The new world of anonymity
Fifty-one years ago Harvard theologian Harvey Cox predicted a world of anonymity and mobility. His book The Secular City (Collier-Macmillan, New York: 1965) depicted a secular urban civilization characterized by the breakdown of traditional religion. it's no prophecy now. We're living it every day.
Since Adam and Eve hid in the Garden of Eden humans have desired some measure of personal anonymity. Though totally self-absorbed our species is typically uncomfortable in the limelight. It's no surprise that of the hundreds of phobias us humans most fear speaking in front of a crowd. Since our earliest school days we've practiced invisibility so our names wouldn't be called or so we could blend in unnoticed. Even in a harsh competitive work place shared by a few tiger sharks of the job, the majority of workers want to excel without drawing attention. What is the deal with wanting to be part of the woodwork? Studies indicate several components of our living incognito---
1. Fear: it's a dangerous world out there
2. Embarrassment: others watching and critiquing our lives
3. Freedom of expression: being able to say what we want
4. Character issues we don't want on public display
5. Low self-esteem
6. A desire for personal privacy
7. Freedom of movement, not being observed by anyone
8. Accountability avoidance: who's in charge of our lives
And others, about as individual and peculiar as the personalities that drive us. Though the patterns vary the end result is the same: our quest for personhood and self- actualization is conditioned by a desire to be faceless and nameless, another cipher in the records of human progress.
The digital age proposes a new anonymity that creates ripples in every segment of society, church and family included. There are ingenious screen names, abbreviations, and acronyms behind which our true identities can be camouflaged. The dating and introduction sites can in many ways mask our physical and personality flaws, even when done with honorable intent. On the dark side many illicit enterprises, selling anything from gaming opportunities to sex, disguise users from being identified with their shady activities. Even now Apple Inc. is entangled with government intervention about privacy issues and how to protect the personal information of their iPhone and MAC products. Today life happens at the speed of thought and our citizens are trapped in a world where data is everything but privacy and anonymity is prized. Just to remain anonymous, especially to big brother, is the modern quest.
Anonymity touches faith too. In it's greatest context our spiritual lives are shaped by the glorious knowledge that we are known. J.I. Packer, writing in Knowing God (Intervarsity Press, 1973), clarifies, "What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it---the fact that he knows me." There's no anonymity in this dynamic, personal relationship. And, we cannot ignore the fact that many people just don't want to acknowledge that kind of intimacy with God. Of course, we know there is no hiding from him either.
In the same way, personal faith is nurtured in community, the fellowship that we express in the New Testament church. That earliest church was characterized by intense relationships where they suffered, shared, and knew each other. They had all things in common (see Acts 2:44), which moved them, in my opinion, beyond sharing their physical blessings but also to the point of a mutuality of spirit. As Jesus prayed, they were to be one. Not exactly anonymous.
Even more to the point, biblical faith means that Jesus, our good shepherd, knows us by name. He calls his sheep by name and they follow because they know his voice. This is only possible in an intensely personal relationship where identities are not hidden, but known up close. It is the realization, as J.I. Packer affirms, that I am graven on the palms of his hands and am never out of his mind. There can be no anonymity here.
It's one of the dilemmas of our times, how people so desire anonymity that they remain distant from him and from others of like faith. On the edges of our spiritual landscape are millions with the fears and anxieties of being known.
Into that world he has sent us to make him known, and to be known to them so we can tell them.