Every culture that lasts understands that living within limits—limits set by natural law, by cultural tradition, by ecological boundaries—is a cultural necessity and a spiritual imperative. There seems to be only one culture in history that has held none of this to be true, and it happens to be the one we’re living in.Paul Kingsnorth
Progress or Purpose?
Our penchant for breaching natural boundaries has produced the astounding technological advances we now enjoy. It has likewise led us into the realm of existential and catastrophic risks that threaten our future. The scientific endeavor, wedded to market incentives, habituates us to strive for indefinite mastery through constant innovation. The logic of technology assumes an ever-improving “quality of life” without reference to purpose in life. According to scholar Marc Barnes, having a purposeful existence puts the brakes on progress by saying, “Here, I will have no technological improvement, for I have attained my purpose.” Having a purpose implies having a nature that can be fulfilled and perfected (for humans, that purpose is participation in the life of God). A nature fulfilled, a purpose achieved, is bad for business.
“Progress” is a euphemism for the unfulfillable appetite that craves universal control. Barnes writes, “the moral we keep whispering to ourselves in the age of nuclear weapons, man-made plagues, and universal internet addictions” is that the benefits of more curiosity and more technology “outweigh the dangers, and that with just a little more knowledge… we will get over our need for God.” Progress entails faith in a technological utopia attained not by love but by power, salvation not through the Cross but through the Machine. If we’re still unhappy on this yellow brick road, it must be because somewhere some limit remains intact and unviolated. In this present time of self-destructive potential, the Church must be the salt of the earth, the preservative, the limiting factor. If we are indiscriminate tech-users and uncritical consumers, we’ve lost our saltiness.
We must learn to see the cosmos through the lens of love rather than appetite, through purpose rather than progress, as a wealth of relationships rather than resources. How else can we avert this parasitic process by which we are devouring ourselves and debasing the substrate on which we depend for survival—both the physical earth and our mutual trust as neighbors? The problems that exponential tech has generated will not be solved by more technology, by the free market, or by political activism. Curiosity requires a spiritual remedy.
Consume the Eucharist or Consume the World
The remedy for possessiveness is found in right worship. Moral transformation begins with the Church’s liturgy, the communal embodied enactment of Holy Scripture. The Scriptures provide the score which the liturgy plays, the drama which it performs, so that we enact God’s word and don’t just study it. In this drama we train our appetites, allowing relationship and worship to mold them into a sustainable form.
In the liturgy we bow to one another as icons of Christ. We give alms to loosen the grip of possessions on us and to ameliorate others’ suffering. We confess our disordered appetites that damage the world and other people. We adore God’s inexhaustible mystery, goodness, and love. We receive Christ’s body and blood with wonder. We remember that we are not our own, but were bought with a price. Like the Eucharist, we are broken and given for the life of the world, rather than the world being broken and consumed by us. We sing: “Eat this bread, drink this cup / Come to Him and never be hungry.”
Communion plays on the register of human appetite: we are what we eat. “To consume the Eucharist is an act of anticonsumption,” writes William T. Cavanaugh,
for here to consume is to be consumed, to be taken up into participation in something larger than the self… in consuming the body of Christ we are transformed into the body of Christ, drawn into the divine life in communion with other people. We consume in the Eucharist, but we are thereby consumed by God.
But what if a church elevates the part over the whole, right now over the future, us over them? What if it mimics market dynamics, prizing autonomy over community, prosperity over sacrifice, innovation over tradition? Such a church is an extension of the modern world rather than its conscience, critic, salt, and salve. It will not help you carry your cross. Paul Kingsnorth writes,
I saw that if we were to follow the teachings we were given at such great cost—the radical humility, the blessings upon the meek, the love of neighbor and enemy, the woe unto those who are rich, the last who will be first—above all, if we were to stumble toward the Creator with love and awe, then creation itself would not now be groaning under our weight. I saw that the teachings of Christ were the most radical in history, and that no empire could be built by those who truly lived them. I saw that we had arrived here because we do not live them.
How do we live Christ’s teachings in a world whose default is the anti-Beatitude?
A Holiness You Can See and Touch
After the atom bomb’s creation, C.S. Lewis wrote that if a horrible death is imminent, we had better be in the midst of sensible human things when it hits—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts, “not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.”
These things are, like the Eucharist, ways to practice receiving life as a gift, which is the fundamental orientation of the “poor in spirit.” These habits are embodied; they involve our families, friends, and neighbors. They are local, little things of the sort that people were doing thousands of years ago, before our exponential, addictive, and polluting technology isolated us from one another.
Mary Oliver wrote that “all important ideas must include the trees, the mountains, and the rivers.” While God is invisible, “holiness is visible, entirely.” Holiness is as visible as putting down your phone and looking into someone’s eyes; it’s repairing what’s old rather than buying what’s new; respecting your body’s limits and getting enough sleep; logging off and forming a real-world friendship or taking a walk in the woods; creating instead of just consuming. Holiness embraces the intrinsic constraints of relationships, and greets interdependency with a kiss. Holiness can say to technological novelties, “No, thanks, I have enough,” because Eucharist-cultivated hunger for God satisfies our human nature.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled,” Christ promised (Matt. 5:6). He wants us to taste and see that He is good. My initial question, what kind of future will we give birth to, is another way of asking, what are we hungry for? Whatever we consume will end up consuming us. Icons of the Last Judgment picture Hell as a ravenous, gaping maw: if we do not hunger for God, then Hunger itself will swallow us whole. God honors our appetites, and He will give us what we want in The End.