From the Editor: Everything Everywhere
Most of the articles in this Reflections point to either end of the same horizon of belief—a personal rediscovery of Christian practices (faithfulness, contemplative prayer, neighborliness) or a larger vision of human concern based on those foundational gospel ideas. The world could use a dose of either right now. Essays here speak to an immersion in Christian ways of thinking and feeling, declaring commitments that push back against fatalism, despondency, political hysteria, and self-defeat. The customary analytics of the day’s headline furies are, for the moment, demoted. In that moment, silence stands by, ready to breathe, expand, possibly make room for hearing oneself think and feel again.
Alternative facts achieve a new glamour, a new elitism to rival the old elitism. This standoff creates excitement and chaos. It softens the ground for something else too: new magnitudes of self-deception.
Such spaces are of course under siege 24/7. Contemporary conditions make it hard to see an alternative path, a life of balance or sanity or patient spiritual practice. A torrent lashes down: information overload, it used to be called. Now it’s data overwhelm, “everything everywhere all at once.” Monetizers of the data deluge are ready with a smile to fill whatever silence remains, a smile which on closer examination is a vehement rictus, an at-all-costs bum-rush at us.
We’re becoming aware of the human cost to this, the anxiety spike, the loss of a manageable scale to daily experience. Writer Olivia Laing describes a helpless lurch from crisis to crisis: “The bad news keeps coming, faster by the day. It has felt as if keeping up with this ceaseless wave of information is a moral duty, a way of staying aware and awake. But the effect is more like being whacked on the head. The algorithm prioritizes continued consumption of the feed, not action. It always seems as if something enormous is coming down the line: something revelatory, something you couldn’t possibly afford to miss. Hours go by, then years. everything is the same color, tone, pitch. No resolution arrives.”
One much-noted effect is a never-ending fracas over facts, a crash of consensus, with public spaces made vulnerable to endlessly repeated falsehoods and mystifications. Alternative facts achieve a new glamour, a counterworld of insider info—a new elitism to rival the old elitism, with its old media, old credos, and old guard. This standoff creates excitement and chaos. It softens the ground for something else too: new magnitudes of self-deception. “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom,” writes historian Timothy Snyder, Yale’s Levin Professor of History. “If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.”
In his recent book, Elusive Grace, the Rev. Scott Black Johnston ’89 M.Div. writes about the need to “retrain our hearts” if we ever hope to reverse today’s societal partisan slide, with its shrugging attitude toward real-world truth and consequences. Black Johnston says enough is enough: like King David in Psalm 51, we must stop lying to ourselves, stop telling ourselves exactly what we want to hear. That’s a message from scripture over and over. Take the more demanding path. Make a commitment to one another. Commit to the search for truth.
“Truth sends us looking for facts and puts us in dialogue with science,” he writes. “Truth engages us with history. Truth invites us to listen to the experience of other human beings. Truth encounters mysteries that cannot be contained in words. Truth brings prayers to our lips that plead for help: ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.’ Truth stirs up love. It requires love. If our tradition is clear about anything, it is this: You cannot know the truth about yourself, or your neighbor, or your enemy, or your family, or your country, until you love them—until you put on the eyes of God.”
As Scott makes plain, commitments of mind and heart flow from religious belief in a Creator who fashioned this world and the souls that make their way through it. These commitments include an acknowledgement of the hard facts and high stakes of this particular planet, a respect for the real-life pain that real people endure and the images of peace that stir their dreams. Love and action, under God, are matters of faith, not fear.
Reflections editor Ray Waddle is the author of “This Grand Errand”: A Bicentennial History of Yale Divinity School (YDS, 2022).
1. Olivia Laing, “Imagination After Trump,” Harper’s Magazine, Feb. 2021, pp. 51-52.
2. Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Penguin Random House, 2017), p. 65.
3. Scott Black Johnston, Elusive Grace: Loving Your Enemies While Striving for God’s Justice (Westminster John Knox, 2022), pp. 83-84.