How much of your day – how much of my day – is spent in reality, and how much in a fake world? Eons ago, when Steve Jobs was still young, cyber-utopians promised that technology would soon end tyranny and usher in a new age of peace, egalitarianism, rainbows, and butterflies. Few today still credit such prophecies. Four decades into the technological age, we’ve learned that screen time is bad for you, too much media consumption damages your heart, and Facebook can make you mentally ill. We all know this. But what are we to do about it?
“We have retreated into a simplified and often completely fake version of the world. But because it is all around us, we accept it as normal.” That’s how Adam Curtis introduces his remarkable 2016 BBC documentary HyperNormalisation. He compares the fake world in which most Westerners spend their waking hours to the bubble of falsity in which Soviet citizens lived in the 1970s – they knew the Communist regime was crumbling, but were so invested in it that they pretended its lies were true. “You were so much a part of the system,” the film explains, “that you were unable to see beyond it.”
Today’s “system” isn’t just technology, dramatically as that has changed our lives. Nor is it some sinister conspiracy of the global Davoisie. It’s a fakeness we hardly register anymore: the mind-altering power of the advertising that invades virtually every corner of our lives; the dehumanizing us-versus-them passions of our polarized politics; the fact that millions of us have learned to multitask while watching footage of refugees drowning. As Pawel Kuczynski’s satirical art vividly illustrates, this fake world is invading our souls.
So it’s in our souls that we must find the cure. The stakes are high. Our inner life will never remain a vacuum for long – Jesus tells us that when one demon is driven out, seven new ones stand ready to take its place. If we allow ourselves to be distracted, or passively accept the fake realities of our age, we are lost.
Sound alarmist? Eberhard Arnold, the German thinker who started Plough a century ago and whose writings inspired this issue, saw twice in his lifetime how a loss of inner integrity can have terrifyingly real results for entire nations. The first time was in World War I, when German Christians rushed to support the Kaiser’s war-crazed nationalism, resulting in millions of deaths. The second was in the 1930s, when these same fellow Christians (with honorable but rare exceptions) embraced Nazism. How was it possible, Arnold wondered, that even the most pious believers were sucked into these satanic depravities?
Only a return to inwardness, Arnold believed, could bring distracted moderns back to Jesus and to constructive work for his kingdom. Inwardness, he writes, echoing Kierkegaard, involves cleansing our soul and conscience, concentrating our will on what is of eternal value, and silencing our own opinions and desires so that we can hear the promptings of God’s spirit.
Is inwardness just the spiritual equivalent of body building?
Activist types may object at this point that focusing on “inwardness” is all very well – no doubt a few spiritual disciplines are healthy, just like jogging or yoga – but surely in a world where a thousand tragedies cry out for our time and resources, isn’t it the height of selfishness to retreat into our interior life? Shouldn’t we rather be out saving starving children, not narcissistically squandering our energies on the spiritual equivalent of body building?
No, answers Arnold forcefully, because inwardness is the opposite of self-worship. Nothing, after all, is more agonizing to the ego than the inward work of the Holy Spirit. And the goal of the Spirit’s work is nothing less than the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. That’s why Christians through the ages have insisted that inwardness is crucial to the life of discipleship. Jesus himself retreated to the wilderness for forty days at the start of his ministry and returned to the desert at other pivotal moments of his life. As Meister Eckhart, the early Quakers, and Cardinal Sarah teach us, the key to hearing God is inner detachment and silence. “When inwardness is missing,” writes Kierkegaard, “the spirit is made finite. Inwardness is the eternal.”