A Framework for Digital Wisdom

A Framework for Digital Wisdom May 7, 2018

Back story: the quest for wisdom 

Our purpose in writing these columns is to grow in wisdom for faithful living in this digital age. More easily said than done! Wisdom requires learning, but is more than mere academic competency. Wisdom presumes purpose and meaning, which necessitate a worldview, but Christian faith is more than a worldview. Wisdom transcends categories. It is personal. It accrues through experiential learning. Faith is a journey, and wisdom accrues along the meandering, spiritual path of that journey.

How then to proceed? There is no clean, bright map of the Christian worldview, no highways to wisdom. Nonetheless, we do have a guiding framework in mind. Keeping in mind that “the journey is not the map”, I will outline our approach.

Over story: a biblical worldview

We find James K. A. Smith’s perspective helpful in our search for theological insights into contemporary culture.[1] Smith, a philosopher by training, offers a framework for the task of faith-seeking-understanding. He recognizes that having a worldview is a necessary but insufficient condition for wisdom. A Christian worldview is necessary in order to engage our cultural context, but a worldview alone is not enough to capture the abundant life Jesus desires for us [John 10:10].

Smith challenges the authority secular culture grants to materialism. In contrast to the focus of secular academia on subject-matter information, Smith inspires us to consider the role of formation—in spirit and character—at the heart of education and growth in wisdom.[2] Smith argues:

[B]iblical anthropology reveals us to be teleological creatures created to worship, and thus we may rightly be called “liturgical animals.” Therefore, our actions are more a function of what we love (a desired telos) than what we think. Smith explains, “What we love is a specific vision of the good life, an implicit picture of what human flourishing looks like.”[3]

Based upon this teleological view of human nature and purpose, Smith develops a three-part framework:

  1. Shared telos,
  2. Cultural exegesis, and
  3. Counter-formation

Shared telos

A telos is an end or goal. To live with a telos is to be informed and formed by a vision of the ultimate meaning and purpose of life. For Christians, this presumes some shared tenets of faith. A shared telos gives direction to the pursuit of wisdom; it provides a foundation and context for critical thinking.

To illustrate the importance of telos, consider the example of Yuval Harari, who casts a vision for human destiny in Homo Deus. In Harari’s telling of the story, “organisms are algorithms.” Humans happen to be the organic algorithms on this planet that will re-invent themselves, using technology to pursue divinity and immortality, thus becoming “gods”.

Harari’s vision lacks a telos. We are “not rooted in some great cosmic plan. We are not actors in a divine drama, and nobody cares about us and our deeds.” (p. 222) Such a stark materialism finds no basis for value judgments in the wise use of technology. As a result, we find ourselves embarked on a new version of the quest to build the Tower of Babel [Genesis 11:1-9]. This is a dire prospect and Harari seems to have no answer for it.

Cultural exegesis

As Smith says, we are “liturgical animals.” Therefore, we must be attentive to “cultural liturgies”—the embodied “rituals of ultimate concern that are formative for identity and inculcate particular visions of the good life.”[4]

To think critically about the impact of digital technologies on values, habits, and character formation therefore, we need to “exegete the culture”—that is, to dig beneath the surface of cultural norms to uncover the desires and ideas that shape behavior.

Cultural exegesis explores the “social imaginary”, as Charles Taylor describes it: “an implicit ‘map’ of social space”, that shapes behavior according to cultural precepts.[5] Since the social imaginary is an organic construct, “inexpressible in the form of explicit doctrines,”[6] cultural exegesis pays attention to stories, images, and myths. Cultural exegesis asks questions about “cultural liturgies”, like: “What vision of the kingdom is implicit within it?; What story is imbedded in its practices?; What does it envision as the good life?; What kind of people does it want us to become?; What does it want us to love?”[7]

Julia Ticona, for example, does cultural exegesis when she interviews people about their use of social media, and discovers habits that lead to a sense of unease induced by their experience of a “divide between the lives they led on and offline.”[8]

For another example of cultural exegesis, we can analyze the impact of mantras like “code wins arguments”, and mindsets like “The Hacker Way”. These mantras and mindsets reveal the precepts of a social imaginary that inhabits the world of some technology companies, like Facebook.

Counter-formation

As “liturgical animals”, humans cannot help but to develop liturgical habits, whether in families, workplaces, churches, or the broader society. Technology exerts a dynamic force on rapidly evolving “cultural liturgies”—the commonplace, every day habits that are shaped by our use of digital technologies.

Personal habits and patterns of social interaction reveal the shape of our desires and also shape our desires. “It is in such practices, that our love is trained, shaped, disciplined and formed. And, it is to some extent, only in such practices that this can happen,” Smith argues.[9]

To use digital technologies wisely, we must therefore develop and train counter-formational practices, for example: cultivating a “form of attention that is open to receiving something beyond us.” Counter-formation will reorient our desires and habits to help us live lives that flourish in alignment with the telos of our faith. There is nothing new here, in principle. The Sabbath is the primordial example of God’s design for a continual restoration of all things and a realignment of desire in his direction. What is new is the need for attention to new issues raised by our immersion in digital technology.

 

[1] See James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009) and Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013).

[2] Kenman Wong, Bruce Baker, and Randal Franz, “Reimagining Business Education as Character Formation,” Christian Scholar’s Review XLV:1 (2015), 8.

[3] Ibid, 12, quoting Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 52.

[4] Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 86.

[5] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007), 173.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 95 & 134.

[8] Julia Ticona and Chad Wellmon, “Uneasy in Digital Zion”, The Hedgehog Review, Spring 2015, 58-71, 67.

[9] Smith, Imagining the Kingdom 13.

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