(a paper given to the Clergy of Carlisle Diocese, January 2019)
I’ve been reading Richard Hooker – as one does! – the most significant thinker of the 16th Century who gave the Anglican Church our distinctive imagination, liturgy and ecclesiology.
He says, towards the beginning of book 5 of his Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity that
godliness [is] the cheifest top and welspringe of all true virtues, even as God is of all good thinges. (BkV, ch1, p.17 FLE)
Godliness is the chiefest top and wellspring of all true virtues.
Which got me thinking – if that’s the highest virtue: What is godliness? What is it to be a godly person today?
Perhaps it depends on what we attend to.
What grabs and holds the attention today is big business.
Cultural commentators and theologians, like Matthew Crawford, Jaron Lanier, Mark Clavier and James Williams describe today’s world as information abundant (unlike previous eras) and attention scarce. Anything that’s scarce has a value, and our attention, now, is a marketable commodity. The attention economy is upon us, where every moment, particularly our engagement on the internet, offers opportunity. Who can live without a phone these days? As soon as you turn it on, subtle and not-so-subtle advertising is there. Clever advertising, designed to make the most of any transaction you make.
Mark Clavier says this
Our emotions, imagination, and desires can’t avoid expertly designed appeals for us to pursue an ideal of happiness that we’ve already been disposed to desire. Over and over again, we’re faced with these appeals, reminded how happy we might be, and are presented with a choice: to buy or not to buy. Like it or not, we now perpetually live in the marketplace. (Mark Clavier: (2019) On Consumer Culture, Identity, The Church and the Rhetorics of Delight, London and New York, Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2019, p. 5)
His book – just out – describes the powerful rhetoric of the marketplace, designed to persuade. He offers a great analysis of the rhetoric of Cicero, and reads Augustine too, for insights on consumerism.
He encourages the Church to be truly counter-cultural today, because there’s a great deal at stake. We are challenged at the heart of our humanity. For the attention economy changes what we attend to, and how we attend to it. Our desires are captivated, and consequently, our intention and will is changed. The key question he pursues, from his reading of Augustine, is what really delights us.
James Williams was a former Google strategist at the top of his game. He looked around one day and wondered why he and his colleagues – the best brains of his generation – were focused entirely on strategies to develop ‘clickbait’. Clickbait refers to the sophisticated algorithms that are designed to ‘hook’ users (you and me) to buy the product, to play the game. There’s a four stage model: the trigger, the action, the variable reward – all designed to ensure the user’s ‘investment’ of time or money. The variable reward is the key – it can be a ‘surprise’, or some other device, designed to capture the attention, then create a habit or addiction. It’s the stage that makes you say, ‘one more go!’ ‘One more click!’
It’s not only your attention that’s hooked. Your intention, or will, is also compromised. Who hasn’t played just one more game, searched just one more site for what you really, really want, instead of doing the dishes, getting ready for a meeting, picking the kids up? Or preparing a sermon? Jaron Lanier, from his experience of Silicon Valley, describes graphically the subconscious manipulation at the heart of social media.
Take gambling. Matthew Crawford describes how gambling changes the will. A binary decision gives you a great sense of control.
Your action of pressing a button produces an effect that aligns perfectly with your will, because your will has been channeled into … press or don’t press. You give yourself over to the logic of the machine and are rewarded by a feeling of efficacy. That is, you lose yourself, and thereby gain control. (91)
Crawford discusses Natasha Schull’s book on gambling in Las Vegas, Addiction by Design, and how she interviewed gamblers whose addiction was deadly. One woman made sure she wore dark clothing when she went gambling so it didn’t show when she urinated. (96) The machines and every aspect of the casino environment are deliberately engineered to induce people to play “to extinction.”(111). This is the far end of a spectrum in which we are all caught.
When it comes to the Web, we think we’re spiders, but really we’re flies.
Williams gave it all up and went to Oxford to study philosophy, then wrote his 2018 book Stand Out of Our Light. He argues that the next-generation threat to human freedom is the systems of intelligent persuasion that increasingly direct our thoughts and actions. The “attention economy” makes us think we’re powerful when we can access more and more information, exercising our choice in binary clicks. But really we’re pawns in a highly sophisticated marketplace, where instead of attending to goals for our lives, ones that will give us real delight, we are distracted, and ever more distracted.
The poet Mary Oliver died a few weeks ago. I thought of one memorable line she wrote, in the poem “The Summer Day”, that pulls us up short, wondering if we’re living life to the full:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Mark Clavier says Christians – the Church – is faced with a choice, a dilemma, even.
The rhetorical and religious nature of consumerism confronts the Church with a dilemma. Either it accepts consumer culture and simply tries successfully to express its own rhetoric within it or it must find a way to challenge consumerism’s hold over individuals and society. The first approach involves the Church effectively becoming a consumer tribe and employing the same means and methods that other consumer tribes use to attract clientele. … Christianity therefore becomes a lifestyle, an accessory for self-expression, and little more than a way for individuals to become religious-consumers-by-vocation. … The second approach … seeks to stand apart from consumer culture, perhaps even to understand its own mission as converting people away from consumer identities. (14/5)
The Attention Economy thrives when our attention is redirected to what we really, really want. For then we forget how to want what we really want to want – the deeper desires of our lives, which make us human. When we are distracted, and stop training ourselves to attend, our human will, both individually and collectively, is undermined. We aren’t thinking of our one wild and precious life.
Williams writes that we need to reclaim our attention:
The liberation of the human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time. Its success is prerequisite for the success of virtually all other struggles. We therefore have an obligation to rewire this system of intelligent, adversarial persuasion before it rewires us. Doing so requires … the courage necessary for advancing on it in inconvenient and unpopular ways. (p. xii)
Those inconvenient and unpopular ways should involve the Church. We’re used to inconvenience and unpopularity, after all.
James Williams isn’t the only one. In The World Beyond Your Head Matthew Crawford speaks of a cultural iceberg in which our mental lives are fractured, where we have diminished attention spans and a widespread sense of distraction, as our brains are rewired by new habits of information grazing and electronic stimulation. We lack time and space for serious, concentrated engagement. We have allowed our attention to be monetized by advertisements, by hassle, by information, such that ‘if you want your [attention] back you’re going to have to pay for it’ (p.12).
Like Williams, Crawford says we now lack ‘the sort of guidance that once would have been supplied by tradition, religion, or the kinds of communities that make deep demands on us’ (pp.4–5).
He refers to Simone Weil to argue that ‘attending to anything in a sustained way requires actively excluding all the other things that grab at our attention. It requires, if not ruthlessness toward oneself, a capacity for self-regulation’ (p.15).
Let’s remind ourselves of Simone Weil. A French mystic who was born in 1909 and died in 1942, she was brought up agnostic. She remained all her life outside the Catholic Church, though she had a deep and fierce faith and intelligence to match.
She once famously described how she first learned to pray. She wrote, in Waiting On God:
Until last September I had never once prayed in all my life, at least not in the literal sense of the word. I had never said any words to God, either out loud or mentally.
Last summer … I went through the Our Father word for word in Greek [with my tutor]. We promised each other to learn it by heart. I do not think he ever did so, but some weeks later, as I was turning over the pages of the Gospel, I said to myself that since I had promised to do this thing and it was good, I ought to do it. I did it. The infinite sweetness of this Greek text so took hold of me that for several days I could not stop myself from saying it over all the time. A week afterward I began the vine harvest I recited the Our Father in Greek every day before work, and I repeated it very often in the vineyard.
Since that time I have made a practice of saying it through once each morning with absolute attention. If during the recitation my attention wanders or goes to sleep, in the minutest degree, I begin again until I have once succeeded in going through it with absolutely pure attention. Sometimes it comes about that I say it again out of sheer pleasure, but I only do it if I really feel the impulse.
The effect of this practice is extraordinary and surprises me every time, for, although I experience it each day, it exceeds my expectation at each repetition. …
Sometimes … during this recitation or at other moments, Christ is present with me in person, his presence is infinitely real, moving, clear … (37/38)
This is the cultivation of a habit of prayer that becomes deeply formative of the human person. It takes self-control – that fruit of the Spirit (perhaps the most important one). Without such self-control, we become open to manipulation – or so James Williams says. And he should know.
Williams and Crawford both describe how the digital age is shaping our attention to such a degree that the self becomes fragmented, and forgets how to attend to anything with deep concentration. We become habitually distracted away from the deeper desires for human fulfilment and wholeness in our one wild and precious life. The human self ends up all over the place, unable to sustain attention for any length of time, and ultimately unable to grow as human persons.
Williams and Crawford regret the loss of religious practice and habits that cultivate the ability to attend. Those religious practices go right back. St Paul struggled with the tension between attention and distraction. Romans chapter 7:
For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … . For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
St Augustine expressed how hard it was to attend, fully and wholeheartedly, when he prayed. How distracted he was by the concerns of the ‘flesh’, sarx, – the word Paul used. The flesh demands satisfaction of its wants, lusts, its greed and envy, and distracts us into sin.
God’s attention is very different, says Augustine.
Unlike us, He does not look ahead to the future, see the present before him, and look back to the past. Rather he sees events in another way, far and profoundly different from any experience that is familiar to our minds. For he does not variably turn his attention from one thing to another. Hence all events in time, events that wil be and are not yet and those that are now, being present, and those that have passed and are no more, all of them are apprehended by him in a motionless and everlasting present moment … Nor does it make any difference whether he looks at them from present, past or future, since his knowledge, unlike ours, of the three kinds of time, present, past and future, does not change as time changes … Neither does [God’s] attention stray from one subject to another … De Civitate Dei, 11:21
All time, things and events are present to God’s all-loving, comprehensive gaze.
Clavier wants us to counter the sophisticated rhetoric of the marketplace with a deeper rhetoric that goes to the heart of our desire and delight: He writes
So according to Augustine, delight goes right to the heart of our sense of freedom and our identity. We feel most free and most ourselves when we get to do whatever most delights us. … for the most part, we don’t choose the delights that shape our sense of freedom (39).
For Augustine, delight’s source is God himself. … a quality that arises from the shared love of the Trinity, the ‘inexpressible embrace.’ (On The Trinity, 6.12). (Clavier 69/70)
Here is real delight. The only way to overcome the power of the marketplace.
Clavier is right when he says it begins with us, what we give our attention to. Our prayer life. He commends that the faithful person attend to God, as Simone Weil did, with as pure an attention as possible. We know how difficult this is, to free ourselves of the distractions that preoccupy us. We seek – my soul in stillness waits – to gaze on God, and by grace to share, if only in some small part, in the gaze of God on the world around, on our neighbour, particularly with compassion on those who are afflicted. When we worship, we attend to God, lost in wonder, trying to forget ourselves in God’s loving attention that redeems us. We seek to be transformed by the gaze of God’s redemptive love.
Simone Weil argues that our souls would much rather do anything than attend to God in prayer. We actively seek to be distracted. It is a human propensity. Lead us not into temptation. Lead us not into distraction.
For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … . For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. (ch.7: 14-20)
Christians through the ages have prayed, as St Paul did, for grace to begin the prayer. He knew that prayer only happens with the necessary intervention of grace. God’s grace is required to break the human vicious circle of an attention distracted away from God.
As Paul wrote to the Romans, he begins with the need for the Holy Spirit to break into the all-too-human distractions that so easily control us.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans, Chapter 8, 26-27)
It is only by asking for the Spirit to intercede that the human person can begin to attend to God, and find freedom from the distractions of the world, the flesh and the devil. We need to do it again and again, though. For Clavier is right when he says this of the power of the ubiquitous marketplace which seeks to seduce us back in every waking moment:
And even if we choose not to shop, we must make that choice repeatedly – we’re like alcoholics trapped in a distillery choosing not to accept the constant offer to enjoy a drink. (53)
Grace is necessary to attend in prayer to the delight that God gives. Then, not only do we find freedom; there is also transformation.
The tension between attention and distraction offers a frame for sinfulness and redemption. In so far as we are distracted, we slide away from God’s love; we lose ourselves – ultimately kill ourselves – in any number of tempting sins.
David Marno argues that this tension is at the heart of John Donne’s devotional poetry. In his book Death Be Not Proud, he explores how Donne worked sonnets to take us from distraction to attention, from sinfulness to redemption.
Donne uses the structure and language of the poem to gather the attention of the reader. When we are engaged in faithful prayer, we receive God’s grace with thankfulness for the gift of redemption. Instead of the distractions of sarx – the body with its cravings and appetites – the poem enables a human, incarnate attention to grow in a grace that incorporates distraction, just as God took on the frailties and death of human flesh in Christ. As we arrive at the end of the poem, we are able to assert ‘Death, thou shalt die!’ – and as we do so, we affirm the reality of the Resurrection. Eternal life is ours, here and now.
John Donne’s holy sonnets were a deliberate exercise in holy attention. As we attend to the sonnet, our attention becomes holy, and we grow more deeply into the knowledge of faith, transformed to become more Christlike. We grow in godliness.
Simone Weil describes the same process when she encountered George Herbert’s poem Love.
[a young English Catholic] told me of the existence of those English poets of the 17C who are named metaphysical. In reading them later on, I discovered the poem … called Love. I learnt it by heart. Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me. (35)
We have all the resources we need, within our Christian tradition, to enable us to pray in a way that transforms us. Those resources are prayers or biblical passages, creeds, psalms, or hymns we know off by heart, or particular art that enables us to gaze with a holy attention, or poetry. Or music – Bach’s Cantatas, perhaps. We will each have our own icons that capture and shape our attention towards God.
The ability to gather attention becomes, as Williams and Crawford suggest, a political and moral imperative in a world that now turns on an attention economy. How can those traditional practices of our Christian heritage enable humanity to find itself in its ability to ignore distraction and attend to God, with a holy attention?
One way is to celebrate the craft of preaching. Preaching commands attention at the heart of worship. With phones switched off, and the intention to worship God, the sermon can gather those present into a greater awareness of God’s grace transforming their lives. If we preach, we have a God-given opportunity to enable listeners to encounter Jesus Christ, away from the distraction of wandering thought and restless sense. The Word, heard and preached, should, hopefully, stir a response of thanksgiving, an awareness of the deeper reality of God’s gifts, including the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. Together, Word and Sacrament, the worshipper becomes a member of a Body that is caught up into God’s grace and able to withstand the forces and pressures that fragment and atomise the human self today.
This is to understand how fragments are gathered, like grain once scattered in the fields and grapes once dispersed on the hillside. It is to pray that ancient prayer that the whole Church be gathered from the corners of the earth into God’s kingdom. It is to show a way for fragmented selves to find wholeness instead of all that distracts us in life. The Church gathers the fragments as morsels collected into twelve baskets after the feeding of the five thousand. For though we are many, we are one body, sharing the one bread. We are reminded of the profound reality that humanity finds its fulfilment in the wholeness of God. As we attend to God, we find our place within God’s desires and purposes for us to be together in Christ’s presence.
How might we – priests and ministers – enable attention to be gathered and focused on God, bringing alive the Gospel of redemption, offered for all time by Christ’s life and death?
It is to offer something different to the clickbait that commodifies our attention and seduces our intention, our very selves, in today’s market economy. It is to gaze on the living Christ, crucified and risen, and attend to the transformative power of the love of God in each of us, in the Church and the world. God claims our attention as we contemplate the promise of eternal, abundant life, instead of becoming distracted away and dissipated in a shallow morass of trivial and false gratifications.
As we contemplate God, we grow in godliness. We are transformed. The impact isn’t just individual. The whole of society is involved. James Williams writes, after he realised what the impact of the digital economy was:
I knew this wasn’t just about me – my deep distractions, my frustrated goals. But when most people in society use your product, you aren’t just designing users; you’re designing society. But if all of society were to become as distracted in this new, deep way as I was starting to feel, what would that mean? What would be the implications for our shared interests, our common purposes, our collective identities, our politics? (2018, p.10)
The broader consequences for society of a human attention that commodified to distraction, are becoming apparent. Williams warns that ‘[F]uture generations will judge us not only for our stewardship of the outer environment, but of the inner environment as well’ (2018, p.127).
There is a role here for the Church to offer a different way of being human in society. The place to start is our own holy attention. Perhaps there’s no better way than by a ministry that is noted for its godliness, its holy attention to God.
Mark Clavier: (2019) On Consumer Culture, Identity, The Church and the Rhetorics of Delight, London and New York, Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2019
Matthew Crawford, (2015) The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction. London: Penguin Random House.
Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen (2017) The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, MIT
Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (including the Preface, Book I & VIII) Ed. Arther Stephen McGrade, Cambridge University Press, 1989
Jaron Lanier Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now Penguin 2018
David Marno (2016) Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention Chicago University Press.
Natasha Dow Schüll, (2014) Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, Princeton University Press.
Simone Weil (1951) Waiting on God [in French, 1950] trans. Emma Craufurd, Routledge and Kegan Paul.
James Williams, (2018) Stand Out Of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.