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.

Performance of Religion

In the past couple of years, some of my classmates and friends from divinity school have begun dealing with some interesting quandries surrounding the question “Where does one DO church?”

For some time now, many have believed that you don’t have to be IN the church, synagogue, temple etc. to perform a religious practice.

From outdoor services or meditation to social justice work, the acts of the faithful have long been performed in locations outside of the conventional four walls.

The latest frontier of this question takes religious leaders to the online frontier–where can one perform the communal acts, the rituals, and the meditations that constitute religious experience?

Upcoming Conference

From July 30-August 9, 2010 scholars will gather at Bremen University to talk about online religion, seemingly from 2 perspectives:

  • how to research online peformance of religion in an ethical manner
  • how the online forum changes the experience of religion from the religious practitioner’s perspective.

Some of the most promising sessions to me are on these areas of religion in virtual worlds:

The mission of this conference is to fill a gap in research around the performance of religion in virtual worlds:

The Web is changing the face of religions worldwide. With the emergence of so-called Virtual Worlds a further step towards a completely new field of research was done, since these environments offer new possiblities to meet, communicate and to perform religion.

The results of conversations like this one will help my divinity school classmates–and others to make sense of this new frontier that has now begun to reach mainstream religious folks across all the world religions.

By 2020, where will we be performing our religious rites?  How will philosophies & theologies respond to this new realm of experience?

Came across a fascinating article by anthroplogist & Intel fellow, Genevieve Bell on Techno-Spiritual Practices, the full text of which can be downloaded here.  Ultimately, she argues for the need to design ubiquitous computing for spiritual life, not just secular life alone.

Here are some particularly insightful highlights around the interplay between technology shaping spiritual expression as well as spiritual practices demanding technology be developed to meet new needs:

However, it is my contention that these examples of the ways in which new technologies are delivering religious experiences represent the leading edge of a much larger re-purposing of the internet in particular, and of computational technologies more broadly, that has been underway for some time…These techno-spiritual re-purposings are important for the ways in which they highlight alternate paradigms for technology creation, deployment, consumption and resistance, as well as pointing to different communities, practices and habits that could be supported. Furthermore, these re- purposings seems to be of critical importance as the realm of technological infrastructure extends progressively beyond the office, into the home, and many other points of social and cultural significance, including one presumes, places of worship, ritual and meditation. After all, life also happens in the sacred domain.

To have been there for Computer-Human Interaction conference she describes at the question under consideration was simply:  “Can we have spiritual experiences online?”

She highlights several examples of techno-social practices, including:

  • Pew research stating that 64% of online Americans have used the internet for religious or spiritual purposes.
  • Buddhist practice in China of having your mobile phone blessed
  • texting messages to be printed & placed at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, to enable remote participation
  • virtual confessions (quite controversial in Roman Catholic circles, especially)
  • online memorial halls such as “Earth Village” in China to support ancestor worship
  • a Mecca-finding phone app in Malaysia so Muslims can respond accurately to the call to prayer

Bell concludes that

If it is indeed the case, that religion is a primary framing narrative in most cultures, and then religion must also be one of the primary forces acting on people’s relationships with and around new technologies – one could go as far as to suggest that there can be no real ubiquitous computing if it does not account for religion.

What an impressive article by someone who comes from an experience design perspective with an anthropological lens–this article is not new, but it is extremely relevant!

Pope Benedict himself is encouraging Catholic priests to help communicate the Christian message, to express themselves, and to use as leadership tools.  As the Forbes report on the announcement put it:  Go forth, and blog!

Coming from the Vatican, this is an impressively bold and open-minded statement honoring the opportunities & risks of engaging with new media.  It is remarkable how this statement articulates a sense of technology as an amoral medium which can be put to service for better or worse, representing a much more nuanced understanding that is sometimes expressed by those who see technology as a tool for communicating whatever message one values the most.  As the message puts it:

The development of the new technologies and the larger digital world represents a great resource for humanity as a whole and for every individual, and it can act as a stimulus to encounter and dialogue.

For more, see the full message here, originally issued Jan. 24, 2010.

Today at 2pm pacific US, internet-connected Second Lifers could take part in a Maundy Thursday service with others from around the world on a virtual island called Epiphany Island.  Here is the vision of the community:

Our aim is to: be church for you where ever you are what ever your circumstances.

Our vision is to see God glorified in Second Life.

To see Christians from different countries and theological persuasions come together to serve and worship the Lord.

To see the Anglican Church engage in relevant, meaningful and contemporary ways with the society around it.

To offer those involved in Second Life an experience of a God who deeply loves them and seeks a relationship with them.

To be a community who are known for their love and care, and their preparedness to serve others.

Imagine experiencing religious rites with others by viewing & communicating with their avatars…How does community feel different when experienced in this way?  How might it change a religious practioner ‘s understanding of the divine?  How is it liberating to those who shy away from conventionally religious spaces?  How much will online spiritual experiences grow in the next decade?

If faith is a lifestyle, how will future markets evolve to meet those lifestyle needs?

Enhancing the Muslim Lifestyle

Muxlim is focused on the Muslim lifestyle as part of a diverse, all-inclusive world which recognizes and welcomes people of all faiths and backgrounds who want to share, learn and have fun…Muxlim is an online community that fosters a friendly environment where users can enjoy fun, compelling and easy-to-use social media services. Our vision is to connect the world’s Muslim communities to each other, and to the wider world, through shared online experiences…

Provocatively, you don’t have to be Muslim to be Muxlim.  If a Muslim person in the future is imagined to be a digitally-empowered individual; the central node of a constellation of connection, what will that person need?  In the future, which elements of our needs will be informed by our faith and which by our wider cultural context?  Can the two be separated?  At Muxlim, the answer is no.