The Grace of Doing Nothing on Your Phone

America has never been an Eden—unless you’ve found an alternative history or Bible. At least as far as I understand the past 200+ years, this nation has never been too long without some form of conflict. We’ve waged a revolution to gain our independence. We’ve suffered a Civil War to save our union, as well as our claim to anything approaching actual equality. We’ve entered—and in some cases initiated—many contests overseas, and we’ve sustained many disputes at home. In every case we’ve never fully agreed on the right and proper course of action, or even why we should act in the first place. Indeed, at times our concerns are so disparate, and so diametrically opposed, and so asymmetrically proportioned, that in some very real sense it is absurd for me even to use the word “we.”

Still, by many countries’ standards, I think that the United States does excel at having a high volume of public opinion, and that volume may be said to represent a kind of consistency. “We” have tended to speak as if we were all directly involved in our country’s many doings. And this is good, and this is true, if we take our democratic ideals seriously. In some generic sense, at least, we have often communicated to each other with urgency and utmost concern, as if something deeper than our lives depended on it. This is also good and true. It is absolutely necessary: the moment we stop speaking to each other will inaugurate a kind of death not even the Civil War could accomplish.

And yet, lately I am finding, inside of myself and around me, a new sense of urgency and a new form of involvement—which is to say, a new form of communication. (By “lately” I actually mean the past decade or so, which is relatively “new” even in the American scheme of things.) As I’ve already mentioned, this past election season threw our new forms of democratic participation into stark relief for me, and I’ve spent many an idle moment and post mulling over what it means to be an American on 21st century social media. One commonality has stood out significantly to me. Now, I am aware of the dangers of neutralizing through generalization; and I don’t think equivocation is a productive way to solve a plurality of detailed problems. But by my lights, to be an American at this moment means (among multitudinous other things) to have a sense of urgency, and this urgency, as I see it, is to react—as quickly and clearly and absolutely as possible. It seems to me that we have a virtual sense of duty to a socially mediated nation.

Now, I want to make it clear from the get-go that I am not gainsaying the reality of our problems themselves. Indeed, it seems to me that one of the most bedeviling problems our national discourse faces is unfortunately the persistent debate about the veracity of many of our “issues” instead of any thorough discussion about possible strategies for approaching and ameliorating them. However, I believe that the habits of thinking that we have acquired through the employment and maintenance of social media as our major—perhaps our primary—venue for communication are novel, untested, and sometimes troubling, and therefore all the more in need of consideration. In myself in particular, I have noticed these habits influence my cognition and my decision-making with such an immediacy that they might as well be reflexes. And so, at the very least, I write in the hopes of seeing just how much of me has changed, and whether those changes reflect, enhance, or shatter that person I would like to call “myself.”


My Country, ’Tis of Me—Virtually

We have always had things we care about deeply, but now we have things we care about quickly, hastily, and flagrantly. We have had fervor before, but now we carry it in our pockets. I myself have felt the wriggling anger in my muscles at a person or post that flies in the face of my morals. Sometimes I truly believe that someone has broken with my understanding of our democratic code, and that person henceforth stands out in my mind as a real and present threat to my America—even though, being represented in their tiny picture and limited text, they are at most an icon of a threat. Now, there may be a real point to the notion that anyone who speaks an unconstitutional word stands in danger of representing a rhetorical threat, which we should oppose and resist rhetorically in order to protect the rights of ourselves and future others; but nowadays I find that the sense of duty, the sense obligation, to rebut any such speech has been intensified to the point of necessity. I don’t just want to rebut them—I want to rebuff them, completely, and within the panting seconds. Such a reply would be an immediate defeat of them—whoever they are. Such a defeat necessitates a more brazen language.

We wage a war of opposing reports all the time. We keep an uncountable tally of strident headlines everyday, sometimes by the hour. “Such-and-Such Politician CRUSHES Some-Other-Politician.” Or, in the place of “CRUSHES,” we’re just as liable to see “DEFEATS,” “BLASTS,” “HUMILIATES,” or “SLAMS.” (Or, in the case of today, “SCREWS.”) I confess that I have enjoyed a sense of smug satisfaction at seeing some individual or group called a name—and in our 2017 currency, many of our labels have the same value as epithets—even though my tradition and resources, not to mention my experience of myself, tell me this can’t sum up the full complexity they face (or choose not to face). No matter how aptly the term at this time may circumscribe their faults, and no matter how they in their faults may insist on reducing themselves, in the inalienable processes that they indisputably are, individually and circumstantially, they always retain the possibility of changing their minds.

With this unceasing reportage and this inveterate sense of embroilment, I have come to realize that I have my own virtual nation inside of myself, and I have a sense that others contain their own virtual nations as well. Really, mine takes the form of many versions, depending on how I feel and who I talk to, what I’ve read and what day of the week it might be. This virtual nation of mine materializes most on my screens, but it continues on in particular forms, colors, and textures (or lack thereof) inside my mind, and often behind my foremost thought-life. It has primed me to witness and respond to virtual national conflicts. It has even trained me to search for them.

Of course, we all have different narratives with which we veil the world. Sometimes the pattern will match some portion of the phenomena we come to face—perhaps we have woven it from carefully observed experience—but other times the images we’ve rendered and reinforced for ourselves prove all too turbid not to blind us to the facts, whatever they are, leaving us to wander disappointed and perplexed in search of the story we thought we were in. Often—too often—we become frustrated and grope after easy answers. These narratives can be temporary, like the anticipation of how a birthday party will go, or the fear of speaking to one’s in-laws or boss. Or they can be long-lasting, like the jagged figure a person cuts when they hold beliefs sharply opposed to one’s own.

But through this virtual national narrative—at least in my experience—reality roils with how I think or believe things should be and how they seem to be on social media. It is steady, turbulent type of cognition, an oil-and-water stream of consciousness. The shapes of my ideas may be constantly changing, flowing into new forms, but the pattern of the media is disruptive, yet statically so. I see too many people only as explosions of propriety or, perhaps more commonly, as furtive suspects of injustice. Either way, according to my socially mediated instinct, the people around me are probably complicit of something they should be abashed about. But most peculiar of all is that this newly born virtual nation of mine calls me to enact it, and react for it, constantly. I am duty-bound to do something about all these ideological fires people are setting; I have to rush out this instant to my finger tips and with a fervid tapping correct the erroneous-to-the-point-of-harmful opinions I will almost never hear in the waving tones of a human voice. I may be at a patio table, drinking an iced coffee, reclining with the sun on my outstretched feet, but I am living in an eveningland of strife.


Streamed Consciousness: The Not-So-Silent, Not-So-Private Reader

Social media has become a very personal concern for me, not just because it proposes to be news, but in large part because it has become such a pervasive form of reading. Like any reading practice, it can’t but influence the way we think and write, think and speak, think and see, think and behave. Thus, even as social media informs me of the world, it inevitably forms me like itself.

On emotional, epistemological, and relational levels, I struggle with the “information” delivered to me and with my handling of it. The things I want to click on and post and repost only serve to reinforce my hardening patterns. The people I want to affirm are a semi-conscious select society, and hardly a surprise to prejudicial thinking. I worry that I am in danger of depriving myself of the personal enlargement that can only happen when the self encounters and absorbs novel difference, whether through literature or through first-hand contact. In person, I have seen myself watch the stream of someone else’s speech for any resemblance to those unsayable infractions I have read about so often. I search the screen of their face already reading incorrectness or opposition. It is now an incipient habit of mine sometimes to regard family and friends as potential strangers to my uninhabited sphere of moral purity and to see strangers of certain seeming as known adversaries in an ongoing exchange we have never personally started.

Perhaps the most vexing aspect of this is actually the “reality”—really the realities—that these social mediations point to. The “content” of the reading, at the most basic level, is often indeed a real-world problem, and therefore right and proper cause for concern. However, the ways in which the problem is mediated is itself problematic. Each event is made a tiny object in the flowing stream of myriads. Upsets, scandals, and catastrophes rush alongside each other until they are replaced by the next hour’s surge. This is what we have now grown accustomed to calling “information overload.” But just how this reality affects our relationship to ourselves individually and collectively, both near and far, and to our devices, now closer to us than ever, should give us pause.

For me, the crisis has often been normalized. The situation, whatever it is, has been shrunk down to a story, which I in my haste often shorten to a headline, and the issue has been turned into a sensation. In other words, in this fast and furious war of images and text, far ranging but far from first-hand, the media is marching on.

To what degree does social media more often inform me of itself, of its unslakable thirst for attention, than it does about the world’s many goings-on? If I can hazard an overarching estimation, I suspect that the media is winning more than anyone else, certainly much more than “the people,” and that necessarily includes the executives who benefit so astronomically from the business of mediating everyone. Insofar as I can safely speak of “the media” as a monolith, I think this is true—and, really, we do entrust our synapses to some pretty big names behind the wires. Perhaps this is why ours is an increasingly singularizing culture. Single issues play the role of household names, until another issue comes to replace them a day or week or hour later; scandals unite people in chatter just like the new Coke. Single people often play the hero-villain to our sense of the many-storied world, setting verbal fires like Iago. When one person seems to charge across our screens, it is because the media has gladly followed the trail of misdeeds and the piles of ill-repute; for its food is pure attention, and it is by nature a scavenger. To what degree do we ourselves—we human beings who supposedly run or at least uphold the media—become scavengers of stories, regurgitating them for each other in some mash of vague verbatim?

Certainly the media is not merely a runaway juggernaut raging inside of a vacuum—there do remain real human beings behind it, who have created it and continue to run it. There remain the people like you and me who perpetuate its work. Theoretically, I think, the media could serve other incentives, should we ever show a corporate desire for depth and dialectic. We could readjust our systems to support further consideration and keener connection, if only we were not so geared toward fracture and estrangement. And so, yes, the media has run away with itself. But we are doing the chasing.

And I believe we are becoming more like it everyday. I can see the image of my screen reflected in myself. Take, for instance, my use of language to attempt to respond to some awful event or action. Back in the days before my smart phone ever possessed more than my pocket, a news story would loom in my thoughtlife for much longer a duration before I ever responded to it. Or, if I did respond to it, it was through that original “face time” with real people talking together in-person (look at all those qualifiers to point to basic conversation). Perhaps most striking of all, back then the thought never once crossed my mind to make some official statement to some personal public. I had none back then. Instead, I would store the story up inside my brain alongside other likewise tragic or frustrating or confounding memories. Consternation could make connections to King Lear; fear, if it was fear, could have a network through extended contemplation that would stretch out to Isaiah and the Psalms.

Now, I’m not saying that this doesn’t or can’t happen nowadays. But at least for me-myself it’s happening less often and, when it does, with much more time and effort. When I see something that I would find truly morally outraging if only I were to sit with it to think and feel it through—to honor it like the throbbing thing it is—my first instinct is to click, and post, and leave a two-word caption—an adverb and an adjective intended to denote real outrage that end up devoid of any impact through the oft-repeated formula. How deeply disturbing is “Deeply disturbing!” to a reader when they have seen it at repeatedly pedestrian times—while eating cereal, and also while waiting for a bus, and also while sitting on the toilet—and while doing other everyday mental tasks—while looking at movie times, and also while texting someone back, and also while thinking about a work thing? In my better moments, I have a passion enough for a will to actually refuse to let this sophisticated handful of sand reduce my language to mundanity. In my off-times, when my hands are busy and my eyes are free to open thinking, I contemplate being someday better able to pray and work and work and pray to keep the floods of social media from washing away the images of living people and their troubles in its anonymizing froth.


The Grace of Doing Nothing on Your Phone—Sometimes

It should be clear by now that I have major qualms about participating in social media, even if only as an on-looker. Indeed, I sincerely believe that it has a pernicious potential, both morally and cognitively, which is also to say relationally. If this present period is any indication, social media has the power only to exacerbate the more negative tendencies of human beings residing close to conflict. Within political disputes, this form of communication often seems best suited for divisive, retaliatory language, for the spreading of speedy comment about minimal information or thought. I personally have taken many a “social media sabbath” and considered myself far better off. I can often say to others with full impunity, “You could do worse than drop your phone in the toilet.”

And yet I hold inside of myself an abiding belief in “democracy,” and a firm conviction that this term requires discourse to be anything approaching a reality. Beside, behind, and below the many disembodied pundits I give internal ear to, I also hear the voices of certain principles I was taught to believe I shared with others. More ingrained than my American original sin of an Eden affronted, a lapse into pre-democratic hostility, even more inherent than the image of my virtual America, is the far older Image that I bear and share whether I know it or not. Both of these sources teach me to do more than watch and judge. Both teach me to speak and act when injustice, rhetorical or otherwise, is being done to the people and the Person. How then could I do nothing?

My internal dispute in a very small way resembles to me a much greater and much more public one that occurred last century between two famous brothers. They too subscribed to foundational American principles of democracy and freedom, union and independence; and these two men were already at this time figures of sterling theological reputation. Both were considered major authorities on matters of personal faith and the just society, and the relation between the two; neither one of them agreed with the other on the proper way to react to a major international conflict.

The two brothers were H. Richard Niebuhr and Reinhold Niebuhr. The conflict was the mounting war between China and Japan in the early thirties. The dilemma was the published debate in The Christian Century between the two brothers over intervention: should the US step in and put a stop to the enormities of the Japanese empire? What did it mean to be an American and a Christian reading a newspaper constantly reporting real atrocities?

In his piece, “The Grace of Doing Nothing,” H. Richard Niebuhr viewed the fighting across the Pacific as a quagmire untenable for foreign aid. He fully empathized with the heated desire to go and act in a real, effectual way—but what could an average citizen, or even a church congregation, or even a whole denomination, do? How could the proponents of human freedom and human salvation possibly do their work in the middle of literally dehumanizing contests? Thus, writing to a socially conscious, ethically motivated readership, and as a social ethicist himself, H. Richard gave voice to a prevailing sense of moral consternation.

“[W]e are eager to do something constructive; but there is nothing constructive, it seems, that we can do. We pass resolution, aware that we are doing nothing; we summon up righteous indignation and still do nothing; we write letters to congressmen and secretaries, asking others to act while we do nothing. Yet is it really true that we are doing nothing. Yet is it really true that we are doing nothing? . . . When we do nothing we are also affecting the course of history.”[1]

For H. Richard, there was nothing potentially liberative, either politically or religiously, that could come from spreading wider the violence of war. “The problem we face is [thus] between various kinds of inactivity rather than of choice between action and inaction.” To H. Richard’s lights, there were ways in which the church, both individually and collectively, could still embody the kingdom of God as Christ does in the Gospels. This was through faith in God. As H. Richard himself admitted, the option was not an attractive one for a modern American Christian. “It appears to be impracticable because it rests on the well-nigh-obsolete faith that there is a God—a real God.” How could one sit still when the press was running with the furies of the world? But for H. Richard, and for anyone who took the theology proper of Protestantism seriously (and really for anyone who took the claims about the total freedom of God in scripture—the God of the prophets and Jesus—seriously), there was always a living God working with or without human participation. Grace—that freest, fullest reality—could and would continue to create a very real connection between the life of the soul and the life of the world.

And so for H. Richard the duty of the Christian, American or otherwise, was at such a time as this to take up the cross of helpless inaction. From there the faithful could leave behind the often all-too-worldly impulse toward doing something and work quietly inside of the faith that something was “being done.” Such a faith opened up a worldview of “the total divine process” in human history, in which the tumultuous flow of events could hold a reciprocal communication with “human thoughts and prayers.”

For Reinhold Niebuhr, however, inaction was not the only possible option—and it was not, in fact, the most appropriate or crucial one. While he admired and largely agreed with the “pure love ethic” at the heart of his brother’s position, Reinhold nevertheless did not believe that such an ideal “can ever be made the basis of a civilization.”[2] No nation, no individual could realistically accomplish the impossible standard of a literal, Christlike “ethical perfectionism”:

“All this does not prove . . . that we ought to apply the words Jesus, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,’ literally. If we do we will never be able to act. There will never be a wholly disinterested nation. Pure disinterestedness is an ideal which even individuals cannot fully achieve, and human groups are bound always to express themselves in lower ethical forms than individuals. It follows that no nation can ever be good enough to save another nation purely by the power of love. . . . [T]he ethical and spiritual note of love and repentance can do no more than qualify the social struggle in history. It will never abolish it.”

For Reinhold, God did indeed move and work through the lived processes of history; but God did not surprise history out of its undeniable logic—or, at the very least, God did not participate in history without calling into it other participants. “[A]s long as the world of man remains a place where nature and God, the real and the ideal, meet, human progress will depend upon the judicious use of the forces of nature in the service of the ideal.” It was up to God to reveal the ideal of perfect love; it was up to human beings to perceive it, to adjust their failings in the hopes of coming a little closer to it, and to hope for the day when grace would finally achieve it. To Reinhold’s lights, the only option for the person hoping to avoid any actual fault or failing led to “asceticism or apocalypticism.”

In truth, the two theologian brothers agreed on a fair number of fundamentals. In their estimation of the situation, and their analyses of the divine and human places within it, they were thoroughly protestant. But where H. Richard emphasized divine sovereignty apart from human agency, Reinhold stressed immanent grace within and despite human endeavors.

I find that both positions are instructive for a consideration of how to act on social media. While there are obvious limits to comparing the grand-scale quandaries surrounding one nation’s potential military intervention in the Pacific theater with the more pedestrian issues arising from a casual-to-constant participation in socially mediated disputes, both circumstances yield the question of the benefits and detriments of involvement—to act or not to act (virtually or otherwise); and, indeed, in my mind at least, the sense on social media has been one of intervention—the confrontation with a somewhat threatful piece of news or rhetoric. To my mind, we very definitely do consider virtual things actionable, if only in a virtual sense.

This means, to me, that we must cultivate a virtual form of social ethics. We have long kept a skeptical eye on the Internet—and it has arisen to the forefront somewhat recently—but the question (or, for some, crisis) of our socially mediated morals should always be in our minds. I would like to submit—at least at this point in my life and thinking about the subject, and in my most current participation in the national, public moment—that we strive toward a more dialectical understanding of social media.

This means having a more critical awareness of the many ways in which we participate in social media and how it continues to influence our thinking and decision-making. I find the Niebuhr brothers, taken together, can illustrate a helpful balance of human possibilities on social media—perhaps some of them largely untried—and of human limits in any digital action, individually or collectively.

Already there are ways in which our social media has shown that “life in history,” even digital history, “must be recognized as filled with indeterminate possibilities.”[3] Some of the positive possibilities of this technology have long been documented—from its very beginning, for instance, it has been a place of rapidly successful connectivity. Without the collaborative formation of a “Broad Community,” the further sharing of information between disparate peoples across enormous distances would never have occurred. To take perhaps one of the most realistic (read: non-virtual) and positive applications social media has had recently (and maybe ever), the successful passage and settling of many refugee families have been thanks to the rapid spread of information between other newly displaced families. Refugee teens, who are facing an even greater threat to their whole selves at a time of already fragile identity, have been able to build a special kind of resiliency through social connections, many of which have been aided and enhanced through online communities.[4] And, not unrelated, the free spread of and access to information from across the globe has helped to “lift the veil” of stories that otherwise might have gone unnoticed or been kept covered up, giving rise to “new ways of understanding.”[5] Indeed, in these examples alone, social media appears to be a “place” of seemingly innumerable and potentially ameliorating possibilities.

And I do really believe it can be. I still believe we can turn our weapons back into tools, our screens back into lenses. In this glass we can find a peculiar kind of mirror. Its images can change if we do. On a national, public level, this could mean challenging ourselves to try heretofore unexplored ways of communicating with each other. We have shown ourselves plenty of what we can do with the speed and efficiency of the internet; but I wonder at how much further we could fill it with thought. Our technology has encouraged us to be clear and concise—about as perspicuous as caution tape, and about as thoughtful. Now we might encourage ourselves to be assiduous and self-examining. From the presses came both scandal sheets and Leaves of Grass. Thus, to speak on a very practical level, perhaps we could show ourselves more just, by affirming more than negating (when the time is right), by reminding more than renouncing, by asking, and listening, before we choose to react. Social media really could be a place where we connect with other selves, and find our own selves growing larger.

But this will have its limits, and I believe there are real dangers if we ever invest social media with anything like a salvific potency. As Reinhold, looking back on the failures and catastrophes of the twentieth century, recognized, “[E]very effort and pretension to complete life, whether in collective or individual terms . . . every desire to stand beyond the contradictions of history, or to eliminate the final corruptions of history must be disavowed.”[6] Just as we enjoy and can further explore the myriad possibilities of social media, we also increasingly risk ironic limitations to any thoroughgoing digital lifestyle. Our enhancement can become entrenchment. Our human powers can become post-human bugs.

I have already covered a number of ways in which this already has been true for me. But I would like to highlight some issues that I believe pose a problem for our very natures, and for our future being.

The first of these is obviously the baneful nature of our political discourse. Just a cursory Google search of “social media and political discourse” will bring up headlines like “The Toxicity of Online Political Discourse: How Platforms Are Poisoning Our Conversations” and “How Social Media is Ruining Politics” show just how rancorous and besetting our exercises in communication have been of late. The good news is that we are conscious of our failings. The bad news is that the consciousness of them will become banal to us—we may make the threat to online discourse anodyne by posting so much and doing so little about it.

Indeed, I worry that our hatred of each other has become too much like entertainment. There are real reasons to worry about this. Inherent in the operation of the media are the drives of curiosity and excitement, fear and scandal; more deeply inherent in all of these is a strong self-interest—we watch that news segment at the airport because it interests us, because knowing more about it will give us something to talk about, sound smart about, or feel threatened and therefore, by a more animal logic, feel provisionally safer from. Our instinct to know is not a bad thing—until it is mixed with pure spectatorship. We wouldn’t watch a movie (at least, most movies) and take it as a personal, actionable threat to our ideals or selves. But this is exactly what we do. And there are people who know this, and profit from it. They are in the business of our contempt; their success currently depends on our willingness to click on rancor.[7] They are what Reinhold called the wiser “children of darkness,” who prey on the foolish “children of light”:

“The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self. They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest. The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will. They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will. They underestimate the power of anarchy in both the national and the international community.”[8]

I fear that we have somewhat of an “ideological taint” in us that keeps us believing in our current modes of discourse as effective, and from seeing the “moral cynicism” that often more truly propels it.

But even our ability to discourse itself and the deeper abilities behind it—of reading and thinking and expressing ourselves—are already showing signs of real change for the worse. A recent study from UCLA is but one of many waving a red flag about our self-consumption in digital culture: “As technology has played a bigger role in our lives, our skills in critical thinking and analysis have declined, while our visual skills have improved.”[9] The ability to think and imagine, that leaping of the mind beyond the eyes’ seeing, is what Calvin associated with the soul. We will have to think seriously, and work carefully, to prevent ourselves from losing it.

To speak again very practically, I believe (and this will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me) that we could do a hell of a lot worse than to make concerted returns to good old-fashioned book-reading. Studies continue to show that reading real books is the age-old, time-tested enhancement of consciousness. Certainly, as stories like those of the recent refugees illustrate (and a many million others), information is important, sometimes crucial, to how we freely determine ourselves. The spread of digital literacy may have similar socially liberating properties as standard literacy had in manuscript and print cultures.[10] But it will also always be the classic—perhaps even canonical—mode of private self-exploration and –expansion. In books we find a reciprocal relationship between ourselves and a person far away or long gone. We may disagree with what we find, but the mental investment of having to find in the first place precludes any easy or flippant response. We have already made the opposite person’s meaning by paying our mind to the incarnate print. (John Milton happened to think that a good book so much bore the imprint of the person that made it, that it could rightly be considered “the image of God, as it were in the eye.”)[11]

On an even more personal level, the benefits of private, silent reading of real books is really immeasurable. There is the growing perspicacity it affords. There is the mental clarity—what Samuel Johnson meant when he said, “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant.” There is extension of lived experience through imaginative identification. There is nothing quite like reading vivid fiction. Whether through large characters or flat shimmering types, through a vast and crowded panorama or one lonely solipsist, fiction gives us a safe unbounded space to inhabit unmet humanities. This of course has the very germane social benefit of fostering empathy in the reader. But it also has the neurological benefit of engendering “cognitive reserve,” that extra map of synapses so instrumental in staving off the effects and behaviors of Alzheimer’s disease.[12] In other words, reading in this mode nourishes our memory, which is, after all, where we do all of our thinking in this flow of time. In other words, reading may keep us from losing our souls—for at least a little longer.

Now, there are many, many other things we could be doing instead of staying on our phones—talking with our dinner companions, for one; going for walks and finding new birds, for another; taking a bath, learning guitar, even writing our name might be better, at times. But I hope it is clear that what I am looking for—first and foremost in myself—is a dialectic, a balance, in this technology to often going overboard. There is a grace to doing nothing on your phone—sometimes.

I would like to hold a more chastened view of social media, even when I affirm the viewpoints articulated in it. Both Reinhold and Richard hold a chastened appreciation for all human agency, and their writings help inform my thoughts on possible virtual actions. Certainly, neither one of them would deny that there resides a mysterious reality pointed to in the biblical phrase “the image and likeness of God,” a resemblance which should never be reduced and only all the more seen and portrayed. Both would second Calvin’s observation—really his proclamation—that “[m]anifold indeed is the nimbleness of the soul which surveys heaven and earth . . . Manifold also is the skill with which it devises things incredible, and which is the mother of so many marvelous devices.”[13] And yet both would aver that no matter how high humanity’s achievements may rise, now matter how far or much our devices may reach, there remains an unavoidable base “self-interest” behind even apparently high-minded endeavors. There can be an inescapable element of self-centeredness in every democratic program, virtual or otherwise, an inherent trait of fallenness in all religious works—again, virtual or otherwise. But beyond this arrogating self, there is also a vast, pluralistic universe whose multiplicity and complexity create conflicts that often thwart and dwarf any human enterprise. We will only continue to find limit at the end of our abilities. We will find that irony is, in Marilynne Robinson’s memorable phrase, only a little less pervasive in our universe than carbon.”

At his more pessimistic, Niebuhr believed that it was only after a real ironic experience of our limits had occurred that real productive change could happen. This change would originate in what he called “creative despair,” the real chastening. I hate to think of “the inducement of the ‘Godly sorrow’ which worketh repentance”[14] for the Internet—I cannot and do not want to imagine how that might happen. But my sources tell me that such points are unavoidable, and indeed history shows them to be fairly imminent. My sources also tell me that this is when hope and faith are most likely to be born into the world. We may only continue to hack ourselves to pieces of text, but we may be made new in our lowest points, by a Body and Breath and Word that we barely recognize.

My sources tell me that America, yours or mine, virtual or actual, is but another nation among many, that democracy is but another device of human making, and that actual freedom will one day be put to rest in the realest Freedom.

He rests wars to the end of the earth.

He breaks the bow and splinters the spear.

“Let go and know

that I am God.

I will be lifted in the nations,

I will be lifted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:9-10)

The word that I have rendered “rests” more technically means “causes to rest” or “makes rest,” and comes from the very same root as the word “Sabbath”; thus, the verse could in fact read: “He sabbaths wars to the end of the earth.” The verb famously translated as “be still” (from the Hebrew raphah) more literally means to “let go” or “let drop,” to relax one’s hold of something. It is often used in reference to the resting from work, the relinquishing of anger, or the weakening of might. Similarly, the verb often translated as “exalt” (from the Hebrew rum) more actually means to “be lifted” or “high,” to “rise” because of someone else’s doing.

My sources tell me of an end to conflict beyond human duty, but open to our participation. It is a time of letting go and raising up of a Peace surpassing all our devices.

(Photo credits: William Klein and Lisette Model.)


[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, “The Grace of Doing Nothing”:; originally published in The Christian Century (March 23, 1932). All subsequent H. Richard quotes are from this article.

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, “Must We Do Nothing?”:; originally published in The Christian Century (March 30, 1932). All subsequent Reinhold quotes, unless otherwise cited, are from this article.

[3] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, vol. 2, p. 207.

[4] See:; and also:

[5] From Crisis, Exposure, Imagination: Lifting the Veils, eds. Jordan E. Miller, Craig Condella, and Fred Abong, p. 1. A sample is available here.

[6] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 2, p. 207.

[7] At least with certain “news” outlets, I am in no way exaggerating. I will not point any fingers, but I hope you know what I mean. There are other ways to write of the world, even when people are making themselves scandals. The times I have hazarded a comparison of different platforms this has proven true—as true as the verifiable difference between television news and a documentary.

[8] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense, pp. 10-11.


[10] To give one more recent example: as Toni Morrison points out, “literacy was power” to the newly emancipated but still culturally sub-human slaves, “a way of assuming and proving the ‘humanity’ that the Constitution denied them.” Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory,” from Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, ed. William Zinsser, p. 189.

[11] John Milton, Aeropagitica.


[13] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Ch. V, paragraph v.

[14] The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 2, p. 206.

Perfect Strangers: On a Certain Nobility in Human Beings

Christ and the People Mosaic(Photo thanks to Picture Mosaics.)

Nowadays, we see people wherever we go–you might even say more than wherever we go. They follow us, and we follow them. They are virtually always with us, even in our most private moments. Oftentimes, without any personal connection, without ever hearing the sound of their voice, we watch their behavior, and scrutinize it, and display our own views on their persons to the rest of the “public.” We see what they’re up to while we sit in the bathroom. There was a time when we never would have thought of doing this. We have already seen them so often, so inveterately, that we no longer see just how we are seeing them. I myself have been as blind to this “seeing” as I am to the nose on my face.

I personally see them only as “them” and never as “we.” They are strangers I know everything about.

We live in an age of personally but digitally mediated people. This is the genesis of the “technoself.”[1] We have instant, individual alerts and updates of live events, brought about by people made into headlines made into capital letters. This is the viral-but-virtual, public-in-private complex of twenty-first century media. This is the current “BREAKING” on our 3.5-inch screens. Of course, picture and video more fully relate what has happened in real-time situations. But even then it is a clipped reality, a tiny square of our many quilted and rippling dimensions, narrowed to a focus, frozen out of time, and flattened for our screens.

We live in an age of platformed people. Continue reading “Perfect Strangers: On a Certain Nobility in Human Beings”

Overheard at the Bestiary


Gossip is a pretty primitive form of personal knowledge. At least, if one were to use the history of literacy as an analogy—and if one were to take a generically progressive view of history (which I currently will, as long as it serves my purposes)—then gossip is perhaps a medieval mode of understanding another person. In the optimal cases some kind of genuine knowledge, approaching mastery of the subject, has come passed down to new apprentices of the person in question, so that whatever was original and firsthand has become layered with many and sometimes untraceable adulterations. Scribal errors are inevitable. Indeed, at its worst, gossip is a verbal means of making someone handle-able, so that the person no-longer-in-question can be passed around and manipulated (notice the handy mani– in there) whatever way the gossips please.

Even at its most innocuous, gossip invariably leads to misunderstanding and therefore iniquity. This sounds like a judgmental statement—the kind of pronouncement found in any puritan code of conduct (see The Snake in the Grass, or Understanding the Satan in YOU, being a treatise on human suckiness and pursuant of at least something approaching God’s gracious indifference)—but think about it: any talk about someone will fall short of its subject, even if it comes from the subject him- or herself, and any brief talk will only fall shorter. Since gossip usually happens in those little corners and closets of time in the midst of daily life, I think it’s safe to say the arrow falls very close to our feet.

Oftentimes, in my experience, gossip leads to the making of monsters. I use the term in the more original, less sensational sense, meaning “an imaginary creature that is typically large, ugly, and frightening.”[1] Whenever I have overheard or participated in gossip, the persons of skewed interest become strange creatures indeed: beastly humans with elephantine flaws, alien habits, and devilish tempers. It’s an act of taking someone’s situational action (or reaction) as his or her permanent trait—and, at least within the confines of the conversation, his or her defining characteristic. It glosses over or plainly ignores the circumstantial nuances surrounding that person; it flattens the greater depth of him or her with a gargoyled appearance.

Continue reading “Overheard at the Bestiary”