Saturday, September 26, 2015 | ABJ
At some point along the 500-mile Bruce Trail in Canada, Arthur Boers, then a protestant pastor and self-confessed "workaholic," was converted. "The act of hiking was knitting me together, making me whole," he says. This epiphany of sorts was just the beginning of a new way of thinking about his own busy life, as well as the lives of the people he pastored.
Drawing on philosopher and mentor Albert Borgmann's ideas about "focal practices," and especially how technology can distract us from the communal practices people used to do together, Boers began to consider what it would mean to live a "good life." His new book, Living into Focus: Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distractions, is the result of his experience.
Boers is now an associate professor at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Ontario, and the author of six books, including The Way is Made by Walking. Recently, Boers took some time to talk with us about his newest book, the conversations he hopes it inspires, and the focal practices that are most important to him.
First of all, thank you for writing this book. It was a balm to my soul. I know why I need this book, but why do you think the rest of us need this book?
So many of us these days have a deep sense that our lives are off balance, off center. The Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn has a lyric that says: "I've never lived with balance, though I've always liked the notion." That defines me too, I'm afraid, but I don't think that I'm the only one.
When I was a pastor, congregants kept complaining about how busy they were. They asked church leaders to help them think through these issues so that they could live differently. The church leaders—we called them elders—agreed that this was a vital matter, a spiritual issue, and also agreed to help. But it took them over two years to respond because they themselves were so busy and over-extended. So I saw that this is a basic church issue, a pastoral concern.
When I walked a popular 500-mile pilgrimage route in Spain a few years ago, most of the people I met and spoke to told me that they were not "religious." Yet many of them wanted to talk about the quality and pace of their lives. They had concerns that something was awry. They wanted help with knowing how to live differently. So, I saw that this is a also an evangelistic issue, in the best sense of that term—that is, whether we have good news to give people. People want to know how to live a better life, the good life, the abundant life.
Who did you write this book for? Who is your ideal reader?
This book is for anyone that has a niggling sense that there must be a better way, that something crucial is missing. For anyone who has noticed that they are spending more time than ever on work and less time than before on family or friends, volunteering or enjoying the outdoors. The quality and pace of life has changed dramatically in recent decades and there are ways of understanding what has happened. We are busier, much busier. And when we can put our finger on these realities—for example the fact that more often than not so-called "labor saving devices" make more work for us—then we can figure out together how to live more satisfying lives.
The subtitle of your book, "Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distractions," describes a common theme in our culture, and one that has inspired a number of prescriptive books already. How do you understand "choosing what matters"? And what does your book uniquely offer to the conversation?
First of all, it's true that there are several fine books out there on these matters. Some of them even put "distractions" into their sub-titles! I have not found, however, many books that approach these matters from a deeply Christian perspective. And the Christian faith—with our celebration of God as Creator, the legacy of Sabbath, and Jesus' hopeful promise of abundant life—has so much to offer. I am sorry to see that Christians often feel as busy, distracted, and off-balance as everyone else.
Second, I would not call my book "prescriptive." It's not about suggesting rules or guidelines or prescriptions. My goal is to help people identify the good things that are missing from life, good things that we've all experienced at one point or another. And I also want to explore how those good things sometimes get displaced by the ways that we rely on gadgets and devices. Those two moves—naming what we long for and identifying what often goes awry—helps us to choose differently.
You explore and encourage the idea of "focal practices" in your book. Can you describe what you mean by that, and what some of your own favorite practices are?
My favorite focal practices include eating with my family, hosting people at the table for meals or as guests staying in our home, cooking, reading, prayer, walking, kayaking, and worship in our local church. My wife shares those priorities and has a few more besides, including knitting, getting to know new people, baking, gardening, creating beauty in our home, and discovering new recipes.
A focal practice is an activity that has three qualities. First, it takes energy, effort, discipline, and acquired skill and thus points us to realities that are larger then we are. Second, it connects us widely and deeply—to other people, to traditions, to nature, to the environment, to God. And, third, it reminds us of the things that matter the most, that are most important. Douglas Steere's definition of prayer could also apply to focal practices; they help us "pay attention to the deepest things we know."
What is it about simple practices such as cooking, gardening, and walking, that have the capacity to ground us and re-orient us in our culture of busy-ness?
If I go too long without a walk or a calm meal with my wife or breathing fresh air or worship or prayer or reading, I start to feel "off," at some level I forget who I am. Those various practices give me a chance to decompress, to breathe a little more slowly and deeply. Then I have a chance to see where my life may have gone somewhat off course lately, perhaps where it's gone off balance, maybe where I've spent too much energy on things that are not that important or are not really my priorities. I can then recall what is most vital. Besides such practices are fun, they leave one refreshed and invigorated, ready to take on the usual challenges of life. When I spend enough time with them, it is easy for me to believe in God as Creator and Redeemer and Inspirer.
Do you expect this book to change anyone's mind? About what?
If you like life these days exactly the way that it already is, then this book is probably not for you. I'm not here to convince you otherwise.
But I've been teaching about these matters for years—in church settings and in more public places. When I talk about a sense of overwhelming busyness, people nod their heads in recognition. When I help analyze the factors of how our contemporary life contributes to these problems, it's as if lights go on for people. This is a way to give folks tools for living differently. I want to empower readers to know that it is within our grasp to make other choices, that God offers us abundant life here and now already.
Your inspiration—and indeed mentor—for this book was the Montana philosopher Albert Borgmann. What do you wish more people knew about Borgmann, and what about his work compelled you to write Living Into Focus?
Yes, Albert Borgmann has been a huge gift to me, both in my thinking and in my life. Many of my friends find one particular thinker who inspires them, who helps them make sense of the world. A priest who is important to me, likes the work of Rene Girard, for example, and mentions him in almost every sermon. A new friend often talks to me about Carl Jung. And my friends—new and old—know that any serious conversation with me sooner or later brings up Albert Borgmann.
Albert is a well-respected and well-known philosopher of technology. He has been thinking and carefully writing about these matters for decades. Before I read Albert, I knew that there was something important about my hiking and something significant about how vital the kitchen was in our family life but I could not exactly put my finger on what that was. He helped me identify their "focal" significance. And knowing why they were important then helped reinforce my commitment to keeping them as a priority.
I have also had the privilege of spending time with Albert and being able to count him as a friend. Not only does he have a sharp and incisive mind, he lives and practices what he preaches. He is a person of integrity, someone who shows me how to live.
What was the hardest thing about writing this book?
The hardest thing about writing this book is figuring out how to help people ask good questions about how we use technology without scaring them off or making them defensive. We all need technology. We cannot have culture or civilization without technology. And we are all grateful for technology—the benefits of safety and health, not to mention fun and entertainment. But sometimes we overlook the fact that technology can also cause us huge problems and headaches. Martin Luther King Jr. warned a long time ago that technology at times gets ahead of our theology.
Which chapter was the easiest to write?
The first and last chapters were easiest to write. My first chapter talks about the unexpected joys of becoming a hiker in middle age and about how a kitchen renovation (something I had put off because of the expense) transformed our family's life. It's fun to talk about choices that give us joy, make us feel alive.
And in the last chapter I discuss how in spite of many obstacles, I find that life is good and enjoyable, if I just pay attention to the good things around, and to prioritizing "the deepest things I know."
Did you experience any new epiphanies about the spiritual life while actually writing this book?
For too long, I thought that the "spiritual life" was disconnected, disembodied, ethereal, and abstract. In doing this work, I was reminded that God works with stuff, that God is active in our lives and circumstances, that matter matters to God. In some ways I find it easier to be in touch with God now. In many ways, my life feels more worshipful, too. At the same time, I have a much deeper appreciation for formal acts of worship—whether daily prayers or what we do together as Christians on Sundays.
So as we approach the season of Lent this year, how might your book be an aid to deepening our own Lenten journeys?
Lent is, as you show, a time of focusing and re-focusing.
Many Christians observe it as a time of fasting. Consider giving up something that regularly distracts you or keeps you off balance. I have a friend who gives up TV for Lent. Others put restrictions on their email.
And consider adding something in that gives you life or helps you achieve new perspectives. One of my friends committed herself to watching every sunrise and sunset for the entire season.
Deborah Arca joined the Patheos team in 2009, after serving as the Program Manager for the Programs in Christian Spirituality at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. Deborah has also been a youth minister, a director of music and theatre programs for children, and a music minister