Narcissism Gone Wild or Religion 2.0?
by Susan Barreto, editor
Editor’s note: This article originally ran as part of a special edition of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics in November/December 2012 entitled “The Virtual Church: Technology, Ecclesiology, and Ethics” and is published with permission. This article and more can be found at www.elca.org/jle .
A mere decade ago the quickest form of online communication was an AOL Messenger or email. Chat rooms were generally for those who were more tech savvy, while emails were growing in popularity in the business world and in higher education. Now if personal news has not been communicated via Facebook, Twitter, other social media and, to a lesser extent, email, it may be that you are talking to yourself.
We find technology useful on our own terms, but judging its effects on our neighborhood or world is less of a popular undertaking – especially if you are tweeting, texting or posting your opinions to your own exclusive online community that is as real as the neighborhood you live in.
So what does this all mean when it comes to religion? Are people less likely to spend time reading the Bible or attending church as they play with their new technological gadgets? Are younger people tuned out due to their iPods, laptops and cell phones? Is sinful behavior easier to hide in the anonymity of the digital age?
Martin Luther’s definition of sin is pretty straightforward, “Homo in se incurvatus” (turned/curved inward on oneself). This seems like a pretty good benchmark to use when looking at our reliance on technology and particularly the Internet in relation to our faith. This is one of the key points that A.K.M. Adam touched upon lightly in his essay, “The Question Concerning Technology and Religion.” He outlined hypothetical implications where technology diluted religious practice rather than how technology actually shapes an individual’s view of humankind and religious meaning.
Adam’s initial question is a complicated one: “Are computers making us dumber, more globally aware, less religious, more spiritual?” In looking for an answer, he points to a long tradition of religion selectively embracing technology. His view is that ultimately believers will “bring to bear their sense of what is most important and most decisive in their faith.”
Operating in the 21st Century, this might be easier said than done. In navigating the myriad of decisions related to technology by faith communities across the centuries, Adam posits that the world’s religious traditions can find in their own history the guidance they seek in negotiating the oncoming digital transformation.
His focus is valid in assessing where religion and technology intersects in potential faith practices (online worship via avatars, etc.). But the real question in need of answering is whether technology decisions are made first by the religious community or by the religious individual.
Turn off thy iPhone in the sanctuary, please
One week at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago, the gospel lesson was read from an iPhone, the sermon was later posted on Facebook and emails were sent out related to church announcements on various ministries. Is this something that should be worrisome to those of us in the pews?
Adams says that in cases of dividing a line between tolerable technology and impermissible uses of technology it depends on the reasoning about the nature of humans. We tend to be a selfish lot, if Facebook is any indication. But does this mean we go the way of the Amish or Hasidic Judaism in order to avoid any self-inflicted, sinful slip-ups?
Not necessarily. In worship and faithful reflection technology can enhance the religious experience. While chatting on a cell phone during worship is probably not productive, using an iPad to access the gospel lesson may be an easy way to enhance the worship experience. Listening to music on the iPod may aid in contemplative prayer at home as well, although Steve Jobs surely never had these uses in mind.
Lutheran theologian Dr. Philip Hefner sees the use and creation of technology as not only a human enterprise, but a God infused enterprise. He writes: “If we are to speak of religion, it must be a religion that encompasses the human life that is cyborg and technosapiens. It cannot merely be a religious way of dealing with technology, as if technology were somehow external to who we are.”1
Technology in Hefner’s eyes is not something to be feared or curtailed, but it is a part of God’s purposes for humanity. In looking at popular science fiction films such as Steven Spielberg’s AI, one can see humans creating technology that then ponders itself and its creators. Technology is indeed a mirror into humanity showing that we, too, ponder our situation, but at the same time are able to create via technology. This fundamental nature of humans – of bringing new possibilities into existence – gives one a glimpse of the nature of God, according to Hefner.
Worshiping in the presence of robots or via avatars does little to take away our humanity or God’s nature in our being. It may simply be a new way of viewing ourselves, but our image is still that of God’s no matter what mask, costume, or click of the button may enhance our earthly experience.
Tweets, texts and faith
Others fear that technology has greater power to divide humanity rather than gather us together. Perhaps this has been the greatest fear of the Amish, who have relied on horse and buggy in traveling to church rather than the automobile, an invention they see as dividing communities.
To some degree the Amish fears are correct. If it wasn’t for the car there wouldn’t be fast food, which often replaces the traditional evening family meal in America. There wouldn’t be suburbs or mega-cities, where it is rare to know one’s neighbors and on and on. All this, though, oversimplifies the powerful force that social media has in bringing far flung communities of faith together on a frequent basis.
For instance, in one church community it is possible to keep tabs on other congregation members via Facebook and email. If there is a project for feeding the homeless, the effort may be organized via Google docs and a separate online calendar. Congregants may be on several email lists for topics ranging from bible study groups and prayer chains to Sunday School announcements. News of congregation members between Sundays facilitates hospital visits, meal deliveries and prayers that wouldn’t have been done as quickly if church members relied on word of mouth and telephone calls.
Personal growth in the faith is also enhanced. Sermons are also delivered via Facebook and on a blog maintained by the pastor. Youth groups organize activities via email and Facebook. Online study guides and other references can be useful for devotions at home or in turn may even spark a new bible study group!
But is all this new ‘at a click of a button’ community making us curve inward as was Luther’s concern for the church? What do our Facebook posts say about us? Are we narcissists posting only photos of ourselves, or are we relaying messages for the greater good of worldwide community? Both are possibilities on an hourly and daily basis.
We may find bragging and social commentary in tweets as well, tucked in between messages of repeated pop culture sayings or quotes from our favorite political pundits. It is easy to adopt these thoughts as our own and spread them across the World Wide Web in a matter of minutes.
Adams says in his essay that as humans grow accustomed to particular technologies, they tend to associate that technology with their own identity, which can present dangers. Does this mean ‘I tweet therefore I am’? Perhaps we have become obsessed with communicating our thoughts with the world, but is this over-sharing simply a projection of who we are as humans?
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin illustrated the uniqueness of humanity via a term called the ‘noosphere.’ The nooshphere or the ‘sphere of human thought’ was introduced by Teilhard de Chardin in 1922 in his book Cosmogenesis.2 Noosphere is described as an atmospheric layer, although some may see connections to the Internet or in the development of open source software that do not connect us physically but unite us in how we share our thoughts.
“Much more coherent and just as extensive as any preceding layer, it is really a new layer, the ‘thinking layer’, which, since its germination at the end of Tertiary period, has spread over and above the world of plants and animals. In other words, outside and above the biosphere is the noosphere,” wrote de Chardin of our unique evolution into consciousness and culture.3 It is what we do in this noosphere that determines humanity’s future.
Social justice in a cybernetic world
Identifying ourselves as having a propensity to be self-centered and curious tells us a lot about how we rely on technology. This reality though leads to pondering whether religion is obsolete if we find that our technology prolongs our lives and our community is more virtual than real. Recent and ongoing examples of relevant concerns can be found in the areas of artificial intelligence, transhumanism, biotechnology and our ongoing pursuit of perfection.
Artificial intelligence demonstrated by the creation of IBM’s chess-playing Deep Blue and Watson show that for all the computing power we have at our fingertips, machines have yet to fully mimic the human mind. According to IBM, its computer named Watson was selected to play Jeopardy as a test of the machine’s capabilities because it relied on human cognitive abilities that are traditionally accumulated from a lifetime of participation in human interaction and decision making along with an immersion in pop culture. The project showed just how difficult it was for a machine to win a trivia game show. Knowing facts did not translate into making subtle and complex logical connections, let alone discerning double meanings of words.
Comparing machines to the intricate workings of the human mind can be a weighty undertaking. Professor of Philosophy and Religion Gregory Peterson quips, “We are not, it turns out, deeply spiritual beings but merely sophisticated and somewhat clunky calculators.”4 If our mind is just a calculator that can be tweaked and perfected in technology, what does this say about faith? Peterson finds the language of cognitive science very telling, particularly as we describe our brains as being ‘hard-wired’ and computers having ‘viruses.’ The real ongoing debate among futurists and sadly less among theologians is where the machine in the future will begin and the human body/mind end.
This idea of man and machine combined also comes to play in discussing transhumanism and nanotechnology. These technologies ultimately become social justice issues as it is unlikely that all will have access to the same potentially life-extending technology. Transhumanism is defined as a movement that “affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical and psychological capacities.”
Technology as a tool for longevity and perfection does seem to be in reach. But if we are made in the image of God, does that image need re-imagining? Some may say without a doubt we could and should strive for perfection. But for theologians like Dr. Hefner this movement shows our great confidence that any disease can be conquered if only the scientific research is brought into the picture.5
Nanotechnology is also touted as a potential way to do away with human suffering. This technology actually changes the molecular structure of things in order that they may perform different functions than they have previously. Religious thinkers have done little to engage in a conversation of what this technology means for humanity’s future.
Those with religious beliefs have traditionally been critical of science and technology, according to Chris Toumey, a cultural anthropologist.6 These individuals usually have a lower level of education as well. Toumey finds that nanotechnology could be a formula for disagreement and controversy should religious leaders not educate themselves about the science behind the technology and in turn engage in a wider discussion of what the potential uses are for nanotechnology devices.
In embracing nanotechnology products, whether it is a cleaning solution or a high-tech pair of socks, may be less controversial than militaristic inventions, but the thought process in considering their value is the same. Using Luther’s benchmark, are these offerings causing us to curve inward or are they bringing us closer together with those within and outside the church community?
Technology has the possibility of improving humanity’s chances of surviving and thriving on this third planet from the sun. It also has the potential of dividing humans from one another and destroying lives. Technology may dangerously be viewed as a saving grace in lieu of religion, but in combination with an understanding of religion it can provide a rich contribution to our lives. Its use must be responsible, however. If it causes us to trust our own abilities rather than God’s grace, to rely on our opinions more than the support of a real community, or to separate ourselves from others – we need to question whether the end justifies the means.
Should religious leaders decide to ignore some technologies and embrace other tools, they need to ask themselves if they have been separated from those very things that make us human. More importantly they have missed an opportunity to lend a voice to the discussion of humanity’s shared future.
1. Philip Hefner, Technology and Human Becoming, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003) 78.
2. Wikipedia, “Noosphere.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noosphere (Accessed on October 12, 2012).
3. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, trans. Bernard Wall, (New York: Harper Collins, 2002) 182.
4. Gregory R. Peterson, Minding God: Theology and the Cognitive Sciences (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003) 4.
5. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. (Covalence), “Transhumanism: A Q&A with Philip Hefner,” http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Faith-Science-and-Technology/Covalence/Profiles/Phil-Hefner.aspx (accessed October 19, 2012).
6. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. (Covalence), “Vice and Virtue Among the Molecules,” http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Faith-Science-and-Technology/Covalence/Features/Virtue-and-Vice-among-the-Molecules.aspx (Accessed October 19, 2012).
Covalence, December 2012/January 2013