A recent post I wrote, Christian Restivism, got some blowback from those who wondered if my call for us to be less activist and more “restivist” was an excuse to be lazy Christians and avoid the hard grind of ministry in this life.
So, for example, this from one commenter:
Stephen, you’ve died and gone to heaven already and are enjoying eternal sabbath rest. I still live in the now and not yet where I have to get on and serve my kids, my wife, my neighbours, my community, with all the strength that God gives me. God is gracious and gives me every spiritual blessing to help the Greek widows in the community, and the orphans too, but I certainly don’t sit it back and leave it all to someone else.
Which shows to me that even a hint of a suggestion of a promise of a possibility that we might be locked into activism based on our need to self-justify, and our culture’s enduring push for a utopian ideal – either communal or individual – raises all sorts of hackles.
So with the school holidays in full flight, and our chunky expository series on Samuel concluded, we’re taking the opportunity to better explore what we mean by “Restivism” at Providence Church Midland. And here’s what I said last night by way of introduction, under three headings: The Problem In the Culture, The Practice of the Church, The Promise of the Bible.
So here’s the first part of three bite sized parts from my talk last night.
The Problem in Our Culture
In his book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, New York writer and thinker Douglas Rushkoff tells of the time his actual self failed his digital self.
He tells of how, after flying to Berlin with limited access to his online calendar, he accepted a speaking request at short notice back in his home city. Knowing he had very little turn around to attend another event in Missouri, with the internet unreliable, and Google locking him out of his calendar, due to its concern that he was using an unfamiliar IP address, he went with his gut and said yes to both talks.
He eventually accepted the calendar invitation from New York when access was restored before jumping on a plane back home. When he got back to New York he discovered both events were on at the same time. His calendar was happy with the clash. He wasn’t.
Rushkoff wryly observes: “Present shock nightmare. I was supposed to be in two places at once. No matter how digitally adept I get, there’s still only one me.”
Granted his is an extreme life. We’re not all endlessly jumping on planes for international speaking gigs, but Rushkoff picks the issue. We are conflicted, restless, because there’s only one “me” – one “us”. And we aware of increasingly more places that the one “us” could be, but can’t be.
But let’s not make new technology the bogeyman. It is true that we shape our tools, and then they shape us, but technology did not create our activism, it merely exposed it more sharply than it has been in the past. That desire to be everywhere, which we call “omnipresence”, and that desire to know everything which we call “omniscience”, is a deep human undercurrent.
A mere 20 years ago we would say to everyone “We must catch up”. And never could. Now we simply “connect”, quickly, seamlessly, and easily; Skype, Facetime, etc. Yet it’s still not enough. There’s still a yearning for more.
This is a theological issue. Indeed the words “omniscience”, and “omnipresence” are words we use to describe what God is like, his attributes. God is omniscient – knows everything; God is omnipresent – is everywhere.
But here’s the rub, theologians talk about God’s attributes as having two components; His communicable attributes, and his incommunicable attributes.
Big terms – easy concepts. Communicable attributes are the ways God is like that we can be like. So God is a creator – we create things, God is a person – we are persons, God loves – we love.
This contrasts to His incommunicable attributes, the way God is that we cannot be. God is present everywhere – we are in one place at one time. God knows everything – we know some things and in limited ways.
God’s ability to be the things that we cannot be means that he is “omnipotent”, he is over everything, ruler of all. And we are not. Yet we want to be.
The promise of the snake in the garden was that humans could be like God. Not so they could love more, or serve more, or create more beautifully, but so that they could be the arbiters between good and evil. To decide the stuff that only an omniscient. omnipresent omnipotent God could. But in over-reaching, humans over-toppled and fell. They wanted to be more, but became so much less.
Similarly our modern communications technologies don’t simply promise that we can do more, and know more, but that we can be more. It’s not technological, it’s theological. We can be the judge of what is right and wrong -for us. We can grasp at omnipresence and omniscience, and hence strive for omnipotence. We get to set the goal of our lives.
The problem of course is that no one can decide on a common goal for all of our lives. There’s no universal goal. We’ve junked God’s goal, but can’t come up with one that will keep everyone -or even us happy – all of the time.
In his new book: Strange Days, Life in the Spirit In a time of Upheaval, Melbourne pastor and cultural analyst, Mark Sayers says this quest for a utopia that never arrives is what keeps us restless. Activists. Always moving forward towards something.
Elsewhere Jamie Smith labels us “existential sharks” always having to be on the move lest we die.
Sayers says that the hope of the late 20th century, that we were progressing beyond large scale conflicts, towards what some called the end or fulfilment of history – a victory of social democracy – has been dashed, splintered by terrorism, identity politics and populism. He says “we expected utopia and got dystopia”.
So faced with the unpleasant prospect of failing to reach utopia “out there”, we downsized and shifted “utopia” to “in here”; my own personal goal. The destiny not WE were created for, but which I was created for.
And modern technologies tap right in to this. Sayers remarks:
The initial designer of the Internet – Tim Berners-Lee, states that the web is not so much a technological invention but a social one. It was a platform to create social change, one whose supporting pillars were radical individualism, mystical faith in the power of technology and innovation, and the counter-culture’s resistance to authority.
The take away point? The new technologies are not about all of us knowing more, all of us doing more, but me being more.
So, for example, this individual quest for utopia is what makes sexual identity politics such a scorching hot topic. To question or challenge what someone says they should be sexually is not simply to challenge them biologically, it is to challenge them theologically.
It is not about their genitals. It is about their heart. It is a violent assault on their utopian story. The goal of their life.
Now the church is failing, and failing badly, at convincing the culture about sex and sexual identity. And it’s easy to blame the big bad secular progressives and their elite agenda. But hold that thought. It’s more complex than that.
I think there are two reasons for our failure. First, the cultural frame now means that In part to question someone’s personal choice about sexuality is seen as an act of violence. But secondly, and I think primarily, the church in the West has fallen blindly and unthinkingly into line with the culture in so many other ways. We’re being accused of hypocrisy and some of that is true.
We strain out the naughty gnat of utopian sexual identity while at the same time we have swallowed the camel of so many other utopias our culture has to offer.
Faced with the choice of God’s glorious goal for the future of humanity – a “suffer now – glory later” goal, the church has too often settled for the personal therapeutic utopias on offer.
Your best life now! Sometimes that’s about sex. But more often it’s about other things. A god who bails us out. Who makes us feel good about ourselves. Our own personal Jesus to get us what we want.
My favourite Catholic, journalist, editor and academic Rusty Reno, says that the West has fallen in love with the hearth gods of comfort and pleasure. And the church has simply followed suit.
We’re not offering the world a bigger better story than the small, shrivelled personal stories each person is telling themselves in lieu of an achievable, common utopia.
We’re not offering the world a bigger better story that breaks the cycle of restless activism and that ushers in rest in the midst of turmoil.
There is something desperately wrong, not with all of the church everywhere, but with a central spine of the church in the West.
Which brings us to our second observation, The Practice In The Church….
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s second instalment of my talk on Sunday night.
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