Recently, a specific line from Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (the film script, actually) has been resonating through my skull: “Do you know how few vampires have the stamina for immortality? How quickly they perish of their own will? The world changes. We do not. Therein lies the irony that finally kills us. I need you to make contact with this age.” That was the 500 year old vampire Armand, speaking to Louis, the novel’s title character. Now, I’m no vampire. I am however starting to realize that Armand and I have a similar issue. He doesn’t feel connected to the age in which he is living. So much has changed around him during his long lifetime, but he hasn’t—and can’t.
Another popular cultural analogy for the situation I feel I’m in is Captain America, the “man out of time,” as he is called by some. Having been in hibernation for seventy plus years, he keeps a little notebook in his back pocket that contains a list of music to listen to, movies to see, things to experience so that he can “update” himself and catch up on lost time. Part of him, however, will always belong to the era in which he grew up. I get it.
The world is moving too fast. Things are changing at an astonishing rate; many of those changes are for the good, others not so much. All I know is that, in many ways, I haven’t changed—and don’t wish to. Most of the changes I am averse to are technological ones. There is something in me that distrusts the technologies surrounding us, insinuating themselves into every little aspect of our lives until we seem subject to algorithms controlled by corporate forces we cannot begin to understand, or even resist.
I remember the photograph of the “computer club” from my middle school yearbook, circa 1983. It featured our wizened old librarian holding a keyboard, and two students who likely had no semblance of a social life (ironically, without a computer today, you have no social life). That keyboard would plug into a TV monitor so you could play “pong” on the screen. Then in high school we had “computer day,” where we filed through a room full of taupe colored boxes with green glowing screens and then filed out thinking “Whatever, man. Good luck with that.” It would be social suicide to show an interest in “nerdy” stuff like computers. We scuttled back to our typewriters, laughing at the handful of “computer geeks” that might have actually been interested in the machines, whoever they were. We did enjoy wearing bulky Walkmans on our belts and sticking cassette tapes into them, though. As long as progress featured mobile music, we could stomach it. So what if the tape often got caught in the machine and we had to spend hours carefully pulling it out hoping not to break it in the process? It was worth it to be able to listen to the stuff Martha Quinn on MTV was promoting while not needing the TV at the same time.
All through college, I never touched a computer (they just weren’t available or as well known in the late eighties and early nineties—or was I just not wanting to notice them?) save for one in the Education library that served as nothing more than an electronic card catalog on which you could find bibliographical citations for journal articles. Once you found a listing of them and got some basic information, you had to trudge through the many floors of the campus library, find the leather-bound volume that had all 12 issues of the journal you wanted for the particular year you were looking for, and then take the volume down to the ground floor where the copy machines were and pay for copying the pages of the article you needed. That was research. Or you could go to the very top floor of the campus library where few dared go and figure out how to use the microfiche machine. I think I enjoyed that particular experience only once. At any rate, computers were too on the fringe to show up on my radar. I liked books, being an English major and all. The growing legions of computer lovers could keep their new toys.
Slowly, as the years passed, the computer began its rapid-fire ascendancy, and I stepped willingly out of the river of technological progress altogether and settled on its banks with my books. I haven’t stepped back into that river for so long that it just might be too late to try. Oh, I am sure that I could learn how to use a smartphone and any other device that so many others view as indispensable given the desire to do so, but that is the key piece that is lacking. I just don’t see the point. Reading books such as Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly by Neil Postman, or The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr, haven’t exactly made me want to run out and jump on the modern hi-tech bandwagon. Don’t get me wrong; I am not anti-technology. I’m no Luddite ready to throw my shoes into the machine. I’m using a computer to write this, after all. As Professor Sherry Turkle put it in her book Reclaiming Conversation, I’m just pro-c0nversation. I would rather have my students speak to one another face to face in real time and have to think on their feet than have them offer delayed comments in some online chatgroup “discussion” that just doesn’t seem like a discussion to me at all. I understand that some feel this medium offers the less outgoing students a way to contribute to discussions where they might otherwise stay silent. I would prefer to help them gain the confidence to speak publicly than nurture their unwillingness to do so.
Modern students aren’t the same, however, as my high school classmates from 1987. I work with young people every day, and they do not live in the same world I did…or do. They have never known a world without the Internet. Books like IGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (and what that means for the rest of us) by Jean Twenge have helped to open my eyes to how this generation thinks and what they value. Reading books like that and engaging these kids in conversation each day helps me build the bridge between our generations so that we can effectively communicate; I’m Armand here, who has lost contact with the age in which he is living. However, my desire to fully connect with this age is kept wary by the suspicions I harbor. I wonder if, when the television was first created, that its creators every actually sat down and asked themselves the question: “If we unleash this on the world, how might it change the culture?” That question might have led to others, such as “Just because we can do a thing, does that mean we should do it?” They definitely saw the profit their creation would bring to them, but how deeply did they consider the implications of where their technology would take us? The same goes for the computer, smartphone, and other modern “essentials.” I’ll do what I must in the technology sphere of today, staying wary of it; I’ll play Cassandra from time to time, and encourage balance, which as The Odyssey tells us, “is best in all things.”
This sense of being “out of time” has spiritual implications as well. How many religious traditions have had to adjust and modify themselves due to new technologies and advancements? New discoveries in the realms of science must be keeping most religions on their toes as they scramble to stay relevant to modern souls. There is value in knowledge of ancient traditions and texts, to be sure, as they are a major part of the historical human experience and have shaped so much of what we know. They have to be willing to grow, however, as what was once a mystery becomes less and less of one. I have always been struck by this argument: How many phenomena in nature can you name that once had a supernatural explanation which eventually gave way to a scientific one once enough was learned? Once you’ve answered that, reverse it: How many phenomena, once explained by science, have had their scientific explanations supplanted by supernatural ones. Any? Our scientific knowledge is growing every day, and new discoveries are replacing old beliefs all the time as we learn more about the universe and how it works. No one has a problem shedding old scientific beliefs (I hope) once new ones make them obsolete. We have to be just as willing to update our spiritual beliefs in the face of established facts as we learn.
This is one of many ways that Spiritual Naturalism is so well-suited to serve as a spiritual tradition for modern times. We hold no specific set of beliefs, texts, or traditions as rigidly sacrosanct. Instead we draw on the wisdom of many traditions that has stood the test of time, while simultaneously accepting new wisdom as it arises. We don’t lose our “faith” in that which evokes wonder and awe just because new discoveries are made, as our beliefs are timeless ones that the passage of time cannot threaten.
In fact, there’s a gorgeous sunset out the window right now; I’m going to go sit in awe of it for a bit before time dissolves it. No matter what river of time we may be caught up in or belong to, the present moment is the only one we have—it’s time to revere it.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.