A luxurious offer of stillness: the congregation as an “attentional commons”

As I write these words, I am aware of the email that sit unanswered in my inbox, some that have undoubtedly arrived in the last five minutes. I have voicemail that I haven’t listened to and my moleskein is full of notes to myself of the things I hoped to get done this summer. All of these are screaming for my attention. And the truth is, my days are often carved up apart from my intentions by the persistence of these drip-drip-drip demands on my attention. It is hard to do any one thing because I am moment-to-moment asked to attend to several. The decision to write this blog today was to let some things wait and other things go, because writing takes focus.

In my previous posts, I have talked about Matthew Crawford’s book, The World Beyond Your Head. From his perspective, the modern myth of freedom as autonomy has gone to seed in an “attention economy” aided by the pervasiveness of digitial technologies. The world we inhabit now is one of contant stimulation, the common areas of our life demanding for our attention. For instance, our hotel key has a pizza ad printed on it, the security bin at the airport has a cell phone ad pasted on the inside, every restaraunt has tv’s in every corner so that no one’s attention is left unmolested.

I had a friend tell me recently how impressed she is with how well Facebook seems to know her, the pop-up ads somehow perfectly attuned to her interests. And my hunch is that as you read this, your Facebook page is open and your Twitter feed is buzzing and your Bleacher Report preferences have sent important news updates to your cell phone. Crawford points out that neuroscientists find our brains are being rewired by our “habits of information grazing and electronis stimulation.” The result is that we have an attentional deficit. One way of saying this, is that we have a kind of cultural “add” that is satisfied only by the viritual world always placed before us, and not by the actual world of others–creation and people.

We have come to crave increasing amounts of stimulation so that the “content of stimulation is irrelevant. We are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to…” And the question of what to attend to, what is worth our attention, whatever is good, or excellent, or praiseworthy (to quote Paul) is no longer given to us by cultural norms established by tradition. The autonomous self has dethroned these authoritative voices and we find ourselves “isolated in a fog of choices,” and, apart from traditional norms, manipulable by those who seek our attention. As Crawford states it, “in a culture saturated with technologies for appropriating our attention, our interior mental lives are laid bare as a resource to be harvested by others.”

The irony in the story is that personal autonomy doesn’t produce an individual. Rather, our anxiety about securing ourselves often leads to fitting in, to identifying with popular culture, to making our lives an abstraction.

One more thing in Crawford’s analysis. Not only is our attention fragmented, and therefore lacks focus, but it is representational. By this he means that increasingly technology moves us one step away from the actual world, calling our attention to a representation of that world. Take, for instance, the way cars have evolved to remove road noise or feel or aspects of handling or shifting. We sit now in ergonomic cockpits designed increasingly to limit our exposure to the acutal conditions of driving.

Crawford calls for a return to attentiveness, an ethics of attentiveness. And for him this means “affection for the world as it is: this could be taken as the motto for a this-worldly ethics.” “Affection for the world as it is” is important for Crawford because it better fits how we actually aquire skill and excellence, how we actually learn. Turns out, we are not simply minds, perceiving a representational worlds. Rather, our ability to pay attention, to learn, and to make our way in life requires participation in both an actual world and communities of meaning and belonging. (I’ll say more about this in future posts). Our attention is always situated in the world and with others. There is no autonomous self.

I want to suggest that this same kind of attentiveness, affection for the world as it is, is important for a coming world ethic as well. I think its essential for anything that would pass for the life made available by the Holy Spirit.

Just a few points here. I’ve already written that our churches don’t always do much to make our lives more attentive. Just the opposite. They play to the same kind of attentional deficits that characterize larger cultural influences. Satisfaction with spirtual life, however, goes the other direction. In a survey I designed for my dissertation, I asked questions about both spiritual practices and spiritual satisfaction. Far and away, having quiet time was the most common practice for those with high levels of satisfaction.

This is interesting given Crawford’s description of silence as a luxury commodity in our culture. In common areas, in an airport for instance, you are bombarded with stimuli. TV monitors with CNN are uniquitous, as are ads wall-to-wall. Add to this the constant bustle of a terminal and it becomes nearly impossible to find quiet. But for elite flyers, for a little extra money, you can enter a place of solitude. Here, there are no ads or tv’s blaring in every corner of the room. There is quiet. For a price. As a luxury. (Similar are aps, that for a price, will allow you to block pop-up ads).

Crawford calls for an “attentional commons,” public spaces that are absent the constant noise that demands our attention, and/or dulls it. I think the congregation should be one of these public spaces. A place that slows us down, that creates an ecology of the love of God and neighbor.

Be still, and know I am God. Come, Holy Spirit.

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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