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    PloughCast 36: Technology and Listener Questions

    Hope in Apocalypse, Episode 6

    By Peter Mommsen, Susannah Black Roberts and L. M. Sacasas

    August 2, 2022
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    Peter and Susannah speak with L. M. Sacasas about technology, and then answer listener questions.

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    About This Episode

    Peter and Susannah discuss with L. M. Sacasas the perils and promise of technology: how it shapes our lives and how it changes how we think about ourselves.

    Will artificial intelligence become sentient? How will we understand ourselves if we believe they are sentient? What can we do about it, and how can we live in a more human and embodied world?

    Then, Peter and Susannah take listener questions. How can we go about living in a society which feels as though it’s falling apart?

    • I: L. M. Sacasas: The Peril of Technology
    • II: L. M. Sacasas: The Peril of Technique
    • III: What We’ve Learned
    • IV: Q&A

    Recommended Reading

    Transcript

    Section 1: L. M. Sacasas: The Peril of Technology

    Peter Mommsen: Welcome back to The PloughCast. I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief of Plough.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. Today, we’ll be talking with Michael Sacasas about technology, human beings, and how things can go wrong between them, and then we’ll be taking your questions.

    Peter Mommsen: Michael Sacasas, who is @LMSacasas on Twitter, is a commentator focusing on technology and culture, and the author of the Convivial Society newsletter. You can go to his Twitter page to subscribe.

    Susannah Black Roberts: How did you come to this interest in technology? Is it what you started writing about? What have your major influences been?

    L. M. Sacasas: My interest in technology probably dates back to a class I took in seminary when I was doing an MA in theological studies, and we read a book by a sociologist named Craig Gay, and it explored the ways that we are shaped, not just by what we think, or our expressed beliefs, but by social structures, essentially; some of them economic, some of them scientific or technological. And so that awakened my interest in understanding the way in which technology would shape me, or shape society, in the interest, of course, of trying to live the kind of life that I would want to live, or have the kind of family I would want to have, or promote the kind of community I would want to promote.

    So recognizing that technology was not just a neutral tool that came alongside of me and helped me do the things that I explicitly wanted to do with it, but rather, that it often had undercurrents that were sometimes veiled from our awareness and were, in that way... Technology was subtly shaping what I did, how I thought, how I perceived the world, how I interacted with others. That was just a fascinating realization for me, and so from that point forward, that became, I would say, a preoccupation, right? And I began writing about it a little bit later in conjunction with when I was in grad school, pursuing a PhD degree in what amounts to digital humanities, but my own interests were more along the lines of sort of the ethics or philosophy of technology.

    And I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed thinking through these questions. I often think of it as thinking out loud through these questions, and in conversation with a set of earlier technology theorists, or critics; Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich are probably the most prominent among those that have been very influential in shaping the way that I approach these questions. I find that bringing their, some might say it’s a dated perspective, but I would say that for that reason, it actually gives us very interesting angles on contemporary issues, and much of what they write is, I think, still deeply relevant, and their concern for the human person is certainly, I think, still very valuable.

    Susannah Black Roberts: The questions that you seem to continue to return to are things about the way that technology shapes us as its users that are kind of unintentional. There’s a kind of parallel set of questions that you’re less directly concerned with, but that other people in the same space are concerned with more, and that’s terrifying ways of understanding what AI might do or might become. Those are the Scott Alexander set of questions, and I wonder; I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen you write directly, directly on those questions. What are your thoughts about things like this guy at Google, who says that he found a sentient AI among the code? What do you think of this? How should we think of this? What are our resources, as Christians, for understanding these things, et cetera?

    L. M. Sacasas: You’re right to note that I don’t often address these questions head-on, unless it is, in some cases, to shed a historical light on some of the motivation that has driven AI research over the years. In part, this is out of a recognition of my own limitations, and understanding the relevant technology, and not wanting to speak beyond my own competencies, and so I’ve, to some degree, deferred to other experts in the field that have, for me, become trustworthy guides to issues about artificial intelligence.

    So I’m generally, because of that influence, skeptical about these claims of the Google AI engineer, Lemoine. I’m skeptical that that’s what he found, and others were very quick to say the same thing. There are some more interesting perspectives on that story that now already seems to be fading from our awareness. On the one hand, it raises the question of whether the Turing Test is a useful test for determining whether we’re dealing with some kind of sentient being or consciousness.

    I think there are questions about the distinction between intelligence and consciousness. This researcher, I think, used the language of a soul. There was a later tweet thread that he wrote, in which he addressed this question of why he thought that he was communicating with a sentient being, and his answer was something like, “Well, I’m religious, and this is what I understood to be happening.” In fact, I think he says he is a priest at one point in that thread. I don’t know more than that. I don’t know what tradition he is working out of. I don’t know what that means.

    But it was interesting to me that he has this ostensibly theological perspective that led him to conclude that this very sophisticated chat bot, which is telling him that he has a soul, in fact, has one, simply because it claims to have one. I think it was Gary Marcus, or maybe it was another computing engineer that I follow on Twitter, who wondered, “What would happen if I asked him, ‘What does it feel like to be a bat?’“ So it was kind of playing off of that old philosophy article from the ’70s, and also, I think the implication was that if you lead the chat bot along, it’s going to respond in the character of [what you prompt it to be], and so we shouldn’t read as much as this engineer read into it.

    I think the aims of developing these sophisticated tools that interact with us in ordinary language, and can respond to us in this way … I’m not sure what all of the applications that are in view, but certainly, some of them are to generate a kind of ambient computing that we interface with orally, rather than visually, or through text. It’s to power things like our personal assistants that may be sitting on our desks or kitchen countertops. I have a very loosely developed thoughts, so I’m going to just throw them out here just, because you asked, and I think I might write about this in the near future, but it is from one perspective, a way of creating a kind of omnipresent, and maybe even ostensibly omniscient, I don’t know, agent that we can speak to, and that can hear us.

    There are a lot of interesting studies about how people interact with things like Siri or Alexa, the kinds of questions they end up asking, children in particular. There’s some spiritual perspective there that I think is worth contemplating. In other words, the more interesting thing for me is not whether this AI program is sentient, which I don’t think is the case, and I don’t necessarily think we’re ultimately heading in that direction, but rather, what role this kind of agent will play in our lives; how it may address, or maybe, I don’t know, play off some latent tendency or desire to be noted, to be spoken to, to have the world responsive to us in some way.

    In other words, all that is to say that it’s an interesting God substitute, right? One way of understanding it is that it can become an interesting God substitute, in that it is this voice that we can address at any moment, and speak to, and have it attentive to our solicitations, et cetera. So I don’t know. I want to think about that more, but I’m not, at this present moment, particularly concerned about the most dystopian AI, sentient AI scenarios, but that’s just me.

    Susannah Black Roberts: A big part of my question here is how bad can it get, and in what direction? For philosophical and theological reasons, I don’t think that AI is going to become sentient, because I don’t think that that’s a coherent idea. I mean, I think there well might be demons that come through our computers, but that’s just me being very aggressively C. S. Lewis-y. But I do think that what might happen, as well as this question of how this is going to shape our experience of life, our experience of prayer, et cetera; one other thing that it might do is shape our understanding of ourselves.

    So how might we start thinking about ourselves? How might an average non-Christian vaguely materialist person start thinking about him or herself, if he or she is convinced that the Turing Test has been passed, point A, and that passing the Turing Test is what it means to be a conscious self? Because obviously, one of the many ways that people have had to reach something other than materialism in the past has been this recognition, a direct recognition, of the uniqueness of the immaterial soul. We know it when we see it. We know that we are experiencing it. We know that it’s not like a material thing, and that we didn’t make it.

    Basically, one of my concerns is, what if we just start deeply misunderstanding what’s going on? I don’t think that’s necessarily that different of a problem than idolatry, but it strikes me as something that might be good for Christians to be prepared for, even for the sake of their own sanity.

    L. M. Sacasas: In other words, that we start understanding ourselves on the model of the kind of skills or aptitudes that we’ve assigned to artificial intelligence. I mean, I think that there are patterns that have played out with other technologies in maybe slightly different ways that speak to this, right? So I think, even, for example, of how we think about what human memory is, what the capacity for remembering is. And so the way I’ve thought about this is that we use the word memory to describe what a computer does when it stores information, and that’s a metaphorical, it seems to me, an analogical use of the term.

    And so then the danger is that we reverse the metaphor, and we begin to think about human memory along the lines of what the computer can do, right? So that it’s merely storage and retrieval. It loses its moral dimension. It loses the way that it intersects with our sense of self and our identity. In other words, the depth and richness of what it is to remember as a person, somehow gets diminished when we think of it, merely in terms of the capacity to hold information in mind, or to store information.

    Similarly, to ask ourselves, “What does it mean to be sentient?” So one question with this Google engineer is that he seems to have believed this, right? I mean, if we take him at face value, he really does believe that he interacted with maybe even an en-souled creature of some kind, and he won’t be the last. So there is, I think, this question of whether the AI is sentient or not. If people take it to be, how then will they begin thinking about the self, and about what it means to be sentient, and to be conscious?

    And so, yes, all that is just to kind of affirm that that’s an important question to keep before us, right? We create these tools and then we see ourselves in them in some ways, and what we see often changes the way that we understand what it is to be a person, what it is to be a human being, or to have these capacities that we sort of assign to the creature, or to the tool, or the device, or the program, whether it’s remembering or relating to others. Yeah, I think that’s a very useful angle of analysis. Yeah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: The other similar thing that happens is that we talk about neurology, we talk about our own brains along the model of computer. I find myself saying, “I’m not wired that way,” or something like that, or I’ve tried to stop saying things like, “Oh my gosh, that gives me such a dopamine rush,” which is something that I irritatingly picked up from some friend or something. There is a dopamine rush that correlates with the experience of joy, but I think to describe yourself, to get in the habit of describing yourself, in terms of chemicals, as opposed to in terms of what we know ourselves directly, the way that we know anything directly to be, which is as immaterial selves, as bodysouls with immaterial intellects. I just think it’s a bad habit of mind to cultivate.

    Section 2: L. M. Sacasas: The Peril of Technique

    Susannah Black Roberts: There was something that you tweeted three weeks ago, so now you are going to be brought up on it. Do you stand by what you tweeted three weeks ago?

    L. M. Sacasas: Yeah, right.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You were responding to someone who said, “Within fifty years, technology will have advanced to such an extent that babies which exist in the metaverse are indistinct from those in the real world.” And you wrote, “When I read something like this, I find it helpful to ask, ‘What does a person already have to believe in order for this to sound like a remotely plausible or even desirable claim?’“ Which I just thought was a fantastic question on several levels, because it gets to what this kind of technologizing fantasy is doing, where people are coming from with it, and implicitly, what we can do differently.

    Because as you kind of described your own life project, what I want to do, in thinking about this, is on an emergency level, help people to thrive, because I think that there’s a potential for extraordinary levels of not thriving while not even realizing you’re not thriving, that our technologies allow us. Basically, a kind of muted suffering that we don’t even recognize as suffering, because we don’t know what actual life feels like anymore, and so I wondered whether you had any thoughts about that.

    L. M. Sacasas: I titled a newsletter post “The Human-Built World is Not Built for Humans,” right? We’ve constructed a world, and it functions at certain levels. It generates, certainly, material goods at certain levels for some people, at some times, but it tends to ignore certain immaterial needs that we may have. In that post, I was thinking about Simone Weil and Ivan Illich together, and so yeah, we inhabit a world that is not built for who we are as embodied creatures, given the limitations of the human body, its needs, the scale at which we, as human beings, can fruitfully operate.

    And so in a lot of ways, I think we’re asking human beings to function in a world in which they are, from one perspective, sort of cogs in a machinery that’s not really ordered towards their good, right? It’s ordered towards economic goods, it’s ordered towards rationalization, or efficiency, but it’s not ordered towards human goods, and then we’re asked to operate in that world at its pace, at its scale. And Jacques Ellul was very passionate about this, even in the 1950s, in writing about how the third layer of technique, in his sense, that we add to this world that we’ve built around efficiency in the mid-twentieth century, but that, in many ways, still, I think, well describes the world we live in today, are human techniques.

    And these are ways in which we find that we need to compensate for what we have eliminated, or the ways in which we have structured the world that we now ask human beings to operate in. And so we find these additional ways of compensating for the fact that we have created, I know it’s kind of a loaded term, we’ve created an unnatural milieu for the human person, and so I think we find ourselves doing that today in many ways still.

    And so, yes, that it’s very easy not to thrive in the language that you’ve used, or not to flourish, because in many ways, the structure of our society is not conducive to human thriving, or it’s conducive to human beings feeding a kind of techno-economic order that has its own ends that are indifferent to our own wellbeing and our own flourishing.

    And so finding ways to not just apply layers of therapy to that, that are doing essentially what Ellul suggested, which is just keeping us healthy enough, just sane enough, to continue in that same milieu, but rather to more radically, at the root, reorder our lives as far as we can, our communities as far as we can, our churches as far as we can, to address the root problem, rather than simply continuously applying compensatory techniques, as Ellul put it.

    I certainly don’t have a ten-step program for how that works, but I think this is the task before us: to imagine how we can create different households, different communities, within our limitations, in order to not make not thriving the default setting of our society.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. I kind of was going to ask you for a ten-step program, actually.

    Peter Mommsen: That would be really, really handy, actually.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: This would make this podcast go.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: We’re going to solve the technology thing right here.

    Susannah Black Roberts: We want action steps, I’m kind of not kidding. So obviously, we can do a Twitter fast, and I do think that’s important, but also, it’s a question, I think, often I imagine a lot of the action steps that one could take is actually doing something that is adding back into your life; something that you didn’t realize wasn’t there.

    One of the most powerful experiences of my life was the first time that I stepped off of the Pier 17 in Manhattan onto a boat – Pier 17 has since burned down dramatically, it was very exciting – but at that point, there was a tourist boat called Clipper City that moored there, and I got this job as a deckhand on it.

    I grew up on Manhattan. I wouldn’t have thought of it as growing up on Manhattan, because I didn’t think of it as an island. I would’ve thought of it as “in” Manhattan, but when I got onto this boat – stepping off of Pier 17, you kind of have to boost yourself up over the rail, it kind of doesn’t really seem like you’re supposed to do this, but it’s actually legal and fine – it was like this absolute instant switch in my brain when I started interacting with the city that I had grown up in a completely different way, that was much more radically physical.

    And I feel like there’s a bunch of things that you could do, that one could do, that would address, directly, some of the areas of un-thriving that technology causes in us, that might cause those kind of wake-up moments, that we could then incorporate into our lives, and I’d like you to write that book.

    L. M. Sacasas: Well, so I have not ten steps, but forty-one questions that I’m working on now. So that’s the first book I got to get out of the way, but I think you’re right. It’s funny, because I recently was formulating it to myself, not as touch grass, but dig your hand in dirt, and there is some, I think, value, in reducing the layers of mediation between us and the external world, the world out there as it were.

    The last project of on Ivan Illich undertook was, in his view, what was going to be a recovery of the senses, a recovery of sensual experience. And he began with sight, and that’s about as far as he got. He has some interesting papers from the last years of his life, sort of tracing the cultural history of how human beings have understood what it means to see the world. The impetus behind this was this conviction that we have lost … this is how I’m putting it, that the body has been de-centered, that human experience has been de-centered from the body, right? That the body no longer forms the primary nexus of human experience.

    Obviously, in some sense, we might think, “Well that’s impossible, right?” We’re always perceiving the world through our bodies. We can’t step out of it, as it were, but I think the idea is that the layers of mediation that we have added between the body and our experience, so that even this wonderful thing that we’re able to do, separated by oceans, and miles over land, and all three of us gathered on the screen – which is fine, all right? I’m glad to be able to do it, but it is a different kind of experience than if we were all gathered in one room together, right?

    Many of these trends are pre-internet. I think we need to guard against a temptation to assume that a lot of our problems are just internet-generated problems, right? A lot of these issues, I think, stem from earlier, certainly by the nineteenth century, when we started inhabiting various modes of telepresence, when we can become aware of things instantaneously, that are happening at a great distance, and we begin acting beyond the reach of our bodies.

    I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily inherently wrong, but that at least the way in which we have pursued that, the way that that has developed, and certainly, the way in which that has unfolded, in a digital context, and maybe even especially exacerbated through the past two or three years during this pandemic, has been to disassociate our sensual experience from our mental experience, to add layers of mediation and abstraction between us and the world, where there are that sort of direct contact with the world, and I want to guard against kind of romanticizing this, or fetishizing it, but certain rhythms and patterns that are, I would say, perhaps more conducive to our wellbeing as human beings, as enfleshed creatures, right?

    So I think of even sleep patterns, right? There’s angst about not getting enough sleep. We have any number of apps that you can download, or health trackers to help you sort of strategize and find the right technique to get you the right amount of sleep, et cetera. But part of that stems from the fact that we’ve created a world in which we can live with total disregard to the normal diurnal pattern of embodied earthly life, right?

    It was experientially driven home to me a couple of months ago. I’m fortunate enough to live in a slightly wooded area. It’s still suburban, but it’s kind of a slightly wooded part of Gainesville, and I was walking right around the time when the sun begins to go down, and I experienced this sort of palpable sense of things, sort of dimming, and sound stilling. And I realized, all of a sudden, my shoulders sort of relaxed. I was carrying all this stress, and all of a sudden, I felt a palpable sense of relief of my body relaxing, and it occurred to me that there’s something right about that, that there’s a natural progress to the day that helps my body kind of enter into a period of restfulness that is good for me.

    My normal pattern, of course, is just to go from broad daylight, into brightly-lit rooms, and then turn off the light at some too-late hour, because I’ve been scrolling too long on Twitter. And then just say, “Well, body, go to sleep and get your appropriate rest,” when nothing about that day, about the structure of my life that day, has been conducive to that, and that’s just one example. I think we can multiply examples of that sort, but yeah, it’s definitely, I think, a question of recovering the senses, recovering embodiment, remembering the limitations of the body.

    These are all, certainly, I hesitate to think of them as a game plan, because what I want to resist is just bringing that same spirit of technique and mastery into this realm, right? I want to escape that, rather than just repurposing that, so I hesitate to speak, in terms of …

    Peter Mommsen: Well, we want twelve rules for life.

    L. M. Sacasas: I know, I know. Right, right.

    Peter Mommsen: Give them to us.

    L. M. Sacasas: Yes, I …

    Susannah Black Roberts: We want a step counter so that we can make sure to get our minimum number of steps in.

    L. M. Sacasas: Right, right.

    Peter Mommsen: But I will say that, so the founding editor of Plough, Eberhard Arnold, had a rule; I think he broke it quite often, but he would basically start every day spending two hours turning the manure pile, right? And I know, for myself, just blocking in some time for physical work in a given week is one of those things that’s super helpful. So while not making that a rule, it’s useful. It’s not a hack. It’s a useful way to just be more alive and enjoy your life more.

    L. M. Sacasas: I agree, and I think sometimes, I may be overly sensitive to that desire to avoid any appearance of technique, right? But there is a difference. There are, I’ve sometimes thought of opposing what I think I mean by technique, to something like a practice, right? There are good practices. There are good patterns that we can establish. Often, I think it does come down to the spirit that we bring to the practice, that maybe flips it from a useful and wise practice into a technique; that we bring the spirit of mastery, the spirit of efficiency to that, rather than simply … I don’t know, I’m not sure how exactly to phrase what the alternative rendering might be, right? But to inhabit a way of life that is good, without necessarily believing that we now have found the right method for good living, and if we simply apply these steps, it’s going to pan out, right?

    Susannah Black Roberts: One way to think about it, which my husband sort of uses as, again, it’s a heuristic, which might be too close to a technique, but are you trying to have a medicine approach to something that ought to be food? Are you trying to sort of get in extra vitamins, when you probably should just be eating normal food?

    L. M. Sacasas: That’s a great way of putting it, because that’s right; you would take the vitamin in the spirit of technique or efficiency, right? And it would be bereft of enjoyment, and that, I think, is also part of the picture.

    Peter Mommsen: It was useful during the pandemic to see how many people reacted to digital isolation by famously starting to make sourdough bread. It was a real thing, right? Our local hunting and fishing store was completely sold out of fishing rods and hunting gear for most of the Covid year. I was recently talking to a guy who runs a charter fishing service off the Outer Banks in North Carolina, said they had never had so much interest. So there is that kind of thing that snaps on for people past a certain point. I’ve been wondering since then, is there a way of getting people to realize that they can live that way, even outside of pandemic times?

    L. M. Sacasas: Right. I mean, I think that’s right. There was this moment, and it was ever so brief, where I think some people learned something about the kind of life they had been living, or were forced to learn, and we had this taste of some alternatives, and then for countless reasons, that moment was not a moment of opportunity, and simply passed, and I suppose some people have learned something for the long run from it, but I agree with you, right?

    There was a kind of hope in the darkness during that time that was, I think, a matter of what you’re describing, of people rediscovering other ways of living, and finding that there was joy in it, and satisfaction, and even a sense of competency, right? I keep coming back to that, because, again, it’s sort of an Illich, Albert Borgmann thing, where we just are consumers by default, and we know how to do very little for ourselves. The “we” here is very generic, of course, and we lose the sense of purpose, the sense of satisfaction, the sense of wellbeing, that comes from just cultivating certain skills and capacities that we don’t have anymore.

    Peter Mommsen: And it’s funny, even just talking about things like sourdough and fishing, right? It sounds like, “If only you could take this granola crunchy recipe for your life, you, too, will be [inaudible 00:35:46],” and of course it doesn’t work that way. I wonder, too, if part of it isn’t how kids are raised, and then the effect of that on their parents. For me, having kids who wanted to be out in the physical world forced me to get out in the physical world.

    And yet, the educational system that we’ve constructed, which Ivan Illich, of course, would’ve happily pointed out, actually prevents the kids themselves from getting out into the natural world a lot of the time. So there’s a whole complex of problems that can seem just sort of lifestyle-y on the outside, but actually, go from being the kind of decoration of life, to really, the content of people’s childhoods, people’s experiences, parents, sort of the most important core aspects of what your life will have been spent doing when you’re looking back at it at age eighty, ninety years.

    Susannah Black Roberts: The other sort of thing to think about is that we think of this in very will-bound and moralistic terms often. If we had enough self-discipline, we would become homesteaders. And I think that that’s not necessarily the best way to think about it, in part, because we’re social beings, as well, and it’s not bad that we kind of want to do what other people are doing. It’s not bad to want to be on Twitter because other people on Twitter, because there’s a social aspect to our lives.

    And it’s also very difficult. We are creatures with not just nature, but a second nature, and it’s very difficult, and ought to be very difficult for us to opt out of that when our culture is constructed around technological practices, like having a car, for example. It’s much harder to just opt out of having a car, and it doesn’t really say something bad about you, and there’s something good about that. There’s something good about being enculturated to that degree, but it does mean that, at least to a certain degree, we ought to be thinking, I think, in terms of creating different cultures for ourselves where it’s not as hard to be human.

    L. M. Sacasas: Yes, right. I mean, I agreed. The idea that we would opt out, and not count, and not find that, in its own way, disordering or isolating, I think is a good point to make, right? We are social creatures. We need, so we tend to alternate between thinking about very large-scale structures, and what maybe government regulation can do to solve X, Y, or Z problem, and what I, as an individual, can do, right? So we lose these mediating structures; many of which have been sort of eroded before we had any say in the matter, but what can I do as a family?

    What can I do as a church community, or a neighborhood? There are ways in which I think we cannot just seek out the lifestyle hacks, if you like, that I can implement in my own personal life, but how can I speak to my neighbor, to my fellow church member, to my family members? How can we think together about what it might mean to create properly social cultures? And microcultures, if, if we can think of it that way, that bring people together, but then also, are ordered in more humane ways, in ways that are more conducive to human flourishing.

    Susannah Black Roberts: One example of that, families who are taking the technology pledge with each other. So they’re basically saying, “All of our kids are not going to have phones. Therefore, our kids will have friends who don’t have phones, and also, we are going to model not being hooked on our phones, and not bringing them into our daily lives.”

    And it reminds me of kind of ’90s purity culture, but maybe a good version, and I’m not sure that ’90s purity culture was that bad anyway. I wasn’t raised evangelical, so I don’t know. I’ve only heard about it secondhand, but it does seem, to me, to be a potential, “That’s a thing that you could do.”

    L. M. Sacasas: Right. Right, because it takes into account the social costs that children incur when we tell them, “No, you can’t have a smartphone,” if that’s a choice we want to make, and everyone they know outside of their household is on those devices, and socializing through those networks, then we’re obviously, asking them to incur a very serious social cost. So to generate structures that support these commitments; I think that’s a wonderful example of what that might look like.

    Susannah Black Roberts: There’s another practice that I kind of have done, and I’ve done it since I was, I don’t know, a teenager, or something, which is more of a practice of gratitude. I used to have this little thing, where I would think to myself, I would, “It would be so horrible to live on the Starship Enterprise,” because you would be surrounded by this completely man made sterile environment, where nothing was out of place. There was nothing organic, nothing spontaneous. There was no nature.

    It would be absolutely awful, and I would start feeling that kind of like claustrophobia, and just real … and I have a pretty good imagination, so it’s just real intense, almost physical dread, and then I would go outside, and I would look up, and go to Central Park or something, because I grew up in New York City, or I would be up in Connecticut, and I would just go outside and go to the lake or something, and it’s like we’re pretty far gone, but we’re actually not that far gone. We’re not brains in a vat.

    We do still live in a real world, and I think one of the things that’s sort of healthy to do in thinking about this stuff, where we can get really sort of doom-y, is just have a practice of gratitude like that, where you really connect with something that is pretty easy, and physical, and reminds you that you have a body, and it’s easy to get back in touch with that, and remind you of how much worse it could be. You could have to live in a space station.

    L. M. Sacasas: Right. That gratitude, and I often sort of boil down the very essence of everything that matters to me, with regards to technology, to two ways of being, right? One is this mode of master, and control, and efficiency, which I think is the way that we are encouraged to be by our techno-social milieu, but the other is a kind of posture of receptivity, where we recognize that the world is not a field for us to master, but a gift to be received, and received with gratitude. I’ve quoted many times, so I sometimes am hesitant to quote it again, but one of Wendell Berry’s Sabbath Poems, “We live the given life, not the planned.” And I think that really distills these two ways of being in the world, and so I think gratitude is certainly, and even for those small moments, for those times where we are caught off guard, even … we may not even go out to seek these moments. We’re caught off guard by them, and we’re reminded of the goodness of things that are beautiful, the value of things that are good, and that that sort of generates the spirit of gratitude in us. Yes, absolutely.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thank you so much for coming on.

    L. M. Sacasas: All right. Be well, thank you.

    Section 3: What We’ve Learned

    Susannah Black Roberts: And now, we’ll be taking your questions, and having a big think ourselves about what we’ve learned from these podcasts. So, Pete, this is the episode where we take a step back, take a big sip of water, and think to ourselves about what we’ve been thinking about for the last couple of weeks here on the podcast, and for the last couple of months, as we’ve put together this issue on apocalypse. How do you feel like your views of apocalypse have changed since we kicked this off?

    Peter Mommsen: One big thing I’ve been thinking about is that we all, to the extent where Christians who are thinking within a Christian worldview, need to get a lot more comfortable thinking in an apocalyptic mode, and I’ll explain what I mean by that in a second, but we’ve spent a bunch of these podcasts talking about issues like technology, just now, environment, war, race and heritage, sort of the meaning of history, right? Big topics.

    What’s interesting to me is that we need to get better at thinking in terms of what all these huge events that have big impacts on large numbers of people, and also very individual impacts on specific people, who we may or may not know, there are realities behind the news, right? There’s something else going on that is unveiled, right? That original idea of apocalypse that we talked about in the first episode in this series.

    I’ve been reading, just over the last couple of weeks, as part of my work as an editor, a big monograph that the German theologian Catholic guy called Thomas Nauerth wrote about my own community, the Bruderhof, and its experience under the Nazi regime, the Third Reich. The one little thing I want to bring out from that book, which is excellent, and will hopefully soon appear in English; it’s been published in German already, is his observation of why it was that this small group of people were relatively fast at recognizing what was happening spiritually in the Nazi regime already.

    Before 1933, when Hitler came to power, at a time when so many Christians, and I’m not saying this to kind of slap the Bruderhof in the back, because I wasn’t even around then, and I probably would’ve been as bad as anyone, personally, but many Christians, including some who later went on to have very heroic careers as resistors to the Nazi regime, kind of didn’t see through the mark of history at the time it was happening, and he put a lot of the weight on that, and the ability of these people to think in terms of the Book of Revelation, that there are spiritual forces behind history.

    And that scripture actually tells us we’re not to remain at the surface of phenomena, of news events, of what we read in our Twitter feed. There’s things going on beyond people. There’s powers and principalities working their way through history, and as Christians, we’re taught to see that as something that is both very, very serious, but also, that there is a story that’s going to come to an ultimately positive conclusion with the coming of the kingdom of God, and that all things are working toward the good of those who love the Lord.

    And so very specifically, for instance, going back to the 1930s, he brought out this issue of, do you give the heil Hitler greeting, or do you not? And if you look at it on the surface level, you could say, “Well, this is a ultimately not so meaningful symbol, and it’s being demanded, and we should just kind of do it and go along,” or you can say, “No, by using this heil Hitler greeting, I am aligning myself with spiritual forces that are at enmity with Christ, that are at enmity with God.” And so even though it can seem, in 1933, a kind of embarrassing, but socially necessary thing to go along with, [they could say] No, I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to put incense on the altar.

    So that’s what I mean by learning to think apocalyptically about things in ways that can be really clarifying. That is one of the things I’ve been thinking about as we’ve talked about the Ukraine war, as we’ve talked about where technology is going, as we talk about big issues like what does it mean that, as a species, we’re doing not a great job of leaving the planet to the next generation, or even creating that next generation. So I don’t know if that makes any sense to you Susannah. What have you been thinking?

    Susannah Black Roberts: It does. It actually makes a lot of sense to me. The thing that I’ve, I guess, most been thinking about, throughout the whole process of this, putting together this magazine and these podcasts, is something about the way that the end of the world speaks backwards into our world as we’re living in it now, which is not that different than what you were saying, but even in a much less sort of historically pivotal, or objectively historically significant way.

    The thing that I’ve been doing during this time of putting together this issue of the magazine, and this series of podcasts, is I’ve been getting married. And that’s, in one way, a very this-worldly thing to do. We’re told that, in the world to come, there’s not going to be marriage. But as we’ve seen through various things, including Lyman Stone’s discussion of family formation and birth rates, as we’ve seen through various other kinds of investigations in the process of putting this stuff together, there’s a weird way in which, apparently, to do the good, this-worldly thing, you need an otherworldly, or an apocalyptic perspective.

    It’s just been an interesting kind of thing to notice in myself. One of the things that happens is that how I live with my husband now reflects my fidelity to Christ. There’s this very, very clear and new sense of what’s eternal just completely interpenetrating what’s immediate, and what’s present, and what’s temporal. And I think this works with our hopes for what we do with our work as well. I have a kind of very Tim Keller concrete vision of what the New Jerusalem is going to be like. I think there’s going to be a theater district, but I also think that if we do good work on these podcasts and with this magazine, in some way, those things are also going to be taken up into the new heavens and the new earth.

    And so just this incredibly intense sense that I feel like I’ve been experiencing particularly keenly in the last couple of months and weeks, of what we do here has an eternal resonance, and the four last things, death, judgment, and heaven and hell, and the end of the world itself, project their meaning back onto what we do now. So none of it’s trivial, and that’s actually an intensely hopeful and joyful thought in a weird way, more than a thought, a kind of experience. So that’s what’s going on with me.

    Section 4: Q&A

    Peter Mommsen: Well, I think you said better, and more specifically and concretely, what I was trying to kind of sketch out, and with that, let’s dive into the questions from our listeners. This is always a fun part, where we kind of embarrass ourselves by attempting to tackle problems and questions that are a little too big for us, but let’s have a go at it anyway.

    Susannah Black Roberts: All right. We put out the call on Twitter, and elsewhere, as usual, and as usual, our faithful listeners and trolls showed up. So question one; from Peter Blair, “If you had to choose one misidentified Bob Dylan song to play while the apocalypse unfolded around you, what would it be?” I am not going to answer this question. Let’s move on.

    Peter Mommsen: Do you have the next question, Susannah? I’m being nice to you now. I’m thinking apocalyptically and letting you off the hook.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Peter Blair was not thinking apocalyptically. All right, this is from Nicole Solomon, who’s a reader. This was actually kind of a longer extended comment about your editorial, Pete, and she was just reflecting on the way that it made her think. The question that she came up with was, “I guess I wonder if we’re being told to stop worrying about the future and focus simply on the moment we’re in?”

    Is that the message that you were trying to get across, Pete, with your editorial? So she was talking about sort of her various worries about Covid, about the war in Ukraine is, the message that we should be taking away from all this; stop worrying about the future, focus on the moment you’re in, and/or does that sort of cash out to plant a tree now, and then go to meet the Messiah? What do you think about that question?

    Peter Mommsen: I mean, I think that’s partly true. There’s this attitude out there, and probably social media hasn’t helped, where you can be worrying about everything. That old Monty Python song, “I’m so worried about modern technology,” right? As if that were a virtue to spend the day just in mental torment about the various bad things that are going on, when you could, and probably should be focused on your neighbor, or your kids, or doing something good with today, and also enjoying God’s creation without carrying around those mental burdens, which help no one. So in that sense, yes, and summer is a great time to do that.

    In another sense, though, it does strike me that the whole book of Revelation is calling us to pay attention to what’s happening in the world, and to what God’s plans for it are, not in some, “Now I’ve got to beat myself up” kind of way, but in the sense that we’re being invited, called on, forced to take a side in a cosmic conflict, and that as you were just saying, Susannah, in regard to marriage, and family life, and work, our decisions actually matter.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I agree with that kind of caveat, that kind of “but” that you were implying there. Stop worrying about the future? Yes and no. I mean, I think that we’ve kind of been given an instruction, a macro instruction by God, to go be fruitful and multiply, to subdue the earth, whatever that means, to essentially, with the way that people have kind of understood that, is to cultivate the earth, to help it be more fruitful, to make culture, to make cities. We’ve got a lot to do. The parable of the talents, and a lot of other of Jesus’ parables, speak to the real importance of what it is that we’re being called to do.

    We are actually living our real lives now. This is not a dress rehearsal. Again, stop worrying about the future. The things that we really can’t control, we shouldn’t worry about. The things that we can control … I feel like I’m about to start doing the Reinhold Niebuhr Serenity Prayer, but the things we can control, we are responsible for. We’re responsible at least for our own behavior towards those things. So I think we can’t force outcomes, but I think that we are responsible for what we do with the time we have, and that might mean that the time we are in is a really intense and consequential time.

    This lady was talking about the Ukrainian war, and Covid. Other people who’ve written in talk a lot about the climate crisis. I don’t think that we have any guarantees of what’s going to happen with sort of huge, gigantic global scale problems. I think that we need to be as smart and as wise as we can. I don’t want to say follow the science, because that’s an incredibly annoying phrase, and I don’t know enough about what that would imply, but I don’t think we can just say, “Well, God would never let the climate get that bad,” or whatever. “God would never let us actually have a nuclear war.” I hope he wouldn’t. I don’t know. I think we need to do what we can to stop it, and know that whatever happens, the times are in his hands, but also, the times that we’re in are the ones that we are called to live thoroughly, and not kind of just skim along the edge of.

    Peter Mommsen: That kind of ties into a question that I’d be interested in your thoughts on, Susannah, and that came in from a Twitter follower, again, addressing the editorial at the beginning of the issue, but actually, many of the things we’ve talked about in this podcast, as well. “Your editorial hits on several of the big fears; climate, possibly nuclear war, pandemics, et cetera, but at the granular level of daily life, there is so much disintegration happening that many people I know have commented recently that it feels like they are insane to see what they are seeing.

    “For example, a friend said this to me in the context of this video, circulating on Twitter, of a woman in a New York City subway, saying, ‘Help me,’ and nobody does. It also seems to track the behavior in his own neighborhood. There’s also the observation that basic society is rapidly breaking down.” And she links to a Twitter thread from Sebastian Millbank, which I’ll read. “I just have the overwhelming feeling that I’m living at the end of history,” says Sebastian Millbank. “I can feel everything slowly deteriorating around me, and I don’t know if what happens next is a collapse, or just a grim, slow slide into a quietly dysfunctional society going nowhere, and which is worse?”

    So the questioner goes on, “I wonder if the latter is, in some part, a function of the former, with people’s different types of existential fears being pitted against each other, so our social grace is being ground down, where people just don’t help each other, as is already happening in the pandemic,” and then that combines with the kind of fears that Sebastian Millbank’s Twitter thread expressed. “So my question is, basically, what to do about this, how to repair the social fabric at this small, but pervasive, level, and at the larger level, how to help people find solidarity and compassion for each other in their mismatched existential fears, instead of finding their way to implicit enmity?” So a bunch of questions there. This kind of summarizes why we did this issue in the first place.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. I mean, I think that this question gets at a lot of the kind of vibe that we were all feeling around about the time of the vibe shift, I believe, which was this sense of, one way to put it is that left and right both have competing narratives of decline and horror, and a future that’s not going to be as good as the past, and a future that’s going to be really scary to live in, and left and right kind of tend to see the other side, at least to a certain degree, as the ones who are at fault in that.

    And that kind of sense of apocalypse, and also of having someone in your society who you can blame, is really kind of striking, and it is the case on both sides of this debate, and I think that the implication here is that sense of dueling apocalypses for whom you can blame dueling out groups: It does kind of lend itself, sort of promote this generalized, massive sense of social breakdown and living at the end of history.

    And I think that one way to describe this is that … sorry to be political-theological, as I always am, but one way to describe this is that we’re political animals, and we have a kind of … we’re going around with a giant sense of not being able to be in a polity with each other. We’re going around with a giant sense of “there are enemies within, and those enemies are connected to massive apocalyptic fears that I have.” This is not to say that there’s not right and wrong, and this is not to say that all of these fears are ill-founded or, we should all just sort of realize that we’re playing for the same team. Although, we are all members of the human race, we are all people who have been given to each other.

    But I do think that there is something there, that these dueling apocalypses that we experience, and the sense of blame, does contribute to an ongoing and rapid kind of deterioration of a basic sense of safety with each other, and courtesy, and courage about the project of the future that we’re doing together. And actually, one of the things that I thought was really interesting, and has been kind of jangling around in my head since we had the conversation with her, and since I read her piece, and then since I met her in person, in Oxford, a couple of days ago, was Eleanor Parker’s incredible piece about Archbishop Wulfstan, who lived around the year 1000.

    He was the Archbishop of London in, I think, 996 or something, and then by 1014, he was the Archbishop of York. And what he was doing was, he was also very clearly, apparently, I kind of didn’t realize the degree which this was true, but this sense of jangling social disintegration, and looming chaos, and doom is apparently a common human experience. I don’t think it means that it’s the same amount of that experience in every generation. I think it’s probably cyclical a little bit, but certainly, Wulfstan was talking about something that felt very familiar in this Sermo Lupi, that Eleanor Parker, who is the author of this piece, “The Sermon of the Wolf” discussed, and he kind of had a real reason to have this sense of doom and apocalypse, and …

    Peter Mommsen: I mean, there were Vikings. There were …

    Susannah Black Roberts: Literal Vikings, and then it actually happened: the Vikings won, and now, he had been trying to do this project with King Æthelred, and then King Æthelred was dead, and the new king, who was a Viking king, called Cnut, who might not have even been Christian, or he might have been; we don’t know. Basically, the worst had happened, and also, now this Christian civilization of these Anglo-Saxons, who had been kind of at social disintegration with each other, anyway, were now ruled by a Viking king, and there were a bunch of Vikings around, who were barely Christian at all, if they were.

    And yet, in the face of this, Wulfstan pulled up his socks. I think he probably didn’t, because I’m almost 100 percent sure he did not wear socks, but he got to work, and he carried on the work that he had been doing under Æthelred, and he carried it on with Cnut, and he wrote a law code that helped this incredibly divided people, basically a Christian society, and a pagan society living side-by-side, not live side-by-side, but actually live with each other.

    And that law code, which he had been working on under Æthelred, and then eventually worked on under Cnut, was actually taken up after the 1066 conquering of England, which brought in and brought in William the Conqueror. So that law code that he wrote in the face of this incredibly unpromising and doom-ridden moment became the basis for … very little of Anglo-Saxon society survived the Norman Conquest, but apparently, this law code was one of the things that did, and that’s actually an incredibly hopeful story to me; both because it seems like, “All right, we’ve been here before,” and also, because it seems like, “All right, you can do something. You could actually do a project that will last.”

    Peter Mommsen: It’s a fantastic article, and one of the things that the Archbishop Wulfstan talked about in the face of Viking terror was, be a good spouse, be a good parent, be a good child to your parents, take care of those around you. So I think that yes, to this questioner, as well as his refusal to make a distinction between out-groups, right? He kind of brought in the out-group Vikings, and so I guess that’s my at least partial answer to this question, how to repair this social fabric. As Christians, we need to refuse to think of other people as out-groups, and I think of that a lot because of, of course, the US Supreme Court made a big decision on abortion in June, 2022, which will continue to have reverberations in our politics for a long time to come.

    I don’t want to get into that right now, but one big piece of it is a refusal, as Christians, to not see anyone else, no matter how strongly we disagree with them, as fellow bearers of the image of God, and to love them, and to wish them well, and to show that by helping them in the subway, and to show that by living out a good family life, living out a good marriage, being a good friend. Those things sound very quotidian, but that’s what Archbishop Wulfstan told his Anglo-Saxon congregations, and that is one thing that actually takes quite a bit of work. And to do that in one’s local community, in one city, at the state level, there’s a lot to be done for the good, and if we refuse to deny the divine spark in anyone, that will be much gained.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. I mean, the thing that piece really helped me with kind of speaks to … so when I was reading Sebastian Milbank’s thread, the word that sort of is echoing in your ears is civility, but civility kind of has a bad rap these days, and I kind of get why, because it doesn’t seem like it’s enough. It seems like it’s this sort of … “grit your teeth and be civil.”

    Peter Mommsen: Right, and a bit procedural. “Remember to say, ‘Please,’ and, ‘Thank you.’”

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, and the word that Dr. Parker talked about in her piece, which is the word that’s basically the thing that is at the center of society, that Wulfstan tried to sort of instantiate in his legal code, was getreowþ, which that’s where we get our word truth from. It’s also where we get our word troth from. So as in, when you plight someone your troth, when you marry them, and it means something like fidelity. It means something like integrity, but it’s not just a personal quality.

    It’s the ties that you have, the ties that there are between people in society, and between different levels of society. So you can have getreowþ with your spouse, with your friend; when you don’t abandon or betray your friend. You can have getreowþ with your liege lord, if you fulfill your obligations to him, and he can have getreowþ with you. And we are all called to have that kind of integrity and fidelity, that getreowþ with God, who is the source of truth, who’s the one who has that fidelity in himself. So that word, rather than civility, is I think what we need, at this point, and that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, might be something that actually does begin to knit those extremely frayed social ties back together.

    That’s it for this apocalyptic season of The PloughCast.

    Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you’re listening to this, and check out Plough.com for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe. For $32 a year you get the print magazine, for $99 a year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations, to special events, and the occasional gift. Go to Plough.com/subscribe to learn more.

    For the next six weeks, you’ll be able to listen each week to a new audio article from the current issue of the Quarterly. And we’ll be back with you in six weeks for more conversation on our new autumn issue, on Vows. See you then.

    Contributed By PeterMommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By SusannahBlack Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black is a senior editor of Plough.

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    Contributed By LMSacasas2 L. M. Sacasas

    L.M. Sacasas is associate director of the Christian Study Center of Gainesville, Florida.

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