Loneliness in an Impersonal World

June 5, 2019 By: Donnie Berry

Loneliness in an Impersonal World blog by Christian Fellowship Church Pastor Donnie Berry
In my last blog, I wrote about learning from Jesus how to slow down and see people, really see them, the way He does. “This moment is the most important moment. You (the person in front of me) are the most important person I can be talking to right now.” Being present in the moment, present to God, present to others. It’s a rich way to live. I want to grow in it.

In this blog, I want to share a few related thoughts, most of them coming from a fascinating talk by Andy Crouch, former senior editor of Christianity Today and author of several books, including Culture Making, and Tech-Wise Family. Crouch is really fun to listen to, but more than that, I find him to be incredibly insightful and helpful.

The short talk is titled “Overcoming Our Greatest Affliction”. Crouch argues that the greatest affliction we suffer from in our culture is…wait for it…what would you say it is?…got your answer?…okay, here’s Crouch’s answer…loneliness! I wasn’t expecting that when I saw the title of his talk, but by the end, he had me thinking.

Crouch argues that much of our modern way of life is the result of three major revolutions: the Industrial Revolution, Financial Revolution, and Computational (Knowledge) Revolution. These revolutions have generated many benefits, untold wealth, and increased health and life-expectancy. But at what cost? Crouch argues they have come at the cost of personhood and relationship.

Our society is geared toward impersonal work—machines do what used to require flesh-and-blood people, working together, to accomplish; impersonal financial transactions—you can buy anything you need at big-box stores, or just go online, without ever entering into relationship with another human being; and an impersonal transfer of knowledge—whereas previous generations would learn about the world by relying on family and community wisdom, now we go to Google.

The result: we’re lonely. Crouch says that as he has asked his friends who have moved to the U.S. from other countries what they notice about our country, the most common answer is, “I’ve noticed how lonely it is.”

Crouch then makes a couple of interesting moves. First, he draws similarities between our cultural moment and first-century Roman society, a society marked by depersonalization. Very few people were even recognized as “persons” with full standing in law and society. Many (women, slaves, etc.) were treated as property and stripped of personhood altogether. Those born into slavery, with no real prospect of ever becoming true persons, were often not even given true names. They were simply called by their birth order: Tertius, Quartus, Quintus—Third, Fourth, Fifth.

Crouch then draws attention to what he calls the most sociologically stunning chapter in the Bible: Romans 16—the least preached chapter in the most preached book of the Bible. It’s a chapter of names. Paul greets people in the church at Rome, and the list of those he greets is impressive for its diversity: men and women, Jew and Gentile, persons of prominent households and high standing, as well as slaves and those of low standing. In a culture where few are regarded highly, Paul greets all of these as brothers and sisters, family in the Lord.

And then there’s what may be the most astonishing verse in this astonishing chapter. Romans 16:22: “I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord.”

Tertius is the scribe, the one who took down Paul’s words, penning this letter for him. “I Tertius”…Third. Probably a slave or a former slave. We don’t know the details. Except that Paul, after greeting the brothers and sisters at Rome, has Tertius greet them. Tertius, Third, is also a brother. He matters. “Tertius, you greet them too!”

“I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord. Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you.” – Rom 16:22-23

Tertius (Third), along with Quartus (Fourth), staying in the home of Gaius, eating meals with the city-treasurer Erastus, all companions of the Apostle Paul, all greeting, by name, their brothers and sisters in the Lord in Rome, then handing the letter off to Phoebe, a wealthy patron, who would deliver it for them. Crouch comments,

“This was the revolutionary act of the early church. In an impersonal world, to recognize persons of every possible status. To see them all and know them all by name, and to name them as brothers and sisters.”

We live in an impersonal world, where people are treated as commodities. Their only value comes from what they can offer, and we discard them as soon as they are no longer useful to our agenda and our advancement. In that kind of world, how can we, as Christians, live differently? How can we change our culture and influence our society? Crouch says it may be simpler than we think.

“In this world—and in the world that’s coming—the restoration of culture is the recognition of persons. That is what the early Christians did for Rome. It’s what we must do today.”

In other words, we change the world by seeing the person right in front of us, as Jesus did. “This is the most important moment. You are the most important person. I see you. I have time for you. You matter.” It’s the way Jesus treated people. It’s how He has treated us. Lord, help us to go and do likewise.