June 6, 2023 / Seth Richardson

Searching for a Robust Spirituality in a Doomscrolling World (Hopeful Realism, Pt. 1)

*Editorial Note: Part 1 of Seth’s “Hopeful Realism” series, entitled “Searching for a Robust Spirituality in a Doomscrolling World can be read below. Excessive Spirituality,Part 2 of this series, can be read here. “Negotiating Difference” is Part 3 and serves as Seth’s conclusion to this series. ~CK


Before lunchtime most days a heaviness settles like a fog over my soul. A sense of doom is lurking just below the surface. Things are not okay and our world may be broken beyond repair. 

It’s the aggregation of all the tragedies, traumas, dysfunctions, willful ignorances, and violence. It’s the regular mass shootings, the culture wars in my daughter’s school district, the leadership scandals, the surge of Christian nationalism, and the blatant supremacy cultures that harm and disenfranchise people of color, women, and sexual minorities (just to name a few). 

The doom I’m describing registers on an inextricably spiritual level. All of these crises are bound to religious systems, doctrines, and theologies, which are coming unraveled. The evangelical movement in which I grew up, was educated, and served is going through a profound credibility crisis. The [evangelical] emperor has no clothes, it seems. Even more, I’m increasingly confronted with how Christians (who look like me) might be directly complicit with the way our world is breaking. 

My friends remind me that melancholy is a feature of my personality. I’ll own that.1 But in varied ways most of us have come to a crisis point over the past five years (if we weren’t already there before). Many are disoriented, our nervous systems overloaded and fried.

The evangelical movement in which I grew up, was educated, and served is going through a profound credibility crisis. The (evangelical) emperor has no clothes, it seems. (1/2) Share on X 

Even more, I’m increasingly confronted with how Christians (who look like me) might be directly complicit with the way our world is breaking. We are disoriented, our nervous systems overloaded and fried. (2/2) Share on X 

Deeper still, many of us are finding that our existing spiritual imagination and practices cannot bear the weight of these broken conditions. This is the crisis within the crisis. 

Even in the crisis, I still believe that God is reconciling all things in Jesus, bringing new creation by the power of the Spirit. That’s why I’m searching for a robust spirituality with the wherewithal for living faithful within this “doomscrolling world.” 

I’m aiming for something called “hopeful realism: an imaginative framework, set of postures, and practices for facing a broken world without moving into despair on the one hand or spiritual bypassing on the other. 

Before unfolding what hopeful realism looks like, there is a bit more to say about the doom-filled conditions in which this search is emerging for me, as well as the struggle to move beyond despair and spiritual bypassing.

I’m aiming for something called 'hopeful realism:' an imaginative framework, set of postures, and practices for facing a broken world without moving into despair on the one hand or spiritual bypassing on the other. Share on X   

Living in a Doomscrolling World

“Doomscrolling” is the technical term (according to the internet) for the discrete activity that describes when we consume the doom on our devices, almost neurotically or reflexively. We are pulled deeper into the doom as we scroll, even though it disturbs us. 

There’s something to be said for what that discrete activity does to us as individuals and how it hooks us in the first place. But this isn’t yet another article about trying harder to implement best practices with tech. 

Instead, I’m curious about how doomscrolling describes a way of being in the world, or the water we swim in that we often feel without having to think about it, or even a collective consciousness that colors how we process our environment and respond with our bodies. And I’m curious how this way of being is an immune response to all that is broken, breaking, and coming unraveled in us and around us.

Describing a doomscrolling world, I don’t mean a kind of ‘Eeyore-ish’ posture that paints the world more gloomy than it actually is. Instead, I’m gesturing toward the mirror of that. Doomscrolling means being locked in habits of body and mind that bring us in proximity to the pain, but not close enough to open space for healing or newness. The brokenness that triggers our sense of doom may go deeper than we’ve fully reckoned with.

Doomscrolling means being locked in habits that bring us in proximity to the pain, but not close enough to open space for healing or newness. The brokenness that triggers our sense of doom may go deeper than we’ve reckoned with. Share on X 

Despair and Spiritual Bypassing

I’ve noticed two common (albeit overgeneralized) responses that emerge from those who feel the doomscrolling vortex: despair and spiritual bypassing. Both responses are understandable and normal. I’m not sure we can or should try to avoid them. I’m suggesting, rather, that we don’t have to get stuck in either eddy. We can keep moving.  

When we despair, we allow ourselves to be swallowed up by the pain. It becomes the truest thing about the world and the lens through which we see everything. Sometimes despair is accompanied by cynicism or rage: the kind of anger that is unable to metabolize into change and healing. 

In despair, we are honest and realistic about the broken conditions of our lives (maybe for the first time). We want to take seriously the junk and pain, but we lack a hopeful vision for the possibility of renewal or transformation.  

When we engage in spiritual bypassing, on the other hand, we use “spiritual things” like Scripture reading, prayer, God-talk, singing, etc. to avoid or transcend the mess in our own lives or the social systems we inhabit. Rather than face the grotesque realities with Jesus, we use Jesus to turn away from it, numb it, or escape from it. 

Spiritual bypassing deserves more description in this present moment as our personal and social worlds return to “normal” post-pandemic. The pressure is easing, so it seems. Over the past six months, I’ve noticed that many church leaders who ached for transformation, initially entering into a liminal space in the darkest points of the pandemic, have increasingly trod a familiar path: Having come to the edge of entering a wild, new space, they are now hastily retreating backwards into safe, familiar habits of mind and leadership. 

Rather than break into new territory, they came to the wall and backed away, in some cases doubling down on the status quo. This is a form of spiritual bypassing, too. 

The good news I’m trusting is that we don’t have to get stuck in either place. There really is newness of life if we keep moving forward.  

Moving Toward Hopeful Realism  

Over the past three years, I’ve teetered toward despair, entering a slow-but-steady reckoning with the rotten and death-dealing core of the systems I inhabit, increasingly sober about how they are shaping me and how I am complicit. Yet, when I reached for a faithful response to these conditions, I found that the white, ‘evangelical-ish’ spiritual framework that funded my imagination felt a lot like a form of spiritual bypassing. 

I don’t mean to say that available resources on discipleship and missional church were useless, bad, or unimportant in total. They were merely insufficient for helping me face the depth of the doom without giving over to despair or spiritual bypassing.

They have helped me navigate a hurried life in a busy world, for example, but they fall short when the bodies of our children cry out for justice after another senseless school shooting. They helped diagnose consumerist and individualistic church models, but felt cheap as I grappled with my denomination’s complicity in sustaining racialized hierarchies and violence. They help me feel more centered when all I’ve known is anxious, moralistic fundamentalism, but they have come up short when everything is coming unraveled.2

So, moving toward hopeful realism, I want to hold together both the tragic realities and transfigured possibilities of our world. I want to tell the truth and take responsibility for harm while also following God’s Spirit in the wild territory of New Creation that I cannot predetermine or manufacture on my own.

Hopeful realism is not merely about thinking or feeling the right things (though it’s not less than that). It’s about how we respond with our whole, embodied selves to the surprising ways God sanctifies deep wounds and pain in our lives. It is born from the conviction that God is redeeming the world by fully identifying with broken creation in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. And that means that it is safe to embrace reality and name the doom, while also moving our bodies forward in hope toward the Holy Spirit’s disruptive, renewing work.  

This vision for hopeful realism is a journey for me. I’m searching for a spirituality that I trust exists, doing my best to give a thick description to what I’m searching for as I go. As this series continues, I’ll dive deeper into what I’m sensing hopeful realism looks like and why we need it.

Hopeful realism is not merely about thinking or feeling the right things. It’s about how we respond with our whole, embodied selves to the surprising ways God sanctifies deep wounds and pain in our lives. (1/2) Share on X 

Hopeful realism is born from the conviction that God is redeeming the world by fully identifying with broken creation in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. It is safe to embrace reality as it is. (2/2) Share on X 

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Seth Richardson is an Anglican priest, leading Resurrection Little Rock, an Anglican contemplative community in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he lives with his wife Caralisa and their two daughters, Ruth and Lydia. He is also the director of a congregational research/consulting initiative called Gravity Congregational Transformation (with Gravity Leadership). Seth holds a doctorate in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary. He probably drinks too much coffee.

Footnotes    

1 I’m open to the possibility that what I’m giving voice to here is basically a love letter to other Enneagram 4s. I think there’s something here for all of us, even with different personality styles and dispositions. It’s an experiment, and I’ll find out soon enough. In the least, my hope is that those with different styles/types will find help here by listening in.

2 More on this subject in Pt. 2 of this series, “Hopeful Realism.”