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A Pilgrim’s Creed
Recovering meaning in an age of cognitive migration
…the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe.
- G.K. Chesterton
In 1467, soon after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman empire, the Balkan village where my family’s ancestors came from is mentioned in an Ottoman tax register. By the early 1900s, that empire itself had fallen and died, and my grandfather had left the village and was on a steamship headed for America, where he got a factory job in Detroit.
Back then it was a common practice to seek one’s fortune in a distant land, although it was never intended to be permanent. Men went away, worked for a year or two in the Western industrial Machine, and returned with bags of money; back to families, farms, orchards, tobacco fields, yards of chickens and pigs.
Here is a snapshot of daily life in that village circa 1916, about ten years after my grandfather was born.
Life was hard as a mud brick. If the journey to a distant land was a pilgrimage, it was not a spiritual journey but a practical one.
Eventually everyone left the village on that practical pilgrimage, and never came back.
The place is nearly abandoned now, with a smattering of residents who live among the crumbled, ghostly remains of those mud brick dwellings. There is no sign of any Ottoman tax collectors, nor any remnant of the prior East Roman empire, except for an Orthodox church on a hilltop, maintained by donations from overseas. The money is still arriving, mostly in digital bags, but no one is arriving with it.
If nobody is going back, why send the money? Perhaps it is a feeling of loss and a struggle to hold onto a source of meaning.
People left because they wanted a better life, which seemed possible only in the West with its abundant wealth; but by leaving, they had to risk losing a deep-rooted identity that was bound up with the land of their ancestors, their houses of worship, and tightknit community.
It was a bargain of sorts: more wealth in exchange for less meaning.
People with more money may be happier, but people with less money view happiness as tied to a sense of meaning — the belief that their life has purpose, value, and direction. And, remarkably, that connection is consistent across much of the world.
The study authors suggest that people with access to “external” sources of happiness—the things that money can buy—do not have to rely on an internally constructed sense of meaning and purpose to be happy.
The opposite may hold true for people of lower income. The less money we have, the more we might experience practical and emotional strain, which can force us to make sense of our difficulties through meaning, for example in religious faith or through human relationships.
My grandfather was an economic migrant to the West, as were most of the villagers when they began leaving the old country permanently around the 1960s. At the time only about a third of the world’s population lived in cities. Today, that number is approaching 60%, and by 2050 it is expected to reach almost 70%.
As this global economic migration continues, it will be inextricably tied up with the pursuit of money-happiness, and potential declines in traditional meaning.
This decline might not be immediately apparent, as traditional cultures moving into Western society often replant their traditional sources of meaning inside it, like potted plants, where they can thrive for a time. That was the case with my own family and those who left the old country.
We built big new churches, where we met with big extended families, and at home we had big gardens. I remember all of these clearly from my boyhood—sitting on Sunday mornings under the central dome of the church, where Christ Pantocrator looked down on the nave, which was so packed it could have been a rock concert; playing with innumerable cousins and relations after the liturgy, in a massive multi-roomed banquet hall amid high-heeled women and bluish clouds of cigarette smoke and men debating politics over gin and tonic; and our garden, with its peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, onions, watermelons, apple tree, cherry tree, peach tree, and a grapevine for making red wine—a garden so big that we joked it could feed an army, with still enough space to play in the grass or find a spot to bury a dead budgie. Amid all this, I felt wrapped in warm abundance, never alone, and always belonging—and I took it for granted, knowing nothing else.
Big family, big garden, big church: these roughly correspond to Kingsnorth’s trio of people, place, and prayer, which he suggests are the ideal main cores of a society.
In the case of my family, the transplantation of these cores of meaning out of the old country and into civilization was, in retrospect, a middle stage to ease the transition into a mostly Western mode of life.
By the present day—some fifty years later—not many go to church regularly and cousins don’t see each other as much, if at all. Some still garden, and make wine and jar spicy peppers, although they tend to be the older generation.
Meanwhile everyone, even my own octogenarian mother, is on social media.
Which brings us to technology. If money provides us with money-happiness at the expense of meaning, what does technology do?
Packy McCormick, a self-professed techno-optimist, has recently suggested that the purpose of tech is, in fact, to “increase the potential for happiness”. And yet there is a notable caveat. McCormick points out that in the short-term,
technology can make many feel unhappy — the gains from new technologies are unevenly distributed at the beginning, and ever-increasing efficiency creates a meaning vacuum that needs to be filled.
Here we encounter the meaning problem again. As technology increases efficiency—increasing the speed and ease with which we can do things—the result is less effort on our part, less struggle and less suffering, and less meaning.
McCormick ultimately invites us to imagine a future in which the tech industry delivers on all its biggest promises. Reading descriptions like this is a reminder of how blithely utopian the popular imagination can get:
Energy is abundant and “too cheap to meter.” We have flying cars and clean water for everyone and locally-grown, vertically-farmed food...
Biotech has gotten so advanced that disease isn’t really a thing anymore. People commonly live to 200 or 300 years old, and rumor is, the cap is about to be lifted entirely… For many, it already effectively is – anyone can upload their brain’s neural patterns into the cloud and download them into robots…
Of course, in this future world, nobody has to work…People are free to create with their hands or to explore imagined metaverse worlds…
But even McCormick, an optimist, isn’t sure this utopian vision—even if it were possible—will lead to happiness.
I doubt it ever could. When people leave their native lands for the wealth of the cities, they are economic migrants. When people leave their native minds to live through technology, they are cognitive migrants. Departing from our land is one thing, but departing from our minds is more profound, opening a possibly unbridgeable gulf between ourselves and the core meanings of life.
“You cannot serve God and money,” Jesus said two thousand years ago. We might equally say, “You cannot serve God and technology either.”
So what do we do? Can we find a way to use technology without “serving” it? Is it just a matter of getting the right balance between using tech versus preserving meaning in life?
Most of us are probably already struggling to establish that balance, but we face a unique difficulty with technology.
Money is hard to come by, but tech is everywhere and often free—free Wi-Fi, free apps, free trials, free subscriptions. I have never seen a three-year-old toddling around with a million dollars in her hand, but I have seen plenty of kids with smartphones. There are not many African billionaires, but Facebook is ubiquitous on the African continent.
If tech-happiness tends to drain away meaning, then the accelerating intrusion of new technologies into our lives might enlarge the “meaning vacuum” with comparable speed. The tech pilgrims seeking utopia may find themselves, instead, getting sucked into an existential Hoover.
A potential counterforce to such a vacuum is meaning itself, yet a meaning that is stronger than the vacuum. In a previous essay, I suggested that spiritual stories can be one way of acquiring such meaning. Some of us already have a story, and some, motivated by the upheaval in the world, are searching for one. Others will not find theirs until they suffer enough.
Ironically, it may be technology itself that provides the suffering, especially if the trajectory of “tech-happiness” reaches a point when life becomes so disconnected from ordinary reality as to leave us chronically restless, empty, uncertain, or suffering from some other meaning-ailment of the spirit. Some of us already feel that way. It has ignited a mental health epidemic among our youth.
My wife and I started to sense the disconnection years ago, when our own children were still very young and we worried for their future. What did it mean to be human in an increasingly technological world? How could we help them stay on the right path?
Strangely, the topic was rarely discussed in church, much as the church insisted it was teaching us the essential things about our humanity. In the end, our answers were home-baked, kitchen-table solutions, or hatched in discussions on the living room couch, in the night hours when the children were asleep.
Amid our ramblings, some of which were scrawled on paper, was the idea of a creed: a brief, plain-language summary on how to maintain a Machine-resistant mentality.
Below I have recreated the basic points of our own creed. Based on a Christian worldview, it may not work for others with different backgrounds, and it is in no way a comprehensive statement of the ancient faith.
Still, it is an example of how a spiritual story might anchor us to our core meanings in life and situate technology’s proper place in the order of things.
A Pilgrim’s Creed:
1 – I believe there is a God, who is Reality, who is Love, who is One and who is a Relationship, who is free, who feels, who creates, who thinks, who speaks, who made the unseen realm and the physical reality with its primary elements, including earth, animals, plants, water, sun, moon, and stars—and human beings.
2 – I believe human beings were made in God’s own image, to dwell on the earth and have stewardship over the primary creation. Therefore:
3 – I believe that to be human, we must strive to be in relationships of love, the first of which is our relationship with the Creator, the second of which is our relationship with each other. Love is not empathy but can include empathy. Love is not compassion but can include compassion. Love is an action that encourages and supports another person or oneself to be in right relationship with Reality.
4 – I believe in real relationships within marriage, family, and local community, including people who are different from us. I recognize that virtual relationships exist, but their existence does not render real relationships arbitrary or dispensable.
5 – I believe we must stay in close contact with the primary elements of creation. Staying close to the primary creation keeps us within the right order.
6 – I believe that, as God is a primary creator, we are sub-creators who desire, and should, reshape creation for the purposes of play, exploration, and invention. Sub-creation includes art, but it also includes technology.
7 – I believe that when we become too preoccupied with our sub-creations, we risk becoming absorbed in our own power and self-love. Therefore, responsible sub-creation requires vigilance, discernment, and self-denial. Some things should not be created. Some created things should be destroyed.
8 – I believe in cognitive liberty, which is the freedom to concentrate, reason, remember, feel, imagine, perceive, and use language, without manipulation or control by others or technology.
9 – I believe in the liberty of the body, which is the freedom to choose what food, medicine, manufactured chemicals, or technology, is allowed into or onto my body, without compulsion or coercion by others.
10 – I believe in the liberty of hearth and home, without surveillance or control by outside persons or unwanted technology.
No creed is perfect. But as the world transitions from economic migration to cognitive migration, we will each need a map to keep us on the pilgrim trail, away from the perilous cliff edges of unreality.
Do you have a creed or map of reality that situates technology’s proper place in it?