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Living within the Machine: the Problem of Deism

I talk a lot about the effects of technology, the technical system and the way of thinking called technique, but they are sustained by a way of seeing the universe that we might broadly call: "Deism"

After a day of spreadsheets, emails, reports and meetings, Brandon was glad the day was drawing to a close.  The whole environment depressed him.  As he saved files and closed windows on his computer, he pulled the menu up to shut down for the weekend.  During the week he just left it on.  Easier to pick up where he left off.  But his habit of shutting everything down on Friday evenings had a satisfying feel.  He watched as each of the three screens winked out and the red “off” light began to glow.  Funny, that.  You need a light to come on to tell you that your computer is now “off.”  He snorted.  Nothing is ever off.  It is always on.  You are always connected.

This thought made him do something unusual.  Instead of reaching for the bundle of knotted cord in his pocket, he pulled out his phone and powered it down.  There was that momentary sense that he might miss something important.  But, no.  This evening was going to be special.  One of the Gathering was going to bring some bread and a bottle of wine.  He was looking forward to this and did not want any distractions.

Slipping his phone back into his pocket, he pulled out the long looped cord of knots.  Even just the feel of it in his pocket made him happy.  There was a period when he felt awkward carrying it around all the time like a talisman.  That was many months and months ago.  He didn’t even care when people saw him with it draped over his hand as he walked around.  It took months to tie each of the 100 knots.  10 knots then a bead.  All the way round, 100 knots and 10 mismatched beads.  Maybe he should have bought matching beads.  Too late.  By the time he realized that 30 knots and three beads seemed too short, he had used up his three matching beads.  After all that work, he was not going restart the cord or untie the knots and start over.  Now it just seemed a mirror of himself.  Misshapen knots and mismatching beads.  A metaphor of his spiritual life?

With a practiced motion he pinched the first knot between his thumb and forefinger and quickly draped the rest of the loop over his remaining fingers with his other hand, enabling him to manipulate the knots with one hand, for about twenty knots before he would have to let the cord drop in order to be re-draped over his hand.  It was now a practiced motion.  He tried to bring the image of Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration to his mind which always evoked the feeling of a now familiar passage:

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

Breathing in deeply.  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God…

Exhaling slowly. …have mercy upon me a sinner.

Finger and thumb move to the next knot.  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner. Pinch the next knot. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner. He smiled as  he walked out of the office, pausing to make chit chat once or twice.  Once, he was forced to slip his prayer rope into his pocket to shake hands.  He tried not to express any irritation.  It’s not their fault.  He would tell himself, “You were the one who started your prayers in the middle of the office.”  All the pleasantries done, he pulled the cord out, looked at it.  “Where was I,” he thought.  “Ahh, yes, just six knots in.”  He pinched the seventh knot, draped it over his hand, brought the image of the transfigured Christ to mind and began were he left off.  Inhale.  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God… Exhale. …have mercy upon me a sinner. Over and over.  Breathing in and out.  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.  Soon he reached the first bead.  Stopping here, he would pray about something on his heart.  Something would always come to mind.  Today he was reminded of his co-worker, Jean, who was diagnosed with cancer.  35 years old.  Young children.  Hard.

He kept praying.  All the way home.  Into the station.  Onto the train.  Off the train.  The walk to his townhouse.

He still marveled at how, he a Protestant, still a Protestant, had taken up this practice of meditative prayer.  His church was home, but it was just missing something.  This.  His prayer rope.  Meditative prayer.  More it seems.  He tried once to talk to his friends in church about it.  But they struggled to understand.  Better not to tell them about the Presence or the Gathering either.

Once home, he quickly put some leftovers on a plate, stuffed them into the microwave and warmed them up.  With his prayer rope sitting on the counter in a heap with his wallet, phone and keys, it felt a little odd not to have his rope in his hand.  But it did not stop him.  Inhale. Lord Jesus Christ, son of God… Exhale. …have mercy upon me a sinner.  The prayer seemed to fill his mind almost unbidden these days when he wasn’t focused on some task.

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

He was feeling like he was close now.  Gradually, little by little, prayer began to live within him.  Supper finished and the dishes tucked away in the dishwasher, he pulled on his jacket, sat on the bench to tie his shoes, slipped his wallet and keys into his pocket, leaving his phone there.  Still turned off, it seemed a symbolic act, something he did more and more these days.  All things considered, he was sill very connected, very much online.  But he found himself turning his phone off more and more.  For times like this, it seemed important.  He would turn it on again later and check his notifications.  Resisting the urge to turn it on, he left it there on the bench.  Later.  Locking the door, he began again.

Inhale. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God…  Exhale.  …have mercy upon me a sinner.

He was blessed to have a sizable woods nearby, just couple of kilometers away.  It was a lovely evening for a walk.  With several kilometers of trails in various crisscrossing loops, he came upon this place almost by accident.  Well, truth be told, there are probably no coincidences.  God’s Spirit led him here when he was in prayer one day.  He had just been wandering around in the woods, soaking in the sounds, getting to the deeper portions where the traffic noises would disappear, allowing the choir of woodland birds to sing all around him.  That was when he noticed what he came to call, “the Presence.”  It was a particularly beautiful collection of moss covered rocks, shaped and arranged just so.  There was a large old red cedar growing there, dropping a carpet of needles, now turned a reddish brown.  Every time he walked through this place, it always made him feel better, closer to God.

Then on one particular walk, he found himself on his knees in the middle of this grove.  He was just there, his prayers uninterrupted, on his knees, praying.  For some reason his hand was drawn to the tree.  He looked up.  It was a majestic old tree.  Just like from the stories.  He almost expected, hoped, it would start to talk and walk.  It never has.  Strange.  It should.  It is a strange place.  Wonderful.  The veil seems thin there.  Maybe it’s just thin to him.

With his hand against the tree that day, prayer was just there within him.  Each breath in and out, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.  He closed his eyes and lifted his head.  Suddenly, within the seeming darkness of his closed eyelids, he was surrounded by light.  At first he was worried that this might be some trick, some deception.  But then he heard.  No that was not right.  He felt a voice, “Do not be afraid.”  Inhale.  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God… Exhale. …have mercy upon me a sinner.  He opened his eyes, hoping to see.  But it was “just” the tree.  He closed his eyes again, but the moment had passed.

What was it?  The Spirit?  An angel?  Whatever, whomever.  It was from God.  He was sure of it.  So this is what made this place different. Did it have an angel of its own?  Eventually, that was what he settled on.  It was an angel.  A messenger of God.  Here in this place.  Still on his knees, he sat back onto his heels and looked up and around at the grove, the trail off to the side a ways.  How did he come to be kneeling here anyways?

Today, he turned off the trail and found a spot and began kneeling.  Others began arriving soon after.  Cathy.  Tom.  James.  Britany.  Jim showed up with a knap sack that he set on the ground in front of him, unzipping it to reveal a loaf of bread and bottle of wine.  He laid a cloth on the ground, placing the bread on top of it.  One of those artisanal breads of which he could never remember the name.  A few others arrived shortly after Jim and found a place on forest floor to sit or kneel.  Brian, an older gentleman, sat on a larger rock.  His kneeling days were behind him, he said.  After placing the bread on the cloth, Jim pulled out a small collection of communion cups, like little shot glasses, but smaller.  They tinkled as he set them out.  Wherever did he find those?  Many churches these days just use plastic disposables.  Unscrewing the cap, he inserted a spout and began pouring the wine into the cups, having made sure each was first sitting securely in its place.  Then, finished, he pulled the spout, screwed back on the cap and slipped the bottle back into his bag.  He closed his eyes and began to pray quietly.  Silently.  At least, he assumed that this what Jim was doing.

Everyone who was a part of the Gathering belonged to a church.  Off and on there were about 20 who came on these Friday evenings.  He thought that they represented about 10 different churches.  But that was ok.  This place, this Gathering, was about being close to God.  The veil was thin here between the visible and the invisible world.  It could be felt.  Just being in the grove, even on a bad day when he was all jangly inside, helped smooth and calm his spirit.

Then, when the time seemed right, Jim began to speak.  It was his turn today, so his was the speaking of the words.  He began by passing the loaf around.  They each broke off a piece, and passed it to the next person.  When everyone had a piece and the loaf was once again carefully laying on the cloth, Jim spoke:

“The bread which we break is a sharing in the body of Christ.

To which we, in unison, responded:

“We who are many are one body, for we all share the same loaf.”

And Jim concluded:

“The body of Christ, given for you.”

At which point each of them ate the bread, quietly.  He reflected on the taking of Christ into himself, his sacrifice, but also his resurrection.  He was dying away; but he is also now, in Christ, born again, imperishable, even if that is only partly revealed.

There was a gentle touch on his arm.  Cathy was trying to pass him a glass of wine.  She smiled at him as he took it.  He passed it along to the next person and another glass was carefully passed to him.  This was repeated and the glasses of wine slowly moved around the circle.  When everyone had one, Jim picked up the remaining glass, lifting so as to make it visible to all, saying:

“The cup for which we give thanks, is a sharing in the blood of Christ.”

To which we responded in unison:

“The cup which we drink is our participation in the blood of Christ.”

Jim concluded this simple ritual by giving the command:

Take, drink, remember and believe that the precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ was shed for the complete forgiveness of all our sins.”

Brandon smiled softly as he lifted the cup to his lips and drank.  Did it matter that Jim was mixing up different liturgies together?  It had taken some time in the beginning to get things sorted.  What liturgies to use.  Who would lead.  Now, each of the men took turns and used the liturgy most familiar to them.  It took a little time to navigate the differences and remember them all.  But they started to blend and more and more, like Jim just now, pieces from differing liturgies would flow together.

So how did it all happen?  Someone had noticed him in the woods praying, and joined him.  It was Harold.  Harold was not there today.  After a time there on their knees in the grove, Harold simply asked, “You too?  His eyes lit up and a big toothy grin came across his face.  He knew.  They knew.  They could see it in each other’s eyes.  They chatted some that day.  Discovered that each of them were Christians.  God was drawing more of them together, the fellowship of which they were now all a part.  They bumped into each other more frequently in the grove.  Others found them.  God’s hand was definitely at work here.  They eventually would meet and talk through some stuff, share a meal occasionally.  But mostly they met in this sacred place, and prayed.

The cups were passed back to Jim and producing a cloth or paper towel from his bag, he carefully cleaned each cup before tucking them away in his pack.  The others watched, or prayed, or both.  A few times, not today he thought, when the moment was right, someone would break into song.  A couple of times he found himself singing songs he was sure he had never heard before.  He just relaxed, accepted it, and sang as the words came.  Not today, though.  Eventually, one by one, sometimes two or three together, they would leave.  Often in silence.  But other times you could hear quite conversations being struck up as the fellowship left the grove.  Today was a day for walking home alone.  He took out his prayer rope again, pinching the first knot between his fingers he started over at the beginning: inhale. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God… Exhale …have mercy upon me a sinner.


Our Deist World

This story came to me while on a hike recently with my wife and kids.  For significant portions of the four hour hike, I had my prayer rope in my hands praying the Jesus Prayer meditatively, saying free prayers at each bead.  The oddly misshapen thing with the beads that don’t match.  That is a real thing.  I do feel the presence of God more strongly in the woods.  This is a good thing.

I have been reflecting a lot on political and spiritual realities together through this Substack.  I try to point my readers to consider the deeper realities and underlying structures of thinking which surround us and define our lives.  Believe it or not, even for many devout Christians, their conception of God in a practical way is essentially Deist.  Simply put, Deism is a form of belief in God which sees God as there, but somewhat in the distance.  He set up the world, weaving a series of physical and moral laws into the very fabric of creation.  These patterns can be seen and elucidated rationally.  These patterns can be observed and even quantified.  We are told that God is the great watchmaker who set the whole universe in motion and placed us within his grand handiwork.  Almost all of us accept the idea of natural laws.  The law of gravity.  The laws of motion.  The laws of thermodynamics.  We even bring natural law into moral and legal theory.  There are moral laws just like physical laws.

So what is the problem with this?  For a long time I have seen this basic conception of the universe as part of the problem of secularization.  This conception of the world, so central to the Enlightenment, has seeped into most of our thought patterns. What it does, mentally, is it puts a layer between us and God.  But it also creates an architecture which limits and confuses our understanding of God.  We create theological problems for ourselves because of this mechanical understanding of the universe, thinking of it as governed by a fixed set of laws, working like a great machine.

The first problem is that in our minds, interacting with God, who is now far off, and on the other side of the whole structure of natural laws, both physical and moral, seems harder to reach.  And as we get used to God being far away, on the other side of a divide, it is easy to think of God as not being terribly concerned about the mundane day-to-day minutia of our lives.  We even convince ourselves that God wants us taking care of business here.  As the saying goes, “God helps those who help themselves.”  Even in the churches we maintain the forms of prayer to initiate meetings and at key times when it seems appropriate to say something like, “We should pray about this.”  And I am sure for most, this impulse it authentic.  After all, we have just spent two hours in a church planning meeting.  Perhaps it would be good to remember why we are here doing all this planning.  If we really look honestly at much of what we do as Christians, we do it with this idea that God is there but in the distance somewhat.

It definitely inhibits our ability to embrace the miraculous and the move of God’s power.  It also makes it hard to see the activity of God.  I mean, if the world is like a big watch works, why would we look for God’s activity in our day to day lives?  And miracles now require God to disrupt and defy his own laws of creation.  We know in theory he can.  But at some deep level we don’t really expect him to do so.  It almost seems a violation of our nice neat ordered watchmaker’s world.

And morally, this whole concept of natural law really messes with our understanding of God, his goodness and his justice.  We have used our reason combined with the scriptures—we know there are theophanies and other revelations, but they happened long ago and it doesn’t work that way anymore because we have the nice fixed text of scripture—to establish what we believe is a rational moral framework to which we then hold God accountable.  We try to contain God within ideas of morality fixed by our rationality.  God must be accountable to his own watch works.  And so, we set ourselves up as the judges of God, most often finding him somehow lacking in our eyes.

Have you ever stopped to ask, “What if there are no laws of creation?”  What if God is there, immediately beyond the veil of what can be seen?  What if when I let an object go, this thing you call gravity, is none other that God moving the object from my hand to the ground?  What if there was no grand mechanistic architecture behind all things?  What if God was there holding everything together?  What if things appear to have order because God orders them moment by moment?  How would that change your world?

It is interesting, one of the grand philosophical debates is that between Plato and Heidegger.  Is there there a static hierarchy of being and thus it is our lot to fit ourselves into this divine hierarchy?  Or does being unfold on the horizon of time, through the exercise of our choices?  But if God is there, present to us, it can be both.  The hierarchy of being is held together in the divine presence of God’s essence.  Yet, because of his energies pouring out all the time in sustaining all things in every moment, we participate in the constant outpouring of the being of God.  In fact, as image bearers, we join in this creative exercise with God.  After all, Paul himself said, “For in him we live and move and have our being.”  We are contained within the being of God.  And if God is directly involved in all things, at every moment, then there is no clockwork architecture for him to overcome.  And as Job discovered, applying our perceptions of what is right and wrong to God, making him fit the limits of our wisdom and knowledge, simply stops being a thing.  We can allow our minds, our spirits to contemplate the deeper wisdom that cannot be found except that God leads the way, because it is he and he alone that knows the way to it.

The clockwork idea of God allowed us to harness the forces of creation to serve our desires to know all things, command all things and to make money, to possess all things.  We wanted to command the power of God in creation.  Because of this, though, we have build a framework of knowledge and technology that empowers us, allows us to uses the energies of God and bend them to our will, but also builds layer upon layer of mental architecture between us and God.

One of the challenges that many of us will have to overcome is our own Protestant faith.  In many ways, by rejecting the excesses of the “superstitions” of the Roman Church, we prepared Christendom for the technical reality by rationalizing the Christian faith.  It made it safer for the new emerging worldview of the bourgeoisie merchant class.  At the same time, it pushed God away, little by little, until he was safely behind a whole mechanical system of laws, only rarely touching our lives.

If we are intent on challenging the regime and the techno-administrative system it has built to control all things, then part of that process is first of all reimagining the world without this grand clockwork upon which the technical system is built, and which sustains it.  At the same time we must reach through this mental framework to conceive of a world without it, a world where God is immediate, where he can be met and worshiped in the forest, where his angels are real and they present themselves to us as God’s messengers.

Many will tell you that the most powerful act of resistance you can engage in is to “lift,” to make yourself strong and beautiful in the face of the weakness and ugliness of our world.  And while fitness is good, and health is good and so is beauty, the more fundamental act of resistance is to worship another god than that of the state, to worship the living God, the God of gods.  Your primary act of resistance is to pray and draw close to God and let him draw close to you.

“Come near to God and he will come near to you”

But, to our rational, western, and even Protestant minds, we struggle with this, with the wildness of it.  We don’t like things that don’t make sense.  We don’t like that whole category of things which loosely fits under the umbrella of “superstition.”  From the point of view of the regime culture built upon the Deist mechanical world, anything which has to do with the supernatural is low-brow and can be ridiculed.  Pentecostalism is low brow.  So are the revival tents.   But little does the regime know that in cutting itself off from the Spirit, so too it is cutting itself off from the true source of authority.  Much of the faith of Christians is built on these kinds of experiences.   Moses at the burning bush.  Moses on top of Mount Sinai.  Samuel hearing voices in the night.  Elijah meeting God in the sound of silence.  Paul meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus.  And of course, Jesus himself, God became man, Immanuel.  There is much talk of the rise of a Caesar.  But more so, we need a new Moses, a new Paul.  Perhaps a Joshua.  But whomever God will call forth to lead, he will not be a technician, bound by the machine thinking of the Deist world.  His will be the world where God is real, close and unnamed.

“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

If you enjoyed this piece, I recommend you read through Charles Haywood’s (@theworthyhouse) recent review of “The Sunlilies: Eastern Orthodoxy as a Radical Counterculture” by Graham Pardun.