Does Digital Communication Encourage or Inhibit Spiritual Progress?

In 2003, when Sister Catherine Wybourne’s Digitalnun helped form a community of Benedictine nuns in Oxfordshire, England, she knew they could not afford to pursue the order’s mission of hospitality. Based in rented quarters with little financial support, Wybourne and her sisters had neither the space nor the resources to welcome seekers, strangers and others in need. But Wybourne, a former banker who is intrigued by technology, believed a virtual community could express “traditional Benedictine hospitality in contemporary form.” The sisters launched a website that dispenses spiritual teachings via podcasts and videos, hosts conferences, sponsors online retreats, offers a prayer line, and allows participants to “converse” with the nuns.  By enabling visitors to “share in the monastery’s life without physically journeying to us,”  the nuns embrace a worldwide community, many of whom would not have come to the monastery.

Treated as a colorful curiosity in high-tech circles, Wybourne—a geek in a wimple—is not widely known outside Catholic communities. But her experience is suggestive for its insights on the relationship between digital communication and spiritual progress. Wybourne appreciates the Internet as a means to promote religious education in the widest way possible. Podcasts, blogging, videostreaming provide unprecedented opportunities for laypeople to study and learn. But that very accessibility enables what Wybourne calls a “lowest-common-denominator eclecticism,” or what sociologists dub a “cafeteria-style” approach to religion. The ability to pick and choose religious teachings without reference to religious authority or community norms can pique consumerist tendencies at odds with the more particular objectives of the tradition itself.  Thus, to answer the question as to whether digital communication encourages or inhibits spiritual progress, Wybourne’s both/and experience is a salutary starting point.

Overcoming Binaries

Up/down, in/out, yes/no – a reliance on binaries offers clear choices in a complex world where even morning coffee has d/evolved into a mind-boggling universe of possibilities. (“Half-caf, non-fat, venti, 3-shot latte with 1 pump vanilla, half pump mocha, no foam, extra whip and caramel syrup,” anyone?) But basing worldviews on alternatives that admit no ambiguity is a zero sum game: If we’re not winning, we must be losing. That type of thinking propelled all too much of Western religious history—a sad and bloody tale of armed conquest and forced conversions, Inquisitions and martyrdom that culminated in the birth of a country that enshrined religious freedom. The First Amendment is the ultimate both/and proposition. Citizens have both the right to exercise their religious beliefs and the responsibility not to force them on others.

The relationship between digital communication and spiritual progress is similarly a both/and proposition. As Sr. Wybourne notes, the gift of layered, instantaneous, global communication affords new possibilities for spiritual engagement. Laypeople can plumb religious texts, study with erudite masters and experiment with spiritual practices in the comfort of their own homes. Yet they are susceptible to the pitfalls of the medium itself and their best intentions can fall prey to online temptations. But before examining those snares, let’s define what’s meant by spiritual progress.

Spiritual Progress

The “spiritual” pertains to the soul, the spirit, God, the numinous and also may refer to religion.  Spiritual progress entails moving toward a deeper experience and awareness of these intangibles. Spiritual progress can result from education or from experience; it can be collective or individual. The manifestations of spiritual progress are staid and colorful, singular and manifold, unheralded and headline fodder. Adherents of a “harmonic convergence ” were convinced that if on August 24, 1987, 144,000 people meditated at global “power centers,” a new spiritual era would dawn.  Millions of Jews believe that if all their numbers pray at the same time, the messiah will come. For others, spiritual progress is attained through study. Devout Muslims study the Qu’ran to grow closer to God, probing his word and following his commandments for a righteous life. Similar motivations compel Buddhists to read the sutras and Hindus to learn the vedas. In all these religious traditions, knowledge is connected to experience; growing in awareness affects everyday choices. As a result, quotidian activities become intentional spiritual practices, evident as much in choices about food and dress as in reciting prayers and performing rituals. A capacious view of spiritual progress includes all possibilities for education and experience that advance intellectual understanding and experiential awareness of non-material otherness.

Digital Communication

At the intersection of spiritual progress and digital communication are tens of twitter feeds, dozens of Facebook pages, scores of websites, hundreds of blogs and thousands of Youtube clips, forums, listservs, Instagrams and more. The explosion of online resources offering seekers opportunities to experience nirvana, Enlightenment, transcendence, One-ness or a glimpse of the face of God make the contemporary era unique.  Occult knowledge is suddenly accessible, secret teachings clickable and esoteric teachings, formerly the province of trained masters, available to all. Once upon a time, seekers spent years in rigorous preparation, hoping to reassure teachers they were ready for and worthy to approach the divine. The secrets of the Zohar, the riddle of Zen koans, and the mysticism of Meister Eckhart were not meant to be penetrated quickly, easily or apart from guidance and supervision.

Yet for all the eager zealots seeking mystical mastery, even more online seekers are looking for resources and community, similar to those that Sr. Wybourne’s site provides. That’s why BeliefNet, Bible Gateway  and the Vatican website are perennially popular. With so many options, the first obstacle that digital communication poses to spiritual progress is selectivity. How to parse alternatives and find the right path? Once a way is found, how to negotiate the challenges presented by the medium? Some scholars use the term mediatization  to describe the ways that media, pervasive in all aspects of life, shape and frame the processes it once served. Politicians initially used mass media to spread their message, but now media increasingly influence how the message is shaped, donations made, volunteers deployed, voters identified and strategies designed. Or, consider how social media sites like Facebook have affected self-presentation, friendship and social intercourse. Facebook’s ubiquity and its ability to inform and mobilize users around social, political and religious issues reinforces researcher Stig Hjarvard’s argument that media have assumed a key role in social orientation and moral instruction:

‘In earlier societies, social institutions like family, school and church were the most important providers of information, tradition and moral orientation for the individual member of society. Today, these institutions have lost some of their former authority, and the media have to some extent taken over their role as providers of information and moral orientation, at the same time as the media have become society’s most important storyteller about society itself.’  (Hjarvard, 5)

Media is an environment and it cannot be classified, a priori, as good or bad. However, its characteristics do shape social conditions that affect individual lives. Elizabeth Eisenstein’s classic The Printing Press as an Agent of Social Change chronicles the impact of Gutenberg’s invention on Western civilization, arguing that the printing press made possible widespread literacy, religious reform and modern science. The impact of such changes on culture and society has been immense.

Contemporary scholars argue that the “logics” of digital communication—including individualization, commercialization and globalization—likewise shape notions of the self and of society.  Many further argue that these “logics” present serious challenges.  Individualization corrodes social ties, threatening societies with atomization into niches and special interest groups.  Although scholars and religious leaders once wondered if virtual religion would undermine real-life religious communities, the contrary is true: Practitioners supplement their real-world religious affiliations with virtual activities, including study, journaling and prayer.  Commercialization, too, is a complex phenomenon as Mara Einstein argues in Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. By placing spiritual “wares” in close proximity with a premium on accessibility, digital communication promotes branding and marketing to ensure clicks, eyeballs and stickiness. But how to evaluate the impact on product and consumer? Mormons, Methodists, and Scientologists have all launched major online campaigns to make their “product” more user-friendly. Ironically, such campaigns have the potential to reach seekers hoping to deepen their spiritual lives even as they threaten to turn religious teachings into consumer commodities.

The Digital Cosmos/Chaos

“We had the experience but missed the meaning”

— T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”

The current communications revolution—like those that have preceded it—widens available options to learn about soul, spirit, God and religion. It also presents new opportunities to deepen spiritual practice and to grow in loving community. Yet notwithstanding the potential for spiritual progress, digital communication comes with caveats. Its democratic nature can reinforce individualization to the detriment of community. Its openness challenges religious authority and devalues spiritual apprenticeship, the ongoing, long-term commitment to mastering esoteric knowledge. Its accessibility yields to the demands of a competitive marketplace; commercialization creeps in, if not from providers than from users.

But the onus is not on the method of communication. An evolving environment, digital communication is shaping users as it is being shaped by usage, and is thus susceptible to the lowest common denominators of mass experience. In truth, the responsibility continues to rest, where it always has, upon the shoulders of those committed to spiritual progress in the context of a changing world.

Questions for Discussion:

How has digital communication affected/changed your spiritual life?

Technological innovation has consistently affected spiritual knowledge and practice. Is
digital communication just part of an ongoing process or is it qualitatively different?

Discussion Summary

So where does this leave us?

Do you side with Sister Catherine Wybourne and the half glass full crowd, seconding Jane Shilling’s, suggestion in The New Statesman  that digital access has transformed at least one aspect of spirituality — self-examination — from an essentially elitest pursuit to a democratic one:

Now, however, anyone with access to the Internet (and that is a vast number of even the otherwise most severely impoverished members of the world’s population) can indulge in public acts of self-examination, whether blogging clandestinely from a country in the grip of a tyrannical political regime, or soliciting sympathy on Facebook for what might once have been an anxiety or grief too intimate to mention to any but the closest of friends, or tweeting updates on one’s changing frame of mind. Self-examination has become one of the most democratic of all activities.

Or do you lean more towards the half empty or worse—downward trend–predicted by Valerie Tarico’s belief that the Internet spells doom for organized religion. Tarico argues that web content, highlighting the negative aspects of religious institutions, is a reason for diminishing numbers of adherents, at least in the US.

Ethical and metaphysical teachings root religious traditions, which provide well-trod paths to spiritual growth.  If you doubt that the same Internet that opens exit strategies for some opens new possibilities for others, a glance at Jim Gilliam’s “The Internet is My Religion”  complicates the question nicely.

When the Old is sufficiently threatened by the New, voices of alarm are quick to blame the collapse of the oldest ways on the newest technology. Movies, television, video games, the internet — all in their day were cast as an imminent and/or ultimate threat to our most cherished social institutions and cultural values. Next bogeyman? Digital Communications.

But we need not be constrained by the binary nature of our subject matter, and can look elsewhere for the threat. In “The Internet is Not Killing Organized Religion ,” Elizabeth Drescher writes, “At the end of the day, that is, it is not so much “the culture”—digital culture, secular culture—that is driving young people from churches, it is religious culture itself.”

Writing when World War II was barely two years underway, the outcome far from certain, W. H. Auden called the time being ‘the most trying time of all,’ a time “of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry/And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,/ And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.”

For the time being, in Auden’s view, “the time is noon:/When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing/Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure/ A silence that is neither for nor against her faith/That God’s Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,/God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.”

Technology or no, the inevitable tension remains between the lifelessness of institutions and the liveliness of individuals; the promise of the spiritual pathway and the benightedness of the earthbound experience; and always, the inescapable limitations of self. The issues remain—prayer and study continue to beckon yet elude capture, and the inevitable distance between intention and accomplishment remains. The mind commands and the body obeys, or as Augustine observed, “The mind commands itself and meets resistance.”

The challenges that beset us in this realm are not, primarily technological. They are personal. They are us. In the context of digital communications, indeed with regard to any instance of the New, spirituality is a heightened case of human activity, not a special class.

This way of looking at such matters is perhaps captured best by Alexis Madrigal’s insight as he charted his own response to Olivia Judson’s New York Times piece detailing her father’s final months. Writing in The Atlantic , Madrigal explains: “The document became a shared diary of their relationship with their father and each other,” he writes, “its tiny movements intimate, its arc gutting.”

He cites Judson as she comes upon the presence of her father in the notations on a Google Calendar she shared with her brother during the last weeks.

For through it all, there’s such courage. Yes, he’s just had a pacemaker installed and he’s feeling rotten, but he’s making strawberry jam. One day, ‘He sounded very low — lonely, old, and scared.’ But another, he’s reading a history of some sinister French aristocrats and planning to install a wood stove in the fireplace. A beloved friend is coming to stay. He’s just learned a new poem.

Madrigal concludes with this thought:

It is these stories that remind me of the possibilities in today’s communication tools. It’s not that the Internet is superior or inferior or equal to or a replacement for face-to-face interaction, but all these services are there, and we sometimes can’t be. Humans find ways to push meaning through the pipes.

I love that last phrase for many reasons, not the least because it can be applied to spirituality simply by changing ‘push’ to seek.

Two New Big Questions:

1. Does the Internet make it easier to believe in God?

2. How might digital communications affect virtuous behavior?

9 Responses

  1. cbugbee says:

    Jane Shilling, writing in The New Statesman, suggests that digital access has transformed at least one aspect of spirituality — self-examination — from an essentially elitest pursuit to a democratic one:

    The writer and philosopher Julian Baggini has argued that the Socratic maxim about the examined life is profoundly elitist. “The bulk of humankind, today and in history,” he writes, “has been far too busy struggling for survival to engage in lengthy philosophical analyses. So if an examined life is one in which more than just a little investigation takes place, by implication, huge swaths of humanity are ignorant beasts.”

    In a time and place in which education and leisure are the preserve of a privileged minority, this might be a persuasive argument. It is true that we have no verbatim record of the inner lives of Athenian slaves, though they are a significant presence in classical literature and history. And the servant who cured the Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne of his fear of death by causing the 16th-century equivalent of a near-fatal, high-speed car crash when he galloped into his master’s horse left no account of his version of the incident. It might be that the collision that inspired Montaigne to write so eloquently about his acceptance of mortality left his servant in a lingering state of mortal dread; we shall never know.

    Now, however, anyone with access to the internet (and that is a vast number of even the otherwise most severely impoverished members of the world’s population) can indulge in public acts of self-examination, whether blogging clandestinely from a country in the grip of a tyrannical political regime, or soliciting sympathy on Facebook for what might once have been an anxiety or grief too intimate to mention to any but the closest of friends, or tweeting updates on one’s changing frame of mind. Self-examination has become one of the most democratic of all activities.

  2. Diane Winston says:

    Thanks for this most insightful post! The issue of accessibility is significant–of course it’s good that so many more people can contact Sr. Catherine, study kabbalah and meditate online–but that obscures a crucial point. Accessibility does not ensure “spiritual progress.” Hard work does. Mastering a discipline requires a human commitment that has nothing to do with technology. in fact, accessibility may be a deterrent to fully giving oneself over to a spiritual path. If studying the Sufi masters proves daunting, the Ignatian exercises are just a click away. Self-examination may be a starting point for “spiritual progress” and certainly the Internet makes confessions and testimonies easier, but when is a blog a soul-searing self-scrutiny and when is it a self-indulgent whine? 

  3. oshamout says:

    There’s a passage from the editor’s preface of a book I own called “Teachings of the Buddha” that’s always struck me and it seems pertinent to this discussion. The editor, Jack Kornfield, writes, “As you read the teachings in this book, remember that they are not meant to be philosophy, poetry, or spiritual studies for you to consider. They are words of truth that can bring you to awakening.” I’ve always thought that philosophy, poetry and spiritual studies are the paths to awakening, so this condemnation of comparitive analysis stopped me in my tracks. For me, the joy is in the discussion, but for Kornfield, the joy is in the lack thereof.

    And to put this in a digital context, what is the internet, as evidenced by this very thread, if not one large discussion group? And what is Google if not the world’s fastest, most efficient tool for comparatively everything, both physical or metaphysical?

  4. Diane Winston says:

    Those of us who find joy in the discussion may typify why Valerie Tarico thinks the internet spells doom for organized religion Tarico argues that web content, highlighting the negative aspects of religious institutions, is a reason for diminishing numbers of adherents, at least in the US. (While various surveys chart religious decline, Pew’s Global Religious Landscape found more than 8 in 10 people worldwide identify with a religious faith Tarico may be indulging in wishful thinking, it’s hard to imagine the end of organized religion, but her thesis, which jibes with Kornfeld’s words, underscores a potential difference between online religion and spirituality. Or maybe, it simply suggests that it’s all too easy to damn religion as hypocritical, hidebound rules while glossing over the ethical and spiritual teaching that root religious traditions. Religions provide well-trod paths to spiritual growth, and even if the internet opens exit strategies for some, might it open new possibilities for others? Just to complicate the question, take a look at Jim Gilliam’s “The Internet is My Religion.”

  5. Him says:

    In a nut shell, all the info. required to become a Spiritual Master is on line. So dig in, find a few sites that will analise, and tell you where you are, then go from there. Don’t have to pay a penny, (buying books,courses, etc) it’s all available for free, including retreats, again free or you may make a donation to suit your pocket, or go back to learn more and serve. So easy, there is no need to even Wish you Luck, which by the way is another name for ‘HIM’. Regards.

  6. kmadden says:

    Really interesting and thoughtful article. This made me think about “Liking” charities and religious organizations on Faceboo; it is a task that requires no obligation and is entirely self-gratifying in the ways it constructs one’s public image.

    It is interesting to consider the nuns going digital, especially when the Vatican called the American nuns radical feminists. I found it really remarkable the way the nuns were able to control the dialogue and give a voice to their argument through their own social networking accounts. Also remarkable is the amount of followers and attention they gained.

  7. Addison Shockley says:

    As a way of relating this to my personal life and development, I have two things to say:

    1) I am a Christian who uses apps on my phone, for example one that displays daily lectionary passages, to read scripture.

    2) I feel that much of the pursuit of esoteric spiritual knowledge that I have engaged in has been through listening to online sermons and podcasts from preachers, teachers, and pastors. In my experience, pastors have been unavailable for my personal approach for mentorship; or, I have been too lazy to pursue their guidance. Perhaps, on the other hand, I was not desiring a one-size-fits-all “mentorship” in the form of youth pastors giving speeches to youth (when I was a youth) or young adults sitting in on Bible studies in which one person expounded texts and others listened, bypassing holistic relationship altogether. As a result, often rather than going to church, I would just listen to a sermon while jogging, for example; community happened at school, say, not much at church.

    In summarizing my comments, I have had positive and lamentable experiences with digitial mediatization of spiritual aspects of daily life.

  8. Diane Winston says:

    Thanks for the comment on “liking,” which prompted me to think through some of the peculiarities of digitized spirituality. What does “liking” even mean? It’s a commitment that signifies nothing more than the willingness to hit a key. Less a leap of faith than a finger waggle, its significance may only be self-gratification. And yet, when seens as part of a collective, all those likes have political and social capital. They represent a community of concern or interest that can galvanize change.

    The online pursuit of spirituality is similar. Yes, some seekers may be do nothing more than hit the “like” button. Others hit the button then find ways to engage. But the very number of folks who hit the button, download the podcast, and buy the app is telling. Addison’s comments suggest that online religious teachings meet her needs in ways that less-personalized, face-to-face encounters may not. Is that why so many “like” digital spirituality? And what’s the impact on “real world” religion besides attempts at better branding and slicker marketing?