Baptizing technology

By Nick Knisely

I’ve been fascinated for years by technology and the way humanity uses it to solve problems. So not surprisingly, when I became a priest in the Episcopal Church, I found myself wondering a lot about how the Church and its mission are being molded by our changing technology.

This idea that the Church is molded by technology may seem counter-intuitive to those who are familiar with the rhythm and shape of our worship services. Much of what happens on Sundays and the special days of the church year is rooted in antiquity (and occasionally anachronism). The white robes we wear on such occasions are descended from the roman toga that was last worn commonly at least a thousand years ago. The bread and the wine are descended from Hebrew practices from a time three thousand or so years before that. And yet, the structure of modern church and its daily life (and worship life) are what they are in large part out of reaction to and because of technological innovations.

I’m not thinking about the Internet or the rise of the new media when I say this. Rather I’m thinking about the innovation that technology brings and the changes that happen to daily life as a result. For example, I can argue that the Church in the United States is still learning to come to terms with the fundamental changes that cars—and more importantly freeways—have brought to our culture.

Though I’ve not done the research to say this conclusively, my instincts tell me that the numerical decline of the Episcopal Church relative to the population of the United States is due in large measure to the fact that our parishes are still mostly in urban centers, but many of our parishioners (historically speaking) have migrated to the suburbs and exurbs. The denominations that have grown explosively in the past four or five decades are ones that have moved aggressively to plant new congregations with LARGE parking lots which cater to a motoring and mobile society better than a large downtown building with no parking and few bathrooms. Because the Episcopal Church has, by and large, been slow off the mark in responding to population migration we’ve declined and they’ve grown. (It has less to do with theological orientation than many people think, though the fact that more theologically conservative denominations are also often more evangelistically-oriented and more committed to new church starts has to be recognized.)

In other words, the numerical decline of the Episcopal Church may be caused as much by changing technology and our inability to respond to it as it is anything else. I wouldn’t be surprised if a shift of similar proportions wasn’t upon the church now as well.

As technology makes it easier for business and industry to customize their products for to the taste and needs of individuals, those same individuals are coming to expect the same sort of customization in the rest of their lives and from their faith. The rise of Gods carefully crafted in our image is less a result of a rising tide of selfishness and narcissism than it is a direct consequence of a person’s everyday experience of what has come to be normal. In a society saturated with messages that proclaim “Have it your way!”, why should we expect people to instinctively understand that learning to be accountable to a community and to God by dying to self is going to be the path to Truth and happiness? And yet, paradoxically dying to self is the way to true happiness and part of our mission as catholic Christians is to show that it is just so.

I don’t believe however that the solution is to loudly decry the rise of individualism in the West, or to point fingers at people whom we decide are acting selfishly. The interactions between society, religion and technological innovation are much too subtle and deep to expect such tactics be successful. The good news though, is that we have in our treasure an antidote. We have the ability to see the world through the eyes of people from different cultures and from different times.

The same technology that allows us to “narrow-cast” information to small sub-groups of people, can also make it possible for us to hear the voices of the sorts of people we might never have encountered before. It’s no longer remarkable that we can read in real-time the words of people who live in war zone. We can see, for instance, the horror of war directly without having it filtered by our society’s own lenses. Learning to see our own actions through the eyes of others makes it a great deal easier for us to truly love our others as ourselves—because technology allows us to become their neighbors.

But frankly, more importantly, we have in our treasure a gift that will allow us to see ourselves not just in the eyes of others, but in the eyes of God. The lessons that we have in the Bible, the collected experiences of the God’s people over thousands of years and the stories and teachings of Jesus give us a timeless perspective upon our own lives. And I think it’s that perspective that can allow us to be proactive and not reactive in the way that we use technology.

I’d frankly much rather we started being proactive. Learning to intentionally manage the changes that innovation is bringing is the first step to our re-claiming our call to tell the world about Jesus. Thanks be to God that the primary tool we need to do this is found in our weekly antiquated and occasionally anachronistic Sunday services. If we learn to use the perspective that this gives us, we then will learn to use the technology we develop so that it serves us, rather than having us react to it.

The Very Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely is dean of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix, Ariz., and chair of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Communications. He blogs at Entangled States.

Image (detail) “Communion” by Camilla Brunschwyler Armstrong

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