I’ve always preferred the analog clocks over the digital ones. The ones with the dials, remember those? I love those watches that show the gears churning back and forth. They connect me to a more physical age. The terminology used for the old clocks itself feels more physical -- “faces,” “hands,” and “guts” – and brings me a few steps closer to the natural world. And the sweeping arch of a clock’s hand is reminiscent of the arch of the sun and reminds me that I’m “in” time not above it. I’m mortal.
There are other things I prefer for their earthly connections. I prefer a landline to a cell phone. I don’t even have a cell phone, which always conjures a joke or two about cave men and the like. For one thing, I’m afraid of getting trapped in the relentless seduction of “smart” technology. We know it doesn’t stop at a cell phone. And the price at the till is only a fraction of the cost I’m not willing to pay. Second, as Neil Postman would put it, I don’t have a problem that the cell phone is an answer to. Also, the landline makes me harder to get hold of. When I use it or my friends call me, it’s usually important. But there’s more to it. As the term implies, landlines follow a terrestrial grid shared by a specific community. A casual look out the window will tell me which pole holds up my line (which we hope is firmly planted) and how I’m connected to my neighbors. Remember the old “party lines”? I don’t either, but they must have been great. People had to fight to use the phone, real interaction, and often had to forgo the phone call, satisfied that whatever it was they had to say could wait until their next face to face meeting with the person.
Honestly, I’m okay. I don’t feel like I’ve been left behind and missed out on the rapture. I’m sure the latest gadgets have their good qualities, and I enjoy many of them. I’m not a Luddite or technophobe. I love the fact our house has an automatic dishwasher, a fridge, and flush toilets. I like my computer, too, so I don’t have to crumple up the paper and start all over like I used to. But I think my writing was better when I had to think first before I wrote. And I like my email service for sending off semi-useful bits of info, and I can ignore the back and forth drivel. Although, to be honest, if such drivel were to happen over a couple beers, raw and free of emoticons, I could be all over that. I also like my table saw, but I have to admit I’m not as fit as when I was swinging the old handsaw, and my wife loved it when I came into the house red-faced and musky. In praise of the physical!
One other thing. The gadget that most struck fear in my heart was the Kindle readers. I almost went into a depression when they first came out, wondering how soon it would be before real books became obsolete. Like many others, I enjoy the tactile, elemental experience of thumbing through pages of a book, the smell of the paper, the contrast of color and texture created by ink on paper, the unique cover and layout of a book. And call me weird, but I like the idea of taking a jacket off when I take a book out for a stroll and putting a jacket back on when the book goes in. That tickles the heck out of me. I do appreciate the trees for their sacrifice, and I don’t mean that facetiously, for what they give to the making of both the books and the shelves that hold them. It’s hard not to see the redemptive analogy here, a recapitulation of salvation, so to speak.
This thinking has theological roots and is embedded in my spiritual journey. As a young Christian, I was influenced primarily by dualistic presentations of the faith. The only versions of faith I had to draw from were either moralistic, with a heavy reliance on codes of behavior, or very cerebral, with a reliance on abstract propositions. Both forms divorced me (and God) from the physical world, the world of the senses and emotions, which I was taught could never be trusted. Better to keep yourself closed up in the sanctuary of the church than risk exploring “the world,” a phrase always tinged in my hearing with an essence of paganism and religious impurity.
I eventually learned that a closer relationship with God requires being closer to his physical world not more distant from it. After all, Jesus was real flesh and blood, not just a helpful legend or metaphor for our contemplation. And he left us with some basic, physical elements of life – water, bread, and wine – not just as a means to remember him by. It was his way for us to keep in touch, to stay in communion with him. The sacraments compel all of our senses, not just our minds, so that the reality of Christ flows more freely to the heart. Water, bread, and wine as the elements of life echo back to the elements of the earth, which God used to form man. And then, as the most intimate of his creative acts, God breathed into man the breath of life.
We cannot avoid the physical, material world when we speak of religious truth and spiritual wholeness. We cannot neglect creation without neglecting God and ourselves.
Both theological abstractions and technological abstractions (i.e. artifacts disassociated from the physical world of which they are composed) see creation as a limitation we must overcome rather than as the source of understanding and wisdom we should embrace and find praiseworthy. Are we losing our memory of creation? Look at a mall or airport. Can we imagine what was there before? Are we aware of each step of technology, from woods and grassland to fiber and pebble to building materials to homes and cities? The steps are probably far more numerous than we suppose. Wendell Berry says, “In such things [as airports and buildings] the materials of the world have entered a kind of orphanhood.”
The problem with our magnificent strides in technology is not that it brings us new gadgets, the ones that actually answer real problems and help us serve each other. Man’s inventiveness reflects the image of God, after all. The real problem is that we so easily disassociate these objects, and thus ourselves, from creation. Is our divorce from creation alienating us also from our Creator, who fathered us? Are we orphaned?
I think so. We may need, as a spiritual discipline, to hold at bay the deluge of technological advances and instead practice some healthy regression. Reflect on where our marvelous gadgets come from. Engage the physical world with all our senses. Find a real cave to overnight in, with nothing but real blackberries and real apples and leave the plastic ones at home. We may not only survive but come out more human. Lazarus did. We need to seek out real conversations with real faces. If we don’t, we will lose touch with creation and thereby lose touch with our Creator.
On my best days, I don’t mind if my kids rip a page from one of my books. Destructive as they might be, at least their hands are in books, and it keeps me whole. The sound of a page tearing is the sound of a tree being felled. I never want to forget that.