Is there any benefit to the act of just thinking? And how do we reclaim our freedom from Big Tech and tech gadgets in this digital age? I had the privilege of discussing these issues and more with author, radio host, and cultural commentator Eric Metaxas. On an episode of his popular daily radio show and podcast, Eric and I discussed my recent article in the New York Post highlighting the mental benefits to be gained by thinking without distraction.
Watch the full interview or continue below to read some of the highlights of our discussion!
Addicted to Distraction
ERIC: We live in a culture that is addicted to distraction, addicted now to these screens, to these phones where the universe is at our fingertips. And most of us would think, “Oh, that’s a great thing.” And in some ways it is, but in some ways it seems to me it’s a terrible thing…”
ANDREW: When you do bring the whole world into your pocket, that’s a real temptation. That’s a blessing in some ways, but it can also be a curse if we are not a tech boss…We don’t really know what we’re missing anymore. We’re living very reflexively as opposed to reflectively, where it’s knee-jerk reactions, there’s not much conscious thought going on. And we do need to reign it in and be more in touch with that inner life again.
ANDREW: As you know, James Allen’s 1913 book As a Man Thinketh, he says, “Man is literally what he thinks. His character is the complete sum of all his thoughts.” So who are we today? Who are we amongst all our gadgets? We’re so much closer to the world’s information and all the people that we could have access to, but who are we? And as you’re fond of reminding people, Socrates saays, “The life unexamined is hardly worth living.”
ERIC: Well, you’re getting to the issue of course of the difference, and this is at the heart of the problem with the so-called Enlightenment Project going back several centuries now, is that we cannot confuse knowledge or information with wisdom. We cannot confuse intelligence with wisdom. You can be tremendously intelligent, you can be tremendously knowledgeable, you can be tremendously educated, and a fool. And this is a distinction that is rarely made…And so it does seem to me that we’re training ourselves to be shallow and actually foolish or to be stupid, not to think more deeply. And your article unfortunately seems to prove what I’ve been fearing.
How to Turn Inward
ERIC: It seems to me that at some point common sense people would say, “You know what? I need to fast from this addictive thing. I need to find a way in my life to carve out pure time where I’m not distracted or tempted to be distracted.” …So I guess practically, what are some ways we can begin dealing with this problem?
ANDREW: We really do need a Sabbath…If you don’t have a Sabbath, what are you going to do? You’re just going day to day, moving into the next one. And you can really feel it mentally and physically and spiritually when you’re doing that. It’s just getting up every day and doing what you’re doing, and there really is no let up. There’s no coming away from these gadgets that connect us to all this information.
ANDREW: If you don’t take a whole day, if that’s not your cup of tea, you can at least start building in sessions of thinking. Times when you put your phone aside, not even in your pocket, but just in the next room, in a bag somewhere, turn it off; just get that away from you so you can start to turn inward.
ANDREW: I recommend to people quite a few things actually: take back the first and last hour of your day. Those hours belong to you and to your maker, and so don’t turn it on right away. And believe it or not, that’s a hard thing to do, not touch your phone for the first hour of the day. And I also recommend it for the last hour. Those are precious moments that you can do some thinking, do some reflecting, do some thinking about your near and far future and just turn inwards so that you can outward experience a better life.
Affirming Our Freedom in the Technological Society
ERIC: You mentioned the theologian philosopher Jacques Ellul. Some people are familiar with Ellul. What does he have to say on this subject?
ANDREW: Well, Eric, what a gift it was to discover Ellul’s work. He was a French sociologist, theologian, and philosopher of technology before that was even cool. He was writing in the mid-20th century on a philosophy called Technique, and I’ll go into that in a second, but let me share some of his quotes. He wrote whole books on how he saw the technological society shaping humanity. And then he wrote books on the answer. He saw Christians in particular as standing uniquely at the intersection of this material world and the eternal world. So he saw Christians not sitting on the sidelines in this debate over technology, but coming right in and saying, “Look, we can understand the material world and the eternal world.” And he thought of our unique ability as Christ followers to affirm our freedom in the technological society and help others to do the same.
ANDREW: Ellul said, “The denizen of the technological state of the future will have everything his heart ever desired, except, of course, his freedom.” And he also said that “When we become conscious of that which determines our life, we attain the highest degree of freedom.” So you can imagine, as I read his 1954 book The Technological Society, I was eating this stuff up because he talks about a concept called Technique, which in centuries past has been nothing special. It’s just the way that artisans and workers hone their crafts and their tools to do their work. But, Eric, when technique became modern and it became more associated with instruments rather than the user of the instrument, and more associated with efficiency rather than beauty and aesthetics and purpose, it started to change humanity, particularly when large technology companies are controlling this technique.
ERIC: No one could have envisioned that we would ever give so much power to so few over us. No one could have envisioned it. And of course, you don’t do it consciously. You’d make small compromises, small decisions, “Oh, that’s more convenient. Yes, that’s more convenient. Yes, that’s more convenient. Yes, that’s easier.” And over time, as you’re saying, and as we’ve been seeing particularly recently, it’s a kind of waking nightmare when you realize that you have given over parts of your soul and parts of your will, your volition. It’s gone. And you are now being, whether you know it or don’t, controlled. It’s an extraordinary moment in human history that we now have the ability to be controlled…In other words, before we had a globalist society, before the internet, before these kinds of technologies, these things were simply impossible. But today they’ve become possible.
The Master Storyteller
ERIC: I wasn’t expecting to do this, but in a funny way, when you think of God as a storyteller, and you think of the idea of who we are as made in God’s image, the idea of telling stories and narratives and so on and so forth, is antithetical to the digital idea of information, information, information.
ERIC: If there is no God, we’re just atomized bits of information and there’s no meaning. There’s no grand narrative. That’s the enlightenment project, that’s the hyper-rationalistic, scientistic, materialistic project that says there’s no God, and therefore we can almost become Gods ourselves. And then there’s this other idea which you get when you talk about storytelling and what it means to be a person thinking and having wisdom. And it’s interesting to me that that’s one of the reasons Randall Wallace is a great storyteller. He taps into that idea. He understands that idea, as you obviously do.
ANDREW: That’s a wonderful point, Eric. You’re right. I mean, digital technology by default is a download, right? It’s everything at once. And really, you look at Elon Musk and the efforts to be able to download and connect to our brain, who needs the story to be told to us when we can have all aspects of it all at once? That’s a great point. With storytelling, you, as the storyteller are in charge of when you release details, and you’re telling things one thing at a time. You don’t give every detail to the person that’s listening to your story all at once. You hold back, there’s a beauty to that. There’s an art to that, and you reveal things in time. And that is a classic hallmark of God Almighty. He reveals things in time. All things become beautiful in his time. And so you’re right, it’s very antithetical to today’s modern technological idea where we can get it all, right? Google is getting it all at once. Give us a million results, and we have it all in our pocket. Well, that really isn’t how we’re designed, and it’s not really how God operates.
Freedom Is a Choice
ERIC: So Andrew, we’re talking about your podcast, Simply Scottish. We’re talking about technology, Robert the Bruce. It’s kind of funny, Braveheart is one of those films that it has become a classic. It’s an amazing thing how people reference it, and Mel Gibson’s performance in that is just famous now. Absolutely famous.
ANDREW: This is not just the story of some dude that went into war and did his thing. This is how he espoused freedom, even when his country didn’t have freedom. He got to live that spirit of freedom in the woman he loved, in the king that he inspired, Robert the Bruce. In his friends. Even, as Randall Wallace points out in my interview with him, even the crowd that comes to watch his execution is inspired and wowed by how William handles himself at the very end of his life.
ANDREW: This is someone who gave his life for Scotland, but also for the greater ideal of freedom. And Eric, as you know, freedom is just a wonderful theme to think about in the digital age. And it gets us back to Jacques Ellul, the philosopher of technology. He thought that we as Christians and even non-Christians can affirm our freedom, but we have to take over. We have to say thanks, but no thanks, to Big Tech. We have to say, “I’ll take some of your services, but I’m in charge here, okay? I’m the one that’s going to set the limits. I’m the one that’s going to hit the power button and turn it off at the right time, and I’m going to affirm my freedom in this technological age.”
ERIC: Well, it’s interesting because when you put it that way, it strikes me that freedom is at the very heart of what it is to be human. There’s no escaping it. That if you are a human being, whether you like it or not, whether you act on it or not, you have a choice either to be free, to be fully human, to live courageously, to live with faith, or not, and the temptations not to do those things are infinite, everywhere, in every generation in different ways. And we are of course, facing it in a new way today with technology, and with other things that have encroached upon us. But at the heart of it all is this idea of freedom.
ERIC: Andrew McDiarmid, I’m just so glad for at least this initial opportunity to speak with you. Folks, check out Simply Scottish the podcast, check out Discovery Institute, check out Andrew McDiarmid, and Andrew, thank you so much.
ANDREW: Eric, it has been a pleasure! Thank you.
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