Digital Religion

by rthieme on December 1, 1997

Islands in the ClickstreamIf we take a step back from our own religious beliefs and observe them for a moment, we can see that they show up in our minds and imaginations as images and symbols. It follows that the technologies that manipulate and generate those symbols have a profound impact on the content of our religious lives.

This is true of religious organizations and institutions as well as the psychic contents of our religious experience.

It has become trite in business circles to speak of the transformation of organizational structures and the need to “work smarter.” That phrase is seldom defined. It seems to mean anything from making yourself open somehow to flashes of intuitive genius to learning how to do things you don’t know how to do. It’s a scary phrase because most of us think we are being as smart as we can and if we could have fuel-injected our intelligence we would have done so in fifth grade, just to get that teacher off our backs.

Telling people to become “coaches” rather than managers, when that command is not accompanied by the patient training and mentoring that enables them to do that, is like telling us to work smarter. Educational circles are rife with anxiety as schools confront the need for training as a budget item at least as important as buying hardware and software and setting it up.

Still, educators and businesspersons alike can feel in their bones the extraordinary impact of the computer revolution, even if they can’t yet articulate its real depth. We know that the virtualization of organizational life means more people are working everywhere in the world from anywhere in the world and the task of using digital symbols to manage them — via wired and wireless networks — makes oversight of those amorphous, shape-shifting structures a real challenge.

If we know that is happening in the world of work and education, we have merely to widen the circle of our understanding to realize that the same thing is happening in religious organizations and communities.

This is relevant even to those who care nothing for religion or spirituality because the cosmic mythology of a culture or civilization determines its values, behaviors, and perceptual lenses. How we think about the universe and our place in it determines our possibilities for action, and that in turn is determined by the structure of our information technologies.

If we accept Hindu hierarchies, for example, and our place in them, we accept what it is possible for us to think and do with our lives. That structured thinking is not far from the way western European Christians thought about society before technological change turned the medieval worldview and its great chain of being on its ear.

Or we can note that it was probably not an accident that all of the great religious founders or patriarchs of contemporary religions — Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, Lao Tzu — emerged during a narrow bandwidth of historical time that corresponded with the emergence of writing. They were translated, in effect, from flesh-and-blood individuals into “textual beings,” and it was in and through the text that their followers or disciples encountered the “person” of their guru or their god. Those gods were structured by the parameters of text, disclosing possibilities for human life that the receding horizon of the text made available. Those possibilities literally did not exist in the world before writing.

Oral cultures have smaller vocabularies, seldom more than 40,000 words, and those words exist only when spoken. That limited vocabulary defines the boundaries of the world and the self that perceives the world.

Walter Ong, a Jesuit theologian, notes that the Roman Catholic practice of “self-examination prior to confession” did not exist before the printing press. The explosion of English, for example, to more than a million words, meant that the self coming to confession could observe itself in more subtle detail. That self literally did not exist before it could see and say what it saw through the lens of expanded language. Ong concludes that the printing press generated a new kind of self-conscious self that in the process of self-examination and confession overcame the alienation that the technology itself had also generated.

Information technologies distance us from ourselves, one another, and our gods and at the same time make available the means for greater communion among those more nuanced selves. But the new self is genuinely transformed, unimaginable from within the parameters of the prior technology. The new self includes and transcends all that came before.

Electronic media are generating in an analogous way new selves and the means by which those selves will come into new kinds of community. Interaction with digital technologies is changing who we are and how we experience ourselves as possibilities for action.

This means that the images of our deities are being transformed as well. We are learning to encounter the persons of our gods as well as other people in and through the transformative experience of digital interaction. As technology makes available immersive 3D virtual environments, the structures of our religious experience and organizations will continue to morph.

Digital images of our gods will be evolutionary, modular, and interactive, with theologies that follow suit. I explore some of their qualities in “Digital Revelation,” a much-abbreviated piece in the current Wired (Dec 1997). The email list “Real Toads,” available at the ThiemeWorks web site, is a new interactive forum for exploring possibilities for virtual communities.

As the strands of many oral traditions fed into the religions we can name, the strands of our current religious traditions are flowing into the fractal landscape of emergent religious experience in the digital world. What we call “spirituality” — the tools that more or less work to keep us more or less sane — will also be shaped by the contours of the digital world. And so will the images of ultimate meaning, power, and possibility around which our new distributed communities coalesce.

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