One of the features of many private messaging apps (i.e., Facebook Messenger) that inspires my unending loathing is the “seen” notification that shows up in the chat box when you have read someone’s message. Or the “message read” indicator that shows up in Messages for iPhone. These little intrusions of forced dialogic transparency are irritants of a very high order indeed.
Why do I so despise this irksome feature of modern communication? Well, like many, I suspect, I don’t want people to know when I have read their message. I don’t want the expectation of an immediate response. I don’t want people to know how compulsively I check my messages or to leave the impression that I am constantly available. I don’t want to have this nagging thought bouncing around my brain for the next half hour: Well, they know you’ve read their message… They’re probably wondering why you haven’t said anything yet… They’re probably thinking you’re ignoring them… They’re probably thinking you don’t care or can’t be bothered to respond… Hurry up, respond, already! Get it over with! Hurry!!
Now, you might be thinking something along the following lines: Who cares if people know that you’ve seen their messages? Just respond when you want. Why import a sense of obligation from people who might not even expect an immediate response? And why cater to it if they do? To which I would respond with: Um, well, yeah. That sound like a very adult approach to communication… But, um… And then I would probably run out of ideas.
But the bottom line is that I want my reading of and responses to messages to be on my terms. I don’t like the idea of being summoned to respond, even if said summoning is largely a product of my own neuroses, assumptions, and insecurities.
Speaking of being summoned…
Earlier this week, I attended a theological workshop put on by our provincial denominational body. The guest speaker just happened to be my brother and the subject was transformation. We talked about how human beings develop and grow. We talked about gradual, incremental change and radical Damascus-road type change. We talked about models of transformation that ranged from the organic to the radically disruptive. We talked about change as the inevitable by-product of human growth and change as the consciously chosen response to our uniquely human existential predicament.
Eventually, we were introduced to a little-known and probably under-appreciated theologian named James Loder whose most well-known work, The Transforming Moment, articulates a uniquely Christian theory of human development and transformation. For Loder, the core the pattern of how human beings become is that of the dying and rising of Christ. A cross and an empty tomb stands over all transformation. This is the pattern—life emerging from death—that has been the structure of God’s engagement with the world from its very foundations. Everything from new growth emerging after a forest fire to increased compassion and honesty emerging out of a broken relationship to forgiveness coming out of a bitter fight with a loved one to salvation emerging out of a recognition that we are helpless in the face of our greatest threat and in desperate need of God.
Cross and empty tomb. Death and new life. All the way down.
Every human being, according to Loder, must reckon with what he calls “the void.” The void can be a cataclysmic existential encounter with the possibility of nothingness, but far more often it is simply “any experience of loss, pain, grief, or any other element of human experience that confronts us with our limits.” Any encounter with the void forces us a question upon us. Will we participate in the grain of the universe and allow our “deaths” to lead to new expressions of life? Or will we be defeated? How will we be (trans)formed? How will be respond?
It’s an intriguing idea, to think of cross and resurrection being the pattern of how all life grows, right down to the cellular level. But whatever we might make of Loder’s overall approach to human transformation, it seems to me that Loder’s theological vision is giving expression to the simple truth that to be a human being is to be addressed. And to be summoned to a response.
We are called to from the other side. We live in a world that points beyond itself at every turn and which simultaneously frustrates our deepest desires for love and justice, for beauty and connection, for permanence and a stable hope. The world is itself a summons from its maker. It is a conversation where we don’t dictate the terms, no matter how much we might wish this were so.
We can try to ignore the message, but only for a while. Eventually the void becomes impossible to ignore. A death. A fracture. A crisis. A wound too deep to heal. An experience of love or beauty that comes inevitably tinged with transience. An indescribable gift of mercy that we wish were not necessary. A haunting sense, however inchoate, that we were made for more than the finite and fragmentary options available to us. An unshakeable conviction that despite the insistence and persistence of death that touches everything we see, we were born for life.
Gradually these experiences and impressions accumulate, the voice gets louder and more insistent, and a response seems not only urgent but vitally necessary. As if our very lives, our very selves depended upon it.
The message has been sent. And seen. The move is ours.