Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Quest for Higher Purpose

In his ground-breaking book "The Quest for Community", Traditional Conservative sociologist Robert A. Nisbit wrote,
"Is not the most appealing popular religious literature of the day that which presents religion, not in its timeless role of sharpening man's awareness of the omnipresence of evil and the difficulties of salvation, but as a means of relief from anxiety and frustration?  It enjoins not virtue but adjustment.  Are not the popular areas of psychology and ethics those involving either the theoretical principles or the therapeutic techniques of status and adjustment for the disinherited and insecure?  'In what other period of human existence,' asks Isaiah Berlin, 'has so much effort been devoted not to the painfully difficult task of looking for light, but to the protection . . . of individuals from the intellectual burden of facing problems that may be too deep or complex?'  Every age has its literature of regeneration.  Our own, however, is directed not to the ancient desire of man for higher virtue but to the obsessive craving of men for tranquillity and belonging. (emphasis mine)
This last line has caused me to think a little about how we order our daily lives.  "Quest for Community" is now 55 years old.  Yet I believe that Nisbit was almost prophetic in describing our detached, isolated, Facebook obsessed culture.  Last night I posted the final line of the above quote and began discussing the topic on-line with a friend of mine.  I love getting into these discussions with her since she often challenges me to be clear about what I am saying (something that Priests and philosophers can, notoriously, be bad at).

She simply asked me whether or not I thought that the quote about the craving for tranquillity and belonging was a good or bad thing.  On the face of it, these seem to be desirable commodities.  They evoke warm, comfortable feelings.  We can imagine ourselves sitting upon a green hill in the lush countryside, leaning against our beloved, firm in his or her embrace.  If we listen closely we can almost hear the sound of song birds in the distance.  These are good things, right?  However, Nisbit was not using these terms in this way.  Instead, he is using the terms as precisely as can be in order to evoke in us a visceral reaction to their textbook definitions.

One of the difficulties with language is that it is so flexible.  Words that mean one thing to a particular generation often come to have another meaning (sometimes completely opposite its original) in succeeding generations.  The scene I am describing above would be better termed as relational and secure if we wanted to get to how our current society uses the words "tranquil" and "belong".  This was not what Robert Nisbit was talking about, however.  He was using "tranquil" to mean "free from disturbance or turmoil" and "belong" to indicate "categorization".  In this sense the desire for these states is very definitely a bad thing.  They are bad because they keep us desiring states of being that are neither natural nor realistic.  And it is here that I came to critique the popular use of Facebook.

In the interest of full disclosure I'll willingly admit that I am a Facebook user.  I perhaps don't use it as often as some but I do use it and enjoy the ability to see what is on the mind of friends or share an event that I think others may like to know about.  At the same time I recognize that it is an artificial society.  Whereas, in the past, we would join an organization or association for mutual benefit now we click on a "like" button and immediately are identified with that thought or event without sharing of either burden or goal.  Baroness Susan Greenfield spoke of the distance and disconnect of the Facebook experience recently during a debate in the British House of Lords.  She said,
"I recently had a fascinating conversation with a young devotee who proudly claimed to have 900 friends. Clearly, there would be no problem here to satisfying that basic human need to belong, to be part of a group, as well as the ability to experience instant feedback and recognition-at least from someone, somewhere, 24 hours a day.  At the same time this constant reassurance—that you are listened to, recognised, and important—is coupled with a distancing from the stress of face-to-face, real-life conversation. Real-life conversations are, after all, far more perilous than those in the cyber world. They occur in real time, with no opportunity to think up clever or witty responses, and they require a sensitivity to voice tone, body language and perhaps even to pheromones, those sneaky molecules that we release and which others smell subconsciously. Moreover, according to the context and, indeed, the person with whom we are conversing, our own delivery will need to adapt. None of these skills are required when chatting on a social networking site.
Although it might seem an extreme analogy, I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf. Perhaps future generations will recoil with similar horror at the messiness, unpredictability and immediate personal involvement of a three-dimensional, real-time interaction. In the words of one user:  “The fact that you can't see or hear other people makes it easier to reveal yourself in a way that you might not be comfortable with. You become less conscious of the individuals involved (including yourself), less inhibited, less embarrassed and less concerned about how you will be evaluated”."
This is not reality!  What Robert Nisbit and many of his Traditionalist Conservative and Communitarian colleagues are trying to alert us to is the danger of disconnecting ourselves from the messy realities of life.  We substitute tranquility for peace and belonging for relationship.  And in this we become less than what God intends us to be.  It is in the workings of the messy reality that we find our true purpose.  We should not be satisfied with freedom from turmoil when true peace is only procured through struggling with issues to arrive at truth.  The grasping for tranquility only leads to avoidance of struggle.  In much the same way, we should not be satisfied with mere belonging when our very soul cries out for relationship.  Belonging is just the profusion of titles before and after one's name.  I am the Reverend Father Timothy Doubblestein, M.Div., MSJ.  However, all of that will only tell you my categorization.  I am a priest, I have a degree, I belong to a religious society, etc.  Relationship, on the other hand, tells you about my dreams and desires; my goals that we might share and my burdens that we might shoulder together.

Why should we settle for sedation when we can strive for virtue?

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