04-Lent: Reclaim the Sensory

If we are to continue in machine subserviency, our slavery is more
complete than was our bondage to the King.
- Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays

‘I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because
they never see them slowly,’ she said. ‘If you showed a driver a green blur,
Oh yes! he’d say, that’s grass! A pink blur? That’s a rose-garden! White
blurs are houses. Brown blurs are cows. My uncle drove slowly on a
highway once. He drove forty miles an hour and they jaied him for two days.
Isn’t that funny, and sad, too?’
- Clarisse McClellan in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451


Dear fellow nomads,

We’re now a few weeks into this Lenten season. For those who have boldly waded into this month-and-a-bit of renunciation: congratulations on your dedication. And for those who are observing from the sidelines (or who, perhaps, have decided to drop out of the running a little early): welcome to the conversation. Lent’s an odd, sacred tradition, and we welcome the chance to explore the issues that it brings up.

Something that’s been on the minds of those in the Geez office is our societal dependence on technology. Our next issue, in fact, is about that very subject, aiming to question – as many generations of ecofeminists, Luddites, leftie intellectuals and Amish folk have – how seemingly innocuous machines have hijacked our minds, communities and understandings of spirituality. These 40 days are perhaps an entry point into a discussion of what it looks like to turn away from such forces.

It’s an awfully personal query. Laptops and smartphones are now extensions of our person. In many cases, such devices are integral to our occupations (we’re writing this on a computer, obviously). It’s not as easy to opt out these days. But in spite of that, we think the question of technology use is one at least worth asking. This season’s a fantastic time for it.

Decades of writings from media theorists such as Elizabeth Eisenstein, Marshall McLuhan and Susan Sontag have consistently made the point that tool use determines thinking processes. In other words, the way that we perceive the world is shaped by the apparatuses we use to see it through. Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote in a letter to a friend that “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”

Just think about how our constant connection to an ever-updating web service is changing our minds. As Nicholas Carr put it in his fascinating book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” Courtesy of neuroplasticity, we’re swiftly losing our ability to concentrate, to meditate, to contexualize information.

If we’ve got any hope of partaking in a mass exodus from the realm of ferocious greed and ecological devastation, it’ll happen because of regional, deeply offline connections. To quote the philosopher John Ralston Saul, “knowledge is concrete and particular.” We need to love more “people in particular,” to quote The Brothers Karamazov. That means fewer screens with distant acquaintances and more intimate understandings of those we can see and touch.

Reclaiming the sensory
This spell of renunciation known as Lent can be the beginning of becoming what Neil Postman called the “loving resistance fighter.” Such fighters are people who “take the great narratives of religion seriously and who do not believe that science is the only system of thought capable of producing truth; who know the difference between the sacred and the profane, and who do not wink at tradition for modernity’s sake.”

It’s a chance – in less eloquent, perhaps more practical words – to abstain from posting an hourly update on Twitter, to resist immediately replying to a text message in order to carry on a real-life conversation, to deny oneself that nightcap of browsing a few instantly forgettable sub-reddits. We’re arguing for a reclamation of the sensory over the touch-screen. This is a petition for tangible experiences.

There are many reasons for this. For one, we’re just not sure that social networking is all it’s hyped up to be in terms of its influence in creating social change; Evgeny Morozov and Malcolm Gladwell both agree on that point. We’re also concerned that complex technology is fragmenting our minds, diverting our easily distractible brains with flashy, trivial interpretations of the world. Plus, sitting for hours just isn’t healthy. Lent provides us with a possible escape route from the banality.

Human with humus, minus the pixels
To be clear, we’re not trying to be flippant, to simply appropriate an ancient tradition to further our agenda or sell magazines to lapsed subscribers. But we firmly believe that Lent is about rediscovering sources of true fulfillment; something less rational and more ethical, with fewer hyperlinks and increased physical sensation. A deep joy might just be possible in the immediate relationship of human with humus, minus the pixels.

Jesus was obviously dealing with very different pressures while wandering in the desert a few thousand years ago. But his demonstration stands as truth to us. Satisfaction is not found in a few thousand well-off followers, whether they be in ancient Israel or on Twitter. Rather, it’s unearthed in the bonds created with the exploited and shunned. If we want to take Lent seriously, we might want to pay attention to the legacy of the founder.

Lent is about eschewing and seeking forgiveness for past transgressions. The technological society, to once again quote Postman, has solidified the ideology of “progress without limits, rights without responsibilities, and technology without cost.” It’s time to usurp that iffy doctrine with one of love, compassion, selflessness and intense locality. Lent is our opportunity to pursue this.

Your responses
This whole Lent for Skeptics thing isn’t as universally embraced as our egos would like it to be. Just kidding: it’s actually a relief that some sort of critique has arrived (it’s a little boring, and concerning, if we get it all right the first few times). Below is an excerpt of a gracious message we received from Shannon Blake, a Geez contributor and devout Catholic.

“See, you’re running this thing called ‘Lent for Skeptics.’ But I’m not a skeptic. I’m a Catholic. I’ve been giving up chocolate for 40 days since before you could sword drill.

“I’ve got to tell you, it wasn’t that easy growing up Catholic. Not because of The Guilt. Actually, it was because I heard a lot of stuff from Protestants about how Catholics weren’t actually Christians, that we worshipped idols, that we didn’t have personal relationships with God, that our traditions were meaningless rituals, that we didn’t read the Bible. And while I’m not accusing any of my fellow Geez-ers of these beliefs, my guess is that you know of what I speak.

“Dude, that stuff stung.

“So, when you run ‘Lent for Skeptics,’ I don’t feel invited. I’m grateful that there’s acknowledgement that Lent has a history, but to be honest, I’m also peeved that the group that used to dismiss my family’s faith is now appropriating its traditions. I’m further peeved that a beloved observance is something you feel skeptical about. The language of “skepticism” assumes that there is little to learn.

“Now, I can guess that you wouldn’t run a whole series on Lent if you were actually skeptical. And I like the ideas of slowness, of simplicity, of quiet that you’ve suggested. But this still feels like Lent Reconstituted and Defended for Protestants. And as a Catholic who has historically had her faith doubted by Protestants, I find that alienating.

“So, here’s a suggestion from a Lent pro. Besides ditching Dairy Milk, Lent is also a time for confession and reconciliation. We Catholics treat these things as sacramental. For Lent, why not reconcile with a Catholic? Why not repent of skepticism and trade it for receptivity? Why not read The Book of Wisdom? Or a sermon by Pope Francis? Why not attend Mass? My mother leads the choir and the harmonies are beautiful.”

Once again, we greatly appreciate the gentle critique. No defence will be offered, although it should be mentioned that the word “skeptic” in our title is supposed to describe the individual’s view of the world, not their attitude towards the season. Hopefully we can keep this conversation going in further messages.

As always, feel free to get in touch with us at lentforskeptics [at] geezmagazine [dot] org

Remain unhurried,

James, and your friends at Geez magazine

Return to Lent index page
Editor of Lent for Skeptics: lentforskeptics [at] geezmagazine [dot] org

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