I have just been pointed to a couple of articles that merit examination: Pervasive Conformity and Its Influence on Earth Culture and Exit from the Matrix. I mention these ideas without going into the “prepper” culture (people making an unhealthy hobby of collecting materials believed to be useful or necessary for surviving little short of the end of the world), which is another issue and can itself become a “mechanical” mode that challenges our humanity.
I don’t think that any of us can claim to be completely independent from any man-made system or the culture to which we belong. We have all been in families, schools and other institutions where we had to obey rules and follow a code of conduct. At school or in the armed forces, we would wear a uniform. As a priest, my official dress is the cassock or a clerical suit (or another combination with black trousers and a shirt with a clerical collar). Any kind of life with other people, however informal, imposes a limit on our individual freedom. Indeed, the greatest freedom is found in relationship and love, which constitutes true personhood. There is a degree of conformity in that relationship.
On the other hand, we do need to reflect on another kind of conformity, one which makes human beings prisoners of a system or mechanism. We can see the point of Jesus in regard to the Pharisees. The spirit gives life and the letter kills. A living tradition is life and love, and dead tradition enslaves. We live in a world in which Christian tradition means very little, but other forms of dead convention take over. How does dead letter kill? Obviously, it does not do so physically but it takes away our personality and difference between persons.
The combat of the Romantics, including those who lived in the eighteenth century like William Blake, was against the machine, not against useful technology but against dehumanisation and the death of the imagination. This notion has marked me deeply. I use machines and technology as much as any other, but I consciously declare my independence as a human being. The machine is a tool, not a substitute for us.
Humans acting like machines is a characteristic of totalitarianism. The armed forces have drills and marching in lockstep. Even monks in a monastery make a big point on precise timekeeping for the Offices and other community functions. In this latter case, I would hope that the obedience is given with love and as human beings with personality and imagination. “Political correctness”, once a notion confined to Orwell’s dystopian novel, is now a kind of invisible machine. You obey it for your own self-preservation and for fear of getting into trouble with the law. I have never served in the armed forces, but I have spoken with people who have, and who have killed in the line of duty. The training is designed to kill our usual conscious and unconscious reflexes. You learn to become a machine that obeys orders and kills on command. That is a soldier’s job. The police are finding that they have to adopt the same methods.
We are living in days of hyper-rationalism and the same conditions by analogy as at the time of the French Revolution. Can we escape the machine? Not completely, but we can resist in many ways.
The first way is to take to heart the saying that the Sabbath is made for man, not the other way round. Machines are tools to help us to work. They obey our commands because they are inanimate objects. They shut down when we switch them off and they have no minds of their own, not even the sophisticated machines with “artificial intelligence”. They exist to serve us because we made them.
We have an imagination, and we need to stimulate it especially through creative writing, art and music. We must not let the internet get us out of the habit of reading books.
We should avoid doing things automatically as much as possible. That’s easier said than done, because we humans are creatures of habit and routine. It is good to take a step back and take a critical attitude. Are all habits and routines the right thing?
In our religious life, we should try to connect with the mystical and spiritual tradition. Getting out into the natural world is a great help, in a boat at sea or on top of a high mountain for example, and we can more easily find the solitude we need for prayer and meditation.
In our beliefs about the world, we should try to understand new scientific theories and discoveries – and relativise the old materialism and “realistic” metaphysics. We need to see that our experience is only a very narrow “band width” of what exists. Such ideas can bring us awe and wonder.
It is in this optic that I seek to conciliate Christianity with some of the old Gnostic ideas of consciousness and immanent divinity, the “kingdom” within.
We may have to live in an extremely hostile world, and we are ordinary people, not heroes. Some things may help our resilience and inner strength as humans and vessels of divinity. In many ways, we are forced to conform outwardly – but yet be free within. The time to begin learning is now while we are still physically free.