Computer Power and the Power of God

by rthieme on January 18, 1998

originally published in The Christian Century

Computer Power and the Power of God


Richard Thieme

Four years ago, I wrote an essay on computer applications for spirituality. As I discussed specific applications, I realized that something more essential than the generation of new forms for traditional contents was taking place, namely, the transformation of consciousness that always attends the emergence of a new information technology. If it is true that writing did not merely add a tool to the repertoire of our ancestors, but changed in essential ways how they experienced themselves, and that the invention of the printing press subsequently did the same, then it follows that the revolution in information technology is also the occasion of a new self-consciousness, formed by our interaction with electronic media.

Computer applications, therefore, which mediate religious experience–particularly educational and tutorial programs–will engender new kinds of religious experience because the self having the experience is changed by interaction with the electronic medium.

The next step should have been the use of some of these new applications–expert systems for isolated clergy, for example, or sophisticated guides to self-examination before confession. But where are the applications? Has anything of substance been developed in the last few years?

The business side of organized religion has enthusiastically embraced computer technology. Programs for financial management and membership abound. As with other spreadsheets and databases, they’ve become friendlier, cheaper, and laden with new features. There are plenty of Bibles and concordances for PCs, too. But the programs that will have the greatest impact on individual spirituality–interactive narrative, spiritual direction, and simulation–are nowhere in evidence. Religious educators abound on television, video tape, and satellite teleconferences, but not on CD-ROM or floppy discs.

Why aren’t there interactive religious narratives? In part because all kinds of interactive narrative, such as Infocom’s innovative games of the 1980s, turned out to be too specialized. Computer hobbyists loved them, but they never caught on with a mass market. Interactive text games are available for little or no cost on bulletin boards or, more rarely, from commercial publishers of hypertext novels, but the quality is not up to Infocom’s standards. Interactive fiction in the mass market has mostly gone the way of fantasy adventure: the stories are full of puzzles to solve, and there are lots of colors, digitized conversations, and clever animation, but the stories are repetitive and relatively simple. The depth and complexity of the Infocom games are rarely attained, much less surpassed.

The expense of developing entertainment programs has increased dramatically in the last decade. An entire Infocom game could be produced by one person, who wrote the narrative and the code, whereas current adventures, short on text but big on splashy graphics, are brought to market by large teams through a lengthy, expensive process. The marketplace has determined that clever animated cartoons tied up in knots of tough puzzles will make the most money, so that’s what we have.

In addition, traditional forms of spirituality seldom appeal to young “power users.” If they have a religious bent at all, they are likely to be conservative in religious thinking, thus unlikely to explore religious programs with the same spirit of openness that they bring to other kinds of applications. If they are alienated from or indifferent to traditional religions, they may respond positively only to programs wrapped in “New Age” packaging. Programs in the mass market which might be considered “spiritual,” such as guides for intuitive decision-making, are based on the I Ching or other excursions into realms of Jungian synchronicity. Some programs, purporting to be explorations of inner space, are authored by gurus like Timothy Leary. The “wise old men and women” of the Judeo-Christian tradition do not seem motivated to channel their energy or wisdom into computer programs.

Computer programs for spiritual direction and simulations will be devloped, I believe, but they will probably appear first on the boundaries and will be ignored or rejected by the mainstream members of both the religious and electronic information establishments. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, the religious establishment did not race to embrace the technology which subsequently transformed human civilization. Religious book publishing is a huge business today, of course, but it wasn’t always. It will likely take time for a generation as familiar with computers as others were with books to explore the interior life with maturity and discernment and then to make the fruits of that exploration available in a computer program. Perhaps one day a significant number of users will download a program from a bulletin board because it has a catchy name and discover an opportunity for spiritual growth which has real value and power. Then the user base might develop which could support the mass marketing of religious programs.

Programs for spiritual direction will probably be created by programmers with limited skills, whose expertise lies more in the domain of religious experience. I think of clergy who have learned to survive and even thrive in a rapidly changing religious environment. They walk a tightrope between flexibility and adaptability, on the one hand, and fidelity to the real essentials of their traditions on the other. Such persons will need tools that facilitate the creation of sophisticated programs–expert system shells, for example, for building personal assistants for clergy.

Simulations, too, made with beginning game-making tools such as the Adventure Game Toolkit, might appeal to clergy with a comprehensive grasp of the dynamics of life in religious communities. SimCity and SimEarth are successful because they entertain enormously while teaching users to manage a universe of complex interacting variables. Why not SimParish or SimSynagogue? Imagine a simulation of religious communities of various levels of complexity. The different kinds of persons in the community could all play out their roles while events, ranging from unexpected deaths to personnel problems, are interwoven with subtlety and verisimilitude. The act of building such a simulation would itself be a powerful learning experience for the team of lay and clergy who do it. And both lay and clergy would benefit when they played different roles and experienced the community from a variety of perspectives.

Meanwhile, some branches of science, such as Chaos, have been popularized by computers because affordable desktop PCs have the memory and graphics capabilities to allow us to explore what was once forbidden territory. These explorations generate new metaphors and images of the spiritual quest. Chaos has given us fractals, for example, which are rendered on desktop PCs in great beauty and complexity. Fractals are geometric forms generated by iteration from simple formulas that resemble a remarkable variety of natural phenomena. Fractals are self-similar at all scales. Those attuned to the recursive dynamics of the spiritual life, which is more like a rising spiral than a repetitive circle if we liken it to a geometric form, recognize in fractals an image of the dynamic processes of spiritual growth. Some believe the universe itself is a recursive structure, the physical world manifesting its great complexity and diversity by virtue of the recursive application of a few simple rules. If this is true, then all of creation is self-similar in all domains as well as at all scales. (In other words, fractals mirror both the shape of things “out there” and the structure of the domains of human knowledge which define them; each time we make another distinction about the nature of things, the tree of knowledge branches in our collective consciousness while simultaneously things we see or know “out there” appear to branch as well).

Using a fractal such as the Mandelbrot set as a metaphor of spiritual growth is also a way to honor the integrity and uniqueness of each religious tradition while acknowledging at the same time that each tradition is a variation of a single paradigm–a paradigm of paradigms.

Whether through the development of new metaphors for religious experience or through the development of specific applications, the “space” created by computers is an invitation to explore spirituality in new and exciting ways. The time will surely come when such exploration is the norm.

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