This last one is the most telling—How to Change the World—for this is, in essence, de Botton’s project across his latest nonfiction, Religion for Atheists and Art as Therapy: He’s aiming at nothing less than salvation for the masses. In his view, we are broken, hungry for meaning, desperate for a way to patch all the “holes” that have opened in our lives as a result of secularization. According to de Botton, “we have too often secularized badly,” leaving important things like community, wisdom, tenderness, and pessimism behind. De Botton’s attempts to fill these holes are not a departure from his past projects, so much as an intensification of them. After all, de Botton’s ascendancy began with How Proust Can Change Your Life, a charming “self-help” book that mined Proust’s massive tomes for lessons about love, suffering, and happiness. I admit, I loved it. (In fact, I’ve loved a lot of de Botton’s books, from The Architecture of Happiness to The Art of Travel.) Of late, however, de Botton has been stretching out, expanding beyond books—which he now openly declares “don’t work”—and into the material world, as evidenced by his brick and mortar School of Life.
While it’s become fashionable to mock his efforts and, even more, to attack the man himself in nasty reviews titled things like “Why Alain de Botton is a Moron”, there is something incredible about the success he’s accrued. For one thing, de Botton’s personal worth is estimated at seven million pounds. For another, his vision clearly appeals: Additional Schools of Life have opened or are forthcoming in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Belgrade, Istanbul, Melbourne, Paris, Rio, and Sao Paulo (to my eyes, a U.S. location is notably absent). Still more incredibly, significant institutions have begun to get on board with his vision. When I first read de Botton’s proposal in Religion for Atheists calling for a complete overhaul of our museums’ curatorial approach, such that works of art would be indexed and grouped “according to the concerns of our souls,” into a Gallery of Suffering, Gallery of Fear, Gallery of Self-Knowledge, and so on, I never imagined anyone would actually take him up on it. Yet de Botton’s “Art is Therapy” program has been implemented by the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, and Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario. With this kind of coverage and with his readers’ continuing buy-in (a three-hour class at the School costs 55£, a day-long intensive 250£), de Botton attains a level of success few writers ever dream: He manifests his vision in the world.
As a reader, and even more as a writer, one of de Botton’s recently manifested ideas stands out as particularly fascinating and implausible: the secular sermon. His secular Sunday Sermon series has been a foundational offering at the School of Life since its opening, and it’s de Botton’s concrete attempt to steal “the best bits” of the Catholic Mass and Protestant preaching tradition in order to deliver secular ideas to audiences hungry to hear them. If you check out the videos of the sermons posted in the school’s online Library, the first thing you’ll notice is that the audiences resemble no church congregation (or, for that matter, university lecture class). Four hundred strong, these people are young, bright-eyed, and visibly thrilled to be there.
Beyond that key difference, however, the Sunday event does unfold rather a lot like church: The doors of Conway Hall open at 11:20 AM, ushers pass out bulletins, the organ wheezes into song, and the choir leads the assembly in singing a topical “hymn,” like “Eye of the Tiger” for a sermon on success, or “Lean On Me” for a sermon on hope. Then the preacher takes to the pulpit, and the “congregation” settles in for a forty-minute listen, before they’ll stand for a second hymn and then repair to plates of “artist-decorated” cookies that will playfully illustrate the day’s theme. It’s charming, really, and the people there are all smiles, and who’d want to denigrate any program that induces four hundred adults to rise early on a weekend morning and shell out fifteen pounds to listen to a lecture?
Forgive me—a sermon. It’s a “sermon.”
But, why? What makes the text a sermon, exactly? I want to know because the genre, as de Botton is reinventing it, seems so close to the essay. The connection between the forms is as immediate as the range of titles the series’ preachers have selected: On Pessimism, On Optimism, On Fitting In, On Perspective, On Productivity, On Punctuality. It’s hard not to feel that you’re skimming the title page of a volume of occasional essays. And of course, the blur between the sermon and the essay goes back as far as you’d like: Reach back a century and a half and see how erstwhile preacher Emerson turned his Harvard Divinity School training to his public delivery of “Self-Reliance” and “Experience,” lectures (sermons?) which he published among his Essays: First and Second Series. As an essayist, and specifically as someone interested in spiritual writing, I wonder how the forms of sermon, lecture, and essay might usefully illuminate one another.
The first thing to note about de Botton’s secular sermon, “On Religion for Atheists,” delivered at Conway Hall on January 22, 2012, is that it certainly cannot lay claim to any recognizable form of the sermon—beyond, that is, its book-ending by music and cookies. It in no way resembles the sermon’s traditional four-part structure, in which a reading of scripture is followed by a brief explication of the “text,” a more lengthy elucidation of the “doctrine,” and then a final application of its “use” for listeners’ lives. This structure for the sermon, first outlined in William Perkins’ 1592 The Art of Prophesying, remained the expected mode of preaching until the advent of extemporaneous styles in the late eighteenth century, with the Methodist revivals and the rise of African-American preachers. No, if anything, when judged on the question of form, de Botton’s sermon looks even more like a lecture than before. In the opening minute, even he slips up: “I’m going to get a painful moment in this talk—in this sermon—over and done with now,” he fumbles, as if he can’t quite recall which one he’s giving up there. Significantly, his TED talk, “Atheism 2.0,” is nearly identical in content, structure, and mode to this “sermon” given a half-year later from the Conway Hall pulpit. Looked at side-by-side, the TED talk and the Sunday sermon give no clue as to the unique possibilities of each form.
De Botton offers his answer to the distinction between sermon and lecture around the eleventh minute of his sermon. He explains that while a lecture “aims to impart information,” a sermon aims to foster conversion. As he puts it, a sermon “wants to change your life, or at least your week, or at least Sunday.”
Conversion. This must be the promise that drives some of those four hundred young adults to Conway Hall on a Sunday morning. Some surely come because it’s a hip date destination, or because the speaker is a writer they admire, or because someone talked them into it; but surely some of them come for the reason de Botton earnestly assumes: because they’re hoping to hear not just an informative talk, but an inspiring sermon. One that not only communicates the imperative “You must change your life,” but also will, itself, be the moment that ushers in a new beginning.
The question that faces each of the Sunday preachers is the same one that confronts any writer who hopes to move readers: How do I accomplish this life-transforming conversion in the heart of the reader? In Religion for Atheists, de Botton locates his answer in the African-American preaching tradition, especially the Pentecostal and Baptist denominations. “However powerful any proposition may be,” he suggests, “it becomes so much more so in front of a crowd of 500 people who exclaim in unison after every point: ‘….Thank you, Jesus.’ ‘…Thank you, Saviour.’ ‘….Thank you, Christ.’ ‘….Thank you, Lord.’” De Botton’s appreciation of this tradition goes on to become less bald, though he doesn’t really do justice to the long, rich history of African-American preaching and oratory (or address the questionable morality of appropriating it). He envisions how a similar approach would unfold in our university lecture halls: “How much more expansive the scope of meaning in Montaigne’s essays would seem if a 100-strong and transported chorus were to voice its approval after every sentence.” And in case our imaginations cannot stretch so far, de Botton fills in what would happen next: “only then will [the] now-tearful students fall to their knees, ready to let the spirit of some of the world’s most important ideas enter and transform them.” Although de Button presents these scenes with his tongue in his cheek, he’s sincere about his basic vision: Secular ideas need to steal religious modes of communication.
Can I be blunt? De Botton’s vision is richer than his own execution of it in his Sunday sermon. Midway through, he apologizes, with a blue-eyed twinkle at the crowd, that he’s “still learning” the oratorical strategies religion has used to bend believers’ hearts. And his audience chuckles forgivingly (I joined them online, four thousand miles away and nearly three years later, iPad bobbling). Yet although de Botton himself does not adopt these strategies when given the occasion, he also cannot resist pushing his proposition for call-and-response lectures into the crowd, “Feel free to intervene,” he laughs. And he jokes about how he dreams that classes at the School of Life will end with people shouting: “Thank you, Plato! Thank you, Jane Austen! Thank you, Shakespeare!” The camera pans to his audience: laughing faces of a crowd intent on the ideas being shared, but whose knees, certainly, remain unbent. There was not a tearful conversion in sight.
The disparity between de Botton’s hopes for the secular sermon and this sermon’s execution left me wondering: Can a sermon be secular and still be a sermon? When does it become simply a lecture? Although de Botton’s whole premise is that the forms of religion are too useful to be wasted on religious content, I can’t shake the feeling that, in the instance of the sermon, as in many other propositions in Religion for Atheists, de Botton is ransacking the museum, pulling the art off the walls, and keeping only the frames. When he rehangs them, it is any wonder we don’t weep as he hopes? Something crucial is missing.
My wrestle with de Botton and the sermon tradition brought me, serendipitously, to an address given by the great twentieth-century rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, at a panel on ecumenical education. In “What We Might Do Together,” Heschel diagnoses the problem contemporary religions face in the wake of the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, and the terrors of nuclear annihilation: “The issue is not empty pews, but empty hearts.” Here, he and de Botton are in agreement. Our hearts are empty and need filling. But while de Botton blames bad secularization, Heschel blames bad religion. “We suffer from the fact that our understanding of religion today has been reduced to ritual, doctrine, institution, symbol, theology.” These staples of religion are, in fact, the very ones that de Botton proposes we mine for secular culture. But Heschel terms these “pedestrian categories,” judging that they “will not lead us to the summit.” Even more emphatically, he assures us that a focus on such categories alone will “stifle all intimations of the holy.”
With that word, “holy,” a breath opens in my soul—not a hole, as de Botton has it, but an openness, which is perhaps a hole filled with a sense of promise, or presence. Yes. Holiness, conversion, and transcendence, these intangibles are surely among the biggest troughs opened in our culture through secularization. But can religious forms, without religious content, fill them? “To fill a Gap,” Emily Dickinson instructs, “Insert the Thing that caused it – / Block it up / With Other – and ‘twill yawn the more –.” Rather than borrowing religion’s “pedestrian categories” to try to fill our secular holes, as de Botton does, perhaps instead we need to seek the deeper substance that religious forms themselves aim to foster. Dickinson is right, “You cannot solder an Abyss / With Air –.” And so Heschel calls that deeper substance out: astonishment, the ineffable, mystery. For he knows what de Botton does not seem to get, that “the darkness is but a challenge and a passageway.” So I think of secular essays I have read that come closer to the precipice of the holy than de Botton’s expository, secular sermon: the conversion narrated in Lia Purpura’s “Autopsy Report,” the speechless wonder of Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse.” The ineffable might be better reached through the via negativa these writers trod than de Botton’s practical, even “pedestrian” approach. Or as Heschel puts it: “God is never an explanation, it is always a challenge.”
I think of de Botton’s brightly lit hall, the artist-decorated cookies, his earnest desire to save our souls. If his answer feels wrong, the plight he’s identified is real. And I agree with Heschel, that “what is at stake” in our disappearing religions “is not only articles of the creeds, paragraphs of the law; what is at stake is the humanity of man, the nearness of God.” And suddenly, it seems as if he is speaking straight to de Botton, straight to me: “God is a problem alive when the mind is in communion with the conscience, when realizing that in depth we are receivers rather than manipulators. The word God is an assault, a thunder in the soul, not a notion to play with.”
This is all that is required for a sermon—or for that matter, all that is required of any writing aiming to produce conversion: It must be an assault, a thunder in the soul.
Kristin LeMay is the author of I Told My Soul to Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson, and the translator of François Bovon’s The Last Days of Jesus. Her work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Harvard Theological Review, TriQuarterly, and other magazines.