My coworkers sat beside me as the contractor’s representatives sat across the table explaining (I should probably say, “explaining away”) the nuances of their work: why their progress was slow, why their invoicing lagged, why they needed more time to fix the problems which they themselves had created. You know … the usual stuff. And then, there in the middle of a sentence it all happened. One of the contractors was saying something like, “We expect the influx of new engineers assigned to the project will increase the expenditure of funds by …” when all of a sudden her cell phone buzzed and she distractedly look down at it. She tried to continue, “And, well … we think that this solution will help in making up for both schedule and cost problems …” her cell phone buzzed again. “And … uh … the plan is to … um … kinda fix the problems by …” It was basically at that point that I tuned her and her entire team out completely. And, after a few more minutes of retreading a path that wasn’t going anywhere, I got up from the table, gathered my things and said goodbye. Even though it wasn’t an “abrupt” departure – I didn’t hurriedly and angrily grab all of my stuff and storm out – I admit that getting up and walking out wasn’t the most polite thing to do. But it was about the only option left to me. First of all, I know this company pretty well after working with them for a few years and so I didn’t buy a bit of their hogwash for a minute. They would never be able to improve either schedule or cost performance because they were never serious about meeting those parameters to begin with. And second, I had dealt with these particular representatives of this company enough to realize that, at that point in the meeting, even though they were sitting right across the table from me, I’d have a better chance of getting useful communication from them by texting them. It was a brash move, but it was necessary at the time. Looking back on it, it also proved helpful to our communication; since then, they tend to leave their phones out of sight when we meet and certainly seem more engaged in our conversation.
However, I had to admit to myself as I walked out of that conference room that day that I’m not much better than that silly millennial on the other side of the conference room table when it comes to cellular distractions. How many times have I been in a conversation with someone and demonstrated either my utter lack of interest in what they were saying, or my own inability to concentrate, by looking at my phone? Quite often, honestly. This tendency is multiplied for me when my favorite team is playing or when some big news event is taking place; I incline to stay glued to the little screen, waiting for the next update and oblivious to the “nonsense” around me.
Nevertheless the confession of the problem isn’t my main intention here. Lots of people have expended inches of typeface making the point that our culture is in danger of losing much of the amiability which it has left – and the individuals within our culture much of the health in their relationships – by the addiction we have to the little god in our pockets. This is a completely valid concern and, though I want to make a different point in this post, we must all pay the problem, and its potential solutions, some serious attention and energy.
Instead of the relational and cultural degradation though, I think that there is a deeper concern with the amount of time we spend on our cell phones: it’s a problem of omnipresence. No, not that we think that we CAN be omnipresent or that our phones MAKE us omnipresent. We are, as twenty-first century Westerners, much too milquetoast in our practicality for that. Our sins today no longer have the creativity or the frivolity of the past pagans. Though their sins were just as egregious as ours, they at least had an element of mystery and wonder which we, in our age of supposedly great scientism, refuse to allow ourselves, much less acknowledge. How could we allow it? Or acknowledge it? One of the greatest fears of the modern Westerner is to be seen as reverting to that new mythical beast of the knuckle-dragging, grunting Neanderthal; to believe anything which might reveal that there is a mystery unanswered by science, or even to consider a force which transcends the might of modern man, could undermine our conformity to the contemporary dogma which has been concocted by the new sages and priests of our age: that “human progress” is real, unguided, and can’t be thwarted.
But even if we’ve grown tedious in our rebellions, it doesn’t make our rebellions any less unholy. A druid worshipping the spirit of an oak tree isn’t any more defiant to a holy God than a modern “enlightened” man with the effrontery to claim that there is no great spirit to worship. The enlightened man may be more acceptable to the current culture than the oak-worshipping druid, but oh, what a drab and dreary existence he leads. Oh, what folly he commits in his assumption that there is nothing against which to rebel.
No, we don’t believe that we CAN be omnipresent, we nevertheless seek omnipresence out. Incidentally, in this way we may bring judgment down upon ourselves with more surety than the ancients. After all, they actually believed in the gods whom they attempted to assault and perhaps, as a result, they were more cautious in their mutiny. I can’t imagine the Living God – merciful and kind as He is – being more charitable to a people who lay siege to heaven without even believing in it. The one who believes in the lie he tells isn’t as egregiously guilty as the one who tells a lie when he knows it to be one, even if the result of both of their lies is the same.
The first man and the first woman attempted to hijack the domain of God through disobedience to Him; as if by disobeying they might become His equal. Their offspring haven’t needed to seek out disobedience, being inundated by it, but equality with God has still been high on the agenda. The people of Babel who laid brick upon brick in spirals to the clouds were creating a skyscraper of indignation; as if heaven was an entitlement unjustly held back. And though through the millennia we have changed our tactics, the goal has always been an assault on the heavenlies – a violence against the sanctified. We would see, if we bothered to look, that deep down the lie that there is no God – told to ourselves to assuage our guilt and calm our fluttering heart – is just that: a lie! But we continue our assault on that which we claim to not believe anyway. At Babel the people believed that God existed and they attempted to take hold of His dwelling place. In modern times we escape our atmosphere and say with Yuri Gagarin, “I see no God up here,” as if by stating it so matter-of-factly we might make it true and simultaneously claim supremacy over all.
As simple, normal, everyday people in Western society, we may not be attempting to enter physically and forcefully into the abode of God, but are we, in more insidious and presumptuous fashion, laying claim to the omnipresence of God by our constant news updates, Facebook posts, Twitter arguments, video from half a world away, and the subsequent rebellious disconnection from the “mundane” of the everyday tasks bestowed upon us? In disengaging from that which has been given to us, we are rebelling against God by saying, in a way, “I choose not to do what You have given me to do, Lord.” By looking away from the person nearby in order to peer at another, “more interesting,” person’s Instagram, we are saying, “I choose not to create a relationship with the person whom You have placed in my life, Lord.” Our actions may not be grandiose in their production, firing up the kiln to make enough bricks to assault heaven, but we don’t decrease our rebellion. We only scale it back until it is bland enough to be palatable for our modern sensitivities.
Don’t get me wrong, the smart phone is just a tool for our sinful heart to exercise its revolt. If we didn’t have that little device, rest assured that we’d find something else which would suffice to momentarily satisfy our wandering, evil nature. Our hearts are, after all, a “factory for idols.” But we constantly have to be aware of what is taking the place of the tower of Babel in our society. We persistently have to honestly comb our lives for the things which we are putting ahead of God. Because when we put something ahead of God, we assault not just the things He gives us to do or the people He gives us to encourage and learn from, we assault who He is by taking upon ourselves that which is not ours. We hold in our hands a smart phone, with all of its capability for communication and knowledge, and we use it to seize omnipresence or omniscience and so commit treason against the One to Whom those things belong.
True, we don’t REALLY seize omnipresence or omniscience with our devices. But, as I have argued, we take hold of that which is within our capability in order to somehow alleviate our rebellious desires for the things which belong to the Almighty. In addition to our ability to create an idol out of anything, we are remarkably capable of contentment with the cheap imitation of a real thing. The people of Babel couldn’t have seized heaven any more than we can seize omnipresence; they would have simply built their tower to the heights of giddy hypoxia. In like ways, we only seize a momentary knowledge of what is happening in Russia during the World Cup or in Washington D.C. with arguments between petty politicians as we’re sitting at our desk in Wichita, Kansas or Boise, Idaho. And then we have the utter gall to think highly of our “omnipresence” or “omniscience” – pitiful and incomplete as it is.
Mankind has always been an arrogant creature – since the Garden at least. You don’t see a goose strap a jet engine to its back in order to make its migration less difficult, much less to assault heaven. Nor do you see a fish create a “super-marine” (versus a submarine) in order to venture beyond the confines of his lake, river or ocean onto dry land. But man is continually discontent with his state. Certainly this is partially driven by an attempt to make our lives, and the lives of those we love, better. But it is also driven by a desire to be bigger, better, and more powerful than our fragile shell can muster. It’s a vestigial desire, leftover from a time when we walked about in eternal bodies and had communion with the eternal Himself. But, in throwing away our eternal state, we threw away serenity and satisfaction too. Urgency has replaced calm within us; danger has replaced peace. In our fight to restore it we cling to anything which might, possibly bring back the tranquility of communion with the Holy … and misappropriate powers to ourselves in the process.
All of this is not to say that peace is impossible. We simply must look to the right source for it, and do so with humility and obedience. The success of the actions we take to alleviate our fears rests entirely within the intent behind them. The cell phone becomes an idol when we place it above God, OR when we use it to replace or steal His power in our lives. The fact that, by using our smart phone or a computer, we can know what is happening halfway around the world – and perhaps join in its joy or sorrow too – is either an act of communion or a misappropriation of powers, with the balance being decided by the intent of the heart. We can use this relatively new power of mankind to have joy with the joyful or mourn with the mournful, or we can use it to forcefully take for ourselves a cheap imitation of the powers of God. We should realize that one of the cornerstones of a peaceful and joyful life is in leaving the things of God to Him and only taking on that which He gives us. Or, to say it another way,
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:5-8