Pilgrim Notes

Reflections along the way.

Month: August 2005

In Cold Blood

When a particularly violent crime occurs and it seems as though the perpetrator has no remorse, we may say that this happened “in cold blood.”

This is another way of explaining what I’ve been trying to communicate about our nonstop bombardment of information and sensuous experiences. From the web to the television to billboards to advertising (anywhere and everywhere) to newspaper headlines, we are assaulted on a daily basis with more information than we can fully process. So what happens? We become indifferent.

In fact, our school systems are set up to break the subjectivity out of the subject. So all of our learning is third person–casual observer. From kindergarten, we learn to be good materialist scientists: observing the world from a cold state of indifference.

How many people actually grieve over the deaths in Iraq? How many wept with those who lost their retirements during the Enron crisis? We know a little about a lot of people’s business but along the way we forget how to feel.

As James Houston once said, “We know more than we can love.”

Or as Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (ERH) said, “People who know too much, without sympathy and without antipathy are the curse of the earth today. They know more than they should know, and that they can know, and that they may know.”

We watch life as non-participants. After I was writing the other day, I was listening to a lecture that ERH gave in 1967, and he said what I was aching about, but he says it in a much more articulate manner. He suggested we live in a time when people are not encouraged to identify with what they learn. So we stand on the outside looking in–instead of entering into the struggle of history. Listen to a few of his thoughts:

“What you know about world history is not yours unless you appropriate it, unless you say on day, “That’s really me. I would have done the same.” ..Without identity, no history. And the great illness of all the professors . your examinations on history is that they allow you to write papers without your participation. You aren’t asked to identify yourself with this. What’s this? Do we sit in judgment while the Trojans had to be destroyed by the Greeks? Only if you weep for Hector, or if you participate in the rape of Helena. Otherwise, it’s not your business to know it at all. And that’s why Homer had to write the story in such a way that you may weep. Otherwise, if you read it, you do harm to your soul. And you all do harm to your soul 10 times a day…And that’s why you at the end become totally indifferent people.”

“It’s very serious. You see, the ordinary man at the filling station is much less in danger of his soul today than you are. You are allowed to read too much, to know too many things, and not to know them at all. And that is no use. It spoils you; it ruins you. How can you educate a child, if the child knows that have 90 percent of your knowledge in indifference? In cold blood.”

“…And they speak of urbanization and of rubble heaps, you see, in the cities. But it’s not the visible rubbish heaps. It’s the invisible rubbish heaps in your brain, in your skulls that is so terrifying. If you listen and know a thousand more things than you can take sides, for or against. That is very difficult to avoid, I know.”

He goes on to speak of memory. We need memory. We need to know where we came from and who we are. We need to be able to say our name, knowing our identity. Not what I do for a living: my name, my history, my family, my connection to other humans. Otherwise, we grow indifferent. We think nothing of the deaths from the nightly news or the nightly feast of murders on various television programs or movies.

In one sense, life is about taking our stand in relationships. Bearing the joy and sorrow of others. Entering into the pains and trial of history. Bearing the cross. I don’t write these thoughts to point the finger at others: only at myself.

For the last 15 years, I’ve been trying to learn to live and act more intentionally, more relationally. And yet, I am ever aware of my shortfalls and the ways in which I succumb to the barrage of banality.

Social Gatekeepers

The modern world was founded with the notion of affirming the individual—it has succeeded in creating a homogenous society that reproduces itself around the world and gradually eliminates the individual. Every country has a McDonalds and every child wants to go to Disney World.

At least that is the way is was supposed to work. But suddenly, everyone didn’t want to be the same. In fact, some people were mad that “dead white males” had created the world we live in. And so they opened their mouths and started talking. Everyone at once: feminists, indigenous people groups, homosexuals, heterosexuals, conservatives, liberals, various races. Actually we’re not one at all, but multiple tribes with multiple ways of seeing the world. And if the truth be confessed, we’re all in tribes of one.

As Plato says somewhere (?), each of us thinks we are god. This is the curse/blessing of particularity. RD Laing realized this when he said that “I can experience my experience, and you can experience your experience, but I cannot experience your experience.” Or as one of my college professors once said, “We’ve gone to the moon but I would suggest that the distance from one human heart to another is even greater.”

The Social Gatekeepers I mentioned before, helped hold some kind of peace “however tenuous” between these tribes. If I accept the idea that I must become my own gatekeeper without qualification, I am accepting the possibility that each of us may move farther and farther apart as we choose to view reality through our own filters without a common intervening force. That what’s a social gatekeeper is. It is a common intervening force built on a framework that the participants accept as valid.

Alexis de Toqueville was fascinated by what he saw in America, but suggested experiment in individualism would only work as long as we had strong commitments to family, community and government. These three realms prevented democracy from descending into an abyss of unrestrained individualism. When I use the term social gatekeepers, I am looking at the forces that help keep us connected by maintaining or reinforcing some kind of common language.

This tenous relationship between the one and the many has never been perfect and the modern world erred both ways. So what does the future hold? It will require us struggling with some difficult questions (which many have been wrestling with since the dawn of man). Some of the questions include: What is knowledge? Or How do we know what we know? While there were several minor camps, the modern world had two major camps: one looked at rational thought is the way we know and the other suggested that what we know is only as reliable as what we can see, feel, hear or touch. These two frameworks battled and worked together to help us understand knowledge.

People like Bernard Lonergan struggled with understanding this question in new ways.

Other questions that come to mind is “What is a person?” “What does it mean to be a human person?” This leads to questions about communication, technology, society, destiny, etc.

These types of questions, might help us to begin thinking about How Should We Then Live?(a question that Francis Schaeffer faced and invited us to join him).

When I say that I am a Trinitarian Christian, I am saying I belief that the source of all things is essentially relational—thus relationality is both our origin and our destiny. Working this out in the way I act and think and make decisions is taking a lifetime of shaping and struggle. When I approach these questions of knowing and being, of communicating and creating, I am looking at them through a lens or a presupposition that the one and the many find a common, if not paradoxical, relationship in the mystery of the Trinity (three in one).

Not everyone shares this presupposition, but I believe each of us come to the table with certain presupposition (certain ideas that we build our other ideas upon). It might be worth thinking about our presuppositions and then trying to think and talk more about knowledge, the meaning of person and these others ideas that will shape the larger context of our relationships in society.

Intention

After awaking from a grog and posting earlier this week, I received a variety of responses (both online and offline). One person thought I might be suffering depression, while another suggested canceling satellite could only be a sign of insanity. And oddly, enough many identify with my rambling. Several people suggested that we need to become our own gatekeepers in this less than brave new world. (See comments and ecommunity)
I agree that personal passivity can be a perilous position in this postmodern milieu. We must cultivate thoughtfulness in our actions and relational patterns. Not thoughtfulness as in kindness but thoughtfulness as in living by intention instead of on autopilot. While we may have difficulty verbalizing our value system, it influences our decisions nonetheless.
So it might be helpful to think about what we value and how these values do or not shape our actions. Is our inner world congruent with our outer world? For instance, I may think that I really value relationships and community, but do I act in ways that encourage or discourage community.
When we live passively, there is a tendency to drift toward incongruity. I may complain about lack of time while wasting precious time on mind-numbing activities. I may complain about financial pressures and at the same time accrue more debt on a daily basis by purchasing needless luxuries on credit. These personal incongruities cause stress among other things.
Living intentionally is not as easy as it sounds. Over 10 years ago, I studied community at graduate school and professed my belief that forming healthy, long-lasting relationships is fundamental to being human. I confess that after 10 years of seeking to live more intentionally, I am only beginning to realize the weight of such a commitment.
So the first challenge/question we face is learning to live intentionally in a culture that may view this at times as subversiveness. And I ‘m not talking about some communist regime. For example, anyone who chooses to walk away from the consumerist calling of the average American may considered strange at best and possibly dangerous (cultish) at worst.
One prime example of this might be living in such a way that you believe human life really is valuable—or embracing a culture of life as the late John Paul II would say. The ramifications of such a position will often turn both liberals and conservatives against you.
There is another challenge. In addition to becoming our own gatekeeper (learning to live more by intention and less by drifting), we also face the challenge of living in society. I, the one, live with other people, the many. The challenge of the one and the many has been a question that cultures throughout history have struggled to balance. This is the challenge of balancing universality and particularity. Are we all one as some would imagine? And if not, what keeps us from falling apart into absolute chaos?
But more on that later.

Too much information – Warning Long Post

I canceled my satellite television. Somehow the endless choices of hundreds of programming choices no longer seemed appealing. And at times, I have even thought about canceling my Internet. I know, blasphemy. Sure I love meeting people from around the globe and I’ve enjoyed tuning into multiple perspectives, and who can resist the latest Google gadget? Yet, most of the time, this endless stream of information seems like a distraction, like a substitute for living.

I hesitate to enter another blog, filling the web world with yet another blast of 0s and 1s translated into text, images and words for your viewing pleasure. When I first heard about the Internet in the early 90s, I wondered if it would be a good thing or a bad thing. I’m still wondering.

And yet, it’s here. I’m here. And I’m still writing.

Last July, in my first blog, I raised questions about the current state of the world. I’m still thinking about those questions. For the next few minutes, I am going to describe my intuitive of sense of the world. I will avoid using references (although I most certainly have been impacted by other thinkers). I just need to write out what I’ve been thinking. You’re welcome to join me or just as welcome to tune me out because you’ve probably got better things to do. (Like checking your RSS aggregator.)

Information drowns us. Bits of data pelt our brains and ears and eyes like the continuous drip of some ancient water torture. Over time our senses deaden and we lose all ability to distinguish between drips. One drip seems much like the other drip. Just a repetitive droning: on and on and on and on and on and on.

The human body receives far more information than it can process. So it filters. It distinguishes sensations we need to know from sensations we can forget about. Otherwise we might go insane: and some people do. Some people don’t have effective filters: they may hear too many sounds, feel too many sensations, see too many things. Their mind tries to process all those bits and soon they are confused and tormented. Some persons weave all this information into strange theories of world conspiracy while others become prophets or artists.

Thank God for those filters. They help us determine the bits of information we absolutely need and the ones we can forget about.

A group of humans may begin to develop similar habits. Each human in a group is contributing information to the group. As the group grows, so does the information. At some point, there is simply too much information for everyone to process and to remain in the group: at this point some type of filter emerges to help manage the flow of information.

These filters are also known as gatekeepers. Gatekeepers manage the flow as well as the type of information entering the flow. Gatekeepers can help create continuity within the group. In fact, when gatekeepers are over-active or when we feel they use their power to oppress us, we critique the gatekeepers. We may blame our distorted view of the world on their influence and at times we may be right.

As the medieval world transitioned into a modern world, gatekeepers adapted to the growing modern culture. These gatekeepers managed the flow and type of information to the persons throughout the society. There were still a variety of groups of people but most managed to function together in a common web through the mediation of various gatekeepers who helped keep some sense of continuity in the world. (But this was not without many bloody fights!)

The first gatekeepers a person meets is normally the mother and father. They manage the flow of information to the child and provide an interpretive lens. After the family, we find gatekeepers in the local community and the church: both of which reinforce the interpretive lens and provide filters. The family, community and church are like gatekeepers within a tribe. They connect us to our roots.

But above these gatekeepers are meta-gatekeepers who control information to the tribes and help keep all the tribes in some continuity. These may include government, school systems, and press/mass media. All of these adapted and played a specific role within the modern world. Most of the time there was enough continuity between the meta-gatekeepers and the local tribes, to maintain some type of common language—even when people may have radically differing perspectives.

But not everything would or could last forever. By the end of the 19th century, a few thinkers had already begun to see past the gatekeepers. People like Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche saw cracks in the foundation of the modern world.

For over 100 hundred years, the tiny cracks gradually spread through the fabric of modern societies, and by the mid twentieth century, some people already began talking about a post-modern world. Gradually the gatekeepers lost their power. It is difficult for me to pinpoint, but I think the Watergate controversy of the 70s marked a fundamental shift for the government as gatekeeper.

Public trust in the government sank to an all time low and politicians retreated more and more into tribal positions finding it harder and harder to mediate one common vision of the modern world. Their language became so tribe bound that by the mid 90s, we could no longer even agree on the meaning of what “is” is.

Several big blows to the media as gatekeeper came with the 2004 election as bloggers consistently challenged their right and ability to effectively serve as gatekeepers. By the end of the 2004 election cycle, some people were tempted to find out their news only from members of their tribe.

I think the school system is still transitioning but it will inevitably lose its status as a modernist gatekeeper. Already non-accredited informal schools are rapidly multiplying throughout the nation. Much like bloggers, these non-traditional schools are diversifying the academic content and breaking the stronghold of the traditional gatekeepers.

In a way, all this seems like a good thing. No control. No one telling me how to think. Yet, in the absence of these gatekeepers, we lose all filters. We are bombarded with information. So much information confronts us from so many different angles, we lose our ability to distinguish good information from bad information. Thus all is information is suspect.

In such an overflow, words lose their meaning. Poetry, the art which guards our words, is forgotten. No one has time to read or think about poetry. Instead, we bathe in an a non-stop onslaught of words. From the moment we awake to the moment we fall asleep, we are bombarded with information bits. Everyone has Attention Deficit Disorder: and everyone laughs about it. Everyone is becoming psychotic.

The stress of this post-modern age will only grow as the chaos intensifies. And it will continue to intensify: for a season. The war on terror is just one sign of modern world in chaos. There are many more wars going on. Our talk shows and our governments seem like mini war zones at times with persons hurling invectives upon one another like hand grenades.

They cannot debate in any classical sense because they cannot agree on the meaning of their words, let alone what information is important and how should it be understood. All they can do is engage in verbal duels. The loudest, crassest voices often shouts down the weaker voice.

In this world of chaos, gatekeepers at every level struggle to understand how to act and how to respond. Take churches for example. Some turn to economics, believing the market drives everything. If I find my authority in the market, then I will develop my systems around the fickleness of an ever-changing market. Some churches for example, change their worship styles and preaching styles and architecture to fit the demands of today’s market. Of course, that market may change tomorrow.

Others look to tradition as a source of authority: either they grow stiffer in some fundamentalist expressions of their faith or they embrace ancient forms and seek to breathe new life in them today.

This chaos simply cannot go on forever. As a Trinitarian Christian, I anticipate the rebirth of all things even now. I look forward with hope for we are truly moving toward the hope of God fully revealed to man.

Thus chaos will not overrun the earth. Eventually, new gatekeepers will emerge (or the old gatekeepers will re-emerge with newly defined filtering systems). At some point, our desire for continuity will overcome the extreme neo-tribalism period we are entering, and we’ll find new ways to connect our various tribes in some form of common life. Either we’ll find a way or a greater power will impose it and the people will accept it. This new world will probably mold some aspects of modernism, pre-modernism and possibly other newer perspectives into a way of seeing that provides some level of continuity for the multiple tribes.

But for now, we live in a growing cacophony of data. The question for me is, “How do I live in this increasing chaos, as a relational person that beholds a new heaven and new earth and lives toward the reality of that kingdom even now?” I don’t always know.

Part of it may have to with willingly denying myself some of the all-you-can-consume smorgasbord of data streaming at me from all directions. So I canceled my satellite television. What’s next? I don’t know, but I think it has something to with embracing the cross, exposing my weaknesses, and seeking to live in the reality of kingdom rooted in the relational love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

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