THE GLORY OF God is humanity fully alive, to paraphrase St. Irenaeus.
If Irenaeus is correct and Christian discipleship is centered on following Jesus toward a life that is more compassionate and more alive, then Sherry Turkle’s new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, is perhaps the most important Christian book of 2015. Granted, Turkle steers clear of the language of faith, but in calling us to become more fully human, she has penned a profoundly religious book that Christians need to read and reflect upon.
Western culture has long been losing the capacity for conversation. Embodied in the current partisan climate of Washington that competes at all costs, rather than converse and collaborate, this aversion to dialogue is symptomatic of cultural changes that have unfolded over the last 500 years. From Enlightenment philosophy to industrialization to automobility, these cultural shifts have disintegrated communities and diminished our capacity for open conversation. More recently, Bill Bishop’s 2008 book The Big Sort highlighted how the increasing homogeneity of our relational networks erodes our capacity to converse with those who differ from us.
Turkle focuses primarily on an even more recent concern, the ubiquitous tyranny of the smartphone. Although not a Luddite who would advocate abolishing phones, Turkle fiercely describes the ways our phones inhibit our capacity for connection, conversation, and empathy. “We are being silenced by our technologies,” she maintains. With joint Harvard doctorates in sociology and psychology, Turkle backs her claims with a vast body of research. Even a silenced phone sitting on the table during conversation, she notes, changes the dynamics of what we discuss and how.
Face-to-face conversation, Turkle argues, is the most basic human activity. In conversation, we learn to listen and to be empathetic. Our mobile devices also impede our capacity for solitude, a skill that is vital to our development from childhood onward. Turkle emphasizes that it is in solitude that our minds are formed and we develop a distinctive voice. In exercising this voice in private conversations with family, friends, and lovers, and in public conversations, it is refined and our capacity for solitude and self-reflection is further enhanced, drawing us ever-deeper in this virtuous cycle.
An historic event took place recently in the seaside town of Belfast, Maine. Ten people of vastly different political persuasions — Libertarians, Tea Party Republicans, Democrats, and Progressives — sat in a circle, had a civil dialogue about their hopes and fears for America, and discovered their common ground. Their experience is a model of the local dialogues we so desperately need to build bridges across the political divide.
And yes, one of the 10 is a Buddhist. Judith Simpson, a practicing Buddhist, facilitated the conversation. Judith is an organizational development consultant who has worked with the likes of Eastman Kodak and Corning. She facilitates using a group process called Dialogue. Judith now plies her skills in restorative justice. Dorothy Odell organized the event. She has worked in education as a teacher and as a member of the Belfast School Board. Both reside in Belfast.
“I’ve gotten upset with the media fanning the flames of the story that we’re a polarized nation,” said Dorothy. Judith agreed. Together, they decided to do something about it.
“The less engaged people are, the more they tend to criticize. The more engaged people are, they have far less time [and] energy with which to criticize.”
She might as well have completed the above statement with the dismissive wave I heard in her voice. But she didn’t.
She’s a pastor’s wife. Her bread and butter (and heart and soul) are wrapped up in the local church. I have been there. Perhaps the mile I walked in those shoes helps me understand the sentiment. And I think there is a place for tempering unjust criticism from sources that seem negatively biased. That protects people, sure.
But I can’t let it go at that.
It was not exactly like the occupations of Wall Street or Boston, of Oakland or Seattle.
Rod House’s “wee encampment” was a one-man occupation on the library grounds in LaVeta, Colorado, population 906, some 65 miles southwest of Pueblo. He was so horrified by what he saw happening to protesters in other cities he was at wit’s end.
“I’ve got to do something, but I’m 71 years old,” House said.
So on Black Friday, that day that represents consumer society on steroids, House, an Air Force veteran, pitched his tent on the library grounds, determined to make his own stand for a better world. He was there simply as individual standing against the power of money that has corrupted politics.
A California vicar I know likes to describe the life of faith — the Church — as “The Great Conversation.” It is a conversation to which we all (and what part of alldon’t you understand?) are invited. When followers of Christ share their faith with others, they are inviting them to join the sacred conversation.
This is evangelicalism in its truest sense. This is what we are called to do. By the One, by Emmanuel, “God with us.”
My dear friend, (and most recently my boss), Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis, said recently that the 2012 presidential election is expected to be the most mean-spirited and vitriolic we’ve ever seen.
That may be true, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it must be that way.
We can solve that problem one conversation at a time.
There has been a lot of anger levied at the very wealthy since the Occupy movement began back in September. There is no doubt that much of this anger is justified – righteous indignation, if you will.
The ways that people have become extremely wealthy have often been corrupt or immoral, whether or not they are technically "legal." Part of the reason that the Occupy movement sprang up was because people felt that there were different rules for "us and them." People who lost millions of dollars in what was effectively high-stakes gambling were pardoned with little more than a slap on the wrist, while regular families lost everything in a crisis they had no hand in.
As I say, there has been, and still is, much anger. But out of that anger must come something new, something tangible and real.