Children of Choice

Have you noticed that we don’t seem to be able to wait?

Perhaps you’ve stood in a queue at a shop or waited at a bus stop recently. I stand on the platform waiting for the train to get to work a few days every week. If you have done the same recently, I’d forgive you for thinking my initial statement is preposterous.

After all, we wait all the time. From a certain viewpoint to exist is to wait—this is a more theologically rich statement than it appears, so think on that for a bit.

But little of the queueing for a bus, or the riding on the train, is actually waiting. Mostly we occupy our eyes with something else, typically a phone. Which isn’t waiting. We instead distract ourselves from simply being with technology. Why do we distract ourselves? Because there is something existentially terrifying that we barely dare admit hidden in empty moments.

We feel like we are staring into the abyss and fear it may stare right back. Ok, that’s overblown, and not what Nietzsche meant in the famous quote. Yet, there is a kernel of truth to be found here. We are disconcerted by boredom and we are disconcerted by the story boredom says about us.

Boredom highlights that we are not the primary actor in the play, the ‘camera’ is off elsewhere. Boredom highlights our selves and we have to sit with the dissatisfaction of what we’re really like on the inside behind all the pretty facades we paint on our faces.

Here’s the thing: If the world is about me then boredom is a deadly enemy.

If the world is about me then waiting is an evil to be filled with activity so that I do not perceive that I am not receiving all of my whims on demand.I am no better at this than you, friends. I can’t wait. But I would like to embrace the quiet spaces as the grounds for acts of subcreation or inspiration. All the great geniuses were bored, they needed to be. Space inside our heads is important, and it terrifies us.

This is one of the factors behind our self-obsessed need for entertainment, behind our mindless watching of Netflix. In fact, this self-obsession is visible everywhere we look: in postmodern literature’s self-referentialism, in meme warfare, in the way everything has operated on a meta level for the last 20 years. What’s at the base of this? A desire for choice because choice lets us hide.

For all I dearly love on demand programming, and would prefer to binge-watch, it is a demonstration of the corporate reaction to our growing demand for choice in all things.

They aren’t necessarily bad, this isn’t ‘pastor says binge-watching is bad’ though I can think of ways it can be. This is more ‘pastor says our culture is saturated with a truth—a story—and you can see it bleeding out in pretty much every cultural manifestation imaginable.’

I appreciate that totalising statements like the one I just made are unfalsifiable, but consider this: we have made choice central to being human.

If you’ll forgive the pretentious Latin for a moment, we have replaced the Cogito with the Opto: I choose therefore I am. We have made choice central to being human.

Of course the Cogito, Decartes’ “I think therefore I am,” was part of the long line of causes that have landed us in the land of the Opto. It in itself rested on a Cartesian Dualism, which means a division espoused by Decartes between the body and the soul as though these were wholly separate entities. It finds us mired in the 21st century in what we typically call individualism—a set of beliefs that include the insistence that we must establish personal meaning, and that this must be found within ourselves.

Which makes sense of how we quickly define ourselves by our choices and how out of sorts I get when what I thought my set of choices was are constrained.

We cannot escape this, for all I think we should try. I have not escaped this, I am a modern, I am a child of the Opto. You are too. Our thinking is steeped in these assumptions and has been for generations. ‘How did we get here?’ is always an interesting question but beyond the scope of this piece of writing, but it wasn’t one cause, it’s a thousand tiny steps. Many of those steps were individually good things with unintended consequences, but all of us find ourselves back in Babel, trying to build towers in the mud.

We haven’t changed all that much. The Lord still has to stoop with his magnifying glass to find our monuments to our self-importance (Genesis 19).

There is something to be said for settling down to live in the world we find ourselves. We cannot de-modernise the world. Or more precisely, this may be desirable in some ways, but we must see this as the work of generations. We live in Babylon and we seek the good of the city (Jeremiah 29). We are as steeped in these trends and ways of being human as those who have not yet seen them, or who have and like them. We are more Babylonian than we might like. I am still an individual. I hate it when my choices are eroded.

I imagine you do too.

You can see this in the reaction to some classic Christian positions. It explains the often vociferous nature of pro-choice stances—to be anti-abortion or anti-euthanasia sounds de-humanising. It sounds like saying that this is not a person, or this person is not as valuable because we are not interested in their choice (and if they are unable to choose, then they are less valuable).

Of course, the pro-life position argues the same thing from a different definition of personhood: it is de-humanising to think it is acceptable to end of the life of a human without just cause. Ignoring that much of the arguments on all sides hinge on the definition of a just cause, this sounds increasingly implausible, because we’re all children of the Opto.

It plays out in all sorts of different directions in our lives. Most of us feel we can choose the church we attend—and we can, in that there are choices. Choose to what extent we agree with the church’s stance on all manner of issues, choose to what extent we allow ourselves to be challenged, choose how involved we get. We might find this very reasonable—and it might even be so, but we don’t have the standpoint to judge, we would need to allow the ‘sea breeze of the centuries’ as C. S. Lewis puts it, to speak to us on this.

The place it actually worries me in church life is discipleship. To be a disciple is to be an apprentice, a learner, of Jesus and his way. To be a disciple is to follow Jesus, and to have other disciples help us systematically turn every single area of our lives and every single area of our hearts over to the rule and reign of Jesus the Christ.

But sometimes I feel like I have a choice. In once sense I do—Proverbs 14 and 16 remind us that there is way that seems right to us, but it leads to death. I have a choice—to do what I want and die, or to die to my self and follow the King. There’s a Bethany Barnard song called God have your way in me that’s essentially those proverbs set to music that always stops me in my tracks.

What’s the solution to the I choose therefore I am?

We die therefore we’re his.

Sorry, my Latin isn’t good enough to translate that. As ever, repentance is the way. Death to self is the way. So take up your cross and follow him.

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

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