seemed to me as though the respondent was “channelling” the group leader—the leader’s idiosyncratic tonal inflection or hand gesture would suddenly emerge. As Girard might say, these members may feel a “lack of being,” the “fullness” of which they see in the leader. Thus they inadvertently begin to imitate them. And they are not doing this consciously; they’re not standing in front of a mirror trying to move their hands or heads in a certain way. What’s at work here is a mostly unconscious process through which one is trying to become the “model,” to gain access to the “mode of being” of the model—success or spiritual freedom or whatever they may perceive it to be.
We cannot choose whether to participate in mimesis; we can, at best, try to become aware of the models we are following, and try to choose which ones to follow instead.
We cannot choose whether to participate in mimesis; we can, at best, try to become aware of the models we are following, and try to choose which ones to follow instead. And it takes considerable work to re-educate and reorder our desires.
Dispositions developed through practice and regularly activated through environmental cues become habitual, eliminating the need for conscious reflexivity about ends. For instance, participating in a particular practice regularly (whether exercise or a spiritual practice) obviates the need to consciously motivate oneself to continue it; rather, not being able to perform it due to some new constraint makes one feel not quite oneself. Similarly, it becomes “natural” to carry oneself in a certain way in the corporate workplace, my interviewees told me; distrust becomes a disposition. It becomes “natural” to get into certain habits of spending time and money, and to develop concomitant tastes in sync with the lifestyles of one’s peers.
Such habituation, as Pierre Bourdieu has argued, produces a distinct set of perceptions, tastes, attitudes, and even gestures that feel natural, commonsensical. They help us develop a sense of the “game” that we’re playing by virtue of our roles in specific realms, and connect the “objective” or given structures with one’s subjective aspirations.
This habituation is domain-specific, and the more time we spend in a particular realm, the more sedimented and unconscious our habits become. Over time, each environment more quickly activates the disposition it has cultivated in us. This is why even after a weekend retreat where you finally experience a sense of being fully yourself, it feels impossibly difficult to carry that newfound sense of integration into your workplace or family, where you find yourself unable to break out of the mold that has become “you” in that context.
Thus, narrative scripts, mimesis, and habituation solidify our experience of each realm, and generate within these realms an internal consistency and centripetal force. Overcoming such cultural conditioning is difficult. But it’s not impossible.
Moving Toward Coherence
The real challenge for people of faith in maintaining a coherent identity in the modern world is not that the proliferation of secular realms weakens the plausibility of religious belief. Rather, it’s that we’re socialized in ways that produce distinct internal conversations, models of desire, and habits in these realms that are disconnected from—if not at odds with—our religious identities. These are powerful cultural blind spots. And they cannot be overcome by sheer willpower.
Being a coherent self is a practice. It requires contexts in which the practice can be regularly exercised. If there isn’t one place—or one person—with whom we can practice being fully ourselves, where all aspects of who we aspire to be and what matters to us can surface, then we’re bound to remain fragmented, and the world only gets the disparate pieces of us that the various realms we inhabit will cultivate.
This is why genuine friendship and community are vital for coherent selfhood. They provide contexts that model and hold us accountable to the selves we ought to be. We need them even to develop an imagination for what coherence looks like.
Genuine friendship and community are vital for coherent selfhood.
Most professionals I talked to, in spite of their religious commitments, had a thin conception of coherence. To integrate faith into the workplace, some thought it sufficient that their company formally espoused values that were aligned with their faith (“honesty,” “integrity,” and so on); others saw it sufficient that they had the ability to pray before meals or put up a Bible verse screensaver on their desktop at work. Otherwise, they all shared the same scripts and dispositions of their mercenary colleagues.
Over time, however, some of them began to identify that something was wrong. Their consciences began to chafe them; they felt a gnawing sense of disillusionment; they saw themselves becoming more like the colleagues they despised rather than the selves they aspired to be in their best moments. Often, they needed their spouses or close friends to point this out to them. Some gained such insights only after sufficient distance from their conditioning environments. For instance, a three-month religious retreat allowed one professional to, as he put it, build a “runway” to gain enough “escape velocity.” The distance enabled him to break the centripetal force of his workplace culture. Such occasions open up the possibility of developing new scripts, models, and habits in the direction of greater coherence. This included the decision to turn down a promotion and move into a less morally compromising role at work.
Becoming a coherent or integrated self certainly doesn’t mean overriding all differences between these realms. Nor does it mean that we don’t draw boundaries when it comes to the time and energy these realms demand of us. What it requires, however, is a conception of the right ordering of these realms, and some sense of what it means as a self to inhabit these realms in a way that reflects that ordering.
A necessary step toward coherence is recognizing its value, not simply for who we are today, but also for who we will become in the future. As James Clear has argued, “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.” To commit to the habits needed to live more coherently, it helps first to desire to be a more coherent self. Similarly, recognizing the models we are imitating requires brutal honesty with ourselves, and a concerted effort to re-educate our desires in the direction of those we ought to imitate.
Next, forming (or reforming) habits takes a lot more than willpower. We’re better off trying to reconfigure our environments. If we want to lose weight, it helps to spend time with people who like to exercise; if we want to run every morning, it helps if our running gear is right by our bedside. Similarly, to become more coherent selves, we need to put ourselves in conducive environments.
This has implications for how and with whom we spend our time. We need to regularly make the time and space in order to commit more deeply to the identity that we want to cultivate—this requires regular practices of silence and reflection—as well as evaluation of our current environments and the extent to which they support or impede the scripts, models, and habits that will bring us closer to a coherent self.
Given the power of the cultural sources of our fragmentation, we especially need sources of accountability outside of ourselves. For many professionals I interviewed, their church groups weren’t spaces where they could be honest about challenges to integration; rather they were spaces where they felt you had to demonstrate you were a good Christian. In more recent research, I found that people actively involved in churches rarely share their personal problems with each other. Transforming our faith communities into places of vulnerability and accountability, where we can honestly recognize and overcome the challenges we face in living coherent lives, is a critical task in our secular age.
Learn more about by Scott Aasman’s illustration featured on this essay: