Christian Intellectuals

It would be valuable to have at our disposal some figures equipped for the task of mediation — people who understand the impulses from which these troubling movements arise, who may themselves belong in some sense to the communities driving these movements but are also part of the liberal social order. They should be intellectuals who speak the language of other intellectuals, including the most purely secular, but they should also be fluent in the concepts and practices of faith. Their task would be that of the interpreter, the bridger of cultural gaps; of the mediator, maybe even the reconciler.

Half a century ago, such figures existed in America: serious Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage. They are gone now. It would be worth our time to inquire why they disappeared, where they went, and whether — should such a thing be thought desirable — they might return.

—Alan Jacobs, “The Watchmen”

The Tyranny of Social Media over the Digital Commons

Well, I fell down the rabbit hole today. I woke up with a cold, and was able to catch up on some pieces I missed whilst on vacation last week. Alan Jacobs’s blog post on the beauty of RSS feeds in the age of curated algorithmic streams led me to his essay at The Hedgehog Review on cultivating the digital commons well. Then later I found an old essay of his at The New Atlantic on attention and technology. Then, of course, randomly, Cal Newport’s posted a small piece on the difference between a social internet and social media on Study Hacks.

Lots of links. Anyway, these all have me thinking about the appropriate ways of tending to the digital commons in a way that is not only beneficial to me (refocusing my attention to meaningful work) but also to my broader social community. Is Facebook, with its optimization towards selling my information to the highest bidder, really the best way to do that? I don’t think so. So, on a whim, I downloaded all my info from the network, and completely deleted my account (which they make incredibly difficult to do — if you want to do this it some point, go here, and click the “let us know” link under “How do I permanently delete my account?”). We’ll see how long I keep Twitter. I still like it too much to give it up, but that’s also what smokers say who know they need to quit and just refuse to do so.

Further, I’m considering building my own website/platform that includes my blog, but is more than that. I’m not under any delusion that people will be interested in what’s there, or anxiously waiting for me to post blogs, etc. However, I think it’s a way to tend to the social, digital commons, and further attempt to (re)build towards an open, free internet. People are not commodities, and that includes in the digital realm.

Maybe I’m being idealistic, or “tech-Amish” as Jacobs says, or Chicken Little-ish. I don’t tend to think so. For too long, my attention has been taken away from building a meaningful, digital space of my own that isn’t controlled by some insanely humongous corporation, where my data is being mined and sold for money.

Responding to the Latest Twitter Outrage is Not My Job

From Alan Jacobs (way back in January 2016!):

  • I don’t have to say something just because everyone around me is.
  • I don’t have to speak about things I know little or nothing about.
  • I don’t have to speak about issues that will be totally forgotten in a few weeks or months by the people who at this moment are most strenuously demanding a response.
  • I don’t have to spend my time in environments that press me to speak without knowledge.
  • If I can bring to an issue heat, but no light, it is probably best that I remain silent.
  • Private communication can be more valuable than public.
  • Delayed communication, made when people have had time to think and to calm their emotions, is almost always more valuable than immediate reaction.
  • Some conversations are be more meaningful and effective in living rooms, or at dinner tables, than in the middle of Main Street.

Repeat after me: It is not my job to respond to every outrageous news story. It is not my job to respond to every outrageous news story. It is not my job to respond to every outrageous news story.

Jacobs’s last three points, for me, are the most freeing (and perhaps slightly condemning). We need to find more value in in-person, private, delayed, thoughtful conversation over online, immediate communication. Those conversations are not only less likely to be heated and fruitless — they are more likely to be meaningful, beneficial to our smaller communities, and more likely to effect change.

Other Minds and Generous Commentary

I’m sure there are a lot of reasons I’m starting blogging again. One particular reason I can point back to is this post by Alan Jacobs, whose blog I follow semi-regularly. I think all the time about Twitter and attention and how the internet and social media have affected our lives. Re: all of this, Jacobs writes:

If you’re trying to address complex issues on Twitter, you are serving as your own Handicapper General. Please stop. Get a blog. You’re damaging your brain and the quality of public discourse. We all deserve better.

Anyway, that was actually an aside to my point here. My real point is the following. I was perusing Jacobs’s blog this morning, just because I like the simplicity of his site and way in which he seems to be apathetic to how others may think of him. He allows no comments, for example, and the whole site seems to be geared more toward his keeping track of his own thought life. I’d like to do the same. Sorry – that was another rabbit trail.

I came across another blog of his, called Text Patterns through his normal blog, and one of his more recent posts about Ephraim Radner’s A Time to Keep. Two things struck me:

  1. The comment section in this post was incredibly charitable. Radner himself jumped into the comments and he and Jacobs had a back and forth about Jacobs’s inability to understand some of Radner’s writing. Not something you see often. I have generally trained myself not to read comments because they either do not add to the discourse or cause me to lose my faith in humanity. This was a delight to see.
  2. Within the comment section, Jacobs wrote the following in a reply to Radner:

It is also possible, and I have been thinking about this a good deal lately, that the ways some minds work are simply incompatible with the ways that other minds work, such that genuine mutual understanding is just not achievable — at least in this vale of tears. That is a sobering thought for me, given that I have devoted my career to the interpretation of texts and to the charitable reading of them. But it may be the conclusion that I am forced to here.

This touches a bit on something I’m planning to write about in the very near future: essentially that we are (at least sometimes) incapable of “genuine mutual understanding” between minds. My work is leading me to the realm of knowledge and faith and how those two things interact with one another. My suspicion is that our desires and emotions and cultural/social contexts form a complex web that we can neither see nor transcend. Further, it is this foundation of desire/emotion/social context that forms our (pre-reflexive) response to propositional claims to truth. In other words, we are incapable of evaluating fact claims – empirical or purely rational –  via objective reason. Our responses to and evaluations of those things are always pre-formed by a more foundational part of our being – desire/emotion/social context. Perhaps it is the same when we try to gain “genuine mutual understanding,” in Jacobs’s words, between two minds.