Sunny California was the place to be for some 35 scholars from around the world — including the John Cardinal Foley Chair — who gathered this week to consider the impact of digital technologies on theological reflection. Taking place in the Silicon Valley, the third annual forum featured cutting-edge questions and penetrating discussions:
Might Facebook be creating a sense of time that reduces the story of life to a myriad of unconnected instants? (Perhaps, if our focus is limited to the present.)
Can a virtual presence still be a real presence? (Yes, when what is on-screen serves the iconic role of opening us toward the mystery that is beyond the image.)
Is greater connectivity the ultimate way to transform our lives, as Google executives suggest? (Hardly so for believers.)
Is online game-playing an escape into the imaginary or a trans social interaction? (Both … Now let’s watch the World Cup!)
Can we truly encounter one another through screens? (Why not, if it’s truly me being extended via the screen.)
Might digital technology be addictive, a “narcotic for daily living”? (Certainly, when we’re more interested in capturing or reporting on an experience than actually having the experience!)
Are social networks Babel-ing talk or Pentecost-al communication? (Check your Facebook feed for the answer!)
Can the “mechanical” Internet aid “spiritual” development? (Most definitely, but not until we change our perspective. The Internet is not a place or a tool, but a web of relations among real persons who can, through interior discernment, witness to the faith by sharing their lives online. So, too, we can look upon technology not as a cunning distraction but a providential gift, through which we share the stories that lie at the heart of spirituality.)
Actually, the discussions were intellectually deeper and theologically richer than this Twitter-like summary suggests. The gathered minds spoke of teleology and eschatology, of presence and communion, and other theoretical foundations to our faith that could or should play out in the new world of digital communication.
In that world, as Pope Francis said in this year’s message for World Communications Day, “We are challenged to be people of depth, attentive to what is happening around us, and spiritually alert.” Thanks to sponsorship by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Santa Clara University, these annual gatherings seek to take up that very challenge.
Given the rapidly expanding, culture-forming power of the digital realm, there’s no end in sight to the questions. Given the Church’s mission of communicating the Gospel so as to transform the world, formulating a faith-based response is an ongoing and vitally necessary task.