“Terce,” the second of seven poems constituting WH Auden’s “Horae Canonicae: Immolatus vicerit”:

After shaking paws with his dog
(Whose bark would tell the world that he is always kind),
The hangman sets off briskly over the heath;
He does not know yet who will be provided
To do the high works of Justice with:
Gently closing the door of his wife’s bedroom
(Today she has one of her headaches),
With a sigh the judge descends his marble stair;
He does not know by what sentence
He will apply on earth the Law that rules the stars:
And the poet, taking a breather
Round his garden before starting his eclogue,
Does not know whose Truth he will tell.

Sprites of hearth and store-room, godlings
Of professional mysteries, the Big Ones
Who can annihilate a city,
Cannot be bothered with this moment: we are left,
Each to his secret cult, now each of us
Prays to an image of his image of himself:
‘Let me get through this coming day
Without a dressing down from a superior,
Being worsted in a repartee,
Or behaving like an ass in front of the girls;
Let something exciting happen,
Let me find a lucky coin on a sidewalk.
Let me hear a new funny story.’

At this hour we all might be anyone:
It is only our victim who is without a wish,
Who knows already (that is what
We can never forgive. If he knows the answers,
Then why are we here, why is there even dust?),
Knows already that, in fact, our prayers are heard,
That not one of us will slip up,
That the machinery of our world will function
Without a hitch, that today, for once,
There will be no squabbling on Mount Olympus,
No Chthonian mutters of unrest,
But no other miracle, knows that by sundown
We shall have had a good Friday.

(October 1953)

Suffering, Joy, and Incarnate Presence

“I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.” With this, John closed the third New Testament epistle that bears his name. The letter is nearly 1,900 years old, yet the sentiment is entirely recognizable. In fact, many of us have likely expressed similar sentiments; only for us it was more likely an electronic medium that we preferred to forego in favor of face to face communication. There are things better said in person; and, clearly, this is not an insight stumbled upon by digital-weary interlocutors of the 21st century.

Yet, John did pen his letter. There were things the medium would not convey well, but he said all that could be said with pen and ink. He recognized the limits of the medium and used it accordingly, but he did not disparage the medium for its limits. Pen and ink were no less authentic, no less real, nor were they deemed unnatural. They were simply inadequate given whatever it was that John wanted to communicate. For that, the fullness of embodied presence was deemed necessary. It was, I think, a practical application of a theological conviction which John had elsewhere memorably articulated.

In the first chapter of his Gospel, John wrote, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” It is a succinct statement of the doctrine of the incarnation, what Christians around the world celebrate at Christmas time. The work of God required the embodiment of divine presence. Words were not enough, and so the Word became flesh. He wept with those who mourned, he took the hand of those no others would touch, he broke bread and ate with outcasts, and he suffered. All of this required the fullness of embodied presence. John understood this, and it became a salient feature of his theology.

For my part, these thoughts have been passing in and out of mind inchoately and inarticulately since the Newtown shooting, and specifically as I thought about the responses to the shooting throughout our media environment. I was troubled by the urge to post some reaction to the shooting, but, initially, I don’t think I fully understood what troubled me. At first, it was the sense that I should say something, but I’ve come to believe that it was rather that I should say something.

Thinking about it as a matter of I saying something struck me as an unjustifiably self-indulgent. I still believe this to be part of the larger picture, but there was more. Thinking about it as a matter of I saying something pointed to the limitations of the media through which we have been accustomed to interacting with the world. As large as images loom on digital media, the word is still prominent. For the most part, if we are to interact with the world through digital media, we must use our words.

We know, however, that our words often fail us and prove inadequate in the face of the most profound human experiences, whether tragic, ecstatic, or sublime. And yet it is in those moments, perhaps especially in those moments, that we feel the need to exist (for lack of a better word), either to comfort or to share or to participate. But the medium best suited for doing so is the body, and it is the body that is, of necessity, abstracted from so much of our digital interaction with the world. With our bodies we may communicate without speaking. It is a communication by being and perhaps also doing, rather than by speaking.

Of course, embodied presence may seem, by comparison to its more disembodied counterparts, both less effectual and more fraught with risk. Embodied presence enjoys none of the amplification that technologies of communication afford. It cannot, after all, reach beyond the immediate place and time.  And it is vulnerable presence. Embodied presence involves us with others, often in unmanageable, messy ways that are uncomfortable and awkward. But that awkwardness is also a measure of the power latent in embodied presence.

Embodied presence also liberates us from the need to prematurely reach for rational explanation and solutions — for an answer. If I can only speak, then the use of words will require me to search for sense. Silence can contemplate the mysterious, the absurd, and the act of grace, but words must search for reasons and fixes. This is, in its proper time, not an entirely futile endeavor; but its time is usually not in the aftermath. In the aftermath of the tragic, when silence and “being with” and touch may be the only appropriate responses, then only embodied presence will do. Its consolations are irreducible. This, I think, is part of the meaning of the Incarnation: the embrace of the fullness of our humanity.

Words and the media that convey them, of course, have their place, and they are necessary and sometimes good and beautiful besides. But words are often incomplete, insufficient. We cannot content ourselves with being the “disincarnate users” of electronic media that McLuhan worried about, nor can we allow the assumptions and priorities of disincarnate media to constrain our understanding of what it means to be human in this world.

At the close of the second epistle that bears his name, John also wrote, “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink.” But in this case, he added one further clause. “Instead,” he continued, “I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” Joy completed. Whatever it might mean for our joy to be completed, it is a function of embodied presence with all of its attendant risks and limitations.

May your joy be complete.

Curiosity and Wonder

I was up during the wee hours of Monday morning to watch NASA’s live feed of mission control as Curiosity made its way to the surface of Mars. I’d been turned on to the whole affair by the “Seven Minutes of Terror” video that made the rounds in the weeks leading up to the landing. The video described all that had to go just right for Curiosity to land safely. If it worked, it would be a marvel. And, as we all know, it did and it was.

Watching the whole affair unfold, I was struck by the drama of it all — the suspense, the elation, the tears, the euphoria. It was fascinating on multiple levels: On its own terms as a triumph of engineering and ingenuity, as a media event generating memes as it unfolded (notably the Mohawk guy), as a rekindler of awe and wonder, and as a skirmish in the war of science and religion some are determined to wage.

I found the last of these particularly interesting, and perhaps a bit misguided. Take, for example, this tweet which appears to have brought its author a burst of Twitter-fame:

Just after the landing, I added my own tweet to the explosion of commentary: “Interplanetary Technological Sublime.” Needless, to say it was not retweeted 16,000+ times. I was alluding to what historian of technology David Nye has termed the American technological sublime. It is the sense of quasi-religious (and quite often not so quasi-) awe that has attended the life of technology in the United States.

One might also have drawn a connection to the religion of technology as it was chronicled by the late David Noble. Whatever we might conclude philosophically about their relationship, historically technology and religion have been entangled with one another. And the entanglement has quite often been anything but adversarial.

In a recent post at The Atlantic, Rebecca Rosen noted this entanglement in the arena of space exploration. Noble, in his chapter on the technology of religion as exemplified by the American space program, provides a multitude of further instances in addition to those related by Rosen. The chapter would surprise, and perhaps scandalize readers who were not already aware of the history. One example: When NASA recently confirmed that five of the six flags left by American astronauts on the moon still stood, they might also have checked to see if the Bible left sitting on the Apollo 15 lunar rover was still intact. See photo below:

At the conclusion of her post, Rosen wrote, “There is perhaps nothing more human than the curiosity that compels exploration. But paired with that curiosity is a search for meaning — we don’t want to know just what is out there, we want to turn it into something with a story, something with sense.”

Curiosity — it gets us back to where we started. Curiosity, the quest to understand, the search for life, wonder at the mind’s apprehension of the universe — whatever else we conclude about these things, it would be mistaken to draw too sharp a distinction between the techno-scientific and the religious impulses. Historically, at least, the line has not been as sharp as we may suppose.

Wonder and awe lie near the heart of both pursuits — or else, why would we cry.

The New New (Actually Old, Pascalian) Atheists

So I thought this was interesting. In a discussion of the New New Atheists (no, that wasn’t a typo) in Harper’s, Christopher Beha cites Alex Rosenberg, a philosopher at Duke, who “insists that doing away with religion means doing away with most of what comes with it: a sense of order in the universe, the hope that life has some inherent meaning, even the belief in free will.”

Now, is it just me or wasn’t that kind of Nietzsche’s whole point some hundred and twenty or so years ago? So at least one of the New New Atheists is actually just like the Old Atheists. In any case, I appreciate the consistency.

Of course, this is a gloomy picture and Rosenberg acknowledges that it can create a certain angst in some:  “There is . . . in us all the hankering for a satisfactory narrative to make ‘life, the universe and everything’ (in Douglas Adams’s words) hang together in a meaningful way. When people disbelieve in God and see no alternative, they often find themselves wishing they could believe, since now they have an itch and no way to scratch it.”

So Beha asks Rosenberg what can be done about this. Response:

“Rosenberg’s answer in his book is basically to ignore it. The modern world offers lots of help in this effort. To begin with, there are pharmaceuticals; Rosenberg strongly encourages those depressed by the emptiness of the Godless world to avail themselves of mood-altering drugs. Then there are the pleasures of acquisitive consumer culture—the making of money and the getting of things.”

Well, at least this is honest — and oddly Pascalian in an inverted sort of way.

The Borg Complex

[Update: See the Borg Complex primer here.]

“Is technology good for religion?”

Well, it was only a matter of time. Actually, I’m surprised I’ve only lately come across the question. The formulation echoes previous queries such as “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” In this case, the title does not belong to a fully developed essay in The Atlantic, but rather to a brief blogpost. It was published at The Immanent Frame, a scholarly site devoted to the sociology of religion, and it pointed readers to a recent (and not quite scholarly) piece in the Washington Post by Lisa Miller.

The title of Miller’s article dispensed with the pretense of an interrogative, opting instead for a confident declarative: “The religious authorities and pundits are wrong: Technology is good for religion.” So there you have it. Case closed. End of discussion. Although, of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

I read a lot about technology and its consequences for individuals, institutions, and society. To the writing of such articles, essays, and books there is now seemingly no end. The quality of such work varies considerably; some of it is thoughtful, some of it hysterical (and not in the humorous sort of way). Perspectives on the relative merits of technology vary greatly as well. There are unabashed critics and boosters, and more temperate souls as well. All of this is as one would expect, and I typically don’t mind reading pieces from points all along the spectrum.

But occasionally I will come across a piece that irks me. Usually it is not the content that manages to unbalance my humors, it is the tone. This tone arises from what I’ve just now decided to call a “Borg Complex.” The implicit tone of those with a Borg Complex can be summed up by the line, “Resistance is futile.” That line has entered our pop-cultural lexicon through the Star Trek franchise. I won’t pretend to be an expert on Borg lore; I’ll only note that the Borg always announced some variation of the following to their victims: “We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Resistance is futile.”

The spirit of the Borg lives in writers and pundits who take it upon themselves to prod on all of those they deem to be deliberately slow on the technological uptake. These self-appointed evangelists of technological assimilation would have us all abandon any critique of technology and simply adapt to the demands of technological society.  Except, of course, that when this message is articulated by humans with a Borg Complex it loses the tone of cool, malevolent indifference and instead takes on a tone of grating condescension. The tone is also characterized by the annoying self-assurance of those who have seen the light and feel a mixture of pity and disgust toward the poor souls who remain in the darkness.

Miller’s essay is a case in point. Although it displays a milder manifestation, it still helpfully demonstrates some of the standard symptoms of the Borg Complex.

1. Makes grandiose, but unsupported claims: “Technology can greatly enhance religious practice. Groups that restrict and fear it participate in their own demise.”

2. Uses the term Luddite a-historically and as a casual slur: “Luddites insist that nothing can replace the human touch of a faith community …”

3. Pays lip service to, but ultimately dismisses genuine concerns: “And this, of course, is true. But …”

4. Equates resistance or caution to reactionary nostalgia: “To insist that new ways of relating are not good or Godly ones is backward looking.”

5. Starkly and matter-of-factly frames the case for assimilation: “When new generations bring their values to religion, religion will have to adapt.”

6. Announces the bleak future for those who refuse to assimilate: “If religious groups don’t embrace and encourage the practice of faith online, the faithful might go shopping instead.”

In the coming days I might work on a fuller diagnostic guide for the Borg Complex with some suggestions for treatment.

Until then, carry on with the work of intelligent, loving resistance were discernment and wisdom deem it necessary.


Read updates to the Borg Complex case files here.