A friend told me about a mutual acquaintance who was always a happy, kind person, but who now—at least in some contexts—seems filled with anger and fear. “It’s like I’m hearing the same voice,” my friend said, “but now he seems so resentful that I sometimes wonder if I’m talking to the same person I always knew.” Almost everyone I know has experienced something like this—in churches, in workplaces, even at family dining room tables. The whole world seems to be seething with resentment.
Anyone who’s encountered someone in a fit of rage knows that one thing that usually doesn’t work is to say, “Calm down.” That’s like saying to an insomniac, “Go to sleep.” The more the person tries to fall asleep, the more likely he or she is to stay awake. That reality, though, might give us insight into why our culture seems driven with resentment, and how we can counter it.
Falling asleep is, as German philosopher Hartmut Rosa puts it, “non-engineerable.” The more you try to master it, the further away it becomes. Sleep requires a kind of surrender—a letting go of the frenetic whirl of the mind. Rosa compares the situation to the way a child feels when looking out the window at the first snow of winter. You can engineer that, Rosa concedes, in his book The Uncontrollability of the World. The child’s mom and dad could buy snow cannons and blast icy flakes outside the window of a house in Pasadena in July. But that’s not the same experience.
The experiences of looking out into a snowy field, standing on a mountain range or at the foot of a waterfall, or meeting the gaze of your newborn child all find their meaning specifically because they are not controllable, predictable, and engineerable. Rosa calls this type of experience resonance.
To understand this, just think about the language you use for those truly meaningful moments in your life. You might say, “Standing at the Grand Canyon at sunset really spoke to me.” There’s a sense in which something almost calls out to you, and echoes somewhere deep within you.
If you ask people to tell you the important turning points in their lives, Rosa argues, those points are almost always unexpected encounters: “Then I met this person, I read this book, I ended up joining this group, someone brought me to this place, and it changed my life.” He contends that people (even those who don’t believe in anything outside the material) will often use the language of being “called” to something—again with the metaphor of personal address. And the common factor of these moments of resonance is that they must be reachable but can’t be made calculable or manageable.
“It is not enough that I have access to and can take hold of the world,” Rosa writes. “Resonance demands that I allow myself to be called, that I be affected, that something reach me from the outside.”
Rosa doesn’t mean this in a Christian sense, of course. I would probably disagree with him on almost every major theological or political point. But at this point, I think he’s on to something the Bible does tell us about the way the world is. “Deep calls to deep,” the psalmist tells us (Ps. 42:7). In describing the way of discipleship, Jesus uses the imagery of a sheep with a shepherd—specifically speaking of the way the sheep respond to (resonate with) the shepherd’s voice (John 10:3–5). And the Apostle Paul compares conversion to seeing a light and hearing a voice (2 Cor. 4:1–6).
Scripture tells us that at the core of who we are, human beings are created to resonate with a Voice that calls to us—as though from a burning bush—in a way that we cannot engineer for ourselves. We call a seminary degree a “master of divinity,” but there’s no such thing—and it’s a good thing too. A God we could quantify, a Jesus we could engineer or master, would be an idol. “They have mouths, but do not speak,” the psalmist says of the idols we engineer with human hands or imaginations (Ps. 135:16). Rosa doesn’t recognize idolatry, but he, probably unwittingly, describes it perfectly.
In this moment in the modern world, he argues, we expect the world around us—including our own lives—to be predictable, manageable, and useful. Our smartphones seem to reinforce that. We have access to everything. The irony is that this “drive and desire toward controllability ultimately creates monstrous, frightening forms of uncontrollability.”
We lose a sense of resonance in that kind of culture, and the world seems dead to us. The world is then, in Rosa’s words, “muted” for us. We want resonance—even if we don’t know how to describe it—but we just can’t get it the way we get the sort of stuff we can engineer. One really can’t have the experience of intimacy with a chatbot that says everything you would want your perfect mate to say.
“Where ‘everything is under control,’ the world no longer has anything to say to us, and where it has become newly uncontrollable, we can no longer hear it, because we cannot reach it,” he writes.
Again, the Bible tells us to expect such. Mouths we construct ourselves can’t speak to us. Idols we can carry can’t deliver us (Jer. 10:5). And even worse, Scripture says that once we turn to our engineerable idols, we become like them (Ps. 135:18)—mute and unable to resonate with a world of meaning.
This, he argues, is the answer to the question of why—despite living in more affluence and technological advance than any generation before us—we live in a time of generalized resentment. Our insistence on controllability and resonance at the same time leaves us with neither, and leaves us unreachable by that which actually could give meaning and purpose. We either become “cool”—unaffected by anything and thus numb to wonder, joy, and love—or we become “hot,” driven by our libidos and then angry or terrified when the world—or our institutions or our culture or our families—can’t meet those expectations.
Paul tells us, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18). Which is to say, sometimes you can’t do much about the anger around you. What you can do, though, is to seek a different way. A life of resonance is one in which you make yourself reachable: you cultivate “ears that hear and eyes that see” (Prov. 20:12).
You can cultivate what makes for true meaning: worship, prayer, community, service, immersion in the Bible—knowing that such things can’t engineer meaning or holiness by your own power, but they can put you in a place in which you can say, as the boy Samuel did from his bedroom, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:9).
And as C. S. Lewis once wrote, the moment you start to find yourself mastering all of that is the moment you lose it, because “it is like taking a red coal out of the fire to examine it; it becomes dead coal.”
If you become the sort of person who seeks, you will find. And if you give up the expectation of a controllable world, you will find yourself less anxious about a world that seems all the more uncontrollable. If you don’t seek ultimate meaning in your career, politics, your relationships, or your culture, you will find that you are less enraged when those things don’t deliver the results we demand. And you will find the freedom to pursue that which truly resonates.
That seems like a contradiction. But remember, Someone once told us that “whoever seeks to pursue his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it” (Luke 17:33). Those who know they are blind are the ones who can see.
We can choose one: mastery or meaning, controllability or calling, resentment or resonance. But pursuing the one means sacrificing the other.
Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.