Growing up regularly attending church and attending a Christian school, I never questioned whether God exists or whether Christianity was true. I assumed these things and assumed that those who did not believe them had, at some point, explicitly rejected them. Upon arrival at university, I swiftly realized that most of my peers had grown up with precisely the opposite assumptions. Most had never explicitly rejected Christianity; that had been done by their parents or, far more likely, their grandparents. The existence of God and the truth of Christianity were, to them, perhaps the precise opposite of obvious. I went looking for apologetics to prepare myself for discussions.
I thought at the time that most people rejected Christianity for specific reasons: that they didn’t believe in miracles, or the existence of a personal God, or in the historicity of the biblical accounts or the Resurrection. While that was partially true, I swiftly discovered that most people had never really considered those questions, either. The reality is that most people are atheists or agnostics because the existence of God doesn’t feel plausible to them. God doesn’t seem relevant to their lives, and the very best of C.S. Lewis, John Lennox, or William Lane Craig isn’t going to persuade them. Christopher Hitchens could get systematically dismantled on every point by a winsome Christian apologist, and it didn’t budge a single one of his fans.
I was struck by the Dutch historian Geert Mak’s book Hoe God verdween uit Jorwerd (How God Disappeared from Jorwerd). He describes how the advance of technology eliminated the villagers’ sense of dependence on God, and the prayer services for successful crops and other religious traditions slowly disappeared from the churches. “Fate seemed no longer to exist in the modern welfare state,” Mak wrote. “Medical techniques and social security had provided people with the means by which death, disaster, and misfortune could be banished, controlled, or at least removed to the margins of existence.” Religion became, for most, a choice rather than a self-evident—or relevant—reality.
As layers of technology have buffered us from both the natural world and, by extension, the Creator of the world, God is increasingly hidden from view. For many people, modernity feels atheistic. This is the subject of Bulwarks of Unbelief: Atheism and Divine Absence in a Secular Age by Joseph Minich, a residential teaching fellow at The Davenant Institute, published this year by Lexham Press. Minich describes how modernity creates atheists and how the “felt absence of God” experienced by modern people is key to explaining the rise in atheism. The rise of technology, Minich observes, has posed a “perceived challenge to God’s existence.” Into the spiritual vacuum created by the perceived absence of God, moderns have poured themselves into technologies and never-ending noise, resulting in lives that are profoundly hostile to the experience of faith. In the face of this, Minich argues, “we must consciously and actively return to reality.” We did not choose modernity, but we can choose how to live within modernity. Minich kindly agreed to answer our questions.
You write in Bulwarks of Unbelief that “technology is what nature was to many generations of our ancestors.” What do you mean by that?
Humans have always changed the environment around them. For most of the history of our race, however, there was felt to be more continuity between the stubborn “natures of things” (trees, soil, air, animals, having a body, etc.) and the technologies that either enhanced or navigated around the chorus of actors that made up the world and one’s experience within it. To speak of the ‘nature’ of something is to speak about the ‘kind of actor’ any particular thing is within the community of beings. Said differently, a dog has ‘dog-like effects’ on the world, and a tree has ‘tree-like effects’ on the world. For our ancestors, these agencies were quite stubborn and had to be accounted for in one’s individual and collective actions. Ancient technology acts ‘on top of’ or ‘around’ this collection of actors, but the latter isn’t obscured. Arguably, what happens in post-industrial technology in the late modern world is the proliferation of technologies to such an extent that the ‘chorus of actors’ is actually quite obscured.
To instantiate this: Most modern humans are not ‘acted upon’ by the sky, living under a canopy of urban light. Hills are no longer an obstacle to our movement. They can be removed. The darkness is no longer an obstacle to our daytime. We have electric lights. Terrain is no longer an obstacle to our movement. We can transit at highly efficient speeds to most places without thinking about the space around us. We acquire food through chains of agency that are obscured for us. One could extend this to the impact of technology on social life, economic organization, etc.
In fact, there is very little in our world where the ‘natures of things’ must be heard. While present for those who attend to them, the character of modern technology is largely that it has its own ends and sees in the ‘natures of things’ not a community of actors with which to negotiate but rather a denatured set of ‘resources’ for any willed human end. The vast proliferation of technologies developed under such a mentality has created a world where a large portion of the ‘default actors’ around which we navigate are human technologies themselves. A storm that might have been a crisis for my ancestors is of no concern to me. But I’d better answer my email! In this sense, the default ‘voices’ we hear in the world are a result of our own technologically mediated action, and while we know we’ve made these things, we relate them to a cosmic default setting.
To what extent is the nature of the digital age (or ‘the Machine,’ as some critics call it) fundamentally anti-Christian? Would that be an accurate characterization?
I want to be careful here because the experience of modernity isn’t monolithic, and thinking about cities and technology can often be quite human (see, for instance, the thoughts of Richard Sennett and Christopher Alexander). As well, Tom Holland’s Dominion has made me cautious to see mere anti-Christianity when this is often suspended atop an even more subterranean Christian imagination in some respect. But certain obvious tendencies in our world could be called anti-Christian. I think that Matthew Crawford’s recent piece in First Things, “The Rise of Antihumanism,” is a very important read on this question. In addition to the comments he makes there, it would be fair to say that much of the character of modern technology and civilizational trajectory is away from ‘remembering’ the body. And in fact, this is what needs to be done.
Think of the parallel to the peculiar modern behavior of ‘exercise.’ In some sense, it exists to give the human body the needs that were formerly met in subsistence labor and which you don’t have to do now! You have to choose to exercise. Similarly, we have very similar relational needs as our ancestors in some respects. We need healthy communities and families and a sense of ‘local’ that is determined ultimately by the limits of the human body. But as with exercise, we don’t have to do that, and there are many pressures that even fight against such a prioritization. And here I’ve only spoken of the problem in the most basic way—the way in which we have become disoriented from our own nature in the most basic of ways. One could go on to talk about disorientation from gender, from intergenerational development, etc. In all of these things, we might speak of a progressive tendency to treat the default human condition as a problem to be overcome rather than a nature to be cultivated and matured. That is, humans have treated themselves and everything around them as a canvas for self-expression, rather than an already-filled-out set of outlines that we have been invited to play with.
We have become frackers of self and civilization, not gardeners developing things alongside their givenness. Issues of theological anthropology all participate in this tension, and it is my judgment that no small part of Christian faithfulness in our time is remembering who and what we are. And this remembrance could be cashed out in an enormous number of ways. My own sense is that one crucial battleground in the next generation will be over our civilizational addiction to clock time over human time. In fact, taking the former for granted has probably damaged the human nature of a whole civilization. We don’t actually know how to rest, and this keeps us not only from our natures but from that special kind of presence to time in which God is present to us. The ‘waiting’ so often called for in Scripture is not so much to hold our breath through a torturous pike of clock time, but rather to sit tranquilly in a present whose future will be given when and as God determines.
A mounting body of evidence indicates that the digital age is reshaping the way our minds function. What impact does the rewiring of our brains in conjunction with our technology have on our capacity to understand and engage with serious, meditative religious thought and belief?
What I began to develop at the end of the previous answer is definitely a part of it! The digital world has deeply impacted our capacity for attention, and there is a relationship between the habit of attention and prayer, the reading of the Scriptures, and various other aspects of a Christian life. This can sometimes be overstated, as though God isn’t our gracious Father who constantly makes up for our weaknesses and rewards the feeblest of efforts in these areas. Nevertheless, it is likewise the case that a part of our civilizational healing will involve the self-conscious cultivation of brains and bodies that are, at present, plugged directly into communities, activities, and problems that are embodied.
I confess no sagedom in the virtue of ‘unplugging,’ but something like it is a practical necessity not only for making sure we attend to reality itself (as opposed to simply our own thoughts), but to give our minds that kind of movement through space and time that is conducive to the development of such contemplation. Moreover, I think it is crucial to say that God will perhaps redeem some dimensions of our mental habits. The trial of late modernity is not just a liability but something out of which God intends to develop fruit. The movement from our default mental habits to something better for us (and arguably more natural to our species) will not mean that our own lives and civilization have been a waste of time. To invoke a famous modern tale, the “back again” in Bilbo’s There and Back Again does not negate, but rather implies, treasures brought back from an adventure. I very much doubt we will be rightly oriented if we fail to see the adventure of being just here and now.
What are some of the key false assumptions that Christian intellectuals make about the nature of secularization?
We are ideological. I mean several things by this. I mean that we tend to think of historical events as ultimately downstream of our ideas. We likewise think of our own lives as somehow ‘downstream’ of our doctrines or theories, and then (crucially!) of other people’s lives as ‘downstream’ of their theories. In the words of a dear friend, our native tendency is to think of people as “worldviews in sneakers.”
There are several problems with this. First, all of us are inconsistent incubators of many ideas. No human is fully consistent. Moreover, our practice is often better than our theory, and our theory is often better than our practice. Moreover, the historical process is not the playing out of some idea but rather a play between whatever we want to call ideas and all of the textures of material circumstance, embodied condition, inherited tradition, cultivated mental habit, etc. The old doctors would probably have just seen this as the play between form and matter written into an individual life or culture. Put into a modern idiom, one might say that we cannot really talk about individuals and cultures apart from their ‘material culture.’ Ideas do not act, but rather people act with ideas, and they do so in a complicated context and with complex intentions.
In this sense, there is a reciprocal relationship between ideas and the historical contexts in which they are deployed. We can be motivated by ideas to change something about the world, but then that change becomes part of intellectual background noise and mental habits. And this changes the Overton Window (to invoke a modern motif), within which new ideas are rendered increasingly plausible or implausible. So, the problem with the modern evangelical treatment is not that it treats ideas as historically and personally significant. Rather, it tends to explanatorily reduce the understanding of cultural and personal action to such conscious ideas, obscuring a whole set of forces in the world in others and, most crucially, in ourselves.
Practically, this plays out in several ways that are quite problematic. First, if secularism is a result of bad ideas, then the solution is likewise bad ideas (both in ourselves and others). But this is liable to take our attention away from the ways in which we ourselves—not to mention our ideas—are deeply caught up in the secularizing trajectory of the modern world. The world has never been disenchanted, but we are disenchanted in several crucial respects. To overly treat the problem as one of ideas is to fail to see how we are existentially affected by this world.
Second, this deeply influences our cultural and evangelistic tasks. If the problem is ideas, and we have the right ones, we are not likely to come off as those who share some degree of the disorientation of our fellows, but rather as those who are just one other set of ‘answer havers’ to the ‘unawake’ in the sea of tribes claiming the same vantage point for themselves. And arguably, this is to set up a perpetual crisis of faith, both because we are in fact not that oriented and because addiction to a self-narration that insists that we are well oriented must inevitably require self-avoidance and discomfort with the very condition we find ourselves in and to which God has bid us to be faithful. Of course, not all personal experiences are the same, but I am sure we have all heard stories of apologists-turned-atheists (and there is no denomination or method that is safe from such tales). That pendulum effect from knowing everything to knowing nothing is, I suspect, largely accounted for by this unnatural relationship to our systems. A fuller answer would state that such ‘self-consciousness of our ideas’ is part of being modern and not to be avoided (it even has its advantages and opportunities). But in concert with the above, it is crucial for us to remember that we do not know ourselves as well as we think, nor do we (in the language of Lewis) have fullness of face.
What impact has this had on our response to the key challenges of the digital era?
I think that we are unattuned to human nature, even if we have the right theory about it. Digital media needs to be seen for the medium that it is and needs to be seen for the way in which it shapes the very structure of our actions, prior to any particular strategy for dealing with it. A parallel in the world of film might help make the point. There are a lot of ‘Christian movies’ out there these days, and most of them are considered Christian by virtue of the different kinds of overt messages in the words uttered during the film. But is that the only way a movie speaks? In most of these films, there is a love story. Do you think the boy and the girl (for example, in God’s Not Dead) are attractive or average-looking? How does the camera stare at them?
Maybe the retort is that, of course, people are attractive when playing the leads in a movie, but that is just the point. Cinema has a set of subterranean rules and messages that are far below the stuff we’re used to looking at. What each of these movies helps confirm is that love and romance are mostly for the very attractive (a deep association for which film and image-centered media are largely responsible).
Similarly, when the digital era is a problem downstream of some ideologized life algorithm, then we are likely failing to see exactly how digital media works and how it works on us. As Lewis puts in the mouth of Uncle Screwtape, humans always tend to forget that they are bodies. The ideologically minded perceive that they can think themselves out of certain effects, all the while forgetting that they are bodies and that their thinking is so tinged. Look at evangelical discourse after the internet to make this point. How much patience have we lost for the process of knowing? How quick does our ‘lizard brain’ require the relief of responding and ‘winning’ on Facebook? How careful are our dialogues? How much is lost in the loss of non-verbal, embodied communication? Maybe our theology hasn’t changed a bit theoretically in the last 20 years, but we surely have.
How should Christians personally navigate the digital world and, what practical steps should Christian families and communities start taking to “consciously and actively return to reality”?
In chapter 4 of my book, I try to answer this to the extent that I have the wisdom to do so. Interested readers can find a lot of comments about this there, but here I’d want to insist on some very basic framing of things. First, it is orienting just to name what it feels like to be alive right now. We don’t need to end there, but it helps to start there.
Second, I think it is crucial for us to simply own and be comfortable with the fact that we live in this weird world. I have elsewhere defined late modernity as the “simultaneous global renegotiation of all human custom.” Whatever that is like, it’s not easy to navigate, but it is what God has called us to. There is adventure to be had therein, and there are fruits that are important for the human race in their own way (Dostoyevsky, folk music, film, etc.). Even more basically, though, whatever we call modernity is ‘on top of’ the beauty of being given life itself. It is a peculiar ride to be on, but we must never lose gratitude for being called right here and now to participate in His story.
Third, and finally, God is with us and has not abandoned us. Jesus entered a world full of tribes biting and devouring one another. And yet, with all of that differentiation and tension, He was able to say orienting things to the whole of Israel (and the world). If anything is orienting to me in a time like ours, it is that we are not wiser than the orientation Christ gave the world two thousand years ago. How do we navigate the simultaneous global renegotiation of all human customs? The answer is not less than whatever Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. In terms of personal orientation, my own sense is that Jesus (and the apostolic reflection on His teaching) is the orientation behind all orientations. Those who treat our circumstance as a ‘triage state,’ in which the plain words are to be discarded for the sake of some other cultural strategy, negate the very program that ever gave us a Christian civilization in the first place.