I’m an information fiend. I keep news radio on constantly. (Not the kind of endless opinionated pontificating that we call ’talk radio’, though. That stuff drives me crazy.) I like information about quantum physics and I like information about politics and I like information about wars and I like information about art. I like information about history and human nature and psychology and music and engineering and finance and economics and philosophy and law and biology and theology. I eat this stuff up. I feel like the books on my shelf almost audibly hum with promise because they have the potential to teach me new things.
For people who love information, this is a good time to be alive. One estimate says there are something like 14 billion pages on the internet. That’s a lot of information. And this study says that you can get from any one of those 14 billion pages to any other of the 13,999,999,999 pages in 19 clicks or less. THAT is some serious information access.
Sometimes people or companies act like information differentiates them. I remember seeing an ad for some company that allows you to be a do-it-yourself stock trader at home, and it showed a guy in his home office with two computer monitors, the displays packed with charts and graphs and tickers. The gist of the ad was that this company could provide you with a LOT of information and therefore make you a better stock trader. All of that information is what makes that company’s product valuable. Supposedly.
But I don’t know if information sets anyone apart in a world where so many people have access to so much information.
Sitting right here at my computer, I can get an image of the front of your house. Or a satellite image of your backyard. I can probably find out how much you paid for said house. Anyone can.
Thanks to platforms like Facebook and Twitter, we can bypass mainstream media reporting and read firsthand accounts of real, lived experiences in third world countries and war zones, even after the journalists have pulled out because things got too dangerous there.
We can access numerous translations of every major religion’s sacred text(s). We can hear directly from those religions’ greatest scholars through podcasts and youtube videos.
And all of this digital information is in addition to the information of our every day lives. We experience so much in a day or a week or a year. Those experiences become a kind of information in our past, points of data in the emerging picture of our lives.
If scarcity drives value, and information is so abundant, then I’m not sure how valuable it is. However, this abundance of information begs other questions that create value, like what do we do with it? How do we interpret it? How do we integrate it? And the more information we have, the more urgent those questions become.
This is why every so often some terribly intelligent, exceedingly diligent scholar will come out with a meta-level-grand-unification-theory-of-everything sort of book that sells millions of copies. They will begin with a narrative about the recently discovered mating habits of round-eared tube-nosed fruit bats in West Papua, Indonesia and illuminate for all of us how said habits are analogous to market trends in post-recession economies. This pattern they've illuminated will then be shown to have shaped great military conquests in no less than 3 different millennia. But that will just be the warm up. Because for this kind of story to sell, it really has to be a story about us. And so the next punch comes when we are shown how our families operate just like said bats, economies, and conquests. And our minds are totally. blown. It’s as if they’re reassuring us that the stuff we read on Wikipedia and the stuff we read in the newspaper and the stuff we encounter in our homes can all be connected in some meaningful way. This gives us a sense of peace. It’s not that they gave us new information; it’s that they relieved us of the anxiety that stems from all this information that we don’t know how to sort by demonstrating that it just might all fit together somehow. (For the record, I love these kinds of books. They’re like the blockbuster disaster movies that come out every summer; they almost always overreach, but you have to admire their ambition. And even if they don’t get everything right, they give you a lot to think about. As entertainment goes, that’s some good stuff.)
Information is rarely inconsequential. When some information comes along that we can’t integrate or interpret, that can be difficult for us. We may slowly become the kind of people who just disregard new data. (I wonder if this is one of the drivers of religious fundamentalism. It rescues us from cognitive dissonance by deconstructing or disregarding any data that we can’t reconcile with our current view.) Or we may be tempted to ditch our narrative because it can’t integrate the new information. This may, of course, be a totally justified, wise idea. If the data really doesn’t lead to our conclusions, it may be time to arrive at new conclusions.
What’s really valuable, then, is any system or perspective or product or person that helps us interpret and integrate all this information. And in case my cards weren’t clearly on the table yet, I think Jesus is the person for the job.
I have a mentor and friend who is older and smarter and wiser and more educated and who has been following Jesus for longer than me, and I like learning from him. Often he brings me new information. But just as often, he helps me think about what to do with the information I’ve already received. How to interpret it. How to connect it. He doesn’t often give me the answer, but he thinks with me. He asks questions of me. He reminds me of Jesus.
New information will come in the form of a book or a lecture or a story on the radio or something in the news. Or it will come in the form of something that has happened in my church or in my family or in my life. And we will talk about how it might make sense within the story that Jesus is telling. This has been a meaningful experience for me as I try to grapple with all this information.
Of course other religions and other sacred texts would claim that that’s exactly what they’re doing, too. And I’m not unappreciative of those claims. I think Buddhism grapples meaningfully with the information we receive each day about suffering and the stakes involved in human desire. I think Islam has a robust way of incorporating all the wayward threads of a life into submission before an all powerful God. Various new age religions grapple thoughtfully with the meaning of spiritual experience.
But this far in life, it seems to me that Jesus offers a uniquely meaningful way of integrating the information that floats around the world like so many particles of atmosphere. I see in Jesus the promise that all of the beauty in the world has a reason, both a cause that explains it and an end that it serves. I see in Jesus the seriousness of evil and sin, and I see in Jesus a God who identifies with those who suffer injustice. In the story that Jesus tells, a hard day's work and a prayer whispered in a liturgy and a meal given to a neighbor are all dense and heavy with the potential for sacred power. In Jesus’s story, we are made in the image of the God who came to us in His flesh, and only a story about persons made with the depth and dignity of God’s own image can hold that potential for sacred power alongside the potential for the aching emptiness or hurt that sometimes characterizes our lives. And I see in Jesus the promise that this whole world, with its beauty and its sadness, its promise and its failings, is headed somewhere enduringly, unfailingly good.
I’ve referenced a line from Colossians before here on the blog, but it’s a line that haunts me and fills me with hope, and it says succinctly what I’ve been rambling about for paragraphs now. Paul writes of Christ and says: in Him all things hold together.
Each new datum that comes along is a new test for this faith. And if Paul is right about Christ, each is also a new exploration of some dimension of Christ, perhaps a dimension that we haven’t encountered yet. Sure, there’s a lot of misinformation out there, too, and sorting that out is probably a topic for another post. But if this is the information age, then it’s not only a great time to be an information fiend; it’s a terribly exciting time to grow in friendship with the One in whom all that information holds together.