“Disciplined Inattentiveness”

In the introduction to his commentary on Hebrews, D. Stephen Long calls the reader to a disciplined inattentiveness while reading the book of Hebrews. The point is that the modern reader, living in a flattened and gridded world, cannot enter into the book of Hebrews unless she or he also enters into its “odd” world of depth, messiness, and wild spiritual entities. To quote Long more fully:

Bultmann intended…to show the need to demythologize the Bible, rid it of its enchantments, and make it palatable to life on the grid. Hebrews challenges this intent by asking us which is the ‘real’ world. Is it the flat metaphysics of the grid, or is it the illusion that requires a disciplined act of inattentiveness to see it as real? – Long, 13 (my emphasis)

Reading further, it is clear that this disciplined inattentiveness is not an absentmindedness, aloofness, or inability to meet people with particular needs and gifts. Indeed, the disciplines that Long suggests include fasting from motorized transport, living with the homeless, contemplating “an icon,” and fasting from the internet. These practices might, he suggests, loosen the conviction that we live in a grid of our own making and open us up to the depth of the (non-metaphorical) angels around us.

Such disciplines sound familiar, and often are gathered up around the title of “attentiveness” – meaning attentiveness to the depth of the world and the depth of persons around us. So, then, why does Long use the opposite term (inattentiveness), and why do I find it so striking?

I think that there often remains of something self-originating in the call for attentiveness, such that the world of “depth” remains of my own creation. Being attentive is, first and foremost, something that I do; when I see depth in the world it is because I have done the proper work to see properly and entirely deserve my enlightened sightline. And, as Jean-Luc Marion so compellingly argues, when I am the one who discovers the icon I can be certain that it is in fact an idol, a god made of my own hands. Thinking in terms of disciplined inattentiveness, on the other hand, holds the possibility of changing the perspective in such a way that the depth of the world (Marion’s saturated phenomena) captures and attends to me, overwhelming the efforts that I make. This view does not destroy the self nor present a passive view of the virtuous self, for it is in significant part due to discipline not accident that the world’s depth (Hebrews’ angels) is enabled to overwhelm me.

This is not to say that attentiveness is only bad way to articulate the need there is for us to attend to particular others. And inattentiveness also has its problems, as I indicate earlier. However, it is good to be reminded that encountering the world’s depth and the mystery of God is not of our own making, lest we find ourselves gridding the world once more, only this time in the name of mystery and attention.

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