“You tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” — Matthew 23:23
Like many of Jesus’ recorded sayings, this critique did not exactly endear him to the religious authorities of his day. In essence he accused them of practicing the details of faith while ignoring the substance, and he called them instead to pay attention to all of it: the routine, the important, and the earth-shattering.
I wonder if we’re in a similar place today.
Consider the issues that occupy the Christian Church. We’ve spent decades fighting over sex, sexuality, and gender. We worry about dwindling attendance and suspect that if we were just more dedicated, more evangelistic, we could reverse the decline. We bicker (we always bicker) about doctrine.
Few of these issues could be considered “details.” The debate over human sexuality is, among other things, about justice for millions of people whom the Church has marginalized. Many Christian doctrines are beautiful and speak to our deepest yearnings. Neglecting these things would have been tragic, if not wrong.
To a large extent, however, we have missed speaking out on other weighty matters: the megatrends of our age — issues so large that we take them as givens and shape our lives around them, rather than call them out for the risks they bear. For instance:
Distraction. The litany of apps and smart phones, tablets and social media, has been well documented, celebrated, and bemoaned. Yes, they do add value to our lives. Yet even as these tools connect us, they also take us away from one another and from the moment in which we live. How many face-to-face conversations have you had in which the other person is not looking at you but fixated on his phone?
Even more worrying, we may be creating a vicious cycle in which, the less we pay attention, the less we can pay attention. Neuroscientists (see, for instance, these summaries in the Daily Mail and Wired) have suggested that our use of screen-based systems is reconfiguring our brains for, among other traits, shorter attention spans and shallower thinking.
But many of our world’s most intractable problems — armed conflict, massive poverty, preserving the ecosystem — require the opposite: deep reflection, sustained attention, dialogue that can take months and years rather than seconds and sound bites. The more distracted we become, the less we can grapple with healing the world in the way to which God calls us. Curiously, many of these problems touch on the “justice and mercy and faith” that Jesus emphasized in his diatribe above.
Busyness. This lays the groundwork for distraction, and much of U.S. culture has adopted it as a virtue. Note the widespread overscheduling of children to provide as many enrichment activities as possible, the way businesspeople boast about their 80-hour work weeks, or the expectation that our friends and colleagues will be available to us 24/7. The press of today’s frenetic pace threatens us with the idea that unless we keep up, we will neither succeed ourselves nor be able to provide for our loved ones. So we do all we can to move faster.
Yet as with distraction, so with busyness. Many things of enduring value take slowness and painstaking effort: persevering through family crises, dialoguing across divides, earning a degree, growing into God. By rushing from here to here to here, we undermine our ability to go deep. Is this why we hear (and give) so many sound-bite answers to complex questions, or seek quick “closure” in matters of grief?
Cynical chic. Too many marketing efforts use status, ambition, and sex to sell products. Too many elected officials and pundits shape language and distort ideas to their own ends. People from all walks of life — senators, athletes, spouses, you and I — make promises they cannot keep. We might be excused for believing, in the words of fictional doctor Gregory House, that “everybody lies.”
As a result, many people excel at sniffing out empty promises and vested interests. In such an environment, cynicism is a survival tactic. Yet it can go too far–closing us off from life-giving messages, like affection from a friend or wisdom from a sage. If faith truly is committed to the quest for truth, however elusive that truth may be, should it not point out the corrosive effect of the words we use to bend the truth?
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There are undoubtedly other trends the Church could address. The question, for me, is whether addressing these trends — without neglecting the others — might be faith’s highest calling in this age. Can we create a world (or a place within it) for slowing down, paying attention, connecting deeply with one another, questing after truth, and seeking God?
Faith has spoken with a prophetic voice since the beginning of faith itself. Maybe it needs to speak in this voice again: to challenge the way in which “the way things are” make us less than who we can be.