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Issue Date:  February 11, 2005

The face we see in the digital mirror

How technology is changing religion


I am a middle-age man who grew to maturity in a world of text, immersed in a typographic sea. I read endlessly and began writing stories as a teen.

When I tried to find a market for those stories, I turned to a standard reference, Writer’s Market, to locate magazines. Now, that sounds like an obvious thing to do, but it’s not. That book, the Writer’s Market, was itself a textual artifact that clearly defined my horizons of possibility. I internalized the information in it -- markets in North America, markets to which I could send stories typed on paper by mail -- as the limits of my vision.

Flash forward to the early ’90s, when I wrote an article for Wired Magazine about the impact of the Internet. They printed 500 words and gave back 4,500. I sat in front of my word processor, hooked up to a telephone modem, wondering where I could send an article using those extra words.

Then the light bulb went on. Duh. I could use the Internet to find markets for my article about the Internet.

I surfed the nascent Web and located magazines in South Africa, England and Australia. I offered articles by e-mail and within a week had contracts and had become a writer with a global presence.

Now, this is the point: That light bulb would never have gone on, I would never have discovered possibilities that shattered my old vision and disclosed those new horizons, had I not engaged with the technology and allowed it to disclose those possibilities. The technology itself over time restructured my beliefs.

That sounds obvious now, 10 years later, but then it was revolutionary. The breakthrough came when I realized that I was using the new technology like the old technology, as if a word processor were a typewriter, as if new wine could be squeezed into old wineskins. After I had engaged with the medium for a time, the information implicit in the transaction itself broke through to my conscious mind and I had an epiphany.

That’s what technologies are doing, too, to our notions of spirituality, our religious and spiritual practices and the organizational structures of our religions.

When we find ourselves blessed or cursed to live in a period of a genuine transformation -- not just a time of accelerated change, but a time of elemental restructuring -- it is hard to speak about the implications of that restructuring for our most cherished religious traditions, symbols and beliefs because they feel like skin on the bone and changes in them feel like a threat to our very being rather than an evolutionary necessity.

But transformations will happen, and afterward, when the skin is gone but the bone stays, when our essential selves and spiritual commitments stay, only then will we see that God is still God and cannot be equated to the image of God or idea about God to which we became so inordinately attached.

In this brief exploration of the impact of information and communication technologies on religious life, I hope to distinguish skin and bone.

The impact of these transforming technologies on our identities cannot be overstated. In turn, our identities -- who we think we are when we don’t even think about it -- determine what we believe we are capable of being and doing. Identity is destiny, and our technologies, by defining those identities, frame the parameters of our lives, disclose our horizons.

How does this happen? The way Ernest Hemingway said we go bankrupt -- gradually, then suddenly. We never see what’s obvious until it is unavoidable. When Clyde Tombaugh discovered the planet Pluto and told the world where to find it, astronomers searched through old photographic plates to look for the coordinates of Pluto’s orbit. Sure enough, there the planet was and there it always had been, right in front of their eyes. But no one saw it because they didn’t know where to look.

The foundations of our religious traditions are undergoing a profound transformation, but we are still using word processors as if they are typewriters.

New era in communication

This is the fourth great era of the Technology of the Word, as theologian Jesuit Fr. Walter Ong calls it. The first was the era of speech and the co-evolution of tongue, larynx, pharynx and brain, which enabled us to create that first “virtual space,” something like the one we are inhabiting as I write and you read these words. The creation of linguistic symbols, and the creation of a meaningful universe from those symbols, in which we then live as if it is real, made us humans.

Speaking humans lived in oral cultures for thousands of years, populating a vast unknown prehistory that existed before writing. When writing emerged, everything from oral cultures either disappeared or found itself translated into written form.

We know that religious images, artifacts and rituals were part of oral cultures, but we only know those images and words that were translated into written symbols. That may sound obvious, but the implications are important. It is not coincidental that the persons associated with the world’s major religions as we currently define them -- Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Abraham, Moses, Muhammad and all the others -- emerged into human consciousness through the written word, which transformed our ancestors, and the internalized images of self and God formed as they engaged with written text. In every instance, a flesh-and-blood human being was transformed through writing into a “textual being,” a being with whom or which we engage in and through the text. Theology implicitly became hermeneutics, the study of how texts mean, because interaction with written texts forms an image distinctive to the technology that created the text.

It is also no coincidence that world religions like our “majors” ceased to emerge once the era of writing passed, except as subsets of prior religions.

When the printing press with movable type was invented, another revolution took place. The unique historical person Martin Luther may have been essential to the Reformation, but the being we call “Luther” is a print-text being mediated by type, just as Jesus is a textual being mediated initially by writing. But print text and the changes to which it contributed, including the Renaissance, generated a different sense of self and, once again, different notions of God. The fractal-like replication of Catholicism in the image of Protestantism was a prototype for how hundreds of additional denominations or religions would be generated, an inevitable consequence of the power printed text gave to people to recreate themselves. The Reformation is literally unimaginable prior to the emergence of the printing press, and those who used it to print the Bible, like Gutenberg himself, had no idea what a revolution had begun. Gutenberg would have been horrified to know what he had spawned. When he first printed the Bible, however, only 2 percent of Europe’s population could read, so it would have been impossible to forecast religious practices based on people reading silently to themselves and learning thereby a method of personal interpretation that was as alien to the prior culture as the notion of an individual with rights, intellectual property or all of the other emergent properties of the Renaissance that are now being challenged by electronic communication.

In the same way that “individuals” with “individual rights” were an emergent property of technological change, “a personal relationship with God” became possible only after an “individual” could think of himself/herself and God as distinct beings, neither mediated by a community. Paradoxically, biblical literalism emerged relatively recently and the “original text” to which it claims to be loyal is one interpretation among many that developed centuries after the fact.

William Caxton brought the printing press to the British Isles in the 1470s. When he looked back in his 60s on several decades of profound change, he wrote that he could barely recognize the landscape of his youth, so radically had it been altered. But he was not speaking only of moors and downs, he was speaking of the interior landscape and the transformation of identity through which he had lived.

On a fundamental level, the choice of a dialect with which to print helped determine an “English” identity rather than identities based on smaller populations, each speaking a distinct language that they did not see as a dialect. They experienced themselves as a single people with regional dialects only when a supra-identity defined by a nation-state had emerged.

In the same way, according to Marshall McLuhan, Catholics and Protestants would never have seen themselves as a single tradition before television created ecumenism, just as the word “Judeo-Christian” did not exist before the second half of the 20th century.

Beyond the nation-state

A nation-state, like a global religious organization, is defined by a boundary drawn around a more complex unit that organizes political, economic and social life at a higher level of abstraction. Nation-states emerged after the Renaissance in part as a consequence of the print-text revolution because society demanded organizational structures appropriate to a higher level of complexity. The speed of the flow of information is a primary determinant of the organizational level of a society or civilization. The transformational engine of electronic communication is now challenging national boundaries, but we do not yet have names for the fluid, modular way of life with rapidly morphing identities that is replacing a prior way of being.

Think of time-lapse photography on fast-forward and think of nation-states, religions, everything changing in relationship to the technologies that generate and sustain them. The England of the preceding paragraphs is now part of “Europe,” passports are no longer examined at borders that are more than porous, and most of Europe uses the Euro instead of a national currency.

The fourth iteration of the Technology of the Word, electronic communication in all forms, began with the telegraph, the first time human communication moved faster than people (or their animals and artifacts) could move. It continued with radio, television, wired and wireless transmission and now the Internet, the most recent iteration and the one most in the forefront of our awareness.

Langdon Winner, a professor of political science in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, studies the political and social implications of technological change. This is what Winner said about the impact of technology on people and society:

To invent a new technology requires that society also invent the kinds of people who will use it; older practices, relationships and ways of defining people’s identities fall by the wayside and new practices, relationships and identities take root. In case after case, the move to computerize and digitize means many preexisting cultural forms have suddenly gone liquid, losing their former shape as they are retailored for computerized expression.

When we translate his insights into implications for religious organizations and images of identity, human self and God, we see that this radical restructuring must profoundly impact who we think we are, how we imagine God and how we define our experience of ultimate meaning. “Reading the Bible” does not port or translate to an experience of immersion in an iconic flow of information in a virtual environment. The latter experience is generating dimensions of the human soul that did not previously exist, and when we try to say what we see, what we experience ourselves to be, we will need to invent a new vocabulary.

Pioneers of the spirit, as Nietzsche noted, are those who see first what is coming over the horizon and give it a name that the rest of us then use as if they created what in fact they merely discovered. It was impossible to predict precisely how the encounter of Greek and Hebrew worlds would create Christianity because it was unthinkable inside both of the prior paradigms.

In a more mundane way, when the U.S. government wanted to encourage people to fly on airplanes then subsidized by the government for delivering mail, it needed to change the word “aeronaut,” which designated the bold, courageous pioneers who were willing to fly. They needed a word into which everyone could project his or her identity and came up with “passenger,” a word we now use unselfconsciously to refer to an activity we take for granted. In the same way, astronauts going into space will be replaced by space tourists and travelers, and Christians, Jews, Buddhists and all the others will find new names for the new spiritual modalities and religious structures we are generating in networks and electronic webs.

The digital era

Let’s call them DPs (digital people, as opposed to print-text people). DPs will interact less and less frequently with images of print-text gods (that is, worship) and more and more often with images of gods-in-pixels in a world in which information is dynamic and distributed, gathered, integrated and recreated on the fly. As digital symbols, icons and glyphs replace printed images, the meaning of processes like “redemption” and “salvation,” now locked into nouns that imply a static state, will be transformed, too. Process theology will inevitably gain momentum because it will describe a cosmic structure congruent with our daily experience of this ceaseless flow. We recreate ourselves in and through the forms and structures of our technologies; the digital world is interactive, modular and fluid, so inevitably our lives and how we think of ourselves are becoming interactive, modular and fluid, too.

Think of the common spiritual practice of “journaling,” for example. Journaling began when people like James Boswell participated in the discovery and creation of a different kind of sensibility and self by using pen and paper to bring it into being. Today, bloggers engage in a web of self-discovery that older generations dismiss as shallow, but the collective self they are co-creating is in fact appropriate to the technology. When William Harvey described the circulation of blood, it is a historical fact that no physician over 40 ever accepted his theory. In religious life, too, new revelations are accepted one funeral at a time, but along a much longer timeline. Generations must pass away before the new sun can rise and shine.

In more mundane aspects of our lives, however, this impact cannot be avoided. Aspects of our lives that used to be unthinkably accepted as fixed by tradition, for example, have become modules in a self-generated persona or trajectory for which we are increasingly required to accept responsibility. Teaching children to learn how to learn is more important than teaching children stuff. Teaching children how to assemble themselves in an ongoing way is more important than teaching them how to live in a fixed and rigid way in a context that refuses to remain stable and thereby undermines that very fixity.

We used to be born into a religion, for example, and now we change religions and “shop for churches.” We used to stay married, but more and more people divorce and remarry. We used to choose a vocation and stay with it, but now we expect to have several careers in a lifetime. In every dimension of our lives, that which we took for granted as divinely ordained was in fact determined by an unvarying context for our lives, and it is that very context that our technologies undermine and transform. Then new contents inevitably flow into the new contours generated by a new context.

Changing face of Christianity

So the question is not will new technologies, and specifically digital ones, turn religious, political and economic structures on their collective ears, but will our identities persist in a recognizable form that includes and transcends the forms that came before? Or will there be such a disconnect that when we look into the digital mirror, the face we see does not resemble the one we used to see?

Just as many Jews and Christians look differently on their shared symbols and traditions, with Jews emphasizing the differences that make them distinct and Christians emphasizing the shared heritage that links them, new religious organizations and institutions will include and transcend our current structures according to those inside them but will constitute an unacceptably radical shift for those in the older structures.

I once identified the MOOs and MUSHes emerging in primitive cyberspace (multiplayer online games originally created in text) as the brackish tidewaters where new spiritual life was likely to emerge. Their descendents, multi-player online gaming communities like Everquest with hundreds of thousands of participants, have fulfilled my predictions. Spirituality and religious quests permeate those gaming environments and usually draw on various Neo-Pagan spiritualities that seem to be prevalent in hacker communities -- yes, hackers often have a deep interest in spirituality, but it is usually expressed through nontraditional religions such as Wicca. Games include spells, rites, rituals, incantations and numerous religious classes of avatars like monks, spiritual warriors and warlocks. Asian disciplines, too, are mined for the spiritual implications of martial arts. Although Catholic traditions would work equally well, the flavor of exotic martial arts and the dissemination of its forms through movies (when was the last time you saw Christian warriors portrayed positively in a movie?) appeals more to young people than an Ignatian retreat or Benedictine discipline.

The implications of this article are not trivial. We are moving together, like it or not, through a zone of annihilation that challenges all of the ways we hold ourselves as human beings and possibilities for action in the world. The transformational energies of our time will become a firestorm when core proclamations about our beliefs begin to smoke and burn.

If Christianity is to embrace and be transformed by those energies, it will necessarily become something other than what it has been or at least what it has been thought to be. Perhaps claims to exclusivity and universality will survive the fire, but perhaps not. Perhaps those claims will both intensify and diminish, intensify because some can’t help but cling to the past and diminish because we are all nevertheless being re-contextualized in a way that will remind us unceasingly that the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon. We can make this passage with sanity only if we know and have confidence that God is God and will defend Godself and cannot perish, while everything in this life, including our ideas about God, is transitory and passing.

Richard Thieme, author of Island in the Clickstream, speaks professionally, writes and consults on the human side of technology and the workplace. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005

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