Steve Jobs, it is said, woke up every morning to make some new piece of technology. For those of us who believe God wakes us up each morning, the challenges of technology are enormous. Jacques Ellul warned us that technology had an ideology with it. Artificial intelligence is the apex of that ideology. I am not a luddite. Nor am I a technophobe. I simply wish to be clear about what we are expecting. I do not believe we are prepared to consider the implication of technology for theology. In fact, I believe technology presents its’ own theology.
Technology As Servant
Churches began Sunday evening services when electric lights became affordable. Churches have used technology as a “draw” to bring people inside the buildings ever since. When the lights go out, many congregations do not hold scheduled worship times. It would be impractical for some worship spaces. In the same way, microphones and speakers are necessities for a church to be taken seriously. Add to these things the desire many churches in the West have for central heat and air conditioning. Electric instruments from organs to guitars require an investment of time and money. Every piece of equipment is necessary for the convenience, comfort, and enjoyment of the congregation.
Technology is a servant providing comfort, convenience, and enjoyment for any audience. This is just as true for religious purposes as any other form of communication. Theaters and churches began thinking about the technology of seating. The servant is now required. The COVID-19 pandemic required churches to provide streaming, both live and recorded, of worship services. Why is it necessary for churches to do this? Because the tools are available. Clergy and lay church leaders were required to learn to use the tools. We are taking courses on how to enhance our online presence…online. The servant now trains the user. At what point did this happen?
Theology As Why
Theology is practice. “As the church prays so the church believes.” The basic idea is how the church worshiped determined what the church claimed was truth. If Jesus is worshiped as God, he must be God. The bread and wine represent the body and blood of Jesus. The two must be present somehow with the bread and wine even if it is “we may be the body of Christ redeemed by his blood.” Technology will not change any of these doctrines. It changes how we think of them. Did your church debate online communion? What did it mean to gather and pass the peace of Christ to one another? Or did that matter?
Community is an issue as well. My meditation app shows a “thank you” from someone who happens to be using the app at the same time. “Thank you for meditating with me today.” This is simply bizarre to my mind. It is like the tree falling in the woods. But it turns out someone heard it. My presence is affirmed because the app recognizes two people using it at the same time. Is this community? The app says it is. We once declared the community ourselves.
Theology either accepts all online communities or decides what level of interaction determines a community. And this is where social media comes into play with artificial intelligence.
The Technology of Why
Philosopher Daniel Dennett in his fun book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea compared evolution by natural selection to an algorithm. Roughly speaking, an algorithm is a process that takes many possibilities to make an outcome. Algorithms are predictive processes. They also determine what we see and hear.
Why does an advertisement for something you were just thinking about pop up on your social media wall? If you “googled” it, then the reason is obvious. But what if you did not and got the ad anyway? Global positioning information is being collected on your internet-connected devices. If your android phone is in the presence of one belonging to someone else, that too is known. Where you are and who you are with are factored together. Not only that but the interests of the other person are known based on their viewing, search, and the places they frequent. The algorithm then compiles this information and then pushes certain advertisements your direction. Add to that the fact that you notice the “coincidence” strengthens future advertising toward you.
Churches, like other businesses, rely on this algorithmic method to get viewers on our livestreams. Social media, like Facebook/Meta, also advertise ways to “boost your audience” with a “pay to play” feature making your page an ad on someone else’s personal feed. There is no getting around this capitalist manipulation. No room for dialogue exists because the algorithm is driven by this ideology. There is a why to the technology.
Technology is always “improving” and becoming more complex. Technology makes surprise budget strains on congregations just to maintain it. It always has. Congregations use technology to grow ministries. But funding for the technology, like the ministries is drying up, with the decline in church attendance and the shift of remaining attendees to larger megachurch productions. This is the capitalist model of unrestrained expansion. Technology contributes to a theology of scarcity. The Kingdom of God, on the other hand, is about abundance.
Theological reflection on technology is still a new task. Steve jobs did not wake up every morning to make something new. The truth of the matter is new technological improvements woke up Steve Jobs every morning. Apple and other tech companies need to always take the next step. Otherwise, the companies lose market-share. The promised pay off for tech billionaires never happens. It is elusive. The pay off may be an illusion. But what do we believe about the world and our place in it because of it?
The reader does not have a print version of this blog. This is our first hint. We believe information is readily available. We believe it should be. But what are we discovering? What are we learning? Are we like Dennett simply hoping a comparison is a means to understanding? Alternative religions and spiritualities are means some use to avoid this technology. But my neo-pagan friends are advertising on social media. They are building their brands.
We are becoming the servants of the tools. Is the creator less than human? Dennett’s creator is an algorithm just as earlier times the creator was the person winding the clock of the world and stepping back. There is more to being human than that.