Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"Nothing Soft about the Quest for a Significant Life"

Why I Write This Blog

As we enter this blog’s fifth year, I offer a signed gift copy of my book, Communion of Life: Meditations for the New Millennium, to each one who donates $100 or more (at once or in installments) over the course of this year, 2015.

On this week’s fourth anniversary of the beginning of Progressive Christian Reflections, I am reminded that motivations are myriad for doing anything. “What’s my motivation?” actors ask to play a given scene, as if a single motivation suffices for any human action. We are more complex than that! (Read Dostoyevsky!) The reasons I’ve given in the past for writing these reflections still apply, but every week, actually every day, I find new reasons.

Today’s reason is being stunned and stumped by a cover essay in a recent New York Times Book Review entitled “Among the Disrupted” by Leon Wieseltier, a contributing editor for The Atlantic and recently resigned literary editor of The New Republic, which was “disrupted” by a new boss wanting to go digital.

I am stunned by insights I agree with and stumped by things in it I don’t quite understand. I have read it multiple times, each time underlining phrases and sentences that give me an “aha” moment or that I need to puzzle over. If I read it many more times, the whole essay will be underlined. (I can’t read without a pen in hand, btw!) It stirred controversy, judging by letters in response and an article in the Observer.

If I had to summarize it in 25 words or less, it’s about our contemporary confusion of technology with meaning. As the author suggests, “The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.”

Ridiculing “transhumanism,” the notion that computers and the internet “will carry us magnificently beyond our humanity” overcoming distinctions “between human and machine,” Wieseltier instead questions if we are just having another wave of posthumanism: 
The notion that the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of the material dimensions, and that nonscientific understandings must be translated into scientific understandings if they are to qualify as knowledge, is increasingly popular inside and outside the university, where the humanities are disparaged as soft and impractical and insufficiently new. 
The recently passed Charles Townes, the Nobel laureate physicist behind the maser and laser who was also awarded the 2005 Templeton Prize for contributing to our understanding of spirituality, “saw science and religion as compatible, saying there was little difference between a scientific revelation, like his maser brainstorm, and a religious one,” according to The New York Times. Quoting from a 1966 essay: 
Understanding the order of the universe and understanding the purpose in the universe are not identical, but they are not very far apart. 
The parallel in my field are those who study, research, and teach religion “objectively” outside any personal faith. We need such “engineers,” as long as we take what they say with a grain of salt, which, as I mentioned quoting Colossians a few weeks ago, means with “spiritual understanding.” Early Christian catechumens were taught the meaning of baptism and the Eucharist only after they had received those sacraments, because it was believed they could not comprehend what they had not first experienced. Spiritual understanding is an inside job.

Wieseltier asserts, “Aside from issues of life and death, there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life. All revolutions exaggerate, and the digital revolution is no different.”

We live in an internet world “in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. … Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements.”

Wieseltier’s solution is to “regard the devices as simply new means for old ends. … The new order will not relieve us of the old burdens, and the old pleasures, of erudition and interpretation. … Never mind the platforms. Our solemn responsibility is for the substance.”

His answer is a welcome of humanism and the humanities, concluding, “There is nothing soft about the quest for a significant life.”

I would add a welcome of spirituality and religion, also because there is nothing soft about a quest for a significant life.

Entertaining these concepts and welcoming this conversation are additional reasons I write this blog.

An early post describing initial reasons for writing this blog:

Consider visiting the first three blog posts:

Click below for listing of my posts on these additional sites (I am not paid for these, btw.):

The seven most visited posts on this blog:
(Numbers do not include subscribers and followers, currently nearly 500.)

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Progressive Christian Reflections is entirely supported by readers’ donations. It is an authorized Emerging Ministry of Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination welcoming seekers as well as believers.

Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 


  1. Off and on now and then---i have considered these (quote from above) "We live in an internet world “in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. … Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements.” What i usually come away with is that we might not discover what would have been better responses or contributions AND we do indeed have considerably MORE responses and contributions. So, i ask myself if it is trade-off that might be OK. Considering the science/spirituality i hope more and more do experience their being part of whole. THANKS, Chris! And last weeks story of your parents and your family was enlightening to me as to why i feel we were so alike until i took sort of different path in 1980.

    1. Thanks, Chuck--a good thought about more people feeling involved in a conversation through the internet. Often though responses seem to be derisively negative rather than positively constructive in the broader internet world. That's why I prefer my blog's relatively limited exposure over posting on something broader like the Huffington Post. Content in the print world was filtered by peer readers, reviewers, fact checkers, editors, copyeditors, agents, and publishers in the past, saving readers much time, but I suppose limiting the "buffet" of ideas as well. Thanks as always for your comments on this and last week's post, Chuck!