Technology and Spirituality
Spirituality and Technology: The Case of the Caring Bridge
Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation on Technology and Spirituality. Read other perspectives here.
The Caring Bridge is a great example of spirituality reshaping technology and technology reshaping spirituality. Caring Bridge is a website. It lets caretakers stay in touch with the community of people who also care about the afflicted person. If I get cancer, my husband will want to update people on my status. He will have little time for phone calls and repeat information. Thus he might distribute information through a website, a bridge that cares. By broadcasting, he is creating a bordered space, for hugs and intimate conversations with those who are his real web and real net, not his World Wide Web or "internet." Community is the word for both the bordered and the outer circles.
Caring Bridge can also announce a death—as can an email. At my congregation, we are just developing etiquette for how to announce a death online. We have arrived at the following formula. There is nothing great about it; instead it is a compromise about using our list serve to create nets and distribute information. "Sad News" is what we say in the message line. Details follow in the body of the email. In the old days, the telephone, just another technology would suffice to spread information. "Everybody" would know but not all at once. One of the biggest concerns was who would be left out. "Don't let her find out before she hears from you."
What is good about talking about human suffering and death using technology? What is not? At these moments of great stress and distress, we want nothing counterfeit. Thoreau said that humans often become the tools of our tools. Spirit is finding its way online through technology in multiple ways. You can go to church online. You can contribute to church online. Even our Sunday School kids show up for Sunday School with cell phone in hand. All the other kids gather round the cell phone and play the game and connect eye to screen. If I thought their parents weren't online during the sermon, I might be concerned. We don't even do the "turn off" message any more.
The primary function of religious communities is to be spirited and especially spirited at the times of great life transitions. We call these marriages, baptisms, and funerals or hatching, matching, dispatching. All these guard the gates. They bridge the caring. They train the transitions. You walk into the funeral as one person, you walk out another. You walk in the wedding processional as one person, you walk out another. Religious ceremonies gather the communities to gather and guard the gates. Even today we have folk traditions that manage transitions. They are more and more technological.
Technology matters. Spirituality matters. One is an end: to be spirited. The others are a means: to transmit and transport spirit to the gates, which are increasingly virtual, overly recorded, and overly photographed. By overly I indicate the sharp contrast to the privacy we used to enjoy around "family" events. The wedding website comes to mind, alongside Caring Bridge.
If the real difference between things is not the sacred or the secular but the sacred and the desacralized, does Caring Bridge resacralize or desacralize the sacred?
Should you announce a death online? I think not to the personal family. That should be obvious but increasingly is not. It should be obvious because it hurts to receive important news impersonally. There are those who will argue that email is very personal to them. Unfortunately, not everyone will feel that way. In the old-fashioned ways of death, people found the address book of the person, phoned the people, and talked about how the death happened. Over and over.
Should you send notes of condolence by email? Or marriage invitations by email? Interestingly, it is easier to give good news electronically than it is to give bad news. Facebook may be great for the baby's birth and less good when Mom dies and a sibling finds out that way.
There are so many giant subjects surrounding death today. A lost sense of immortality has exacerbated the time famine as well as the ability of capitalism to take over space. If there are only ninety years, why not use and abuse them for personal gain? When we changed the words "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" at Ash Wednesday this year to ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust, people were profoundly moved. If Facebook and Caring Bridge can also give comfort and value the spirited self, the one whose soul is immortal, then by all means use them. If they make the world smaller or life and death less consequential, do not. Finally, if they desacralize the person, push the off button. If they save the beleaguered husband time to be touched and hugged in person, use them.
Rule of Thumb: use technology to guard the gates of over-stimulation at the time of death. Then you can maximize face-to-face contact with the fewer than a dozen people or "family" who want to surround you with high touch.
Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper is Senior Minister at Judson Memorial Church and writing a book called The Best Funeral Ever: 21st Century Rituals for Hatching, Matching and Dispatching.