We almost forget that ten years ago, there were no smartphones, and as recently as 2011, only a third of Americans owned one. Now nearly two-thirds do. That figure reaches 85 percent when you’re only counting young adults. And 46 percent of Americans told Pew surveyors last year a simple but remarkable thing: They could not live without one. The device went from unknown to indispensable in less than a decade.
His point is well taken. We are not threatened simply by change but the rapid pace of change and the kind of change that keeps up that pace and even accelerates it. It is an addiction that causes us to crave the change -- not simply the apps or the internet or the games but the change itself. We have learned not to be satisfied or content with anything that does not change and change rapidly. We have taught ourselves to delay gratification to something that will never come and the price we have paid has robbed us of many of the distinguishing marks of humanity. But it is the paragraph about the church on which I want to focus our attention:
If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary. But the mysticism of Catholic meditation — of the Rosary, of Benediction, or simple contemplative prayer — is a tradition in search of rediscovery. The monasteries — opened up to more lay visitors — could try to answer to the same needs that the booming yoga movement has increasingly met.
The sad truth is that success for churches almost always comes with the same frenzied pace that afflicts our frazzled digital generation in the rest of their lives. We over schedule people's lives with all sorts of things that have little relative value for witness of those outside the church or for the care of the soul for those inside. Our idea of success is the 24 hour, 7 day a week church which always has something going on to compete with the attractions outside the church. We have turned our churches into anything and everything but churches -- gyms and health clubs, social circles and special interest groups, self help centers and child care centers. The one thing that faith needs has become merely one among the many programs -- our life together around the Word and Table of the Lord. Even those who resist this impulse to define success as busyness are hard pressed to fight the demon of distraction and its empty promise of happiness, contentment, and peace at the end of the technology rainbow.
Then there were the other snares: the allure of online porn, now blasting through the defenses of every teenager; the ease of replacing every conversation with a texting stream; the escape of living for a while in an online game where all the hazards of real human interaction are banished; the new video features on Instagram, and new friends to follow. It all slowly chipped away at my meditative composure. I cut my daily silences from one hour to 25 minutes; and then, almost a year later, to every other day. I knew this was fatal — that the key to gaining sustainable composure from meditation was rigorous discipline and practice, every day, whether you felt like it or not, whether it felt as if it were working or not. Like weekly Mass, it is the routine that gradually creates a space that lets your life breathe. But the world I rejoined seemed to conspire to take that space away from me. “I do what I hate,” as the oldest son says in Terrence Malick’s haunting Tree of Life.
I haven’t given up, even as, each day, at various moments, I find myself giving in. There are books to be read; landscapes to be walked; friends to be with; life to be fully lived. And I realize that this is, in some ways, just another tale in the vast book of human frailty. But this new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any.
As Christians and as clergy we should heed the call. We should not do what we hate only because we think it is what people want or how the world defines happiness or success. If eschewing the technology promise for the one planted on Calvary's Hill means being labeled "irrelevant," then perhaps irrelevance is the judgment we must endure to be faithful.