Guests on Volume 120
• DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF on the experience of “present shock” and the consequent loss of belief in the capability of stories to convey the shape of reality to us
• PHILLIP THOMPSON on Thomas Merton's lifelong concern about the disorienting effects of the technological mindset
• JONATHAN WILSON on how the life of the Trinity — a life of interpersonal giving and receiving — is the model of life within Creation, calling us to lives of generosity
• JAMES BRATT on the life and thought of Abraham Kuyper, and on some of his early influences
• D. C. SCHINDLER on how consciousness and reason are “ecstatic,” and necessarily involve reaching outside of ourselves
• PAUL ELIE on how access to recordings enables a deeper understanding of music, and how the experience of Bach's music benefits from such depth
“When you’re in a space where you can’t be controlled, it’s very hard to make you submit to a traditional story.”
— Douglas Rushkoff
In his book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, Douglas Rushkoff embraces a presentist mindset toward the world. The information age, he argues, has precipitated the "diminishment of anything that isn't right now." As a result, humans have become disinterested and detached. Instead of relying on stories, we have succumbed to narrative collapse; there just isn't time anymore to tell a story. This presentism, Rushkoff argues, is a good thing. Indeed, we should stop conceiving of things as having beginnings, middles and ends. This narratively structured conception of the world has led to world wars and other disasters, as people became seduced by “ends justify means” reasoning. Instead, we should focus on the present, seeking to evolve in response to new technologies.
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“Technology changes how we think. It changes our lives dramatically. And it does so in many, many ways. . . . If we use technology in society we are going to change.”
— Phillip Thompson
In Returning to Reality: Thomas Merton’s Wisdom for a Technological World, Phillip Thompson describes Thomas Merton’s lifelong quest to balance contemplation and technology. Living in a monastery for the latter part of his life, Merton became distraught at the mechanistic approach to the world that had permeated even the monastery. This methodology focuses on outcomes at the expense of everything else. The primary cause of this worldview is the progress of technology. As a result, humans believe they have complete control over themselves and their identities. For a contemporary example of this, we must look no further than Facebook. From social media to advertising, we are incentivized to embrace our best self instead of our real self. In Merton’s mind, man’s deepest need is to purely and directly experience reality. We can achieve this experience through contemplation. He does not condemn technology entirely, however. Rather, we must acknowledge and combat its negative effects on our lives.
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— Jonathan Wilson
In God’s Good World: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation, Jonathan Wilson distinguishes between two fundamental ways of viewing Creation. This distinction illuminates the irreconcilable chasm between a true Christian account of the world and a “survival of the fittest” one. Wilson calls the first view the “wisdom” view. Under this perspective, Creation is a result of God’s infinite wisdom. He describes the second as the techné view. This perspective is informed by a scientistic lens on the world. Even professing Christians can succumb to this second view. In doing so, however, we deny the superabundance of life that God has given us. Death becomes the ultimate driving force in the universe. We take upon ourselves the full responsibility of sustaining our own lives and the resultant anxiety. When we adopt the wisdom view, we recognize God’s providence. We stop constantly trying to avoid death. Instead, we acknowledge the giving and receiving of the Trinity and its life-giving power. Wilson calls on us to emulate this giving and receiving in our own lives. Instead of trying to combat the apparent scarcity of this life, we should instead recognize the superabundance of life that God has given us. But questions remain: Can we adopt this mentality in a world ravaged by sin? Or must we cede ground and acknowledge the apparent scarcity of the fallen world?
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— Abraham Kuyper
In Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, James Bratt chronicles the life and thought of Abraham Kuyper, whose career was, as Mark Noll writes, “as filled with noteworthy achievement as that of any single individual in modern Western history.” Kuyper’s project, as Bratt describes, was to discover the dynamic equivalent in his nineteenth century world of what John Calvin did in his sixteenth century one. What resulted, in Bratt’s mind, was a kind of Calvinistic unitarianism. Kuyper was so obsessed with the ethical rigor of Christianity that he often forsook trinitarianism. He grappled with the fashionable claims of anti-supernaturalism and materialism throughout his life, astonished at their lack of eternal hope and necessitation of ruthlessness. Despising lack of conviction in any form, he praised modernism for forcing Christians to stand up for their beliefs. As a man, he craved certainty, condemning his contemporary culture for being addicted to doubt. These convictions caused Kuyper to embrace a dialectical methodology. He wanted to use dialectic to rediscover the bedrock of Christianity and build back up from there. In Kuyper, we have a man with strong and some seemingly harsh beliefs. We may question some of his beliefs, but we may never question his conviction.
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D. C. Schindler
“In that form you have built into the very roots of consciousness this relation to another and this receptivity. And therefore what I say is kind of a dramatic reality of consciousness. . . . Consciousness is not just a thing in itself, it's an event, it's something that happens through this relationship.”
— D. C. Schindler
D. C. Schindler argues that the Enlightenment was not wrong for giving too much to reason; it was wrong in endorsing an impoverished conception of reason. In The Catholicity of Reason, he calls for a restoration of the wholeness of reason. Reason, he claims, cannot only include things that we can readily understand. It must include everything. Reason, unlike the maxim of the Enlightenment, is never alone. Instead, it is always ecstatic; it is always a relation. He utilizes the idea of a baby’s first smile to illustrate the reciprocity involved. The mother’s love coaxes the smile out of the child in a way. She catalyzes the baby into consciousness. Schindler also relies on the notion of surprise using various examples. After we have finished a mystery novel, for instance, we want to be surprised by the ending but also to be able to acknowledge that the surprise was somehow inevitable and fit perfectly. We experience the same feeling upon listening to a piece by Bach. This effect can yield an experience of transcendence. In it, we are taken up into something bigger than ourselves.
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“That’s what the people who deride passive listening seem to overlook: that familiarity, that intimacy with the music that even non-musicians can now gain.”
— Paul Elie
Conductor Paul Elie addresses the hotly contested issue of recordings. While some things may be sacrificed in this era of digital recordings, he argues, the gains far outweigh the losses. While Bach may have only heard some of his own pieces performed a few times, we may hear them repeatedly. If we listen to music as rich as Bach’s over and over, we can learn, understand, and experience more and more. This stance relies on the idea of a classic as transcending cultural circumstance and being amenable to repeated listenings. Recordings also allow us to participate in the past. Listening to a recording for the mid-20th century, for instance, gives us a window into that culture as well as into Bach's culture. The multiplicity of recordings allows us to experience many different interpretations of the work. Elie also addresses Bach’s creativity and the idea of creativity in general. Is Bach’s music-making recombination and discovery or is it creation? If it is both, which is more prevalent? Regardless, Bach’s genius offers us a transcendence that even the strictest reductionist cannot ignore.