A week ago Abbie and I had a chance to go out on a supper date and as we settled in and looked through the menu we were faced with something that is one of the defining characteristics of the age we live in. It was a similar situation a couple days later, this past Monday, when we decided we were going to paint our kitchen and were talking about the color we’d like to use. Pretty much the same experience I had later in the week spending some time at Amazon.com and following links to different authors and titles that looked interesting, reading through some of the book descriptions and reviews. Same thing going to the library to get a movie. And shopping for groceries. And considering what we might do as a family for the July 4th weekend this summer.
One of the defining characteristics of the age we live in – something that we live with everyday, is multiplicity – a great variety of options always in front of us, and the constant task of choosing from those options.
On the menu at Wild Ginger we could choose from a long list of appetizers, then have one of 40 or 50 main dishes that were available, each one able to be ordered with pork, beef, chicken, duck, shrimp, or tofu; with spice level 1-10 and several different kinds of rice, or noodles, as a base. This kind of variety, wonderful variety, is the norm at restaurants.
Knowing for some time that we were wanting to paint the kitchen, Abbie and I had kept our eyes open for different colors that may work well. At Lowe’s and Home Depot there are large racks filled with sample cards of every paint color imaginable that one can take home and decide exactly which one goes best with room and décor. We had tried doing this a while back but didn’t get very far. This week our decision process was greatly simplified when we thought we would go to Ace Hardware and see what colors of half price mistints they had available. There was just one that was in the blue/gray/slate category we were looking for and it turned out to be a good fit.
The diversity of consumer options that we have are only one aspect of the multiplicity that we live with. At another level there are also an incredible amount of ways to spend our time and energy. On any given evening one may be needing to decide, Do I put in more time at the office to get up to speed on that project that’s coming due next week? Do my partner and I go to that play we’ve been wanting to see and is only running for another couple days? Do I attend this community event that addresses an issue about which I feel strongly? Do I visit my neighbor in the hospital? or Do I go home and be with family?
Should I serve on this committee? Should I volunteer with this organization? Should I nurture this relationship more?
Do I read this magazine or that magazine, or do I skim them both? Do I keep ordering these magazines or do I save money and look through the online version?
These kinds of options point to an even deeper multiplicity that involves our very identity as human beings and communities.
The diversity of the external world is also now present in our internal world. We even have options when it comes to our own personality — the type of person we present ourselves as being in different social settings. The recent movie “I’m Not There” uses six different actors in different settings to play the part of Bob Dylan – each representing a different stage or dimension of his persona. He is a young Woodie Guthrie ready to sing the world to freedom, a born again Christian singing gospel songs in a church, an aging Billy the Kid figure fighting in a wild west town. He once said, “All I can be is myself, whoever that is.” The film implies that Dylan, and perhaps we ourselves, are multiple persons, with different parts coming into prominence at different points throughout our life. Trying on different personalities, experimenting with identity.
As we become more aware of other religions and worldviews we realize that there are many underlying narratives that communities live with that give life order and meaning. Our own North American Mennonite Christian identity is one of many traditions existing side-by-side with various other Mennonites, Methodists, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews – Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed, Muslims and their many subgroups, Buddhists, atheists, or any number of groups people choose to identify themselves with. There is the challenge of sustaining one’s own identity while also staying open to the humanity and wisdom of other traditions.
In its best sense, multiplicity can be wonderfully freeing. We have options and we’re not stuck in one way of experiencing the world. There are many good ways to use our time, many narratives to learn from, many diverse expressions of beauty and wisdom. We are not Hebrew slaves under the rule of Pharaoh having our every move dictated to us and having no say in how we go about our lives. We’re in the promised land that the industrial, scientific, and information revolutions have brought us into. The menu of food for supper and paint for the kitchen is full, and we are free to choose what we desire out of the great variety.
But there is a flip side to multiplicity. In a word, we could call it “anxiety.” Rather than being freeing, the presence of abundance and plenty and the many can enslave us. All these options can be paralyzing, when it comes to what to purchase and when it comes to who we are becoming. Allowing ourselves to be defined by so much otherness that we lose a sense of who we are. Our energy and our focus can become scattered. We’re pulled in multiple directions, unsure where to commit, how much to give here or there, what to include in our lives and what to exclude. In the middle of the 20th century poet WH Auden wrote a Pulitzer prize winning poem called “The Age of Anxiety,” referring to this present time, when we have more than ever before but have not been able to find ourselves, or find peace with God. “Now is the age of anxiety,” he says.
Maybe our condition is best summarized by the great philosopher Jerry Seinfeld. He’s a TV guy, so here’s what he says about our relationship with TV, which plays out in all our other relationships. He says that people don’t watch TV because they want to see what’s on, they want to see what else is on. The abundance of options can sometimes leave us in a frantic state of constantly flipping through the channels, never quite content with what we’re seeing in front of us and always wondering what it is we may be missing should we commit ourselves to this one particular choice.
One response to this kind of unease is a turn to fundamentalism. In many ways, fundamentalism is a natural survival instinct against the overwhelming nature of multiplicity that we are faced with. Rather than getting lost in the sea of ambiguous variety, fundamentalism establishes a sure footing on which to stand. It does this by rejecting all other options to make it such that there is only one true path, one true choice, one way of being human. We’ve seen this happen in the last half-century with religion in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. But there are also fundamentalist atheists – Richard Dawkins being one of the better-known names now – who claim that their path is the only way without leaving any room for nuance or other perspectives. Fundamentalism has the same underlying structure no matter what the brand, and it’s often willing to defend itself with violence. One solution to the anxiety caused by multiplicity is to toss out complexity, the grays, the in betweens, the voices that don’t fit your mold, and cling to a rigid philosophy and set of rules.
So here’s the question put to us: How are we to live in a healthy way with the multiplicity without falling into either extreme of being consumed by anxiety or embracing destructive fundamentalism?
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his listeners – “Do not be anxious. Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” To those who have little, and those who have much, Jesus is putting out an invitation to be free from being over-anxious because anxiety works at odds with the ways of the kingdom. Precisely because it is paralyzing and scatters our God given energy.
Kierkegaard said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” We are conditioned to will many things, but the call is to will one thing. This emphasis on the one thing is exactly where Jesus directs this teaching.
It begins with the eye, where we look and how we focus. Vv. 22-23: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.” The eye here takes on the role of being the point of exchange between the inner and the outer world. The doorway that leads in and out of the self. There is the light within and the light without. Or the darkness. When what we see of the outside world is scattered and blurred, our inner world also becomes scattered and blurred. But if the inner eye can have a healthy focus, our lives have focus and more clarity. In the ancient world it was believed that the eye not only received light from the outside, but it that it projected the inner light out into the world. So Jesus can call the eye the lamp. It’s what lights the way. A healthy inner light has an affect on how we see and experience the world.
And what makes for a healthy eye?
V.24. “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and wealth.” Jesus says it’s not a matter of having 20 or ten or five different things that we’re trying to will, or accomplish – areas where we focus our desires. No one can even serve two masters. There must be a center, and there’s not room for two in the center. It is singular. Centeredness of Being. Willing one thing.
The message here is similar to one that Goshen College President Jim Brenneman gave at the last Central District Conference Annual Gathering. His suggestion for a point of focus was Jesus’ response to the lawyer who asked him, Out of all the commandments, which one was the greatest. The focal point for all the commandments, Jesus responded, is to Love God will all your being, and to love your neighbor as yourself. This is another way of saying the same thing. It is freeing to have this kind of center that holds us intact.
Jesus has another way of saying this in this passage, “Therefore do not worry, do not be anxious, saying, ‘what will we eat? Or What will we wear? For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.” Again, a primacy of focus. Seeking first the kingdom of God.
Multiplicity and an abundance of choices can lead to being overwhelmed by anxiety, can lead to resorting to a fundamentalist stance, or can challenge us to find a center. To will one thing. The suggestion here is that at our core we are not multi-taskers, with our energy flying out in all directions every which way. We are invited to trade in a life of multitasking for unitasking, serving God. Seeking the Kingdom of God in all we do. Now there’s going to be plenty of things rotating around that center and it could very well often involve doing more than one thing at once, especially if you have small children, but there is a singularity of purpose that gives us a focus. And then this is when freedom of spirit comes into play. When we have that center of seeking first the Kingdom of God in all things, we’re more and more freed up to engage this multiplicity in a healthy way. When God is our center and not money, we’re free to possess money without being possessed by it. The wonderful variety and diversity and differences and multiplicity around us become more and more a gift and not a threat. The eye has a focus.
What does Jesus offers to the person, or the culture, who already has everything? It’s that one thing, the center, that transforms how we relate with everything else.