Traffic. Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, and even my hometown of Tacoma are all struggling with it. The urban centers of Cascadia are growing at an exponential rate as thousands more move in each and every year.
As traffic worsens, debates between drivers and cyclists quickly become enflamed. Is the solution more lanes for cars or bikes? In local media the “bike vs. car” debate is generally viewed through economic, political, or environmental lenses.
I want to propose something that may, at first, seem rather odd. I want to propose that Christians view these driving vs. cycling debates through an alternative lens—a liturgical lens.
As a pastoral observer of these heated debates, I want to propose something that may, at first, seem rather odd. I want to propose that Christians view these driving vs. cycling debates through an alternative lens—a liturgical lens.
I want to argue that the daily acts of both driving and biking are daily rituals that have a massive impact on our hearts, lives, and culture
The philosopher James KA Smith has argued that secular cultures are full of what he calls “secular liturgies” that shape and form the way secular people see, live, and love in the world. In his book Desiring the Kingdom, Smith claims that ordinary activities such as going to the mall or attending a NASCAR race constitute “secular liturgies” that are deeply formative.
I would like to extend and apply Smith’s argument to the bikes vs. cars debate.
It is my contention that even more than shopping at the mall or attending a NASCAR race, the simple act of driving a car is one of the most pervasive and formative secular rituals in modern American culture. More than that, I will argue that driving shapes our hearts around the values of modernity. More than that, it trains us to be willing participants in the culture of modernity.
The Modern Ritual of Driving
When we turn the key in the ignition of our car, immediately a number of values associated with modern American culture are reinforced.
According to philosopher Albert Borgmann, the culture of modernity is characterized by three aspects:
- Unlimited Power over Nature: we are not limited by the limits of our bodies or the contingencies of distance, but can go as far as we want to go whenever we want to go. Driving a car is the ultimate way to transcend the limits of my humanity and exert my power over nature.
- Individualism: The unencumbered individual is the fundamental unit of human existence. Relational and communal ties are voluntary and weak and should not limit our individual freedom in any significant ways. We don’t need to coordinate our travel plans around any institutional considerations (bus schedules) nor do we need to time our trip with the movement of any community.
- Mass Uniformity: Efficiency and progress are maximized when we eliminate local contingencies and standardize and routinize all processes. This kind of power and autonomy is accessible to an ordinary person like myself because mass-produced cars are affordable and uniform road design makes driving almost anywhere very convenient.
Riding a Bike: A Counter-Cultural Ritual
The ritual of driving ties into and reinforces the culture of modernity. The ritual of biking circumvents and pushes against modernity.
• Unlimited power
• Individual choice
• Disconnect from environment
• Disconnect from time
• Competition with fellow motorists
• Awareness of reality of distance.
• Carrying capacity
• Awareness of environment and time
• Sense of community
The rituals of driving shape my heart to love and pursue the values of modernity. It encourages me to be indifferent to nature and dismissive of my fellow humans. While driving a car I can disregard the contingencies of my local geography. The existence of hills, darkness, or inclement weather in my neighborhood is of no concern to me when I am driving a car.
Driving reinforces the notion that I have earned this position of autonomy and enjoy this power because I have procured sufficient resources to own and operate an automobile and that I am sound enough of body to do so at will. The fact that there are others in my community who happen to be too poor, too infirm, too young, or too old to operate an automobile does not concern me because they are not as valuable or deserving as I am.
If driving one’s car is a dominant liturgy within our contemporary American culture, riding a bike can be a powerful counter-liturgy.
When we ride our bike, one of the first things that we notice is the reality of distance and our finitude. I have to think long and hard about any trip that is over a few miles because I may not have the strength to get there and back.
Riding my bike especially makes me aware of the terrain and setting in which I live, work, and play. I know that getting downtown will be fun because it is mostly downhill, but I also know that I will get a little sweaty getting back uphill. On my bike I am aware of the fact that sundown is much later in the summer than it is in the winter and I plan my trips accordingly.
When riding a bike, I am much more aware of the fact that I am living in a community of other people. I am much more inclined to smile and even wave to other pedestrians or cyclists when I am riding. This sense of connection to others works to some extent with people who are like me as well as people who are quite different from me culturally or socioeconomically.
As a Christian I interpret my experience of riding my bike through a theological lens. I see these activities of making me more aware of God’s creation and other humans that are made in His image. It also humbles me and reminds me that I am dependent upon God for more ways that I sometimes imagine.
Bike Lanes and Evangelism in the Pacific Northwest
But I also think that the experience of biking forms the hearts of those outside of the community of faith in ways that are more compatible with the gospel than when these individuals experience day to day life driving a car. That is to say, the act of biking can cause someone who does not yet have an explicit relationship with God to adopt a posture towards the world and towards others that is more God honoring and perhaps more receptive to the gospel. Now, it should also be said that sin is still powerfully at work in our world and can also cause a bicyclist to be arrogant and hostile towards others. But, I honestly think that is more the exception than the rule.
If James KA Smith is right, if secular rituals and liturgies are a pervasive aspect of our everyday life, shaping our hearts and lives, then I do think that the debate over investing public resources in automobile infrastructure vs. biking infrastructure can be seen as a liturgical issue for the church to take seriously.
Do we want to form citizens who think of themselves as the center of the universe, who are daily becoming more comfortable with income segregation? Do we want citizens who are more and more disconnected from the physical environment in which they live, work, and play?
Or do we want to encourage people to remove themselves from the isolated environment of cars and encounter the world and other people as embodied and finite creatures?
In short, what rituals do we want for our churches and our culture?