by Leigh Finke
We are, at this very moment in time, living in the midst of a technological revolution. The third great revolution of the human species, after the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Such a claim might seem a bit surprising for some, equally mundane to others. In part, that’s because it is difficult to step back from our own point of view when it comes to species-level concepts. How are we to understand something so…big?
For Deanna Thompson, perspective came with a diagnosis. Thompson is a theologian, author and the director of the Lutheran Center for Faith, Values and Community at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Like many who grew up in the pre-internet era, Thompson was skeptical about the benefit of digital technologies. But then, 12 years ago, she was “diagnosed with incurable cancer,” she told me in a recent interview. As her cancer progressed, her understanding of technology and its relationship to humanity underwent a paradigmatic shift.
In 2016, Thompson wrote a book on the subject called “The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World.” Last week I spoke to her about her work with technology and how she is thinking about the digital revolution during a time of global pandemic.
This transcript has been edited for publication.
Connect Journal: When you use the word “technology,” what do you mean?
Deanna Thompson: When I think about technology, I’m thinking in particular about the new digital tools and the different views of our relationship to technology.
I want to encourage us to have conversations about how we can individually and communally have conversations. We can come up with norms and guidelines about how we should be with one another in these digital spaces, how we should use these tools, where the limits should be. I don’t think the rules have been written yet fully. A lot of time is spent bemoaning social media. And I think there is corporate influence and direction that is beyond our control. At the same time, I think that in some of these conversations that are hand-wringing about social media, there’s a lot of space to think about how religious communities and individuals can make decisions and influence how these tools are used.
CJ: What are your thoughts about technology and digital media during the pandemic?
DT: One of the things that I think we need to be doing, and I think the time of pandemic gives us the opportunity to do that since all of us are relying much more on digital tools than we have in the past, is to become more nuanced about how we engage with the tools—where there are problems, where there are limitations and also where there are possibilities.
A lot of people, for example, who are attending church virtually these days, there’s surprises for them. There’s ways that people feel newly connected to their church communities; attendance in a lot of church communities has gone up when it’s been virtual. Someone joined our church in the spring after starting to come after the pandemic hit. They joined the church never having set foot in the actual church building.
So I think we need to do more theologizing around the ways in which technology can facilitate lack of connection, isolation, distraction and then at the same time really still be paying a lot more attention to the ways these tools help us to facilitate more connection, surprising connections, that can’t be facilitated in person.
CJ: How do you imagine people, not so much individually but on the congregational or churchwide level, altering the manner in which digital technologies are used? How can we think about it differently than in corporate, data-mining ways?
DT: Yeah, I think that is a real thing. I don’t want to ignore that. I think there are ways our lives, individually and collectively, are being strongly influenced by corporate interests in terms of technology.
I feel like many mainline Christian communities have been largely silent in their communities and beyond about how we as the body of Christ interact with each other and the wider world, with these digital tools. We have spent a lot of time bemoaning the current condition. And there are reasons to lament, to bemoan. But I don’t think we have no agency. We have an ability, just like we do in real, physical, embodied life, to say, we are not going to participate in that.
I think faith communities, and institutions of higher ed are places where these conversations should be happening. There’s a lot of opportunity there to imagine how we can imagine using these tools for good. Not in a pollyannish way, not in a way that neglects the corporate interest, all those things—I don’t want to neglect that. I just don’t believe that it’s totalizing, and part of that is my own experience of grace and the hands of Christ enveloping me and my family in the hardest times of our lives.
CJ: I want to ask about taking the long view of these digital tools. It’s only 10 years ago we invented this mode of communicating. How do you think people can approach them with less fear and more of understanding of: This is just getting started, we still have to build what this is going to look like?
DT: At the invention of the printing press, there was a concern that when you make all of these written texts widely available, we were going to lose the capacity to remember. People would memorize psalms, and poetry, and (and there was worry) that people were going to be no longer able to do that when we have the written word.
I think when we go back and look at the printing press, the vast majority of us would be like, creating mass-produced text was an incredibly positive step forward in terms of our development as a species. Most of us wouldn’t want to go back and say, that was really unfortunate. Now, I’m not willing to say that the digital revolution, that people in the future are going to say so clearly that it was a positive. I think there are ways there is some detriment. But I do think that anxiety is natural. I’m not interested in telling people that it’s ridiculous to feel anxiety.
But I think a lot of the conversations and thinking about virtual versus in-person is kind of an either/or approach, where it gets portrayed as either we’re in-person, which is always superior, or we are confined to virtual interactions in virtual spaces that are always inferior.
Going back to my experience of being close to death with my cancer diagnosis. One of the things I was shocked to experience was when I interacted in-person with people when I was really sick, many times that became too much to bear. It was when your body and your spirit are undone by illness, to be in the same space with somebody where they see that you’re dying, you see them start to cry—that sometimes is too much to bear in person. So one of the things that shocked me was that the place that I felt most like myself was communicating virtually, when I was a my sickest. As a theologian, as somebody who always thought in-person interaction is always superior, I was shocked to realize that being able to speak in full sentences on social media and not having to deal with people’s “you look like you’re dying” faces gave me a kind of agency and reassurance that I was still, at some level, myself, the way that being in person couldn’t do at any length.
We need to get more nuanced and beyond the either/or thinking about either virtual or in-person.
CJ: So, we have to think about things differently, and understand them better, but how do you imagine that taking shape in reality in faith communities?
DT: Before COVID I was encouraging people to really address these issues. There should be sermons about how we navigate our lives virtually, how we use our digital tools. We should be talking about these things in confirmation.
Now that we’re in COVID in this time, I think what I’d love to see communities of faith doing is offering some time for everybody who is part of the community to invite them into the deep reflection about what the losses are. What should we lament? Something I’ve written about this year is the need for more public lament in our communities about issues related to injustice and issues related to COVID, but also lamenting the ways that we are experiencing the losses of not being physically gathered, to name those. And I think we have an opportunity right now to name the advantages to gather virtually, that we can name the advantages of being the virtual body of Christ. What are things that we’re learning?
I know a lot of faith communities are just longing for the opportunity to be back in person, and I certainly share that. At the same time what are the insights that we are going to take with us when COVID ends? This is where I feel like we have an opportunity to think in new and in really reforming ways about how we can use these digital tools to help us better be the body of Christ. These tools can really enhance the mission of the church in the 21st century.
CJ: There are churches in this country that have been very good at using digital tools, and those churches tend to be evangelical megachurches. Has the mainline ceded some ground on technology to those churches?
DT: While many megachurches use digital technology really, really well, I think one of the things that some mainline communities have thought is that use of technology is not done with as much critical thinking. Where there are marketing tools, flashy social media, that doesn’t serve the mission of the church.
I think before COVID a number of mainline churches had thought about the need for a solid website. We’re really in a post-website world. Having a good website, we’re kind of beyond that in terms of what people expect churches to be doing with these tools. I think COVID has forced this on a huge sector of churches that before thought well, we can do a few things here and there with digital technology, but the focus is on in-person worship and in-person activities. I think this experience has just thrown open the door to acknowledging that these tools can, in certain ways, enhance our ability to be the body of Christ, to spread Christ’s love, to be the church in the world in new ways. But I think that critical faculty is also holding up the ways in which we have reason to lament, or say there are limits, to how the technology can be used. It’s that both/and that I would council.
CJ: What’s the message you would give churches about the future of this technology for young people who have grown up, or are growing up, in the digital age?
DT: Our young people live much more thoroughly in this world than a lot of us adults do. There are definitely ways students make mistakes having not realized the power of these technological forces in their lives. At the same time, young people are negotiating these things every day, and they also have a lot of wisdom. So I would want to ask them what kind of pressures they feel. What are the biggest challenges for them in the social media world? What are the biggest challenges doing online education and not getting to spend time with friends, in person? And then I would ask them ways in which they find meaningful connections virtually.
And I think the church should be taking notes on that, and we should be creating our youth programs and confirmation and our interactions with young people and young adults through taking their input very seriously. What have you found to be life-giving? What do you find to be life-negating? How do you negotiate that? It’s not that we don’t have any wisdom to offer young people. But there aren’t super clear answers. We’re all trying to figure it out.
Leigh Finke is a professional journalist who lives in the Twin Cities.
Categories: December 2020: "The Theology of Technology"