Faithful Presence Amid "Continuous Partial Attention"

At this very moment, you’re multi-tasking:

  1. you’re likely at work, home, or at a “third space”;
  2. have multiple windows open on your screen;
  3. are listening to music;
  4. are reading another blog post;
  5. are talking to/thinking about someone;
  6. reading or writing an e-mail;
  7. are blinking;
  8. have a pulse.

Okay, scratch the last two. (And lest you surmise I suffer from the “I’m okay, you’re not okay” malady, ironically I’m multi-tasking even as I compose this blog post.)

So let’s pause now—really, right now—stop all multi-tasking: turn off your cell phone, don’t check e-mail, take a break from anything media related, and slowly work your way through this quotation from James Davison Hunter:

The very nature of modern life is its fragmentation and segmentation into multiple constellations of experience, knowledge, and relationships with each constellation grounded in a specific social and institutional realm of a person’s life. Under such conditions, we experience a fragmentation of consciousness—what someone has recently called, “continous partial attention.” This fragmentation is often reinforced by a world of hyperkinetic activity marked by unrelenting interruption and distraction. On the one hand, such conditions foster a technical mastery that prizes speed and agility, and facility with multiple tasks—for example, using e-mail, I-M, the cell phone, the iPod, all the while eating lunch, holding a conversation, or listening to a lecture. But on the other hand, these very same conditions undermine our capacity for silence, depth of thinking, and focused attention. In other words, the context of contemporary life, by its very nature, cultivates a kind of absence in the experience of “being elsewhere.” Faithful presence resists such conditions and the frame of mind it cultivates. (To Change the World, 252)

So what’s the corrective to this “fragmentation of consciousness?” Become lifelong card-carrying Luddite members to the Neil Postman Fan Club? Do we even need a corrective? Just how will we cultivate a theology (and lifestyle) of a distinctively Christian “faithful presence?”

Think about it and give it prayerful consideration, and stay tuned for Hunter’s answer.

Michael Johnson is a Resource Consultant at Desiring God.