Rewiring Religion: From Conflict to Connection in the Digital Age
In a recent article on Salon, Andrew O’Hehir wrote, “Religion is driving us crazy, and the disorder is by no means limited to believers.” Now, any time you put the words “crazy,” “disorder,” and “believers” in such close proximity to one another, you’re bound to get my attention. I just can’t help it. As a minister and a clinically trained social worker, I’m addicted to matters of the soul and psyche. Operating in the shadowy, beautiful realm where they intertwine is both a mystery and a privilege.
O’Hehir aptly chronicled the many ways in which religion (or lack thereof) divides us. Haven’t yet had your daily dose of acrimony? Put your ear to the ground of the religious landscape and listen. You’ll hear plenty of rancor and rumbling. Christians of various theological stripes wrangle over social issues as they initiate lawsuits about contraceptive mandates and marriage equality. Muslims and Jews argue over access to holy sites in Jerusalem. New Atheists and Christian Apologists tender advice on how best to debate one another (atheists, look here; Christians, here). Sadly, the rhetoric and posturing often become so overblown that it seems like a miracle when two mature adults thrive as thought partners and intellectual comrades because they jointly value the concept (and practice) of principled disagreement.
Surrounded by religious strife, I search for aspects of my own Christian tradition that may help foster reconciliation. It’s an interesting, paradoxical quest in that I seek restorative, healing elements within a multi-faceted religion that has—at various times and in diverse iterations—historically caused pain and suffering. Unfortunately, Christianity is not unique in this particular achievement. When it comes down to the brass tacks of praxis, my faith tradition is similar to other theological frameworks, religious systems, ethical codes, and philosophical schools. In the ultimate analysis, all schemas of belief are aspirational. While they idealistically encourage goodness, they also possess the ability to generate remarkable harm, depending upon how humans enact them.
When I search for elements of hope in Christianity, I am most buoyed by the ways in which its core theological tenets attempt to negotiate multiplicity, difference, and unity. As historically practiced in the real world, Christianity all too often has taken on the trappings of an “either/or” religion: Either you love the “right” person, or you are inherently disordered. Either you seek to convert others or you are not a true Christian. Either you have a born-again experience that looks, sounds, and feels a certain way, or you can’t claim to know God. Either you support “the cause” (whatever it may be at any given moment) or you are unwilling to work on behalf of God’s realm on earth. Either you are for us, or you are against us.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Christianity is not inherently an “either/or” religion; in fact, its foundational concepts are much more aligned with a “both/and” belief system. According to traditional Christian teachings, Jesus contained both divinity and humanity. The Trinity is composed of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit; even as they remain distinct entities, they are simultaneously one. (How’s that for a “both/and” scenario?)
In short, each element of the Divine exists in a multiplicity of states at any given moment in time. What a fantastic image, so full of possibility. If everything, including the Holy, is constantly fluctuating between multiple narratives, multiple potential courses of action, and multiple states of being, then each moment is pregnant with the potential for change, growth, and actualization. (Hello, process theology!)
As I look around at the contentious world in which I live and minister, I am most heartened by my faith tradition’s “both/and” description of the Divine. According to Christianity, God is both immanent (operating within this world—in and among us humans) and transcendent (operating outside of this world, while encompassing and witnessing everything that happens in it).
During my vocational trajectory, I have experienced God in both of these forms—and my interactions with both characteristics of the Divine have been mediated through human beings. (As indicated in my previous post about embodied ministry, my most meaningful, Spirit-filled pastoral moments tend to occur in relationship.) When human interactions take place within relational contexts that include space for immanence and transcendence alike, they tend to be more compassionate. That said, it is crucial to remain mindful of both characteristics in our efforts to promote harmony. If we over-emphasize transcendence, our conception of the Divine may become cold and unemotional. When we concentrate solely upon the mandates of a distant, unfeeling god who purportedly emphasizes intellectual concepts (of righteousness, of truth, etc.) over human connection, we risk losing sight of one another as living, breathing, vulnerable creatures—usually with disastrous results. But if we over-emphasize immanence, our conception of the Divine may lose the power to hold us to higher ethical standards of nobility, justice, and love. When we envision God as our best friend and a member of “our tribe,” we risk creating and worshipping a deity made in our own image—a god who gladly sanctions our treatment of other people, regardless of how cruel that treatment may be.
Personally, I tend to encounter God’s immanent presence most profoundly when I am working with trauma survivors. After listening to individuals recount their painful experiences, I often find myself contemplating the concept of imago dei. If human beings do, in fact, reflect and contain the image of the Divine—if the Holy Spirit fills our souls and animates our very being—then God necessarily is present in every moment of suffering. God is traumatized right alongside human beings; when we humans hurt one another, we simultaneously violate the Holy.
If the immanence associated with imago dei intimately links humans to the Divine (through mutual vulnerability), then resilience (for God and humans alike) is rooted in divine transcendence. Because the Holy exists not only inside of us, but also outside of us, the traumas of mortal experience lack the ability to fully destroy it. Even when we feel ourselves falling apart internally, the transcendent God-force possesses the power to serve as an external healing balm.
I was reminded of this fact one Sunday a while back when I preached for a congregation that makes extensive use of technology in its worship services. Because the church was new to me, I took a tour of the building before worship began. My guide showed me into the balcony at the back of the nave. It contained not only overflow seating areas, but also a booth containing computer and audio-visual equipment.
As I led worship that day, the service was streamed live on the internet, which meant that participation was not limited to those who were physically in the room. During the time of communal prayer, members of the gathered, embodied community shared their joys and concerns. As the pace of their offerings slowed, I stood in front of the pulpit waiting to see whether any additional requests were forthcoming. Suddenly, I noticed movement in front of the broadcasting booth. One of the men in the booth had emerged to signal that requests for prayer were arriving over the web. He proceeded to read each petition out loud, enunciating slowly and carefully so that everyone in the congregation could hear and understand.
It was a tremendously moving experience. All of a sudden, the nave was filled with the energy, hopes, and dreams of remote people I could not see. They prayed for recovery, for healing, for new hope in the midst of grief. They gave thanks for community, for connection, for a church that sustained them even when they could not be physically present.
For a few minutes, we—a collection of embodied worshippers—were privy to the deepest, innermost thoughts of invisible, yet tremendously resilient, beings. As I listened to the voice emanate from the balcony above us, I thought to myself, “Maybe this is what the voice of God sounds like. Perhaps we are collectively experiencing transcendence.”
When we humans directly interact with each other, it is relatively easy to experience the immanence of the Holy. As we sit together, grieve together, and encounter joy together, we recognize the imago dei in each other’s reflections. When we are geographically removed from one another, technology provides us with tools to build and nurture a different kind of connection. Although digital pathways don’t permit us to offer comforting touch or physical reassurance, they do allow us to proffer hope and model resilience. In some ways, then, our digital interactions may reflect human interactions with the transcendent Divine. Even when we can’t see or physically experience our remote relational partner, we still can transmit and receive messages of love, resilience, and unity.
About a month ago, when I wrote my initial piece for BEARINGS, I wondered about technology’s ability to connect us to God and one another. As I reflect back on my first experience of a live-streamed worship service, I realize that it granted insight into the real potential of new media practices. When religion and technology are paired in healthy, life-giving ways, they collectively offer us the ability to stimulate unifying experiences of solidarity. New technologies and new media practices can be challenging and even threatening for many people. But perhaps we’re in a process of rewiring religion in ways that can move us from conflict to connection in a world scarred by so much hostility and contention.