A Reflection on this new book and what it means for Christians:
The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in A World Of Constant Connection
Reflection by Michael J. Bowling
We are flooded with presence! Twitter, Facebook, unlimited texting, smart phones, WIFI and a host of mobile devices put us in constant touch with nearly everyone on the planet. Maybe, this is a bit of an exaggeration today, but not so much in the near future. Some would respond, “What’s wrong with that?” After all, don’t we value presence? We want open and useful communication with others. Being present is at the core of Christian faith, right?
Well, God is the great “I am”, the ever present One. God is life, love, creator and sustainer of all that is. God has become “more” present by taking the form of the one true human, Jesus of Nazareth. He was called Emmanuel, “God with us”. And as if to declare that there can never be too much presence, God’s Spirit (the spirit of Jesus) was poured out on all flesh, dwelling in the midst of the Church and inside every true disciple of the Christ. God’s kingdom has come near in Jesus; it is said to be “coming”; it is said to be “in us”. The sum total of this abiding presence is ritualized in the Eucharist, holy communion or the Lord’s Supper where the living Christ is present as both host and food. So, this contemporary flood of presence is complimentary to the increasing presence of God, right?
Well, here’s the problem. There is deeply embedded in the presence of God all the stuff of life and all the noise of the world. And, all that “wonderful” new technology has made that “stuff” and that “noise” a relentless, intrusive and invasive presence…a deadly presence…which threatens to suffocate our opportunity to receive the emerging life of God in our midst. All the voices and all our relationships are so much with us that we cannot be truly present to one another. Most importantly, we cannot be fully present to God; God’s voice is lost in the din of so many other voices.
Michael Harris, a Canadian journalist, has written about the suffocating presence as a cultural challenge in his book The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. Harris reminds his readers that today’s generation of middle-agers will be the last generation to have experienced life before the internet. He does not make this observation as some kind of doomsday prediction or as an anti-technology Luddite; he simply encourages that we recognize a significant loss:
“I think that within the mess of changes we’re experiencing, there’s a single difference that we feel most keenly; and it’s also the difference that future generations will find hardest to grasp. That is the end of absence – the loss of lack. The daydreaming silences in our lives are filled; the burning solitudes are extinguished.”
Before Gutenberg’s press, Edison’s phonograph, Bell’s telephone and whoever’s internet, holy women and men throughout history warned us to value the silences as opportunities to contemplate the glories of God and to fill the silences with thanksgiving and praise. They encouraged a deep stillness in order to discern God’s prodding and direction. But humanity historically has for the most part averted our eyes from the Holy One and closed our ears to Divine whispers. The ruins of monastic communities throughout the world in some sense bear witness to a new posture toward attentiveness to God. The result has been the irony of paralyzing loneliness in an overcrowded world.
Almost forty years ago, Henri Nouwen wrote of this irony and the need for people to transition spiritually from loneliness to solitude. From his book Reaching Out, “we panic when there is nothing or nobody left to distract us…when we are left all alone by ourselves we are brought so close to the revelation of our basic human aloneness and are so afraid of experiencing an all-pervasive sense of loneliness that we will do anything to get busy again and continue the game which makes us believe that everything is fine after all.” Nouwen could not have imagined how far our culture would go to fill the silences with more noise, but he correctly anticipated the devastating effects of the loss of solitude.
We need to ask ourselves now how we avoid drowning in “presence”, or stated another way, how do we preserve “absence”. What limits are we placing on our use of technology? Plan for times of silence in general; take silent walks in the neighborhood or in a park; use these times to take some of Paul’s best advice:
“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things; and the God of peace shall be with you.” (Phil. 4:8, 9)