Some people seem to think digital life is going to be the downfall of their faith tradition, if not civilization itself.

Others seem to herald technological advances uncritically, as though they are without risk.  Instead they focus solely on the rewards for communities of faith.

via Flickr's stewsnooze

I believe that people who advocate for digital life either helping or hurting faith are asking the wrong question.  To me, it’s more interesting and important to ask how humans are leveraging technology—how we change it and how it changes us.

In the next decade, faith communities will need leaders to help navigate the technological advances, with their attendant ethical challenges.

If leaders of faith communities simply ask, “Does digital life help or hurt?” then the result will be easy answers, that underestimate real concerns.

I invite you to engage with this running list (below) of uses of digital life by people of faith—add to it, change it or challenge it.

Positive Uses of Digital Life by Faith Communities

  • Communication tool: helps spread the message faster—from the event next Saturday to the essence of the religious message–especially with digital natives
  • Locus for information sharing between religious colleagues:  best practices in ministry, counseling, referral services
  • Source of connection and community for many, especially for those who have anxieties about stepping into a more ‘traditional’ face to face religious context (some for very good reasons)
  • Democratizing force: internet provides greater access to scripture. I can listen to sermons preached at All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills, CA from the public library in Detroit, Michigan.
  • Depolarizing: more lightweight exposure to the full range of views on what it is to be religious is possible (in places where the internet is uncensored, this guards against insular views)
  • Pushes the envelope in terms of transparency, which is often empowering.  In our digital lives, we are more likely to find out what the environmental footprint of your mosque? Does your priest or minister have a history of child molestation and have higher-ups looked the other way?  What information is visible to you?
  • Great tools for collaboration, which is a real challenge on many scales—from local communities to global religious bodies.  This can open up windows into better use of opportunities.
  • Made the hard work of interreligious and ecumenical dialogue much easier to maintain relationships and exchanges over time.  In previous centuries of interreligious dialogue a Jewish person from the U.S. and a Maori person from New Zealand might have spent 2 weeks together engaged in deep discussion, only to be separated by continents with long lapses between their letter exchanges.  Today, these relationships have more tools at their disposal through our digital lives.
  • Can be persuasive—I know that I feel better, grow in my spiritual life, etc. when I spend time praying every day, but don’t do it.  Persuasive technology can help nudge me in the direction I would wish for myself.

Negative Uses of Digital Life by Communities of Faith

  • Has potential to fundamentally alter what it means to be human
  • Some pursue digital life in place of “real” (usually defined as face-to-face) community. In some religions, face to face community is a part of spiritual practice.  In some cases, it is a path to spiritual growth to live in intentional community, contending with the very embodied parts of being human–from cooking meals together to studying together to even something as basic as sharing a bathroom.
  • Pairing the wrong forum with the wrong type of human interaction.
  • Listening Narrowly: Allows deeply polarized people of faith to find like-minded people and grow into disruptive, hurtful, or violent networks with potential for extreme scale.  With the right set of filtering tools, people can use technology to listen very narrowly.
  • Shallow Messages: Sometimes in the quest to be “relevant” in their use of technology, people end up obscuring the core of the message, or losing it altogether.
  • Underestimating the ethical quandaries of digital life: Technology must be wielded thoughtfully and morally:  If people don’t appropriately deal with the ethical questions of digital & scientific advances, then they aren’t doing justice to the potential for unintended or unimagined uses of those advances.

Digital Nation

In February 2010, Rachel Dretzin and Douglas Rushkoff ignited a more nuanced conversation called Digital Nation:  Life on the Virtual Frontier.  It’s 90 minutes worth of open exploration of the benefits and tradeoffs of digital life, with some global footage, though primarily focused on the U.S. context.  I appreciate the way in which both of them reflect on how digital life is changing what it means to be human.  Here is a more complete description:

Continuing a line of investigation she began with the 2008 FRONTLINE report Growing Up Online, award-winning producer Rachel Dretzin embarks on a journey to understand the implications of living in a world consumed by technology and the impact that this constant connectivity may have on future generations. “I’m amazed at the things my kids are able to do online, but I’m also a little bit panicked when I realize that no one seems to know where all this technology is taking us, or its long-term effects,” says Dretzin.

Joining Dretzin on this journey is commentator Douglas Rushkoff, a leading thinker and writer on the digital revolution — and one-time evangelist for technology’s positive impact. “In the early days of the Internet, it was easy for me to reassure people about what it would mean to bring digital technology into their lives,” says Rushkoff, who has authored 10 books on media, technology and culture. “Now I want to know whether or not we are tinkering with something more essential than we realize.”

People of faith whom I respect differ in terms of their view on digital life, and this is a conversation worth having as we look ahead to 2020 and beyond.  Looking forward to hearing from you, whether you agree or disagree.