Sunday night I went to bed about 10 pm. Then at 12:20 my alarm went off (I had planned this) and I got up and tuned into a ustream video feed so I got to participate, in some sense, in the landing of NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars. Some of my earliest memories are the televised Apollo moon landings, and I always feel a deep thrill when I see some experimental space achievement that seems impossible but comes off without a hitch.
But I started thinking about this Mars landing, and I pulled out a half finished post from a few weeks ago. This idea doesn't want to leave me alone, so I share the older post, now finished (finally!) with you:
On the drive to work this morning, I came to a conclusion.
We, as a culture, are metaphorically lost in a giant swamp of knowledge. If you've ever been lost in a swamp (and I have) you know that it is an overwhelming experience. The swamp dominates every facet of your existence -- your breathing, your movement, your eyesight, your thoughts, your sense of touch and even taste becomes dominated by the swamp. It is overwhelming precisely because there is no solid place to stand, no clear direction to move.
We are overwhelmed with knowledge. The Higgs Boson has been found, more or less. Caffeine prevents skin cancer, under certain conditions. Saturn's moon, Titan, has underground reservoirs of liquid water. Those are just a few of the tidbits that came across the news feed on my computer in the last couple weeks. There were literally thousands more.
I'm not talking about simple information. The amount of information available to humans has been overwhelming for hundreds of years, but we have dealt with the overload by finding ways to prioritize the information we take in. We discount certain bits of information and pay attention to others. Today, knowledge has grown beyond our capacity to organize or prioritize it, and so information overruns our senses and we are unable to limit the input. Simply put, we know too much, and it has not helped us.
Some of our knowledge is helpful in the short term. We know how to do amazing medical procedures that help individuals survive conditions that a generation ago would have been fatal. So we keep people alive longer. But as far as those lives having meaning and depth, we are lost.
The problem is not actually the amount we know. Rather, the problem is that we have discarded the frameworks that help us organize and prioritize our knowledge. Gradually the flood of new information, new knowledge, has made our old systems and priorities seem antique and outmoded.
A century ago, a farmer spent most of his time focused on farming. He dealt with cows, horses, machinery, crops, weather, and such. At times he might read a newspaper to get a sense of the larger world. He interacted with a few neighbors to keep up on community happenings, and he might even have been involved with the church, school board or local government as a way to interact with his community. There were many, many things he heard or saw that he simply chose to ignore because he didn't have time or energy to pay attention to them. The circle of his influence encompassed his farm and his local community. If he paid attention to world events, it was most often because they directly impacted his own life in some way. (Think, for example, of those who paid attention to news from France in World War One because they knew some of "our boys" who were over there in the trenches.) The circle of his interest was not much bigger than the circle of his influence.
Today, we take in information and knowledge from many, many spheres. Those of you who don't read the news much might be feeling a bit smug here, but you're reading this blog, aren't you? You watch TV shows or listen to the radio or take in information from dozens of sources. The circle of our interest has gotten so much larger than the circle of our influence. We are so out of balance in this way that we begin to feel overwhelmed. Lost. Up to our hips in swamp water, feet stuck in the muck. There's no solid place to stand, no way to move forward.
We need a way to prioritize, a way to distinguish what's important and what's not.
This is one of the primary benefits of faith, and specifically of Christian faith. Our culture operates currently on the assumption that knowledge is good, and so more knowledge must be better. Nobody's talking about how to limit our intake of new knowledge. We have GPS devices that tell us where to go, tablets that connect us to the world of media and information, telephones that can access nearly any tidbit of information at the touch of a fingertip. Our access to information is nearly unlimited.
I am not advocating limiting our knowledge. Rather, we need a framework to help us make sense of it, to prioritize what we know.
NASA's Curiosity rover just landed on Mars in a spectacular feat of technological daring. But what does that mean, if anything, for you and me? Is it important?
Many readers will be familiar with Jesus' story about the soils. A farmer went out to plant his seed, Jesus said, and he scattered seed on four different kinds of soil. One type mentioned by Jesus is the soil that is already inhabited by thorns. Asked later to explain the story, Jesus compared the thorny soil to people who, when they hear God's word, allow it to be choked out by the cares, riches, and pleasures of this life. The seed of God's word -- by far the most important thing to land in these lives -- has no opportunity to mature and bear fruit because it is choked out by other things.
How do you decide what is most important? How do you decide when to drop everything and make time for something? How do you decide what activities must fit into your day no matter what it costs? It's not much different to ask, how do you decide what bits of information are important enough to focus on? Is it that TV show? Maybe the Olympics? Family time? That novel you can't put down? Extra information you have to process in order to get ahead at work?
This is an important question. A framework provides just what the frame of a house provides -- a way to make all that sheetrock and subflooring and linoleum and paint usable. Without the frame, a house is just a pile of construction materials. Without a mental and spiritual framework, all our information is just a big pile of trivia.