Time hasn’t accelerated; it just feels like it has because of greater “temporal density.” Our time gets plugged up with multiple overlapping projects that we have greater capacity to be aware of and alerted to. Judy Wajcman’s recent book, Pressed for Time (Chicago) provides important insights for academics who never feel they have enough time to get what they want done. We are particularly susceptible. even more than other knowledge workers, to a feeling of being “harried,” in part by also being part of a social stratum where busyness is a sign of status. And as part of our work we are “always on” via “multimodal connectivity,” feel a norm of “responsiveness” to what we receive from that connectivity, and are immersed in never-ending tasks, all of which Wajcman says contribute to that harried feeling. As academics, we are drawn into the world of the corporate and hi-tech information worker while still being rewarded for intellectual creativity. Navigating this tension places even greater importance on being self-directed, resisting the perceived norm of instantaneous response, bounding priority projects, and ignoring others’ boasts of busyness. As Daniel Rosenberg argues in his review in the Chronicle of Higher Education (2/20/15), that means not a Luddite avoidance of digital tools but leveraging them for “mindful lives.”
It’s hard to believe that there could be pitfalls to “productivity,” but the movement has its critics. One can easily become immersed in tweaking the system or choosing the best software, or simply pursing productivity in an end in itself. Systems like Getting Things Done are deliberately agnostic about what one is to get done, which accounts for its universal appeal and success. Productivity may be pursued to help people feel good or less anxious, but what’s wrong with that? Intel researcher Melissa Gregg argues that it can be a way of elevating an individual’s perceived status (and not in a good way):
“This practice of blocking and creating this special zone for you to be in touch with your creativity and your important work,” she said, is a way of “creating space for individuals who are especially gifted, who are important enough to be able to say no to people.”
Some of the techniques may act to suppress communication with others, but with an always-on digital grid that is inescapable, and creative work depends on it. A Taylorized workplace based on time and motion studies seemed somewhat nefarious when imposed from above by the managers, but with a precarious workplace, multiple careers, and the capacity for personal branding, people have taken on part of that managerial role for their own work—entrepreneurs of their own brand.
So, one must couple the system with some high-level thinking about life goals, and that’s more difficult. It’s easier to stay stuck at the 5,000 foot level, the tactical execution of tasks ever more quickly and forget about the 30,000 strategic, long-term level (which GTD warns against but often overlooked). For academics perhaps productivity is not the right term, because it doesn’t really describe the real goal; better is “intellectual stewardship,” creating a system that allows one to best carve out the mental space needed for creative and intentional work. Productivity is not an end in itself, but when used to “get clear” can be a means for cultivating the Sociological Imagination, the phrase of C. Wright Mills, who proclaimed that the intellectual “craftsman” cannot escape responsibility for that stewardship: “Scholarship is a choice of how to live…” as s/he “works toward the perfection of his craft; to realize his own potentialities, and any opportunities that come his way, he constructs a character which has as its core the qualities of the good workman” (p. 196, On intellectual craftsmanship). Productivity skills combined with a sociological imagination helps develop intellectual stewardship.
This article in the Times struck a nerve with me and other colleagues: “No time to think.” Given that I’m in the business of trying to think and teaching others how to do the same, it’s rather disturbing that we have been trained to avoid that space where being in the moment can lead to creativity and new insights. Indeed, people apparently find it unpleasant to be alone with their thoughts, the stock in trade for an academic.
It didn’t matter if the subjects engaged in the contemplative exercise at home or in the laboratory, or if they were given suggestions of what to think about, like a coming vacation; they just didn’t like being in their own heads.
It could be because human beings, when left alone, tend to dwell on what’s wrong in their lives. We have evolved to become problem solvers and meaning makers. What preys on our minds, when we aren’t updating our Facebook page or in spinning class, are the things we haven’t figured out — difficult relationships, personal and professional failures, money trouble, health concerns and so on. And until there is resolution, or at least some kind of understanding or acceptance, these thoughts reverberate in our heads.
I know that digital devices are a fact of life, and I’m as guilty as my students of reaching for them while waiting even a few seconds for an elevator, or during any other momentary lull in my routine. I’m still not sure how best to deal with (undergraduate) students, who monitor their phones even in relatively intimate seminar settings. The etiquette is still evolving, but I think there is some teaching and normative guidance to be done there–and not just to satisfy my own sensibilities, but to guide them in how to discipline their own attention. The great spiritual traditions have taught the importance of mindfulness, letting go, and deep reflection as a window into a more profound sense of life. With technology offering ever-present means of escape, these are skills that we will also need to more intentionally cultivate in the scholarly life as well.
Now that the Christmas season is recently concluded I can’t resist a final reflection on the cable news controversy over the race of Santa Claus generated by Fox News and Megyn Kelly. Her assertion in a December program that Santa was white caused a quick response of outrage and humor that piqued my interest at the intersection of journalism, politics, and religion. Her defense that it was all meant in fun may have had some validity were it not the kind of joking often used so dismissively against other views. Yes, it seemed silly to argue, “War on Christmas” style, that objections to Santa’s traditional pale iconography were another instance of political correctness gone wild. The American appropriation of Santa rendered him, as a cultural dynamic, inevitably white in his many representations over the years (while also creating a more commercial version severed from his religious roots). But the most interesting thing to me was how easily Kelly glided from Santa to claiming Jesus was white too. She later walked back that last assertion, but the point was made: Santa and Jesus have become comparable cultural expressions (and seemingly in that order), similar in their alignment via their “whiteness” with the historically dominant (but changing) culture, championed by Fox. It’s natural for cultures to interpret Jesus in their own image, but to so easily claim that the whiteness of this SantaJesus is unassailably true is still rather startling–and suggests how tribalized both have become.
Reza Aslan’s book on the historical Jesus, Zealot, has by now been widely publicized (Amazon #1)—due largely to one viral video interview in July with a misguided and ill-informed Fox News host, who questioned his authority to write such a volume given his status as a Muslim. The interesting thing is that, as a creative writing professor, Aslan has largely popularized for a general readership some familiar themes about the historical and political context of the life of Jesus. These insights are largely non-controversial within the scholarly community, and similar books have not enjoyed such breakout popularity–so why all the excitement? Not surprisingly, the Fox interview served—in cable news style–not to critique the book’s arguments but to pull the subject into its familiar context of right vs. left (which in the case of Fox reduces to “us” vs. “them,” and further in this interview effectively Christian vs. Muslim. This framework naturally introduces the traditional political concept of “bias,” into what would otherwise be a scholarly treatment of the subject. Putting aside the evidence and credentials of the author, his religious category renders him, in this context and in the mind of the interviewer, biased and prejudiced against the subject (i.e., Jesus)—and therefore disqualified to address it. This, of course, diminishes the theological and spiritual aspects of the figure Christians follow by reducing him to just another subject within the left-right food fight. To the extent that the subject is the historical Jesus, placed in sociological and political context, then those are issues available to scholarly investigation (regardless of one’s faith tradition). But by insisting that Jesus is unavailable for investigation, particularly to a Muslim (a category regarded as uniquely suspect in the Fox world), the interviewer also diminishes the status of the theological and spiritual Jesus. By putting it into a familiar polarized political framework, the Fox interview generated controversy and interest in the book, not only from its own viewers but from outraged progressives–but at the cost of obscuring the book’s arguments and trivializing its subject. The historical Jesus doesn’t threaten my own faith experience within the Christian tradition, but this kind of politicized sectarianism does–by harming the brand.
Many evangelicals use the term “believers” as shorthand for Christians like them. But that doesn’t do full justice to the idea of how people experience God. T.L. Luhrmann’s anthropological research continues to yield important insights into how people come to faith. In her most recent New York Times guest column, she says:
… secular Americans often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice. That’s part of our folk model of the mind: that belief comes first. And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.
I agree. That’s why at the theological level, the way faith plays out in practice is much more messy and variegated than the secular stereotype (see the ethnography by the Liberty University student, elsewhere in this blogsite). To the extent that dogmatic propositional codes do become the litmus test, we’ve entered into the realm of tribalism and political boundary-drawing (something Luhrmann calls a distraction from what’s really going on: which she more generously describes as “a reach for joy.”).
If Luhrmann, who would accept that she is more spiritually-detached, uses social science to figure out the dynamic of faith, Christian Wiman embraces the mystery of faith more viscerally in his recent book, My bright abyss: Meditation of a modern believer. Through a near-fatal illness in his late 30s, the editor and poet–accustomed to trying to find words to describe the ineffable–found new meaning and strength in the Christianity of his youth. (see also his recent interview “On Being” blog and radio podcast) His path affirms on a personal level what Luhrmann shows ethnographically: that starting with the transcendent and working back is a choice:
“You can’t spend your whole life questioning whether language can represent reality,” he writes. “At some point you have to believe that the inadequacies of the words you use will be transcended by the faith with which you use them.”
If the anthropologist sees evangelicals, in particular, becoming more proficient at using their imagination to envision an intimate God (a psychologizing of faith), the poet steps into the metaphysical realm with both feet–leading Wiman to suggest that
“human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.”
That brings both of them back to the idea of faith as a choice, a grasp for joy, choosing life in all its fullness, to enter into relationships, and through them finding God in the world. As Wiman declares:
“I am, such as I am, a Christian,” he writes, “because I can feel God only through physical existence, can feel his love only in the love of other people.”
Thus, Faith is experienced through worldly, material choices even while it points somewhere beyond.
Richard Rohr says that all great spirituality is rooted in paradox, including the twin poles of transcendence and immanence: God as all powerful and yet an intimate presence. Each faith tradition strikes a different emphasis within that balance, with evangelicals perhaps tending toward the latter. Anthropologist T.M Luhrmann is back in the Times with another op-ed about the “therapist” God of the evangelical group she studied, drawing some conclusions I’m not sure I buy, that this intimate relationship is unavailable to other faith traditions. That’s a pitfall of the ethnographer, to over-generalize from the up close and personal observations of the group with which one is most familiar. Quoting Rick Warren, she notes his advice to share negative thoughts with God, then reconsider them from God’s viewpoint, that one is loved, and has a purpose. But that’s the standard of the Judeo-Christian tradition, expressed by the Psalmist, who says on the edge of the paradox: “I cry out to God without holding back” (77:1), culminating in “I recall all you have done, O Lord: I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago…I cannot stop thinking about them.” (77:11-12). David would not find much to disagree with in at least that part of Warren’s advice. Elsewhere Luhrmann says:
You can see this therapeutic dimension most clearly when evangelicals respond to the body blows of life. The churches I studied resisted turning to God for an explanation of tragedy. They asked only that people turn to God for help in dealing with the pain. “God doesn’t want to be analyzed,” one woman explained to me. “He wants your love.”
That’s not some peculiar theological distortion from this group; that sounds like Job to me: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (42:3) A personal, “immanent” awareness of God and his awesome creative, and ultimately unknowable power ultimately proved to be enough for Job. So I don’t think the therapist God is unavailable to other traditions or peculiar to this anthropologist’s subjects, who are practicing ancient theological thinking–as long as God is not reduced to the role of just therapist or “friend,” a demotion that kicks away one pole of the paradox.
Stanford anthropologist Tanya (T.M.) Luhrmann hit it big with her book “When God Talks Back,” with a review in the Times, interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and other major media attention. Her in-depth ethnography describes her experience with the prayer practices of the Vineyard evangelical church in chicago–when they practiced prayer, they got better at it. “The way you pay attention to your mind changes your mental experience,” she says. In an experiment, those who practiced prayer became move vivid in their mental imagery. Her special vantage point, as academic (non-believer but sympathetic) and student of a faith community, led her to reflect more recently on the polarization around issues of religion in a Times op-ed, one that reflects the general societal split along political lines.
The last few election cycles have made it clear that many evangelicals think that those without religion are dangerously wrong on many issues. A crop of equally committed atheists and agnostics have reciprocated, with vigor. ..I think that schismogenesis is responsible for the striking increase in the number of people who say that they are not affiliated with any religion. Since the early 1990s that number has more than doubled to 20 percent from less than 10 percent, and is close to a third for people under 30.
I agree with her argument that extremism has led to an increasing rejection of traditional religion among young people. Tribalism locks in the true-believers on both sides but turns off everyone else. That’s too bad, because her ability to get to know her subjects led her to find them not so different in their struggles and efforts to defing their beliefs. She pits “evangelicals” against skeptics in her comparison, but rather than equate evangelicals with extremists, perhaps the more operative term is “fundamentalist.” In any case the middle ground need not be squishy relativism and half-hearted belief system, but something approximating humility and willingness to respectfully co-exist.
The familiar verse in Micah (6:8) urges us to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly” with God, but I had not fully appreciated how inter-locking those qualities are. University Methodist pastor John Elford made the case in a recent Statesman column that justice is the other side of mercy, that in feeding the hungry we are naturally led to question why so many are hungry.
What I find troubling about my own faith tradition, in particular, and other religious paths, too, is the lack of attention to justice. Yes, charity is generally easier. It’s rarely controversial, and many charities allow those who give to stay in control of where their money goes. Justice issues, on the other hand, are notoriously divisive and morally complex. Most of the issues are frustratingly long-term, especially for those of us addicted to the quick fix.
Compassion is an individual level sentiment, while justice requires thinking about structural issues. The former is intuitively easier to grasp and seems at home with the highly personal dimension of spiritual life; the latter is harder because it requires dialog and comparing real conditions with more abstract prophetic requirements. But it’s also perfectly possible to think societally without ever engaging personally, so we privilege one side at the expense of the other. My local church has a mission team in Haiti this week, a noble effort to extend compassion and mercy to a woefully impoverished community which is poor in large part by no fault of its own. I know the trip will transform lives through compassion but hope it will also provoke further thoughts on justice, disparities in wealth and inequality, among the team and sending community when they return and share their stories. But how can we be just without getting political, or the church “politicized,” something many resist as outside the bounds? We walk humbly, testing the world we observe against what God would desire. That’s why the loudest political voices in the culture are usually not prophetic messages but based on narrow self-interest–not humility. Critics of the science of global warming in Congress, for example, would carry more credibility if they weren’t supported by Big Oil. So, Micah describes not just a list of virtues but three inter-locking facets of faithful action in the world: showing compassion in our personal outreach, seeking justice in structures of the larger society, and being humble enough to allow ourselves to be guided in those impulses by what is best for all–no one element is possible without the other.
It’s hard to understand why the issue of homosexuality has been so divisive, even in more liberal denominations like my own Methodist tradition. For those already inclined to distrust institutionalized religion, the church’s stand would seem to be further evidence of passionate conflict over an issue of relatively minor importance. The gospel’s emphasis on inclusivity should take precedence, and my former pastors and still friends Revs. John Wright and Barbara Ruth have seen in that way in leading Austin’s First Methodist toward becoming a reconciling congregation. Regarding the current Methodist position, Rev. Wright says:
Their thoughtful stance has not been without cost, as some members of this old and traditional congregation have already left. But it’s a step in the right direction and perhaps will result in a more welcoming church for a greater variety of members.