Culture, context, contemplation

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A basic definition of spirituality would be that it is “the unique and personal response of individuals to all that calls them to integrity and transcendence”(264). Further, theologian Sheila Greeve Davaney notes that “culture is the process by which meaning is produced, contended for, and continually renegotiated and the context in which individual and communal identities are mediated and brought into being”(5). Therefore to understand how digital technologies intersect with spirituality requires an exploration of dynamic definitions of culture. Scholarship which emphasizes digital media as environments in which meaning is made, as contrasted to more instrumental ways of perceiving digital technology, is most immediately relevant and evocative for my work.

Human practices of meaning-making are going through rapid shifts, and there is as yet little consensus about the appropriateness of suffusing digital media into religious practices. I find Cathy Davidson’s argument compelling, that is: digital technologies have so disrupted our taken-for-granted practices that we can now perceive changes which have been in train for long stretches of time but heretofore were invisible. Mainline Christian communities are losing members, for instance, but is digital tech the cause? Or is it perhaps merely a lens through which to perceive the longer term impact of networked individualism? Questions of embodiment which have been roiling the margins of theological speculation for several decades become concretely tangible in the question of whether or not true communion can take place in Second Life. Similarly, questions such as whether it is appropriate for people to tweet during a church service, or to offer pastoral care online, become vividly palpable rather than abstractly theoretical. Jim Gilliam’s argument that “the internet is a religion” comes alive for everyday engagement, rather than as mere scholarly speculation. We do not yet have answers to these questions, but the questions themselves are important and offer many new avenues of inquiry.

Scholars of religious practices have also emphasized the crucial significance of context in understanding meaning-making, particularly as implicated in spirituality. How we understand place, social location, and situated perspective becomes a key to exploring various dimensions of spirituality. Yet as Michael Wesch observes we are living in an era of context collapse, a collapse which occurs in and through digital media. Amidst this collapse religion scholars are finding ways to attend to the widely varying communication shifts materializing throughout our spaces. Seeing meaning-making as an essential element of religious practice helps us to observe how shifts in authority, authenticity, and agency which have been catalyzed by digital media are reshaping experiences of spirituality.

Finally, in addition to explorations of culture and context, scholars of religion and spirituality are attending to how contemplative practices are impacted by digital media. It is in this search for relationship with transcendence that some of the most challenging – but also promising – dynamics are emerging. The speed of communication, the firehose of available information on the web, and dominant forms of scientific rationality combine with new research in neurosciences and widespread sharing of experiential data to suggest that contemplative practices are gaining new relevance even as the communities which originated and tend them are losing ground. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan contemplative and theologian in the Christian context uses a daily e-blast to describe how ancient contemplative practices are newly relevant. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur suggests ways to use digital tech to create new patterns of contemplative action. Both are mindful of the necessity for cultivating an epistemological stance of humility, of “not knowing” amidst the instrumentalism which is rampant in technological circles. From what might be perceived as opposite ends of a continuum – a religious friar immersed in monastic practice and an entrepreneur at the cutting edge of digital tech —  these two writers are vibrant examples of how spiritual practices of inquiry into relationality that extends beyond the rational and immediately corporeal are being newly vivified within and through digital media.

Thus my immediate response to the questions of “How does the digital intersect with spirituality/religion? How have digital/virtual technologies and environments broadened approaches to the study of spirituality/religion?” is that we are newly aware of, and attentive to, issues of culture, of context, and of contemplative practice.