Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Technology and God

A Liturgical Luddite I may be, but in a wider church context I am the nearest you will find to a techno-geek. I am unusual, as a priest, or indeed as an English Christian, in that I use Twitter, I write a blog and I manage a Facebook page. I know more priests who don't do any of these things than those who do any, let alone all, of them. In the diocese where I minister, I am fortunate that one of our bishops (+Alan, of blogging fame) led the way for Christian bloggers, and was then an early Twit. It made a difference to me about what may be viewed as 'acceptable', and before the example set by Bp Alan, this social media lark would have existed way out of that circle of acceptability in my mind - quite wrongly.

Increasing time is being spent by people interacting with the world around them by way of computer technology. Once, a computer was a Space-Invaders Box or a mainframe in a large building somewhere. Now, we can hold the capacity of those mainframes, hundreds of times multiplied, literally on the tip of our finger. It seems that more and more of the expression of industrialised humanity is to be found through an electronic device of one sort or another. This has to have an impact on all aspects of life, including its spiritual side.

Instinct would lead many Christians to a perceive technology as 'against' God. Technological advance connects people in many ways yet enables that in a profoundly disconnecting way. I can talk (literally or figuratively) to hundreds of people but without leaving the house, if I so chose. This can be viewed favourably or not, though I am now tending towards the positive these days. I am now in touch with a far wider sphere of people than ever before, and people who edify me and improve my life and aid my thinking in many good ways.

I have been musing this for a while now, and with the aid of Twitter and other 'streams of consciousness' have gathered much about the ways that technology and the implicit theologies of our Christian lives are beginning to fuse meaningfully. At a recent gathering called 'Thinking Digital Conference' (not a thing I attended, but followed its Twitter stream, so the next best thing) I saw a great deal about what the possibilities are for that fusion. There will be another gathering, Open Source at Pentecost Festival 2011 that will attend to this very subject. For this blog post, though, a couple of my own thoughts in splendid isolation:

Distinctiveness of Spirituality - A matter that was covered at TDC was, more or less, the possibility of a 'man space' (though not in any religious sense, but it got me thinking). I think that it is possible to talk about distinctiveness of gender spirituality without falling headlong into the debates on ordination and consecration, and to throw the baby out with the bathwater would be sad. The simple fact is, my experience of loving God is rooted entirely and squarely in my own existence as a male of the species. For well over a decade I have felt a very slight need to apologise for being male in the church and whilst I understand why other balances need to made, feel very strongly that our matriarchal church (which it is, at ground level) has left little space for male spirituality. You have Mother's Onion, World Women's Day of Prayer, WATCH - but I cannot name a group purely for men. We just daren't. This is a sad thing, but one that is increasingly superseded by technology where we can 'App' our lives as we wish. Technology allows us such levels of mutual individuality that we can be who we are without impinging on the rights of others to do the same. I love women, women in the church, women running the show if they wish - but I have never once wanted to give up being a man, or to be proud of the spirituality that I have been given. 

Infectiousness of the Gospel - This is very much 'my thing'. I have said here and elsewhere on numerous occasions that Christians are infected with the 'virus' of the Gospel. By any and all means necessary I will communicate that virus as widely as I can, and technology allows that in ways that are still not fully clear. The thing about "mission" that I dislike is how contrived and deliberate it seems to me. It seems, at times, to be exploitative and I don't favour that approach at all. Like a virus, I can no more force a person to become infected of the Gospel that I can of the common cold, with trying among some anti-social behaviours. However, I try to be authentically me (see above for the means), and through blogs, Twitter and Facebook, I seem to attract people to the Gospel without making a specific effort. I yap to all sorts on Twitter under the name @FrDavidCloake, and if I can be normal, fun, humourous, grumpy, angry and all those other things that normal people do under this label, then the world can know that at least this part of the church and its Gospel is not beyond reach in some holy cavern somewhere. 

Accessibility -  A little while ago I wrote an essay on a very narrow little topic that means nothing to almost anyone except me and the essay marker. However, I experimented with technology and its preparation. I had no books on the subject at hand, and I had no real idea what I needed to say, but the internet grants us all such considerable access to every conceivable theology and theologian. I could cite Augustine of Hippo, other Early Fathers in their native languages. I could access any number of versions of the Bible and commentaries (from all centuries) to match them all. I could translate into languages long lost or translate from them. I could find scholarly works that were written mere months ago. I did the essay, and only got brought up for not using physical books. Defence rests, m'lud. I know that millions of Christians (and non) are delving into the internet to edify their seeker experience. Technology allows people to learn and therefore to teach things that until recently were lost in books only to be found in libraries or vicarages. We can teach our children the Gospel in ways I wouldn't have been able to dream of even a decade ago. Beyond this, and through social media specifically, we can discuss our thoughts with spheres of people and indeed experts from all over the world. I have never for a moment thought that God had wanted all his God-stuff to be a privileged secret for the practitioner minority - and now it never will be again.

In general, technology and social media grant many people a 'way in' to theology, praxis, dialogue and even belief and discipleship. That a priest of limited education but of all faith can write words that mean something to people in Angola (this I know to be a fact), then God has a use for me I hadn't even predicted at ordination. This is the tip of a very large iceberg and I would welcome opinion. However, without technology and social media, God's plan for me would never have found life. 


  1. I'm a fellow clergy twitterer, blogger, FB user etc etc. I found myself in a recent meeting trying to explain to parishioners that their stereotyped view of technology as leading to sad geeky individuals on their own, not interacting in any real sense, was simply not accurate (well maybe just a bit, sometimes;). I know in tech terms I am middle aged - but I also know that the next generation use these technologies to connect, not to disconnect - that they feel empowered in searching for who they are and what the world means. It's exciting!

  2. More power to your keyboard, David! I'm not on FB or Twitter, but despite being in my mid 60s use internet forums, email lists and blogs every day to communicate with people.

    I think it's a shame that the Church of England Men's Society closed down some years ago. As you say it does make the Church seem very matriarchal at parish level.

  3. I have to be very careful with what I write, on twitter, fb, or blog. I have 2 people who would like to censor what I write but even though they are not on there, other people are who like to tell them what I ahve written. So even if it is positive stuff I am writing, if there is anything that could be seen as being someone from where I am in work & church I would get hauled in and told to stop it.

    Problem is I think we ought to celebrate positive stuff but mourn other stuff and if it is important that people know about stuff, why can't I write about it? Nothing I write would be slanderous or up for an injunction or super injunction, and yet I can't really write about it.

    I have thought of assuming a completely untraceable persona, but I believe in openness and transparency not secrets and lies and so I write something and then delete it before publishing anything now, or simply make it private.

    I think it is important that we use social media wisely but I have become such a harsh censor now, that I spend more time worrying about what I have written that the enjoyment is going out of it!!

  4. I am non clergy, but involved in Lay Ministry and in the process of discernment. I have been an advocate of the use of social media for outreach for my Parish and while Ihave converted the Vicar and leadership team, I have some way to go to reach the PCC's and Churchwardens.

    They are happy to use email etc for talking to each other, but suspicious of the reach of social media. I sometimes have felt like banging a few heads together, but so far have avoided it.

    I have a FB page for the Benefice, not yet activated as we are still conducting skirmishes over what will be on it and who will run it and who will have authority, editorial control and moderator type roles. My Vicar said to me that I was a bit of an Evangelist about the whole area of outreach - agreed, but its part of our Christian lives to reach out, communicate and to spread the message. It's just difficult to overcome the inertia and resistance of doing nothing.

    I'm sure that eventually we will go live and will use twitter, fb and blogging to good purpose, but I don't want a strangled version, I want people to be able to reach us and to be reached via the medium.

    As for men's groups. My local church (not my Parish Church) does have a very active men's group who do all sorts of man stuff, from visits, playing golf, walking, fishing and organising sports events, with occasional lunches thrown in. The uptake is quite small, perhaps 9 or 10 active, but more joining for particular events. They are from the Evangelical Tradition and a pretty vibrant bunch. If I had not joined my Parish, I could easily have been at home there. Their situation in an semi-urban environment with one Priest and One church works well on the Parish and Community Model. They are very active in Ecumenical work and the local Church's together is successful with like minded clergy from RC, Baptist, Methodist and URC. There is also interfaith work with a Mosque and Sikh Temple.

    I suppose that when I'm being carried out in a box, someone at Lambeth Palace will actually twig that whatever replaces Social Media of today, might be a good idea to get involved with.

  5. It is a sad thing, 'Chester', because this is a judgement not upon you or upon social media, but upon the numptys you work with and the perniciousness of some 'loving' Christians. I know your writings, and I pray that a new environment will grant you the freedom that you have had to constrain for yourself in self-preservation.

    Don't let the buggers get you down, in other words!

  6. Ernie, thanks for your thoughts. They are helpful.

    Sadly, you response of your community is largely that of the many other accounts that I have heard of. They regard internet stuff with the same eye that they do with identity fraud and credit card scams. However, I also acknowledge that for those who not just unfamiliar with social media and the internet, but those who are unfamiliar with computers and how they connect the world to itself. So much voodoo!

    One of the other great joys of this stuff is in the fact that it largely levels ecclesial differences. I had no idea that you were evangelical, or indeed any other - and it didnt matter. Social media crosses those boundaries well.

    With these things, I think a lot has to be said for the gentle approach - to slowly grow people into this world. A full-on offensive may cause more consternation that enlightenment, if it is a normal church community!

    Thanks again for your thoughts

  7. It's not just social media though is it?.. warning, sweeping generalisation following ..: It's the older strand of our churches (Perpetua you are excluded) who are fearful of it because it is new and they don't understand it. Just like in years gone by people wouldn't have VCRs or CD players until they were practically defunct.
    BUT I am of the 'throw a grenade into the room' type of action group so I would advocate carrying on regardless, people will eventually come around to it, by which stage we'll be on to the next thing.
    Interestingly if you look at businesses today, the vast majortiy - small and large - use social media for marketing and they would be foolish not to. It is the way a large portion of society works/interacts/learns/spreads ideas these days and whats more, it is free! If the church can't get its head around that then it is more stuck in the dark ages than I thought...

  8. Great comments on this great blogpost. We do need to recognise that technology is a tool which reflects our inner life. So there are bound to be introvert geeks and enthusiastic extroverts. But tools are good when used to edict, encourage and evangelise.


  9. When I was a teen, if you were a "Twit" you were an idiot. Now it's a compliment :)

    Here's what I know: The Lord told us to go into the uttermost parts of the earth to share the Good News. In my opinion, cyberspace - no matter how you access it - is the uttermost of the outermost. We have a tremendous opportunity here to honor the Lord, encourage & challenge people, and to present His amazing offer of salvation.

    I'm so grateful that shepherds are finding their way to the sheep grazing here.

    So, to quote my hero Woody (from Buzz Lightyear), "Infinity and beyond!"!!!!

  10. A really thoughtful and honest post - thank you.

  11. you might find this and this useful on this subject

  12. your commentary on social media, is very thoughtful, on social media I can share thoughts and questions about theological issues in a way that used to seem awakard to me, now I reuglarly share my faith and thoughts, this venue is amazing for growth, learnign sharing and just listening.

  13. I must confess to being a little overwhelmed by the comments and the attention that this little post have precipitated. It tells me that we are probably on the cusp of something important, if we but knew it. I shall pursue this thread with others like it in the months to come.

    What has been the most significant thing of all has been the affirming of the view that technology and its possibilities are on the same shelf as voodoo in the minds and hearts of many Christians. Lack of understanding, and a mindset that naturally attracts to the pitfalls and not the opportunities (a very human mindset) are all the hurdles that need to be crossed.

    However, if this amounts to the re-invention of a ode of transport hitherto undiscovered, then persist I must, with the many others who are doing the same far more ably than I.



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