note to self

Repair begins with redirection. Commencing the repair of our cultural ecosphere by shifting attention to neglected things. 

Focal practiceshypomene ➡ the good work of repair

Or: shun the smooth things, get back to the rough ground. But rough ground must be thoroughly prepared for the seeds you want to sow. Only then can roots grow deep. We want food; we’re hungry; our temptation is to scatter the seed blindly and hope for the best. But that’s a recipe for failure. 

What are the focal practices of the wise sower, the responsible gardener? 

Wendell Berry, from “Standing by Words”: 

As industrial technology advances and enlarges, and in the process assumes greater social, economic, and political force, it carries people away from where they belong by history, culture, deeds, association, and affection. And it destroys the landmarks by which they might return. Often it destroys the nature or the character of the places they have left. The very possibility of a practical connection between thought, and the world is thus destroyed. Culture is driven into the mind, where it cannot be preserved. 

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.  

the Christian and the hearth

In traditional Roman culture, the focus, the hearth, is all about holding the family together: the family is the essential, immutable, and foundational unit of civilization. What the Romans called the dignitas marriage — as opposed to the concubinatus union, which was merely a formalizing of a sexual relationship. — was meant to ground all the larger elements of the social order. (The young Augustine, as he explains in his Confessions, had a concubinatus relationship while he was waiting for his parents to organize a dignitas marriage for him, and he and his concubine were alike heartbroken when told that their union had to be broken.) Thus the legal, and not just the social, dominance of the paterfamilias — his patria potestas

As Carle Zimmerman shows in his seminal Family and Civilization, the Christian church, when it emerged as a force in Roman society, complicated the simple duality of the Roman system. Bishops and priests denounced the concubitanus marriage: legally, it had to be dignitas or nothing. But even dignitas marriage was insufficient, in that it was merely personal and social: true Christian marriage is sacramental, and an image of the relationship between Christ and his church. What the marital family was in secular legal terms came to matter less than what it was in the eyes of God — and the eyes of canon law. (As Zimmerman explains, when in the late-antique and early-medieval world political order grew more fractured and tenuous, this only intensified the power and authority of the Church over the family.) Thus was inaugurated the close connection between the family and the Church that persists in various ways even today. 

There’s absolutely no question, as I have said many times on this blog and elsewhere, that if Western society is going to be restored and renewed, such restoration and renewal will need to begin in the family. Everything about our system of metaphysical capitalism is built around detaching people from both the comforts and the obligations of family. If you have sustained a healthy family in our current environment you have done something pretty special, and achieved it against heavy odds.

All that said, and I’m not taking any of it back, Christians really can’t have a straightforward relationship to family. We can’t simply be Romans, even Christianized Romans. There’s this countervailing force in Christian tradition and practice that has to be accounted for. Jesus says that unless you hate your own mother and father, you cannot be a follower of his (Luke 14:26). Jesus says that foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Matt. 8:20). Jesus left his home and his family in order to proclaim the kingdom of God, and then to suffer and die; most if not all of his apostles did the same. Saul of Tarsus did not remain in Tarsus, nor did he even remain in Jerusalem, the place that he came to be educated. In the service of the Gospel, he traveled all over the Mediterranean, and died, we believe, in Rome. It was said of Christian missionaries back in the day that they went to the mission field carrying their coffins on their backs – that is, they planned never to return to what had been their home, but to live out their lives in strange lands, so that they could tell people about Jesus. 

And of course Jesus never married; not did Paul, whose attitudes towards marriage were notoriously complex. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church” (Eph. 5:25); but the celibate life is superior (I Cor. 7:7). Neither Jesus nor his last apostle were hearth-and-home types, it seems. 

This is why I’ve always slightly hesitant about the project of the Front Porch Republic folks. What they are doing is admirable in so many ways, and yet I worry that they could inadvertently foster a kind of idolatry of place. However wonderful and essential home and family are for almost all of us, the Christian has to be willing to give both of those up in order to follow Jesus. We won’t necessarily be able to do that following in our home towns, though perhaps most Christians will be granted that privilege.

There is then something inevitably cosmopolitan about Christianity, not in the sense that the Christian is at home everywhere but in the sense that the Christian can’t be fully at home at home anywhere, given that our citizenship is not of this world (Phil. 3:20). Our primary loyalty must be to the City of God, and not to the City of Man.

I don’t know how to sort all of this out, but I do know that it makes the business of cultivating focal practices complicated for the Christian. What do the practices of the hearth have to do with the Christian life? And how can a Christian pursue focal practices if she doesn’t have a hearth to return to at the end of the day? No, the essential focal practices of the Christian will have to be something more, and maybe other, than the Roman ones. What are the necessary focal practices for a pilgrim people? 

the home’s sacred fire

Screenshot 2022 12 27 at 12 04 35 PM

In this book, Ralph Cudworth makes the following fascinating argument: 

Now the Tabernacle or Temple being thus a House for God to dwell in visibly, to make up the Notion of Dwelling or Habitation complete, there must be all things suitable to a House belonging to it. Hence in the Holy Place there must be a Table and a Candlestick, because this was the ordinary Furniture of a Room …  A Table and a Candlestick … suit the Notion of a Dwelling House. The Table must have its Dishes, and Spoons, and Bowls, and Covers, belonging to it, though they were never used, and always be furnished with Bread upon it. The Candlestick must have its Lamps continually burning. 

There must be a Continuall Fire kept, in this House of God’s, upon the Altar, as the Focus of it. 

Cudworth cites the Hebrew of Isaiah 31:9 — KJV: “the LORD, whose fire is in Zion, and his furnace in Jerusalem” — and renders it into Latin: Qui habet ignem suum in Sion, et focum suum in Jerusalem, or, “Whose fire is in Zion, and his hearth in Jerusalem.”

(I may be getting too deep into the weeds here, but: Cudworth’s rendering differs from the Vulgate, which has: cujus ignis est in Sion et caminus ejus in Jerusalem. Apparently caminus — which is a straight theft from the Greek κάμῑνος — can also mean “hearth” but is more likely to be used to describe a furnace, an oven, or a kiln. It’s only focus, as far as I can tell, that bears the familial associations.) 

It’s noteworthy that the Hebrew word that the KJV translates as “furnace” and Cudworth as focus is rendered in the Septuagint as οἰκείους — from the root οἶκος, meaning “household” or “home.” The LORD, whose fire is in Zion, and his household in Jerusalem

But now, as Christians have always said, through his sacrifice Jesus has himself become the Temple. (See Hebrews 10.) The place of sacrifice has been transformed into a place of feasting — as Paul says in 1 Timothy 3, the ἐκκλησία Θεοῦ (the assembly or church of God) is also the οἴκῳ Θεοῦ (the household of God) — and the focus, the central hearth, of that household is the altar. 

I love this notion of the church’s altar as the hearth of the Lord’s House, the place where we gather to warm ourselves and to receive nourishment — the focus of our worship in a distinctively familial and homely sense. 

Albert Borgmann talks about the relationship between focal practices and focal things — “things” being a poor choice of words here, because he means something more like “what or whom those practices centrally attend to.” When two people get married they are the central figures in the practice the old Prayer Book calls The Solemnization of Matrimony, but they aren’t things. I don’t know why Borgmann doesn’t just talk about focal practices and foci, but that’s what I will do: Participation in a service of Holy Communion is a focal practice whose focus is in one sense the altar — but in another and deeper sense Jesus Christ himself. 

The Year of Focal Practices

I declared 2021 the Year of Hypomone and 2022 the Year of Repair. I have not ceased to need hypomone — the New Testament word for “patient endurance” — nor are the good things of my world in any less broken. And it seems to me that there’s a close relationship between the two themes, because those who would engage in tikkun olam, the repair of the world, will more than most others require hypomone. But how to get it? How and where to find the resources that enable the patient endurance that in turn enable us to pursue the work of repair? I declare this the Year of Focal Practices. 

What do I mean by that? It’s a concept from Albert Borgmann’s seminal 1984 book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. As Borgmann’s career moved on he became a clearer and more straightforward writer, but in 1984 … not so much. He was still, then, too Heideggerian to be lucid. So rather than quote I am going to try to summarize, drawing chiefly on chapters 9 and 23.

Focus is a Latin word that means hearth — the fireplace that was both literally and metaphorically the center of the Roman household. Various members of the family were responsible for some element of hearth-maintaining — one would chop or gather the firewood, another bring that wood into the house, another make the fire, another add logs when the fire got low or stir it to enliven it, still another to cook the family’s food over the flame — and each member benefitted from its warmth. The heath was a place for preparing food and for keeping warm; it was therefore also the place where the family gathered, where its unity and wholeness were made manifest. The household gods — the lares and penates — were above all the guardians of the hearth. They preserved and in various ways represented the family’s focus

Controlled fire is of course the paradigmatic technology: Prometheus’s gift of fire to humans is the definitive extension of our natural abilities, an augmentation of power, a prosthesis. But, Borgmann shows, fire-as-focus is much more than that: it generates a set of focal practices that strengthen the bonds among members of the family. Contrast the hearth at the center of a home to a central heating unit, which instead of binding us to one another invites us to go our separate ways. The central heating unit is not a focus that links us to one another; it is rather a device that facilitates our separation. 

The idea that our technological prostheses are meant to generate independence from one another is a way of thinking about technology that Borgmann calls the device paradigm. To summarize an argument I have made here, the device paradigm promises freedom but in fact — after all, it cannot be modified to suit our needs — enforces what Ursula Franklin calls a “culture of compliance.” It is, as Ivan Illich would put it, a manipulatory technology, whereas the hearth is a convivial one. 

We have good reasons for installing central heating in our homes, but we miss the hearth and look for ways to replace it. The novelist Kim Stanley Robinson often says that our evolutionary descent predisposes us to be fond of certain actions, like throwing objects at other objects and sitting around a fire telling tales. The latter impulse, he believes, draws us to the movie theater, where we gather in the darkness facing a bright light and enjoy stories — but while that provides a certain form (or simulacrum) of communal connection, it’s the television that becomes the replacement for the family hearth. Here’s a photo I took a few nights ago — I title it Focus One and Two

IMG 1112

When I decided to put our TV over the fireplace, I didn’t realize the symbolic heft of my decision. But one evening, when I mused that it would be easier to show a fireplace video from YouTube than actually build a fire, all the ironies suddenly came home to me. 

Let me be clear: I loved re-watching The Fellowship of the Ring with my family as a fire crackled away in the fireplace. It was truly wonderful. But it was not, in Borgmann’s sense, a focal practice. In fact, I am inclined to think that we could enjoy it as much as we did because of other practices that have bound us as a family, practices that are truly focal. 

I am inclined to think that the cultivation of genuinely focal practices — on the familial level and on that of whole communities — is essential to the development of hypomone, and hypomone is essential to the work of repair. I want to think about these matters quite a bit in 2023, and so I have added a “focus” tag to this post — to prompt me to keep thinking and writing on this subject. We’ll see how it goes.