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.
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.
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.
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?
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?