Monday, September 11, 2017

How to Recapture the Joy of Awe

Article by: Ivan Mesa

“The world will never starve for want of wonders, only for want of wonder,” G. K. Chesterton lamented a century ago. Things haven’t gotten better since. If anything, it’s easier for Christians today to have a well-versed knowledge of Scripture but an empty and hollow experiential reality. While it’s easy to criticize secular culture for its godlessness, we as believers are often unaware of how this disenchantment has seeped into our own lives and churches.

As Mike Cosper—director of The Harbor Institute for Faith and Culture in Louisville, Kentucky—argues in his new book, Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World (IVP, 2017), we live in “an age where our sense of spiritual possibility, transcendence, and the presence of God has been drained out. What’s left is a spiritual desert, and Christians face the temptation to accept the dryness of that desert as the only possible world.” To push back against this disenchantment, Cosper lays out practices that “reshape how we live and experience the world”—marking time, praying the psalms, seeking solitude, throwing feasts, practicing Sabbath, and so on.

I asked Cosper how we’ve lost a sense of the transcendence, how the dinner table is “one of the most magical places in the world,” the ways Christians are tempted to live as practical deists, and more.

“In a world drained of transcendence,” you write, “there is only the approval of the mob to fill the void.” How so?

We are inherently religious creatures. Every culture finds a way to be religious, whether it’s by worshiping a lizard god, worshiping impersonal forces, or making gods out of human beings—god kings, priests, oracles, and so on. The transactional nature of religion is always the same: worshipers make an offering of some sort in exchange for a blessing. The gods promise health/fertility/power/safety, and we seek those blessings through various sacrifices. 

But even when we’ve been cut off from transcendent categories—when we’ve become convinced there’s no lizard god (or any other gods)—we still find ways to fulfill this religious impulse. One way is through the worship of celebrities. We hope that by buying their products or following in their footsteps, we’ll somehow share in their glory. Another has evolved with social media, where every post is sort of an offering seeking the approval of the “mob.” The offering goes out, and the mob, we hope, smiles back with “likes” and “favorites,” demonstrating approval of our lives.

In a way, it’s an anxiety-reliever. We need to know we’re in good standing with the world—and, without transcendent categories, we can only gain that affirmation from one another. I believe it’s what makes social media so addictive, and so predictable. Selfies, food photos (I’m guilty there), vacation photos, sunsets—they’re all a way of saying, “My life is good; my life is interesting.” And the likes and favorites are a way of hearing back from the mob, “Amen. Go in peace.” 

It seems every week we’re treated to a new piece on the adverse effects of social media on attention spans, moods, literacy, relationships, and so on. What is your hope for Christian use of social media? And how can we truly recapture wonder?

For one thing, I think we need to unmask social media’s more subtle, religious characteristics like I’ve just described. By naming these realities, we can better and more easily resist them. I’m not saying, “Social media is idolatry,” or “Social media is evil,” because the line between good use and idolatry, like the line between good and evil, runs down the middle of the human heart. But we need to be clear about where our hearts are drawn and why they’re drawn there. 

I suppose my hope is that we could be a little less seduced by social media, less dependent on it for affirmation, anxiety-relief, and distraction. I hope, too, we can see that social media isn’t a substitute for real relationships. They’re relationships in the abstract, and real friendships—the kind that are life-giving and formative in positive ways—are rarely going to be formed through digital mediators.

I’ve written this book, in part, because I believe our modern way of life drains our day-to-day experience of wonder. We stay distracted and disconnected. We live mediated lives through what Marc Maron calls our “techno-narcissistic extensions” and David Dark calls “electronic soul molesters.” Digital life isn’t real life, and virtual experience is no substitute for real experience. Most of us say that, but we don’t live that way. 

Digital life isn’t real life, and virtual experience is no substitute for real experience. Most of us say that, but we don’t live that way.

Unplugging isn’t the only solution here. We need to rethink our way of life. To “think what we are doing,” as Hannah Arendt puts it, and seek a way of life that reconnects us with God, creation, and one another. We are spiritual beings living in a good creation under the care of a good God, and there’s wonder, great and small, to be found throughout it. But we have to make space for it, and that’s a lot of what the book is about. 

How is the dinner table “one of the most magical places in the world”?

The Bible is a story about four major meals. There’s the meal in the garden that brought the curse into the world, the Passover that became the defining feast of the Jewish people, the Lord’s Supper, and the promised wedding feast of the Lamb. This should clue us into the fact that the table matters immensely. 

I’ve found that most of the important conversations in my life have taken place over the dinner table. It’s an odd experience, if you think about it. We eat to be nourished, and at the table, we share a nourishing encounter. We’re often being nourished by the work of someone else’s hands, and of course, it couldn’t be scripturally more clear that our nourishment is a gift from God. I think the table is a place where we encounter one another as embodied souls, doing something utterly necessary to our existence in eating, but something that comes with an immense amount of spiritual baggage (and I mean that in a good sense). 

The table forms bonds in a way almost nothing else does.

The table forms bonds in a way almost nothing else does. It’s why going to dinner is such a part of dating. It’s why gathering around the dinner table is so crucial to family relationships. It’s why we mark holidays with feasts. It’s built into our DNA. 

I think one of the saddest things about modern life is the degradation of the table. We eat on the go. Food becomes mere fuel. We think there’s nothing to gain from actually sitting down face-to-face. Or the table becomes a place where everyone eats together while staring at their phones. It’s just one more way we see the magic drained out of the world. 

How does consumerism betray a faulty view of God?

Consumerism eclipses our view of God. It’s a pseudo religion. More than anything, it betrays a faulty view of ourselves. The false promise of consumerism is that it can resolve any sense of anxiety we might have about who we are and what we need to be happy and live a good life. So whether it’s Sprite or a Ford truck or Under Armour clothing, each product offers some vision of “the good life” and “satisfaction.” But that satisfaction is always illusory and temporary. 

We need so much more than what a consumeristic way of life has to offer. The trouble is, consumerism is seductive and addictive. There’s a kind of dopamine hit that comes from buying and consuming, and it’s easily accessible, so consumerism thrives. We live from one little hit to the next. Breaking that cycle is difficult, but it must be done if we want to find a deeper satisfaction and joy in Christ. 

In what ways are Christians tempted to live as practical deists? Where does repentance and life change begin?

We can be mentally signed off on all the right doctrine and still be practically disconnected from the way of life that doctrine implies. If we believe God made the world, is redeeming it through Jesus, and is inhabiting it through his Spirit and his church, we should change how we live. Those beliefs should have practical implications for our relationships, our money, our time, and our intersection with the broader world.

Too often, though, our way of life is indistinguishable from our non-believing neighbors, and that’s part of what I mean by practical deism. We believe there’s a God, but we don’t believe he’s interested in our daily affairs, so we go about life without him, and we seek to satisfy our spiritual longings without his help. Christians are just as addicted to entertainment, pornography, and food as the rest of the world. Just as anxious. Just as deeply dissatisfied. Just as prone to divorce. 

I don’t say this with a spirit of judgment, because I’m as anxious, hooked on entertainment, and hooked on food as anyone. I say it because I believe the gospel invites us into a better way of life, and Christian tradition offers pathways into that better life. We just need to reorient how we live and be willing to experience some of the discomfort that will come with it. After all, it’s hard to break any addiction, and when we’re assimilated into the modern world, we’re addicted in a dozen ways to entertainment and distraction. But if the Bible is true, then there’s a better way of life that awaits us. 

We need habits that act as mile-markers in our lives and remind us there’s more to the world than what we see.

That brings me to repentance. Dallas Willard describes repentance as “rethinking our thinking.” To do so, we must first understand what we actually are thinking and doing (Arendt again: “Think what we are doing”), understand why we’re thinking it, and then make a turn toward something different—a different way of life shaped by a different way of seeing and thinking about the world. 

What are some practical, everyday ways that believers can recapture the wonder of living in an enchanted universe?

We get what we practice out of life. So if our way of life is full of disenchanted practices, we get disenchanted living. If we don’t believe in blessings, we don’t pray for them over meals. If we don’t believe sex is a spiritual act, it becomes empty and meaningless (and that can be true for spouses as much as for swinging singles).

We need habits that act as mile-markers in our lives and remind us there’s more to the world than what we see. Spiritual disciplines are a crucial part of this process, and we particularly need disciplines that engage the heart, the imagination, and the body. Things like praying the psalms, Ignatian prayer and meditation, fasting, and feasting. Even the simple practice of praying over a meal—stopping to thank God for his provision—helps to reorient the heart and remember there’s more to life than what we see. 

Having some kind of gratitude practice seems crucial to this, too: pausing daily to remember the good gifts we’ve been given and to thank the God who entrusted them to us. 

Ivan Mesa is an editor for The Gospel Coalition. He and his wife, Sarah, live in Louisville, Kentucky. You can follow him on Twitter.

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