Thinking Big and Small

Note: This article is a follow-up of sorts to Brett’s article from last winter entitled "Deep and/or Wide".

Our world today, however “flat” or “global” it may be, does not seem to encourage big-picture thinking. The ocean of information that surrounds us is easier than ever to navigate, but harder and harder to grasp on a holistic level. We are always three clicks away from any fact or figure or answer we may want; we are the most informed, mediated, equipped, positively-reinforced generation ever, and so why are we retreating into our iPod-capsulated, ethnocentric, blissfully-ignorant zones of comfort? Is it just too daunting to make the most of our information overload, quiet and focus our minds and try to answer the big questions?

One reason it’s so hard to think about the big things is because the small wonders and blessings of life are so much more comforting to the soul. When I hold my newborn nephew and look at his beautiful, smiling face, I could care less about Kafka, Camus or Kierkegaard. When I’m camping in Utah, smelling the rustic campfire embers dance against the sandy sagebrush air, my mind is so far away from the media, the war, the problems of the world. But even as I relish these moments—these bits of unspoiled, unmediated reality poured forth from life itself—I realize that to experience such things in a vacuum destroys much of its beauty. That is, to cut myself off from “the world” so that I can have pure nature experiences or domestic happiness is to blind myself of the reality of the situation.

The reality is that much of what we deem “authentic” experience in life is really just our simulation of a reality that we’ve made untrue in our extricating it from all other supposedly superfluous material of life. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Things are connected. The most intimate joys of life have things to say to the most complex, impersonal systems that exist in the world, and vice versa. All things are woven together in a beautiful, elusive, cosmic tapestry; and however unfathomable most of it is to us, I do believe we can make more sense of the world than we think ourselves capable.

What we lack today is a mind for making connections. We have all the tools for hyperconnectivty and every resource for every fact and truth as yet discovered by humankind. But in this overwhelming vastness of puzzle pieces and pixels, we are too fatigued and apathetic—or perhaps too skeptical—to try to pull back and see the immense picture that emerges when things start clicking together.

We see Katrina’s mythical drama on television; we watch Iraq on the evening news; we read about the tsunamis in Asia … but it’s all just news to behold. It might as well be fiction. Jean Baudrillard, notable French media theorist, famously stated that the first Gulf War never happened. It was merely a televised docudrama, he implied, staged for the media’s cameras. And whether or not Baudrillard actually believed that is beside the point, because it might as well be true. That war, as with so many of the bloody goings on in the world today, seems so irrelevant to most of our lives. When all we know of something is through a television or computer screen, how can we even begin to thread that “reality” with those of our own lives?

It’s a challenge, for sure, and I wonder how up to the task our culture really is. The more chaotic “the world” as seen on TV becomes, the less willing our younger generations will be to try to tackle the immense puzzle. The more in-your-face and up-to-the-minute news our culture is pounded with, as in a relentless storm, the less likely it will be that anyone will be able to stick their head up to breath, let alone try to make sense of what’s going on around them.

Part of the problem is that with media and technology what they are, we are now besieged like never before by conflicting opinions on all sides—about politics, economics, religion, philosophy, sports, movies, music, sex, society and so on. And because loud and obnoxious argument (“debate” is too refined a word) is overwhelmingly ubiquitous, many everyday people are simply too tired to think anymore. We have opinions about everything imaginable at our disposal—whether on a television channel or website or radio show, etc—and because we can’t tune in to everything, we tune in to what we know will not make our blood boil (hence, “news” to the Fox crowd is not the same as it is to the CNN folks, and who’s to know which is accurate?).

At the end of a hard day’s work, we want reinforcement, not a headache. Critical thinking is a chore that most of us are too weary to undertake anymore. We have enough daily minutia (the “small stuff”) to sweat, after all. As a result, we’ve reached a stagnant state in our most important cultural dialogues.

See Also

The evolution debate is the perfect example. Recently the “question of origins” has re-positioned itself as a significant “in-house” debate within the Church. There are young-earth Christians, big-bang believers, Intelligent Design theorists and full-fledged evolutionists within the family of God. And yet there is so little dialogue between the groups. Everyone seems happy in their respective positions, feeding themselves literature and facts that back up their corner. But isn’t this big question (indeed, one of the biggest) too important to write off on “difference of opinion”? Shouldn’t we dig and search and use all of our God-given resources to explore the beautiful mystery of our origin?

Some people who have noticed the current opinions quagmire have proposed a sort of amicable truce in which inclusive friendliness replaces vitriolic mud-slinging. They’ve called for an end to the fighting and instead for a climate of innocuous dialogue—where we discuss and “unpack” our opinions in an environment where, supposedly, all opinions are created equal. The problem with this is, of course, that all opinions are not created equal, and everyone knows it. Even the most egalitarian, postmodern relativist out there knows, deep down, that all opinions are not equally valid.

And so, after all, it is about postmodernity. We live in a world that beckons us to think small, because the big is just too messy and contradictory. But our call as Christians is to be both broad-minded and deep-minded. Paul Tillich is right on when he says in The Lost Dimension in Religion, “Man in our time has lost such infinite concern … In this period, life in the dimension of depth is replaced by life in the horizontal dimension.” Christians, of all people, should know better than to be scared away by absolutes and grand narratives and unifying theories. Our faith is not a vacuum faith. It is an all-encompassing faith: profound yet simple, specific yet universal and above all True—the one and most True—the intersection point of time and culture and all things.

We should take this as marching orders to think three-dimensionally—both big (breadth) and small (depth)—in a world getting flatter by the second.

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