Sunday, November 09, 2008

CC's lay service

Delivered by Chalicechick this morning as part of a lay service on "Technology and the Human Spirit"

One time when I was a kid, my mother casually mentioned that once I graduated from high school, I would probably never see my friends again. She explained that it was a part of life, you moved to college and wouldn't have time to write letters. Long distance phone conversations were expensive.
I'd get over it, she reasoned. I'd make new friends.
At the time, this conversation really upset me.
If I could go back and tell my twelve-year-old self a few things, I would explain how by the time I graduated from high school in 1996, e-mail would have revived letter writing to some degree and long distance would be cheap.
I see the internet and the cell phone as the two most important technological revolutions of the last 50 years, and it's interesting to me that they are both technologies that relate to connecting people to one another. There has been plenty of other innovation in almost every imaginable arena of American culture, but what has really changed lives is the ability to contact one another at virtually any time and the ability to exchange and collaborate on information over the internet. Cell phones, and particularly the internet, have been a defining technology that has changed the world much as the car and the printing press changed the world before.
If the degree of change is hard to get your head around, consider that, for example, soldiers in remote battlegrounds learning instantly of a peace treaty is for all practical purposes a brand new thing. For a famous example, the Battle of New Orleans was fought a full two weeks after the treaty of Ghent was signed in Belgium.
Anyway, the internet is a new medium for human expression, and I tend think most of the praise and criticism it gets is misplaced for that reason. While a sad book can make me cry, I don't have any illusions that the book itself is doing that. It is merely a medium for human expression. The internet, like any medium, simply reflects aspects of human culture back on us. For example, I'm confused by people who are concerned about violent video games given that executions were a form of public entertainment for thousands of years in a huge number of cultures.
But one can, with admittedly some oversimplification, put the idea of an entirely new medium of near-universal communication into a framework of human history and scientific progress that explains a lot of the cultural weirdness of the late 20th century and a lot of human behavior now.
For me, at least, the explanation starts with an apple.
(Thow apple into the air, let drop)
We all knew when I let go of the apple, it was going to do that. But why?
A few thousand years ago, the average person would have said that it was love that attracted the apple to earth, the center of the universe. At that time, most of human interaction was face-to-face or in letter form. With the written word, people were able to transmit ideas across distances, though a public speech remained the most efficient means of getting a message to spread widely in a local area.
By the 9th century, Persian and Indian scientists had some idea of Newtonian physics, but until the Renaissance, for the rest of the world the universe was a place that we assumed was ruled by love and God's will. It must have been a comforting existence to be a part of a massive symphony with God as a conductor.
It's probably not a big surprise that when both the printing press and the Newtonian view of the universe came into being that there were a whole lot of revolutions and the idea of democracy seriously started to take root.
Newton's explanation for the apple was different. He took love out of the picture totally, explaining that the apple fell because all matter in the universe attracts all other matter in the universe, and indeed, the same force that might bring an apple down on Newton's head is impacting the orbit of the moon. In Aristotle's vision, the ethereal heavens had their own unending circular motions, totally unworldly and separate from our world of earth, air, fire and water. Newton showed that the same laws of nature apply to earth and sky, to apple and moon. A mechanistic universe.
The newly invented printing press was the medium of that era, and the sudden rise of cheap publication took Newton's ideas of a world where everything followed rules and the universe functioned like an extremely sophisticated machine all over Europe, and indeed the world. Of course, it also produced pamphlets that suggested Marie Antoinette was having lesbian affairs with the ladies of her court, rumors that historians deny but that at the time fueled the hatred for the French monarchy and likely made the French revolution a good deal bloodier than it had to be. Far be it from me to suggest that a more sophisticated view of the world necessarily makes us more reasonable. The printing press' contemporary critics understood that much.
Still, I'm sure you can imagine the comforts of a mechanistic universe. Everything happened because of something else, with God as a master engineer. There was a finite amount of stuff to figure out about the universe, and once we figured out on giant explanation, we would really know what was going on. Further, with the spread of all this knowledge and the rise of the middle class, common people were suddenly equipped to lead. Thus the rise of democracy and the reformation.
As if the loss of the idea that love was the force that ruled the universe wasn't enough, at this point we've figured out that the universe does not run totally like a machine and that we may never reach a point where we've figured things out.
That's scary, y'all.
Einstein showed that Newton was wrong, at least partially because his theories didn't properly predict the orbit of Mercury. Thus general relativity was born, and the idea that what scientists had thought were certainties were now strong probabilities. Now, Einstein was working on this stuff a hundred years ago, but it takes awhile for these things to seep into our cultural consciousness. And indeed, nothing has made humanity truly understand the idea that things we thought were certain aren't like the increasing speed of news. Sometime after 9 p.m. on Wednesday, October 22, 2008, Ashley Todd told police that she had been attacked by an Obama supporter. By Thursday morning, the whole country knew about the attack, both candidates had put out press releases. By Friday, the whole country knew that the attack had been a hoax and reporters were busy analyzing how the story had fed on itself and how the campaigns had reacted.
One thinks of Marie Antoinette and wonders how much damage Ms. Todd's lies could have done in a world without a 24-hour news cycle. Maybe a world with non-mechanistic, chaotic aspects that we are increasingly coming to accept needs a medium that gives us 24-hour access to information and resources that let us check our facts.
But much as the ancient world had personal Gods that spoke to prophets and oracles and the Renaissance had Luther declaring "let no priest come between a man and his God," our age also will offer new spiritual directions. It stands to reason that if we have new options for relating to information and new ways of relating to one another, new ways of thinking might be applied to spiritual ideas as well.
Our lay service committee spent a lot of time discussing people's fears about technology. To be honest, I don't really have any. The internet doesn't scare me any more than the printing press does. I think this digital age of ours gives us more choices. And even if some make self destructive or even evil choices, having choice is better than not.
But while the technology itself doesn't scare me, a couple of the possible theological responses to the technology do.
The more obvious of the two is fundamentalism. It seems to me that the world has for some time been in the grip of another iteration of the Great Awakening. People find the choices too scary and want to be told what to do and what to believe, so they reach out for fundamentalism. I'm sure you can think of examples of people who have fled for the comforts of certainty, but I'm guessing that no one in this room considers him or herself particularly susceptible to that.
My other concern is a little harder to explain.
In Norton Juster's delightful mathematical romanace "the Dot and the Line," it's said of the Dot "And she suddenly realized that what she thought was freedom and joy was nothing but anarchy and sloth." Freedom and Joy, and Anarchy and Sloth can easily be confused. I call that confusion "Whateverism", and I am very nervous about people using our chaotic, option-filled universe as a justification for adopting it as a theological approach.
"Whateverism" seems a real possibility for those of us who have accepted the Chaotic as a reality. Unitarian Universalism is based on the freedom of the individual to come to his or her own religious conclusions, a basis which builds in toleration of other religious beliefs. However, it also requires of us that we refuse to tolerate oppression - the refusal to allow that freedom to others. That is the proper limit of toleration.
The limit of toleration is not, on the other hand, the limit of criticism. I think we tend to confuse legitimate criticism with intolerance. It is important to be willing to make a distinction between toleration and approval, to choose between the bad and the good, the better and the best. Tolerance is good and necessary in this shrinking, diverse and chaotic world we live in, but we must not give up our freedom to judge wisely in its name.
I realize that what I'm asking here is for us to live an unambiguous life in an ambiguous universe.
I get that it's a lot to ask.
But the human spirit asks, indeed, demands it of us.


L said...

Very nice, CC.

Anonymous said...

Is "Whateverism" a close relative of Consumer Hedonism?

PG said...

Good stuff.

For a famous example, the Battle of New Orleans was fought a full two weeks after the treaty of Ghent was signed in Belgium.

My favorite example, because it has turned into something kind of sweet, is that Texas was so far away from where decisions were being made at the time of the Civil War, that the Battle of Palmito Ranch, was fought in Texas a month after Lee's surrender (that's not the sweet one) and that Texans supposedly didn't hear of the Emancipation Proclamation until June 19 -- giving rise to Juneteenth, the modern holiday commemorating freedom from slavery.