I am a follower of Christ. I find it useful in my own life to frame my spiritual experience in the language of a 2,000 year old religion. I think this old perspective still has a lot of bite in it, even intellectual bite. There's a tendency to want to write Christianity off as ancient history and impotent ignorance, but again and again smart, sane, civil people have their lives remade by it, and the belief sticks around. I think that at its core Christianity will continue to poke and sharpen and transform people in the future. But, of course, it will have to be interpreted yet again by another era. Let's just say that its current vocabulary is not entirely up to date.
Despite the fact that Christianity is two millennia old, and often takes a longer view, it has been myopic when it comes to the future. For the past 2,000 years it has offered only one scenario for the future: the world will end tomorrow. You'd think that after getting it wrong every day for 2,000 years it would come up with at least one alternative scenario.
In my casual search for published alternative scenarios for the future of Christianity, I did not find much, even in very progressive liberal branches of the faith. Speculators are hindered by fear of sounding heretical, by the difficulty in predicting anything that far ahead, by doubt that speculations are worthwhile, and by the completely false notion that Christianity is unchanging.
I am foolish enough to dive in where saints fear to tread. I've been hanging out with the emerging generation of American Christian leaders. They are making a new vocabulary for the traditional faith. They are re-ordering some traditional priorities. They have questions. Lot's of them. Gabe Lyons, an emerging church guy, started a conference called Q (for questions). It's sort of like a Christian TED.
At the first Q Conference two years ago I gave a talk called The Next 1000 Years of Christianity (video here). It is my attempt to describe a few positive scenarios for the next millennial. I did not bother with negative scenarios (negative for believers), such as Christianity disappears in 100 years, because they were predictable, common, and obvious. (But as one friend noted; to retain symmetry the talk should really be about the next 2,000 years to match the last 2,000. I agree but 1,000 years was already so far off the charts for this crowd that I felt no one would listen about 2,000 years.)
One idea: The circumnavigation of the "center" of Christianity, starting in Jerusalem, heading west to Europe, then to the Americas, then to Asia and finally returning to Africa and Jerusalem.
By the standards of the title, this talk failed. I did not come anywhere near outlining a 1,000-year scenario for Christianity. Rather I introduced the idea of scenarios and offered some forecasts for the near future. My main point was to confirm the continued evolution of Christianity, both in the past and into the future, and to demonstrate the value of having multiple visions of what will happen next.
In that way I think the talk succeeded. Uncountable number of people let me know that they had "never even thought about" the next 1,000 years of their faith. I got the sense they did not know they were allowed to. Now they do. I wrote my talk up as a monograph, which the Q folks say is one of their most popular essays.
The Q conference features speakers talking both about the Christian church and the culture at large. It represents the arm of change within the American Protestant Evangelical branch of Christianity -- the strand that has been most politically active in the US in recent decades. If you'd like to have direct contact with the emerging church of the next generation, this is a good venue to touch many edges of it at once.
In 1998 Danny Hillis asked some friends to make sketches of what they imagined a 10,000-year clock should look like. Science fiction author Neal Stephenson, among others, provided several sketches. One of them outlines a clock contained in concentric circles of walls, which opens to outsiders at specific preordained intervals.
Stephenson's handwritten notes on this sketch say:
Multiple shells of several closely-spaced cylinders w/ broad spaces between -- perhaps arranged on terraced amphitheater w/ nest sphere in the center.
Outermost shell's apertures open once an hour to admit & discharge tourists, school field trips, etc. -- these can circulate around periphery, view the sphere, & depart. Moving inwards the intervals between openings get longer -- perhaps these are inhabited by "clock monk" who devote lives to contemplation & to help maintain the clock & supporting institution.
In the ten years since then, Hillis and crew have developed engineering designs for the Long Now 10,000-year Clock. Currently the plan is to build the Clock inside a mountain at the end of a long vertical tunnel entrance. Some details of Neal's ideas may yet be implimented, but the vast circular compound of gates and inner walls won't be part of the initial Clock.
However, this wonderful Clock idea lives on and is rendered in much greater detail in Neal's new novel "Anathem". Like other Stephenson novels, the book is long and epic. The story is complicated and even confusing at first. The plot explores the friction between the scientific ("mathic") monks inside the sanctuary of the Clock and the "saecular" superstitious folks living outside the walls in the "extramuros." The clockers have a different sense of time and responsibility, trying to safegaurd civilization's knowledge. But the two worlds come clashing together in cataclismic event.
At Long Now Foundation we've always resisted the idea of turning the institution into a religion -- even though religions may have the best track record for long-term endurance. But the comparison to monks devoting their lives to maintain a remote and long-lived clock is hard to avoid, especially if you show up at a momentous clock event in a hooded robe.
Work on a prototype 10,000-year clock was completed in time for the millennial celebrations in 2000 (or 02000 as Long Now likes to write it). We installed the clock temporarily in Building 116 in the Presidio, San Francisco, where the Long Now offices were. Long Now was subletting office space from the Internet Archive, where the entire internet was backed up. So in a wonderful parallel to Neal's later story, the clock was resting in a room only a dozen feet away from the modern universal library of our time.
Stewart Brand, co-founder of the Long Now Foundation, had just returned from a vacation in Morocco the day before so he was wearing a djellaba.
I took this snapshot of Stewart contemplating the completed Clock just a few minutes before midnight on the New Year's Eve of Y2K. The Clock had just been finished in the last few days. The attractive idea is that the clock would bong once for a new century, and bong twice for a new millennia. We were gathered around the prototype clock when it was due to strike twice -- once for the century, and once for the Y2K millennium.
It was a very strange scene. Because of hysteria about Y2K, the Presidio was blockaded with a police checkpoint. No one else was around the usually busy park. It was a like a secret society meeting. A very few people, maybe a dozen in total, gathered at the clock as it struck the new year/century/millennia. Stewart looked like a monk overseeing the clock's big moment. At the countdown there was a total hush because we had no idea if the chimes would really work. Then at midnight, the gears started clicking, whirring. One gong! Silence. Then another gong!
Then a collective sigh because we realized it would not happen again for another 1,000 years.
Neal was not present (and had never seen this photo), but when a second version of the Clock's orrery was unveiled in the Marin county machine shop where it was assembled, Neal traveled from Seattle to inspect it. I took a few quick snapshots of the encounter.
Neal is a tinkerer. His dad was an engineer. He writes for a half a day and then works in a shop for the other half. He tinkered with hardware experiments for Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin rocket project, and now he is working at a lab for Nathan Myhrvold's patent factory. He here is at Chris Rand's machine shop, where the parts for the Clock were assembled.
A fuller profile of Neal Stephenson by Steven Levy appears in the September 2008 of Wired.
Neal's book Anathem will launch in San Francisco on Tuesday, September 9th at the Regency building on Van Ness. Because of the overlap in interests, the debut party will be co-hosted by Long Now. Neal will read from his book about the Arbre Clock, Danny and Stewart will talk about the Long Now Clock, there'll be a martial art demo (an art based on the story), and there will be a performance of unique music.
The Anathem has also spawned a CD of music recorded in the same manner of the music described in Neal's book. This is mathic music, mathematically generated chants, created especially for Anathem by composer David Stutz. The designs for the chimes of the Long Now Clock are also mathic generative; a prototype of the chime generator is on view in the Long Now museum in Fort Mason. For another example of "mathic" music for a long clock, see Brian Eno's CD of computational Long Now chimes (titled January 07003). David Stutz's CD will be available at the event.
Tickets for this celebration of long-term thinking -- and launch party for a highly anticipated science fiction novel-- are available here. They cost $11 for admission, and $45 for admission plus signed book. If you are a Long Now member, your ticket alone is free (but you have to RSVP. To become a member, join).
You can hear Neal read a bit of the beginning of his book on this Amazon video clip. He's a better conversationalist than reader. It should be quite an evening. We'll be filming the event as we do all Long Now Seminar talks; the video will be streamed LIVE by Fora.tv that evening at 7pm PST.
As a devout Christian I find the experiment in this new book, The Year of Living Biblically, fascinating. The guy who wrote The Know-It-All, a book about reading the entire Encyclopedia, recently spent a year trying to follow all 700 plus rules he found in the Bible. These rules ranged from the obvious Ten Commandments to the more obscure details of Old Testament laws, which ultra orthodox Jews might follow: leaving side hair uncut, dwelling in huts on certain holidays, strict dietary routines. To give some idea of the physical transformation he underwent, the book offers this photo.
There's a amusing interview with him at Newsweek online, that points to a couple of important things about anyone trying to literally (fundamentally) obey the many rules found in this very long book.
Q: Many women say some passages in the Bible can seem pretty misogynistic. Was that a problem for your relationship?
A: It was. Parts of the Bible say that the man is the head of the household and should make the decisions, which did not translate into reality in our household. She found that a disturbing part of religion. It was something I really had to wrestle with. One of the lessons of the book is, there is some picking and choosing in following the Bible, and I think that's OK. Some people call that cafeteria religion, which is supposed to be a disparaging term, but I think there's nothing wrong with cafeterias, I've had some delicious meals in cafeterias. I've also had some terrible meals in cafeterias. It's all about picking the right parts. You want to take a heaping serving of the parts about compassion, mercy and gratefulness -- instead of the parts about hatred and intolerance.
That has been my experience with both practicing religion and hanging around others practicing it in various degrees, including many who do it wholeheartedly. Everybody is picking and choosing parts they take literally and parts that they take metaphorically, but some admit this and others don't. Or rather some believe the distinction is obvious and necessary rather than arbitrary or personal. However the fact that very few people -- even those who are the most fundamental in any religion -- agree on which rules are fundamental is evidence of the personal nature of the decision.
Q: Once the experiment ends, you write about being feeling unanchored without your list of rules. Were you comforted by the restrictions of living Biblically? And do you think that's part of the attraction of organized religion for many people?
A: Oh, absolutely. We all talk about freedom of choice, but there's something very attractive about freedom from choice. Religion provides structure, mooring, anchoring. Should you covet? No. Should you give 10 percent to the needy? Yes. It really structures your life. After my year I felt unmoored, overwhelmed by choice. I have adjusted, but I'm still overwhelmed by choice, as we all are in America.
This too is profound. Many soldiers leaving the army (especially in peacetime) bemoan the loss of structure a well-regulated army life gave them. There is no doubt this escape from what Barry Schwartz, in his book The Paradox of Choice, calls "the tyranny of choice" is a large attraction of religion. It's joy should not be scoffed at. For instance I find that implementing a strict Never Lie rule in my own life has freed me up from having to weigh the plus and minuses of whether to do so, or keep track of what I said, or manage the blowback from when a ruse slips. Lying is not an option, so I am released from that struggle.
Q: Are you a more religious person as a result of this experiment?
A: Well, I don't want to give away the ending, but let's say I started the year as an agnostic, and now I am a reverent agnostic. Whether or not there is a God, I believe in sacredness. Rituals can be sacred, the Sabbath can be sacred however you choose to observe it.
My take on Burning Man, which I have attended about 10 times, is that it is 50% about supplying a ritual for the non-religious.
Q: Which is the greater learning tool, the Bible or the encyclopedia?
A: That's a tough question. The Bible project was a lot more difficult than the encyclopedia project. The Bible affected every single part of my life, it affected the way I walked, the way I dressed, the way I hugged my wife, the way I ate. The year was the most extreme makeover of my life. In terms of which is the better learning tool, the encyclopedia does contain a lot of biblical passages in the different books, so it might contain most of the Bible in it.
Q: It's been a little over a year since your experiment ended and you shaved your beard. How's the life of sin?
A: It's all right. I miss my sin-free life, but I guess I was never sin free. I was able to cut down on my coveting maybe 40 percent, but I was still a coveter. Flat-screen TVs, the front yard of my friend in the suburbs, a better cell phone, higher Amazon rankings.