focal practices for pilgrim people: intervals

In one sense the question I posed in an earlier post — What are the proper focal practices for a pilgrim people? — has an obvious answer. In a sermon John Wesley wrote that the “chief … means” of God’s grace to us 

are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon); and receiving the Lord’s Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men. 

Surely it is true, and has been true as long as Christians have walked the earth, and will always be true, that these three practices are permanently and non-negotiably focal for Christians. If we’re not doing these, then we’re going to be distracted, diffracted, “blown about by every wind of doctrine.” 

But if these are the “ordinary channels” by which God conveys grace to us, might there be, in certain times and places, extraordinary channels — channels especially appropriate to a given context? I think so, and in this and future posts will be drawing on Byung-Chul Han’s The Burnout Society to identify some. 

In this post I want to talk about intervals. In an especially provocative passage — and in another, later post I’ll discuss its context — Han writes, 

Only by the negative means of making-pause can the subject of action thoroughly measure the sphere of contingency (which is unavailable when one is simply active). Although delaying does not represent a positive deed, it proves necessary if action is not to sink to the level of laboring. Today we live in a world that is very poor in interruption; “betweens” and “between-times” are lacking. Acceleration is abolishing all intervals. In the aphorism, “Principal deficiency of active men,” Nietzsche writes: “Active men are generally wanting in the higher activity … in this regard they are lazy…. The active roll as the stone rolls, in obedience to the stupidity of the laws of mechanics.” Different kinds of action and activity exist. Activity that follows an unthinking, mechanical course is poor in interruption. Machines cannot pause. Despite its enormous capacity for calculation, the computer is stupid insofar as it lacks the ability to delay. 

Almost everyone at times has the sense that we are not using our technologies but are being used by them. Which is why, in the long run, as Jaron Lanier has pointed out, “the Turing test cuts both ways. You can’t tell if a machine has gotten smarter or if you’ve just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machine seems smart. If you can have a conversation with a simulated person presented by an AI program, can you tell how far you’ve let your sense of personhood degrade in order to make the illusion work for you?” We therefore come to imitate the distinctive stupidity of machines. If we are to be stupid, at least let our stupidity be human.  

So maybe the first focal practice, the one that enables all the others, is simply this: to pause. To create intervals in our busyness. Maybe we will later fill those intervals with prayer, for instance, but just to create them is the first desideratum. Pause, and breathe — that alone declares our humanity and distinguishes us from our machines. The pilgrim pauses along the Way, and in that manner combats the laziness peculiar to a technologically accelerated age.