Convenience and Modern Christianity

From Tim Wu’s “The Tyranny of Convenience,” at the New York Times:

The dream of convenience is premised on the nightmare of physical work. But is physical work always a nightmare? Do we really want to be emancipated from all of it? Perhaps our humanity is sometimes expressed in inconvenient actions and time-consuming pursuits.

I find it interesting that so much thinking today (especially the thinking and writing the revolves around the modern condition and our relationship with technology) is concerned with what it means to be human. We are all asking ourselves what true humanity consists of, and whether the infinitely speedy progress of the technological and informational revolutions are conducive to us realizing our potential as human beings.

So alluring is this vision that it has come to dominate our existence. Most of the powerful and important technologies created over the past few decades deliver convenience in the service of personalization and individuality. Think of the VCR, the playlist, the Facebook page, the Instagram account. This kind of convenience is no longer about saving physical labor — many of us don’t do much of that anyway. It is about minimizing the mental resources, the mental exertion, required to choose among the options that express ourselves. Convenience is one-click, one-stop shopping, the seamless experience of “plug and play.” The ideal is personal preference with no effort…

As task after task becomes easier, the growing expectation of convenience exerts a pressure on everything else to be easy or get left behind. We are spoiled by immediacy and become annoyed by tasks that remain at the old level of effort and time.

I also wonder at the ramifications of the capitalistic, technological system that undergirds Western society on expressions of Christian faith (both communal and individual). The race for convenience that lies at the heart of modern notions of “progress” also affects how we view what life ought to be like, and that includes not only what we place our faith in but how we express that faith. Why go to a church that demands something from me — my time, my energy, my resources — not to mention is a severe inconvenience on my day-to-day life, when the other church down the street conveniently doesn’t require that? Why buy into a version of the Christian faith that demands that I lose myself, die to myself, give up my desires for the sake of the good of my neighbor when there are plenty of other versions of Christianity that build up my self-esteem and tell me God wants what’s best for me (and what’s best for me is obviously money and privilege and satisfaction!)?

The infinite demand of Christianity is inconvenient, and I’m not sure we’re ready to admit that. I know I prefer to watch Netflix every evening, go to church on the Sundays when it works better for my schedule, and to have every spare minute outside of work to myself. I know it’s highly Kierkegaardian of me, but if you ask me what I want right now, I’d say, “Quite simply, I want honesty.” Honesty that, in the modern world, we (especially Christians!) are more interested in comfort and convenience, and not really all that interested in taking up the task of actually becoming Christians.

Forgetting How to Read

Books were once my refuge. To be in bed with a Highsmith novel was a salve. To read was to disappear, become enrobed in something beyond my own jittery ego. To read was to shutter myself and, in so doing, discover a larger experience. I do think old, book-oriented styles of reading opened the world to me – by closing it. And new, screen-oriented styles of reading seem to have the opposite effect: They close the world to me, by opening it.

I Have Forgotten How to Read” – Michael Harris

Harris’s words cut deep. My research and writing on Kierkegaard, while satisfying in some ways, has been a constant, subtle rebuke of my intellect. Every time I sit down to read (especially when I was reading Either/Or… my God!), I’m reminded, not only of my lack of focus, but of my relative inability to follow a long train of thought that circles around a conclusion in order to make a point. In internet-modernity, we have been trained to scan the words of a document or a journalistic piece for its facts, its tweetable thoughts, its “main idea.” Harris again:

The resonance of printed books – their lineal structure, the demands they make on our attention – touches every corner of the world we’ve inherited. But online life makes me into a different kind of reader – a cynical one. I scrounge, now, for the useful fact; I zero in on the shareable link. My attention – and thus my experience – fractures. Online reading is about clicks, and comments, and points. When I take that mindset and try to apply it to a beaten-up paperback, my mind bucks.

Harris indicates later that it’s actually surprising that we were ever readers of print books at all. Our “natural” state, he says is one of distraction and a shifting gaze because of the environment in which humans evolved (needing to survey the landscape for danger, etc.). This, I think, is a short-sell on what humans are meant to be. It may be our “natural” tendency to be distracted. It may be that our animal instincts pull us toward the inability to form coherent and significant thoughts, and understand the thoughts of other humans. But an understanding of humanity that believes that humans are more than their natural instincts should instead interpret the current state of affairs as though humans are missing something.

Coincidentally, that’s exactly what Harris indicates by writing this piece. Despite the fact that he believes humans are perhaps reverting to their “natural” states, his bemoaning of the current state of affairs indicates that he knows a deeper truths about what humans ought to be.

The Paradox at the Core of Being

The great mystery in which we have all been invited to take part is the same mystery that existed from the very beginning. It, in itself, is not transcendent (i.e., out of reach) or lofty. No – rather, it is right here, in our midst. We spend our time theorizing, abstracting, and objectifying that reality in order to gain an understanding of it, to attempt gaining a purer knowledge of reality “as it is.” But the mystery of existence – the reality of which we desire to catch a glimpse – is right here, and cannot be objectified!

Kierkegaard says of a mystery like this, “The news of the day is the beginning of eternity!” (Philosophical Crumbs, 128). What he means to say is that that the reality of the incarnation, or God-in-time, is the reality we find in the particulars of our day, the moments that seem so ordinary as to be insignificant. But it is in those very moments of insignificance that we catch a glimpse of the significance of reality. Thus, at the heart of reality, in the very core of the miracle of being itself, we find a paradox.

Defending Fideism

As far as I can remember, I’ve never done research for a project, only to be surprised at the position I came to hold and defend. That seems to be happening with my thesis. I’ve always been a fan of Kierkegaard, but I am finally getting the chance to dive into some of his work through my research. The more I read his work and the scholarly work addressing Søren Kierkegaard, the more I find that my position on the tension between faith and knowledge, between religious belief and rationality, are very similar to (what we think are) his. The problem is, his view is essentially a version of fideism.

Fideism, as such, is not necessarily a problem. The real problem is the term’s use as a pejorative over the last century and a half or so. It’s often hurled as an epithet towards people who unthinkingly or irrationally accept religious faith despite — or sometimes even because of! — the apparent absurdity of the belief itself.

Kierkegaard, however, in his earlier philosophical work address some of the issues inherent in human conceptions of “knowing” and the different ways in which humans can “know” anything at all. For him, absolute knowledge of something can only happen in the abstract realms of mathematics and logic — e.g., the law of non-contradiction, or mathematical tautologies. Otherwise (especially in the realm of ‘objective’ knowledge about the world), knowledge is always an approximation to reality. We know that sense experience is flawed can often give us contradictory information about how reality “really is”; therefore, we know that we can never hold pure, certain knowledge about reality (or actuality) as it really is. And here, we’re only talking about the phenomenal (natural) realm.

The category of objective knowledge, for Kierkegaard, necessarily excludes the noumenal realm — the sphere of life that includes religious belief, ethics, etc. The limits of our rationality not only includes doubt about how certain we can be about knowledge of the natural world, but it can’t even touch this other realm. Kierkegaard therefore posits that we have a different kind of knowledge about this realm, and it is the inner realm of subjectivity. Further, due to the nature of the realms we’re discussing (religious belief and ethics as primary examples), subjective knowledge, by nature, cannot only include cognitive awareness or affirmation of such norms. True ethical/religious, subjective knowledge requires a confluence of action along with cognitive affirmation.

Basically, for religious “knowledge” to be “true,” you are required to change your actual life accordingly. Actions must line up with beliefs.

The problem here is that many people treat ethical/religious knowledge as if it is essentially the same as the kind of knowledge we can obtain about the natural world. They might function similarly (we gain “approximate” knowledge about the world and call it knowledge, though we may not be purely certain about that knowledge; we also “approximate” ourselves toward ethical/religious truths), but objectivity requires us, in some sense, to abstract ourselves away from the object which we are attempting to “know” about. Subjectivity, on the other hand, by its very nature, does not allow us to abstract ourselves away from the object we are attempting to know. Subjective knowledge means, on some level, a sense of an immediate relation to the object in question.  This further means that we have no way of rationally objectifying religious beliefs to determine their objective truth. Ergo, objective knowledge of religious beliefs is impossible. Further, this requires us to take a “leap of faith” regarding our religious beliefs. Human rationality (especially objectivity) only takes us so far, and the jump to subjective knowledge means that any such move is outside of the realm of rational inquiry or investigation.

Ergo: I’m defending fideism. Rational fideism, but fideism nonetheless.

Bottom-Up or Top-Down Knowledge

(Some thoughts while reading James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Relativism?)

Modern frameworks regarding knowledge often begin with attempting to drill down to core, fundamental concepts about reality. The thinking goes like this: if humans can prove that there is an objective reality, then individuals can be convinced of that objective reality via logical means. Further, this will produce an objective, universal set of knowledge which is not only logical, but the only appropriate understanding of reality. From this point, it is assumed, humans ought to be able to build a community, a society, a civilization that has shared values — all because of these core, fundamental concepts of reality that are shared across the entire human race.

This is a bottom-up understanding of reality, one which requires that all humans share the same understanding of reality as-it-is in order for a society to logically share and build a fair and just world.

What if knowledge can be thought of in a “know-how,” and not a “know-that” sense? In other words, perhaps, we ought to think of our conception of how knowledge is built upside-down from the modern framework. Language describes our understanding of reality, but language is inherently a social, shifting phenomenon. Therefore our perception of reality itself is inherently social and shifting. This doesn’t mean that reality itself is contingent, simply that our knowledge of reality is contingent upon the communities in which we participate. As long as the language we use to describe reality (and the systems we build upon that language-reality conception) functions, then it is theoretically an appropriate view of reality.

One might argue that there are better and worse conceptions of reality as-it-is, and that’s fair. But the more meaningful work might not be attempting to drill down into the fundamental, core concepts of reality to build a universal understanding of particulars to ensure that everyone believes the same thing about reality as it is. Perhaps the better work is building communities which not only share a vision of the common good, but one that shares a common project among its participants that does not require uniformity in belief about reality. This common participation and vision may in fact end up producing an unexpected unified vision of reality among the participants that a bottom-up framework cannot produce.

Make Goals, Not Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions kind of suck, and I think we all know that. Probably most of us have the experience of making a resolution to “lose weight” or “eat healthier” or “exercise more” or “read more” or “watch less TV” or… (the list could quite literally be infinite). The implication of this repetition every year, however, implies that we find some inherent goodness in the notion of resolving to be better. I find myself around every new year in a pensive mood, dreaming of the person I’d like to be, the things I’d like to do. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I think it can be meaningful for us to decide there is something we’d like to accomplish within a given amount of time.

All of that said, this year, I decided to make some goals for myself for the year 2018 (not resolutions!). These were tangible things that I wanted to be able to look back on in December of this year and say “that’s something that I did.” Resolutions are typically vague or ambiguous, which makes them either difficult to recount or difficult to stick with. My goals for this year are as follows:

  1. Finish my M.A. and ace my thesis (I’ll admit – the finishing the degree is a bit of a “gimme,” but it’ll still be quite the accomplishment).
  2. Complete a 365-picture per day project with Elaine (blog/Instagram and details to follow shortly!).
  3. Keep a daily log.
  4. Build a backyard fence and do a landscaping renovation for the backyard (and the front yard if time/money allow).
  5. Eventually work up by the end of the year to the following weekly exercise routine (with exceptions on tough weeks):
    • Run four times per week
    • Yoga twice per week
    • Bodyweight fitness routine twice per week

While these are all things to “do,” my hope is that each of the goals reflects an aspect of my personhood that I want to either change or grow. I want to do better at remembering, I want to do deep research in topics that interest me, I want to be the kind of person that cares about the things given to me, including my home and my body.

Let’s go, 2018.

 

In the In-Between

how do we become

who we want to be?

is it by doing,

by thinking,

by feeling,

by believing?

perhaps somewhere in the middle

where all of those forces collide

we do not become a person except

in the in-between

A Government of the People

From Ted Chiang’s recent piece on AI and Silicon Valley, “Silicon Valley Is Turning into Its Own Worst Fear”:

What I’m far more concerned about is the concentration of power in Google, Facebook, and Amazon. They’ve achieved a level of market dominance that is profoundly anticompetitive, but because they operate in a way that doesn’t raise prices for consumers, they don’t meet the traditional criteria for monopolies and so they avoid antitrust scrutiny from the government. We don’t need to worry about Google’s DeepMind research division, we need to worry about the fact that it’s almost impossible to run a business online without using Google’s services.

This is perhaps my biggest concern with unfettered capitalism in the 21st century. I do not trust corporations to protect the common good, nor do I trust the three biggest corporations ever created to not exploit the marginalized/oppressed in society. Further, individual action is difficult to consolidate into meaningful action against such large entities. In situations such as this, when the dignity of humanity across the spectrum is threatened by faceless corporations or entities with limitless appetite for profit, we require a united front – a governing system controlled by the people to ensure the safety of its citizens – that limits the power of these corporations significantly.

The Act of Remembering

I wonder if the act of remembering, or attempting to remember, one’s life — actively — is a form of meditation. It seems to me that remembrance is a way to slow down, think on the wonder of life and the gift that it is to exist.

One of the things I have learned about prayer over the last year or so is that prayer is (to be cliché) more about myself — changing my internal reality — than it is about asking God to do things for me. The words that I use now are centered around gratefulness, repentance, and intentional reflection on my perception of reality.

In order to continue to practice this act of changing my internal reality (or at least being intentional about reflecting upon the way I perceive it), one of my goals for 2018 is to keep a daily log. Nothing intense, nothing majorly time-consuming. Just a quick look back upon my day, what I did, what I felt. I’m hoping to record something every single day, and be able to look back at a year’s worth of days. And my hope is also that, in remembrance of my days, I am able to grow in gratefulness, graciousness, and slow living.

The Holidays

At their best, the holidays are a reminder that we are loved and known.

At their worst, they contribute to emotional and mental anxiety more extreme than the kind we experience in our day to day lives.

Sometimes, the extreme ends of this emotional spectrum are experienced within the same day, the same hour, the same minute. And yet still we have some inclination that this time spent with family is not only necessary, but good. These emotionally intense times have the potential for providing us with a context of meaning, a web of significance, in which we can embed our regular, daily life. They help us to experience the mundane as meaningful and the normal as extraordinary.