Guest Columnists

Technology and Faith

By Brett Robinson

I ONCE ASKED some high school students to identify a couple of trees – a birch and an elm – based on pictures of their leaves. They offered a few sheepish guesses: Oak? Maple? They kept guessing.

Eventually they figured it out, but it was clear that there were no future botanists in the room. Then I showed them two logos, a bluebird and an apple. No hesitation this time. “Twitter! Apple!” they shouted. The signs of technology were second nature to them, while nature itself seemed a little passe.

What happens when we lose touch with the natural world? Are we still capable of knowing God if we forget his first book, nature? We’ve reached a point where we have come to know more of the world through our technologies than through our own senses.

Twitter delivers news while Apple devices deliver, well, everything else. A double rainbow is not a double rainbow until it has been captured with an iPhone, posted on social media and gone viral. Even our metaphors for the internet, “going viral,” come from the natural world, stripped of their biological meaning.

The church has an old saying – “lex orandi, lex credendi” – the way we worship shapes what we believe. Devotion to technology shapes much of our daily routine.

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? Pray or check your phone? Our rituals, our communication, our leisure and our work have all been revolutionized.

Developments in artificial intelligence, genetics and nanotechnology point to a different human future, even a posthuman one. It’s a remarkable time in history, and it’s worth asking whether our technological devotion points toward, or away from, faith.

This column is the first in a series that will explore the relationship between God’s creation and our creations. We will explore the two paths that we have taken over the centuries: cooperation with creation and conflict with it.

In Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” you get the sense that man’s designs have favored conflict over cooperation because of the “violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin.”

To say technology is neutral, that it depends on what we do with it, is shallow. We are already wounded, so our inventions often express that primordial sickness.

Psalm 26:10 says that the hands of the wicked are filled with bribes and evil devices. If we stretch the meaning a little, we might think of the digital devices that occupy our hands every day. To look around a commuter train or college classroom is to see hands filled with devices.

Apple, Google and Facebook couldn’t be happier that we spend so much time looking at these devices. In fact, they’re willing to bribe us with free amusements and conveniences to ensure their stock values continue to rise. For merely paying attention, they give us all of the free email, messages, videos, news and entertainment that our restless hearts desire.

The next line of Psalm 26, “But I walk in my integrity; redeem me, be gracious to me,” is the spirit of the modern saint. What does it mean to walk in integrity? Integration means wholeness. It means paying full attention to the person across from us at dinner, not partial attention as the digital devotee does. It means preserving an integrated sense of self, not one fractured by the alternate identities social media present.

Why do friends look so happy in their Facebook posts when we know they are depressed? We know as Catholics that our fight is a spiritual one. But it is also a psychological one. We are called to simplicity, poverty and sacrifice, not because they are pious postures, but because they integrate mind and heart, offering an antidote to our new environment.

Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life, Ind.