The modern story of inattentiveness

I know that these posts on attentiveness are kind of all over the place, but I’m thinking out loud and appreciate those of you willing to read and think with me. Test with me these two premises: discerning the leading of the Holy Spirit requires an ecology of attentiveness; many congregations possess ecologies that dampen attentiveness.

Ok, you’re with me on the first one, but maybe not on the second. So, here are the things I would point to regarding the second: no windows in our sanctuaries–we worship with little sense that we are located someplace. In fact, I would guess that the vast majority of congregational members drive past several congregations to get to the one where they worship. The results of this phenomenon are far reaching–the neighborhood surrounding the congregation is largely unattended to as are the various neighborhoods driven past and even neighborhoods in which congregational members lived. Locatedness then, is not constitutive of what it means to be a congregation. It’s connections to the world become less organic, and as a result more abstracted. In other words, others become to us “outreach” or “service projects.”

Our worship services lack the patience required for reflection. I can’t remember the last time I was urged to be still, to be quiet, to reflect. We read so little Scripture in worship and I’m often struck how preachers speed up when they’re reading the text, needing to get through it for the sake of the point they are making. I often have the feeling that the biggest sin a worship service can commit is a lull. Pace and energy are wall-to-wall, so even if we are asked to attend to one another, which we seldom are, it needs to be done efficiently. The stage and the projection screen are the architectural focal points for many congregations which places the evaluative expectation on the aesthetic experience of the individual. We attend to our own experience, and to the experience of the crowd (the congregation as abstraction), but we don’t have to attend much to the people who sit around us. After all, we have busy afternoons planned.

That attending to the inner life of the individual trumps attending to the world or to others is hardly a surprise. Our lives are largely interpreted in relation to a prevailing cultural story, the story of modernity and all of its offshoots.

This story is brilliantly exposed in Matthew Clifford’s book, The World Beyond Your Head. Others have traced this story well, but Clifford does so in relation to its impact on attentiveness. While many would place blame for our lack of attentiveness on digital technology (My family witnessed a public fight in a restaraunt recently over the rudeness of paying attention to your phone while on a date, the irony for us being that we noticed both the accuser and accused with their heads down, thumbs flying, as we walked in. They may not have known we were there), Clifford sees this as the “fruition of a picture of the human being that was offered some centuries ago.”

The roots of this story are in the Enlightenment, and in particular the desire to root authority in something other than kings or religions (the result of such authority being horrible religious wars in Europe). If we can’t trust the world given to us by the cultural authorities, then what can we trust, what is the basis of trustworthy knowledge. Descartes, looking for the one thing that could not be doubted, which could, therefore, serve as the foundation of all knowing decided that the one thing that could not be doubted was his own doubting. “I think, therefore, I am.” The source of authority was no longer located outside of the individual, but ultimately within.

Clifford notes that notions of freedom and autonomy became the resulting primary cultural values. These two values are related in the thought of Immanuel Kant. For Kant, the will had to be free from the influences of any external authority, or any object encountered in the world. He “builds a high wall between the empirical world and the purely intellectual, where we discover a priori moral laws. Reasons to act must come only from the latter if we are to be free, and the will is remain pure, unconditioned by anything external to it.”

The influence of Kant and others led over time to a broad cultural concensus that the world of objects and others was secondary to the stuff that goes on inside of me, either my rational judgments or personal experiences. This had to be the case to maintain freedom from oppresive cultural forces.

I  will unpack this more as I go, but let me point to three ways this prioritizing of the individual has appeared in Christian life and practice. Objects only have representational value. That is, they represent realities that first take place inside of me. With this view of reality, baptism cannot be in and of itself effective. It can only represent what is the case already inside of me. So, I hear people say all the time, “baptism is the outward sign of an inward reality.”

A second example from the Stone-Campbell heritage: Alexander Campbell, in order to overcome the taint of man made creeds and prejudices (external authorities) endeavored to read the Scriptures as if they had never been read before. Aided by pure reason, and an unfettered conscience, Campbell was confident he could come to a non prejudiced, objective reading of Scripture. This same “scientific bias” also accounts for the historical-critical tradition of interpreting the Bible. Here, the diverse, tainted readings, located in different confessional heritages could be overcome by new concensus readings that would uncover the true intentions of the original author.

Third, because the judgments of the individual trump any authority, church leaders have nothing to appeal to that is stronger than personal dissatisfaction at church. Leaders are left only to better customer service, or the disgruntled member will go down the road to some church that suits their own private beliefs and tastes better.

For Clifford, the modern story is one that highlights the world constructed inside your head (one very congenial to the virtual reality driven by consumerism), and deemphasizes the way the reality of the world and community actually precede and make possible the conditions for individuality.

The modern world is an inattentive world. Not surprsingly, then, Christian traditions either demphasize the need for the Holy Spirit, or privatize it, defining the Spirit’s work primarily in relation to the interior life of the individual.

Clifford calls for a return to an “ecology of attention” that moves counter to the modern story of autonomy and freedom. Though his book is not theological (there are, however, some pretty interesting theological insights), I think Clifford suggests a way of viewing being human that also lends itself to an “ecology of the Holy Spirit.” Stay tuned.

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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