In this new joint column, the four writers will take turns writing the primary column, with the other three offering replies.
God on the line
By Ryan Dueck
I recently became the owner of an orange rotary telephone. This artifact came to me via a Christmas gift exchange for which guests were instructed to repurpose something from their homes.
People chuckled as I unwrapped it. I placed my finger in the clear hole and tested the rotor, admiring the tight plastic curls of the cord.
The next day, I faced a conundrum. What does one actually do with a rotary phone in this age? In the end, I put it in the upstairs guest room. Perhaps it would contribute to a vaguely cool antique aesthetic. I even plugged it in, thinking that it might be interesting to hear that clanging ringtone occasionally.
As I was about to leave the house later that day, a strange sound rang down the stairwell.
I smiled, nostalgia kicking into high gear. But this was interrupted by the cold realism of our times. It would almost certainly be a telemarketer. Who else would call a landline? Should I answer? I paused at the bottom of the stairs, then bounded up, picked the receiver off the cradle and stretched the cord up to my ear.
“Hello?” I said, optimistically.
Then, a robotic voice told me my banking information had been compromised and immediate action was required.
A bit anticlimactic, right? It wasn’t a long-lost friend or some heroic resister of mobile phones.
What made me run up the stairs like an expectant fool? Was this the analog equivalent of panting after the endless notifications that pop up on our smartphones?
We hear a ping, and even though we know it’s quite likely something trivial or stupid, we can’t resist checking.
But I think it goes beyond this. I think each one of us has a hunger to be addressed. Personally.
Our phones ping, and while we know it’s probably some algorithmically generated piece of disposable communication designed to harness our attention for profit, there’s a chance that it might be someone reaching out to us, personally, for connection. And it’s this chance, however minuscule, that keeps us checking.
I’ve been listening to a podcast called “The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God.” It focuses on how “The New Atheism” kind of fizzled out and how a surprising number of atheists or agnostics or public intellectuals are reconsidering the value of religion or faith or God. An underlying, recurring question is whether one can have “fruits without roots.”
Many people are seeing that the cultural legacy of Christianity is something worth cherishing and preserving, even as it rapidly fades. They would prefer that it not disappear but still can’t quite bring themselves to believe in God. They see an ugly and merciless culture emerging and feel increasingly wistful about the values and institutions produced, however imperfectly, by the Christian West: human rights, tolerance, liberalism, freedom of conscience and speech, the possibility of forgiveness.
But God? They’re not so sure. They’ll take the fruits, but not the roots.
And yet, I’m not sure you can subtract God from the equation and imagine that the culture, the values and the ethic will carry on. It would be somewhat analogous to appreciating the aesthetic and the reminiscence of my orange rotary telephone but ruling out the possibility that you could be personally addressed through it.
For me, the critical question is as simple as it is profound. It is addressed to atheists, agnostics, believers and everyone whose story winds through those categories. It is addressed to the faithless and the faithful. It is addressed to those who are seeking and those who are stagnating, those beginning to doubt their doubts and those whose faith is frayed at the edges. It is a question that perhaps rings differently at different points in our lives, in response to different pressures, different sorrows, different elations, different anxieties.
The question is this: Is someone trying to get through to us? Are we, against all odds, being personally addressed?
Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Cindy Wallace
The French philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943) famously wrote in her notebooks that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” As I read Ryan’s musings on our longing to be addressed, I can’t help thinking of Weil’s claim that the kind of attention that truly sees and listens is one of our deepest needs.
Weil asserts that, rather than acting directly, God usually deputizes us to address each other in this way. She also argues that when people have been harmed by religion, atheism may be the most holy stance. If such people live with true integrity, God is still implicitly present in and with them. Is this fruit without roots? I’m not sure.
But Weil also turned to Christianity because she felt unexpectedly overtaken with the love of Christ in several mystical encounters. She experienced God’s personal address. Like Hagar in Genesis 16, she understood God as El Roi, “the God who sees me.”
Weil reminds me that there are good reasons to doubt—hypocrisies and harms and sufferings abound—and still, these stories of God’s loving voice on the line keep cropping up in the least expected places. I’m left pondering both truths in my heart.
—Cindy Wallace, professor of English at St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan.
By Justin Sun
Some of my earliest memories include a rotary phone. It sat in the basement of my cousin’s house, where I spent endless hours as a kid. I remember being enamoured with how it contrasted with any phone I knew (that is, my parents’ Nokias). I also remember wondering how anything could come through such a relic. Didn’t phones need screens? How could you tell who was calling? Why was this still around?
To push the metaphor, I wonder what the evolution of the phone might tell us about the need for evolution in our faith. Phones have changed drastically, not only enabling new ways to connect but also playing a major role in defining that connection. Imagine telling someone a century ago phones would one day enable people to see the other side of the world in real time—wild, right?
In this spirit, how might Christians approach these important questions—“Is someone reaching out? Are we being addressed?”—in new ways that further the good things the Christian West has done while also dismantling its many destructive legacies.
In other words, what new forms are necessary? Sometimes, you just need a new phone; sometimes, you need to plant something new.
—Justin Sun, youth pastor at Peace Mennonite Church, Richmond, B.C.
By Anika Reynar
I want to believe in a God who loves and addresses people in their intimate particularities and who draws people together into a deep sense of connection and belonging. I also struggle to recognize this image of God in the cultural legacy of Christianity.
There are many cultural legacies of Christianity, to be sure. But the fruit produced by the Christian West often feels to me like it lacks nutrition. This fruit promises freedom realized through self-sufficiency, defined by the ability to choose and control one’s own life. This freedom creates the conditions for the flourishing of some at the expense of many others.
I wonder if buying into this promise of freedom contributes to the hunger to be addressed that Ryan helpfully names. We may be promised freedom, but in the pursuit of self-sufficiency, we may end up just feeling alone.
In spaces of loneliness, I find it more helpful to pay attention to who is already around me, rather than waiting for a call. I’m drawn to the image of roots, and the microbial networks of nutrient exchange within the soil that nourish the possibility of good fruit. These networks remind me of the broader communities to which I belong. We are always being drawn into relationship, but it’s up to us to pay attention. Might attention to these connections be God’s invitation and address?
—Anika Reynar, student of religion and environmental management at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut