IT | Church | Culture Meeting, Carey Baptist College, Auckland, New Zealand
1 November, 2003
Copyright © 2003, Stephen Garner
"Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we don't have to experience it."
- Kim Stanley Robinson, The Martians, 1999.
This is not the talk I had originally intended to give. That talk was concerned with the appropriation of religious stories by technologists to describe the interaction with both technology and spirituality. It would have talked about technologists using the ideas of French Jesuit theologian and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to interpret the evolution of the Internet; it would have discussed virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier talking about the relationship between Buddhism and virtual reality; it would have mentioned the techno-pagans, who mix cutting edge technology with neo-pagan practices; and it would have talked about Gnostic tendencies within various IT fields, with quests for the transcendence of the body and the pursuit of existence as "pure information." These things will have to wait for another day.
This talk contains some of my thoughts as I grapple with the question: How should the people of God, and individuals within that community, live in a technocultural world? In some respects it is the same question that has been asked by people all through the history of our faith when faced with any socio-cultural situation. Both Old and New Testaments continually ask similar questions when faced with the cultures of their day, whether it be Canaanite or Corinthian. What I want to do in this talk is to look at what things a techno-cultural spirituality might have within itself. It is nowhere near a definitive list but offers some areas to consider.
Firstly let us consider technology - a multi-faceted term. It can mean the artifacts that are manufactured (e.g. a fire or a shoe), the processes and knowledge for making artifacts, or the culture and the set of attitudes and presuppositions that support and advance the previous two aspects. Together all these aspects make up what one might call 'technoculture.' In our society technology, as Susan White puts it, "has become the matrix of our ordinary living." Similarly Stephen Monsma notes that
technology and its results are so much with us that, like the air we breathe, their presence and effects go unnoticed and unanalyzed. As a result modern technology and all it entails are often accepted by default, with few questioning what life would be like if humankind performed tasks and attained goals by other means.
Donna Haraway sees that our understanding or perception of the traditional divisions between human and machine, organism and mechanism has disappeared in this environment.
Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.
So then, if technology (to misquote the apostle Paul) is that in which we "live and move and have our being", how then should we do that living in a way that is faithful to the gospel and the grace of Jesus Christ? Can we do that effectively and authentically when we are, as novelist William Gibson puts it, "wrapped in media"?
Spirituality is something of a broad and somewhat nebulous term in today's society. For some it means the opposite of religion or traditional church structures, for others it is recognizing the divine in the everyday, and still for others it can be simply wisdom for living. For myself, I take spirituality to be the integration of one's faith, especially intellectually, with everyday life and experience. All aspects of one's life are shaped by one's understanding of God, of grace and how we respond to that. It is more than just intellectual assent to theological propositions but the outworking of those and the experience of God in practical and very real ways. Praxis, within our Western technoculture, also shapes our theology and our lives.
So our spirituality becomes "techno-spirituality" - the integration of our faith and beliefs with the everyday world, technoculture. And this new kind of spirituality needs to incorporate a Christian world-view, relational dimensions with respect to God, others and creation, ethical dimensions by necessity, and technoculture itself.
Christianity and technology
One of the first things to realize is that Christianity has been interacting with technology and its effects and images for its entire existence. To be human appears to be, in part, tied up with making things. In creating things that allow us to transcend our own limitations and to either distance ourselves from or control the natural world. So much so that some argue that being made the "image of God" in Genesis 1 means that we are driven to create because we are made in the image of the Creator. The Bible abounds with technological imagery and concerns. From the Tower of Babel where humankind's quest for transcendence is seen as rebellion against God through to Revelation where the Heavenly City, a technological artifact, that is redeemed by God and seen as a good place for humanity to dwell. Jesus' parables also draw on the technologies of the day to make his points.
Christian responses to technology tend to fall into one of three camps. Firstly that technology's advantages are outweighed by it's adverse effects and technological advance should be treated suspiciously. Others see technology as part and parcel of God's grace being worked out in the world and see it in a far more positive light. And many Christians simply live in a state of ignorance or ambiguity with it, until such time as it directly affects their lives (e.g. a pacemaker or the replacement of their local bank branch with Internet and telephone banking).
What a techno-spirituality should include is an awareness of technology and it's effects upon our faith, our communities and our world and allows us to engage with it and integrate it into our lives in a way that honors God and his Kingdom here on earth and is not a syncretistic amalgam of technoculture and faith. The following points are things I think are helpful in doing this.
Firstly, in Luke 4:18-19 Jesus proclaims,
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
This, for me, is one of the touchstones of what it means to be a follower of Christ. To be working towards the preaching of the good news to the poor, who we shall see later may be the "informationally poor", and working for the liberation of people into the fullness of eternal life starting now - life before death. Integrating technology into those goals fits within the broad understanding of a techno-spirituality that doesn't view technology uncritically. It's not so much "what PC would Jesus use?" as "does our use of technology here actually get in the way of the gospel - explicitly or implicitly?" The implications of this go right to our Western lifestyle choices.
A second issue is the question of the nature of physicality in the Christian faith. Traditionally, the Christian faith has been seen as incarnational, both in the person of Jesus Christ and in the things that his disciples are called to do. The sharing of common meals and worship, working with the poor and needy and of face-to-face encounters with others. Sociologist David Lyon notes that the rise of technologies like email, chat rooms and the world wide web has lead to the development of "excarnational" living. This is where our encounters with others become "mediated" through technology with the result that something of our humanity, be it body language or physical presence, is lost. Yet at the same time technology poses the opportunity for people to build communities (or at least communicate) with others from many different locations. The rise of "blogging" (online interactive web journals) would be an example of this.
Several of the concerns here that I see are a marginalizing of the human body and ultimately creation similar to Gnosticism, the loss of local community (you knows people from all around the globe but don't know the neighbors over the fence), and the dehumanizing effect of developing technological bureaucracies where people are simple "clients" or resources rather than flesh and blood persons.
Given our "fish-like" existence in the "water" of technology it maybe that we have been colonized by technology as much as we have chosen to adopt it. Technology and humanity have been layered in such as way as to create an alloy - the cyborg or in this case the cyborg church. In his book "Liquid Church" Pete Ward looks at how these mediating technologies might support the growth of new postmodern Christian communities. He notes that cell phone text messaging might be a glue that holds some communities together, but he also notes that text messaging is often carried out between communities of people who have first made that flesh and blood contact. Incarnation precedes excarnation in this case, but both work together.
Thirdly, there is the question of whether technology has become an idol within our communities of faith. The desire to incorporate PowerPoint presentations, church web sites and sermons via cell phone into the daily life of the church may be, at times, more to do with being tied to the notion that progress is good rather than critically evaluating our reasons for wanting these things. Certainly this may be more of a problem for traditions like contemporary Evangelicalism which has been forged out of post-Enlightenment modernity, with its attachment to progress, programmes and technology.
And if there are technological idols in society, then who are the priests and religious caste? For Christian's working in the technological areas there is always the tension caused by being part of the few who possess the knowledge and skills to influence the many. The names and descriptions that technologists, especially IT one, use helps to reinforce this including UNIX wizards, Mac gurus, programs known as daemons. As Eric Raymond remarks,
There is a definite strain of mystical, almost Gnostic sensibility that shows up even among those hackers not actively involved with neo-paganism, Discordianism, or Zen. Hacker folklore that pays homage to 'wizards' and speaks of incantations and demons has too much psychological truthfulness about it to be entirely a joke.
A techno-spirituality should not seek to develop a technological elite or ruling class. Rather it should stress that as disciples of Christ, who came to serve, so too Christians technologists are called to serve Christ and others rather than the technology they work with.
Fourthly, a techno-spirituality is a prophetic spirituality that calls for radical acts of compassion. In the last few years the term "digital divide" has been used to describe a restructuring within Western societies and between developed nations and the two-thirds world. Basically, the concept describes the fact that populations are dividing into those who are "informationally rich" and those who are "informationally poor". There is an expectation within Western society that IT is not just something extra to everyday life but that it has become an expected necessity. However access to this technology and its techno-cultural such as education and vocational opportunities. Issues to do with poverty, debt and other forms of disadvantage work to establish "information poverty" within society and a techno-spirituality must, in the words of Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand,
face the challenge of making sure that the Information Society is not purely the reserve of the privileged and the wealthy.
The New Zealand government identified the following groups within New Zealand society that they think will struggle to participate in a society that becomes increasingly techno-cultural.  These include:
When viewed in light of the Luke 4 passage seen earlier it is obvious that the church and individual Christians, especially those working in IT areas, are called to challenge practices, policies and technologies that disenfranchise individuals and communities. Not only that, they are called to assist in the liberation of those communities and peoples from being "informationally poor" and that means addressing the underlying problems as well as the techno-cultural ones, such as education and access to IT resources.
From the point of view of churches and Christians who are going "online" in order to reach people with the gospel or to promote themselves there will be an automatic selection process taking place that removes many people from those they might reach with whatever message they have. This also holds true for theological or Christian education that requires the use of information technology for participation. Techno-spirituality must work against "technology-taxes" imposed on the poor and needy.
A final aspect of techno-spirituality is awareness of the effects that technoculture has upon the nature of worship. In her work looking at worship and technological change Susan White argues that the high dependence upon technology for satisfying short term needs, coupled with a huge media investment in identifying and intensifying those needs, leads to the expectation the spiritual needs being met the same way - quickly, professionally and with little or no personal effort. Spiritual consumerism in other words.
I have quickly presented a number of issues and concerns that I think arise when we consider a Christian spirituality for our technoculture - a techno-spirituality. While most of these are negative in a sense they primarily come out of a concern that technology is often accepted uncritically by the church because it forms part of the "air that we breathe".
I believe that a vibrant Christ-centered techno-spirituality with encompass three areas. Firstly it is prophetic, denouncing aspects of technology and technoculture that are oppressive or being used to perpetrate evil and injustice. Secondly, it is a spirituality that calls for radical acts of compassion within our technoculture to aid and liberate the "informationally poor", not just technologically but by addressing their basic human needs. And thirdly I believe that creative engagement with technoculture, critically aware but also open to its new and novel possibilities for us to draw upon it, is a final essential aspect of techno-spirituality.
By taking these things into consideration that I assert that positive engagement with technoculture and its artifact by the church and Christian individuals in a way that honors Christ, the Kingdom of God and provides liberation for those oppressed and needy in society.
We should not forget that the goods in this world were meant for everybody;that we should cherish the culture and technology that contribute to human liberation, recognizing their limits;and that we should insist that the more informationally rich should help the informationally poor.
Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand. The Digital Divide: Poverty and Wealth in the Information Age Social Justice Series. Wellington: Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand, 2000.
Haraway, Donna. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century." In The Cybercultures Reader, ed. David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy, 291-324. London, New York: Routledge, 2000.
Information Policy Technology Group. Statistics on Information Technology in New Zealand (Updated to 2003). Ministry of Economic Development, June 2003. Accessed 30 October 2003. Available from http://www.med.govt.nz/pbt/infotech/it-stats/it-stats-2003/it-stats-2003.pdf.
John Paul II. "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (on Social Concern)." 20 December 1987.
Lyon, David. "Would God Use Email?" Zadok Perspectives 71 (2001): 20-23.
Monsma, Stephen V., ed. Responsible Technology: A Christian Perspective. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.
The Social Impact of Information Technology: A Briefing to the Minister for Information Technology. Communications Sector, Ministry of Commerce, 17 December 1999. Accessed 31 October 2003. Available from http://www.med.govt.nz/pbt/infotech/bim_social_inclusion.html.
Ward, Pete. Liquid Church. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Pub., 2002.
White, Susan J. Christian Worship and Technological Change. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.
 Susan J. White, Christian Worship and Technological Change (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 14.
 Stephen V. Monsma, ed., Responsible Technology: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 1.
 Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in The Cybercultures Reader, ed. David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy (London, New York: Routledge, 2000), 293-294.
 David Lyon, "Would God Use Email?," Zadok Perspectives 71 (2001): 21.
 A good example of this is the current ASB Bank television advertisement for their Streamline online banking services. The customer in the advertisement is distressed about having to stop using the branch with human beings he has a relationship with. Rather the new online system will do away with them completely. In effect the advertisement subverts its own message by making its product, "excarnation", unattractive.
 Pete Ward, Liquid Church (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Pub., 2002), 88-89.
 Jargon file , "Appendix B: A Portait of J. Random Hacker - Religion", Jargon file.
 Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand, The Digital Divide: Poverty and Wealth in the Information Age, Social Justice Series (Wellington: Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand, 2000), 3.
 The Social Impact of Information Technology: A Briefing to the Minister for Information Technology, (Communications Sector, Ministry of Commerce, 17 December 1999, accessed 31 October 2003); available from http://www.med.govt.nz/pbt/infotech/bim_social_inclusion.html.
 Information Policy Technology Group, Statistics on Information Technology in New Zealand (Updated to 2003)(Ministry of Economic Development, June 2003, accessed 30 October 2003); available from http://www.med.govt.nz/pbt/infotech/it-stats/it-stats-2003/it-stats-2003.pdf. 52% of people have a personal computer in their homes, while 70% of the population claim to have access to the Internet. However only half of Internet access is from the home leaving many people dependent upon employers, libraries, friends and families and educational institutes. In a world where critical information is becoming primarily available via the Internet then many people do not have free access to it or have to pay extra for it via services such as 0900.
 White, Christian Worship, 118-119.
 Adapted from: John Paul II, "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (on Social Concern)," 20 December 1987.
Copyright © 2003, Stephen Garner