Compressing Spiritual Growth in the Age of Acceleration

Last week I spoke at Texas A&M on smartphone use and abuse. After the event, a young man approached me with a personal concern. Digital media was getting in the way of his schoolwork and responsibilities on campus.

This student’s situation is common, but he wasn’t distracted by Instagram and Snapchat or Fortnite — he was distracted by the many sermons and Christian podcasts he was trying to ingest all week. He’s a well-intentioned young man, and he’s not alone.

I applauded his taste for edifying content. Surely he could harbor a craving for worse things! And then I reminded him that his struggle predates podcasts. More than a century ago, this same impulse led people to church-hop and celebrity-chase the most popular preachers in London. The Puritans tried to tamp down this trend, as did Spurgeon, but the spirit of the hunt lives on in the digital age. Without prayer and meditation, feeding on daily sermons would do little good, said Spurgeon. The spiritual life has an implicit pace of progress, measured not by the speed of exposure but by the speed of internal processing.

In our brief interaction, I reminded this young man that when God wants to warp-speed our sanctification, he has a plethora of tools at his disposal to do so — mostly in the form of personal suffering.

The opinion of this young man, and of our age, is that super-spirituality is most attainable by those who ingest the highest quantity of edifying media. But this impulse, which can drive us toward a mountain of good and helpful content, is also fueled by one of the great dynamics of our age, detailed in German sociologist Hartmut Rosa’s book, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity (2015).

Rosa’s basic argument is that our western experience is a forever-accelerating economic system, reinforced politically and socially. Said another way, acceleration is the desire we feel to collapse life into a series of discrete moments and experiences — email to email, tweet to tweet, text to text, snap to snap, meeting to meeting, image to image, and video clip to video clip. All of life, even real experiences with hard edges, are rendered into moments or incidents. Like LEGO pieces, the moments of our lives are made into discrete bricks, stacked end to end, in order to be compressed into a smaller time-cost.

As we pack more of these moments into our lives, and as we increase the number of experiences per minute, we feel like time is speeding up. We feel as if our lives move at warp-speed, while the clock ticks away at its same old pace.

Acceleration is a much larger story, where the mutually reinforcing changes of media and technology and economics and politics and society and the workplace all converge. But the bottom line is that this promise of ever-compressible experiences tempts us to pack ten lives into one lifetime. In our age, we think that success is the hoarding of digital spectacles, work achievements, and personal experiences before we succumb to the darkness of mortality.

Inside a society of acceleration, says Rosa, we put greater and greater hopes in technologies, like our smartphones, to give us more productivity, more experiences, and also more free time.

Does it all work?

No. Most of us feel like we have less marginal time. In response, we accelerate even faster, we compress moments even tighter, all in search of more margin. But the hunt is elusive. Instead of an abundance of free time, we’re met with a growing sense of burnout.

This is because the smartphone takes more time than it saves. As life seems to speed up, we keep returning to our technologies in order to find productivity and more free time. And as we turn to those technologies, they cost us more time than we save, because those technologies introduce us to new products and ideas and experiences in the world that we didn’t know existed previously.

In other words, let’s say you have a bucket list of ten things to see and experience before your life ends. Then you go out and get a smartphone with Instagram, and your bucket quickly grows from 10 things to 100 things (and likely before you’ve had a chance to cross off one thing on your list). For every single experience you’re offered 100 other equally alluring (or better) experiences.

Inside the acceleration society, how do we approach this expanding bucket list?

We continue to compress each experience into smaller and smaller available time slots. We try to speed everything up through new technologies. We get more apps. We listen to podcasts faster. We move everything faster. We keep spinning the self-reinforcing cycle of hastening.

Rosa says that the whole system continues moving faster and faster until that acceleration is met by one of two things that help reset life — nervous breakdowns or economic recessions. Those resets return balance to life and society. But as these de-celerants are thwarted and postponed through economic and medical intervention, as we “advance,” natural breaks are bypassed and the whole system accelerates ever faster with unlimited gas and no brakes. Rosa says the whole thing eventually flies apart.

I’m more hopeful of our future. But this social dynamic is something of what drives us onward in the quest for more media. We listen to sermons at 2x speed. We no longer read horizontally, we read vertically. We scan articles. We scan everything. Nothing grabs our sustained attention, because the promises of acceleration keep us jumping from hyperlink to hyperlink with the hyper-speed the name implies.

We think that like everything else in our lives, we can attain hyper-sanctification. And within our acceleration society and the wealth of our digital tools, we get easily tempted towards a holy-looking fear of missing out (FOMO). But it’s still a FOMO, and FOMO always carries with it the stench of spent jet fuel of promise inside the acceleration society.

In reality, God’s work in us smells more like rich manure, and moves at the pace of sowing and reaping. Sanctification is the slow and steady horticultural hope for a distant payoff, never measured in terms of the most immediate apparent wins, only recognized in its eventual harvest, the fruit of long patience (Gal. 6:6–10).

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