Cardus' Comment and Convivum magazines both turn their attention in their new issues to the overpowering distractions of the world around us. A recent posting on the website Ethika Politika offers a solution worthy of serious reflection.
In the April-May Convivium, Toronto writer Gavin C. Miller offers a bemused gusting to downright angry take on how the "false god" of advertising leads our eyes, hearts, minds, and souls astray. Miller was crossing the lobby of his apartment building recently when he stopped to admire a presentation of beautiful orchids. The discovery that the flowers were fakes left him, a biologist, feeling sheepishly hoodwinked. They had an even deeper effect, however, on a Muslim in his building, who declared them "blasphemous."
Miller began to ponder the relationship between fakery and blasphemy, which heightened his awareness of the way advertisers use pseudo-religious names for their products. He began to see on store shelves testimony to the way devilishly clever marketers use the transcendent to transfer the image of God—or at least gods—to their brands.
The counterfeit drives out the true and inoculates against it. Exposure to the counterfeit requires one to defend against it. We are bombarded by ... people trying to sell things, to make them out to be something other than what they actually are. This is unbearable, and we shut down under such overstimulation and falsehood.
Such a shutting down is highly adaptive and enables us to survive and do reasonably well in our current environment. We are immunized against both truth and falsehood: just as a vaccine made of a dead virus protects us against the actual live virus, so exposure to dead gods makes us immune to the real one. Of necessity, we develop a cynical, detached, worldly attitude. As [Thomas] Merton puts it, “To say “God is love” is like saying “Eat Wheaties.”
When everything becomes an "annoying sales pitch for some falsehood," Miller writes, we become dead to the sacred—but also dead to the ordinary world around us.
It's a theme attended to in Comment's superb interview between my Cardus colleague Brian Dijkema and Matthew Crawford, the American academic author of Shop Class as Soul Craft and The World Beyond Your Head. Crawford, in addition to having advanced degrees in physics and political philosophy, owns and runs a motorcycle repair shop.
In his interview with Cardus' Brian Dijkema, he recalls swiping his PIN card at a checkout and realizing he was being subjected to advertising on the screen while he waited for the transaction to complete. He reflects on the cost of this "monetizing of private mindshare" by capitalism's auctioning off of every imaginable public space: the loss of the sociability of those spaces, and the avalanche of distractions that bury us minute to minute.
Crawford is an eloquent advocate of making and repairing physical things as a vital means of recovering our humanity from those who crowd out our minds and souls with their novelties. In The World Beyond Your Head, he explores the way handing over our lives to instruments whose workings we don't understand encourages passivity and dependence; that is, reduces our freedom as individuals active in the world.
"What I'm getting at in the new book is that agency—being master of your own stuff—is fundamental to how we perceive the world; how we know. It's by having to deal with things in a concrete way, by handling things and being pragmatically engaged, that we apprehend the world," Crawford says.
More, it is one antidote to the short attention span theatre of this first fifth of the 21st century, when the dramas of our lives play out in micro-moments of constant interruption and distraction. To engage a physical problem requiring a hand-delivered solution is, he argues, the necessary counterbalance to stimuli that are engineered by others purely as claims on our focus.
"You're joining yourself to the world, and this requires a kind of attention to hard realities, the kind that are not addressed to you."
The ensuing discussion leads Crawford and Dijkema on a fascinating examination of whether religious faith doesn't offer a related grounding in hard realities. Crawford is sceptical, though far from dismissive. Unlike Gavin Miller in Convivium, his concern is the secular rather than the sacred. His personal experience, he says, inclines him to think that a serious religious life must, by its nature and purpose, be otherworldly rather than this-worldly focused. While remaining a hospitable interviewer, Dijkema challenges Crawford with sound, faith-based reasons to reflect on whether that is, in fact, true. The remainder of their conversation is among the best things you'll read on- or off-line this year.
In that category, too, is a post by the writer Hunter Sharpless on the blog Ethika Politika. In "The Serpent and the Centre," Sharpless, a 20-something New Yorker, is as concerned as Gavin Miller and Matthew Crawford by the dislocating falsehoods and the amphetamine diffusion of attention from hyper-technological urban life.
His proposed response, however, is to focus not on the restoration of material, mechanical things, or even on real versus fake orchids, but on the removal of his amorphous Self from the centre of existence. In place of the "centring prayers" taught by authentic Eastern faiths and aped by many New Age monkey shiners, he follows Thomas Merton and others in the practice of a prayer that moves him aside and lets God take the centre.
"My awareness of reality must align with God’s creative order," Sharpless writes. "If I believe, that I exist on this earth to survive, propagate, and derive as much pleasure from material goods and other people as possible, then I will fill my heart with new gadgets, rich feasts, and unending sexual experiences. (Or power, or authority, or whatever else suits my appetites.) If, however, I believe that I am not in fact the center of the universe, that I am not in fact my own creation, that I in fact do not dictate the terms of reality, then I will live entirely differently. But to see correctly I must be aware of the truth. The key is awareness."
Specifically, it is awareness of God's presence as the centre point of prayer. Not prayer of supplication. Not prayer of confession and absolution. Not prayer of thanksgiving. Rather, the prayer of simply sitting before God, in total silence and stillness, verbal and mindful. It is prayer as just being before God. It is simple and excruciatingly difficult, as Pascal pointed out when he said the most difficult thing for a human being to do is sit alone in a room on a chair.
Yet, Sharpless says: "Nothing has changed my perception of the world the way this short daily period of silence has."
Attending to Reality—God—without us having to do anything. Who knew?