Many a pundit has suggested that the Internet has stirred – or is a symptom of – the greatest technological revolution since the dawn of the industrial age, or even the invention of the printing press in 1448. In fact, they could well be understating the impact of technological advances in all areas of our life, including our spiritual lives.
Religious communities and all of the relationships therein are being reshaped with remarkable rapidity. Technology is creating greater symmetry in relationships between clergy and congregants and encouraging greater institutional transparency. Many of these changes are positive, while others, such as distractions within interpersonal interactions and the search for meaning, may be causing challenges.
No matter one’s feelings about the interaction of religion and technology, religion is being pushed, cajoled, uplifted, and profoundly changed by the technological advances of our time and merits greater study.
I recently had the opportunity to join with the Reverend Paul Raushenbush, Executive Editor of Huffington Post Religion to more deeply examine the ways that changes in communication technology, and particularly the Internet, are affecting religion – from the vantage point of someone at the cutting edge in his presence within both spheres.
In a time of change, what remains constant? Where does authority come from in a decentralized world? What are the implications of the “always-on” nature of public speech today? How has technology created new ways to pray?
We look forward to your reactions and to continue the conversation about these ever-unfolding changes.
Part 1: Who has authority?
Part 2: New kinds of relationships
Part 3: What does public speech look like now?
Part 4: New ways to pray
View the transcript below:
Geoff Mitelman: So, welcome everyone, welcome to my guests here, Reverend Paul Raushenbush is the executive editor of Huffington Post Religion, and Rabbi Josh Stanton, as we look at some questions through the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, asking the question “Are we using technology or is technology using us?”
I’m thrilled to be sitting here with the two of you, because both of you are experts and have such interesting thoughts about the way communication technologies change the face of religion. And I would love to have a conversation here with the two of you. I know Josh – one thing that you really are fascinated by is the way, for example, the printing press really set off the Protestant Reformation, how that technology changed religion, the religious landscape, and how that’s progressed up until the year 2014, so would love to hear your thoughts on what this looks like.
Joshua Stanton: Absolutely. So there were a few big changes that I think happened in 1448 because of the printing press, and one of them you might know about more than I would have terms of the Protestant Reformation, but there were also changes that took place in the Jewish world in terms of uniformity of prayer books and increased uniformity within Jewish law itself, so that particular texts that had been seen as guiding texts for the way communities should function and individuals should comport themselves, all of a sudden might be produced in what is the modern-day state of Israel ,and then be sent to the other end of the known world, to the end of Europe, and be applied in communities that were utterly different culturally, utterly different socially, and yet could by virtue of the printing press see themselves as very much connected to the source material.
So there was a move of almost centralization of textual material that would not have been possible otherwise. And it occurs to me now that we might be in a period of de-centralization. Where all of a sudden we’re not reliant on the printing press, and anyone can go and create a prayer, create a thought, contribute and be in dialogue with Jewish thinkers from centuries past and present, and that it might be almost a move towards do-it-yourself Judaism that we see taking place by virtue of technology.
But Paul, you’re really one of the people at the cutting edge of this movement in religion and technology. I’d love to hear about what you’re observing and what you think is taking place.
Paul Raushenbush: Well, I actually think you’re on to exactly it. That the printing press was a radical change, but I actually think the Internet is a bigger change. In part because of the power it gives people to not just actively receive information, but to create it. So there’s no such thing now as, like, the passive reader. We are all active. I mean, even if we’re sharing something on her Facebook page, that’s actually publishing something. You know, many people will publish, you know, their reflections or share something. That’s publishing. There is, you know, there’s social media, media, it’s all this kind of connectivity.
What it has done is call into question authority. How do people know what is real authority? And so, one of the interesting things we’ve seen in the last maybe 8 years – remember, the Internet is a baby, I mean we’re just in the infancy stages of what this is actually going to mean, so every day it changes – but at first I think like, the brick and mortar – were a little like, “oh, this fad called the Internet, we’ll maybe put up a page and be really, like, not very interested or engaged in it,” I think they realized quickly that that was a very bad idea, because the authority on the Internet is really how much you can gain traction in some ways. And so what you’ve seen especially with the Catholic Church, they have taken a very aggressive stance with their Twitter feeds, with how they deal with the Internet, and that is one of the big changes, is how does authority get worked out and how do you recognize somebody’s authority?
So people who are basically just Joe Schmos like you and me can become huge Internet authorities because they have big followings and big people. They may not be you know who have been trained as classically, or have been – you know – are as brilliant in scholarship, but they understand how to wield influence in a new way.
Joshua Stanton: Isn’t it all about relationships, though? How are relationships fundamentally different in the age of Internet than they would be in prior eras? Because it strikes me that a lot of the people who are developing those followings are developing that authority, that voice, in a new era – they’re just extending relationships out into a new medium as opposed to necessarily engaging an entirely new skill altogether.
Paul Raushenbush: I mean that’s the quality of their relationships I think is really interesting. So you know we do have – you know, I have our lot of friends, it turns out, you know, on Facebook, I’m a super popular guy there, but I don’t really know them, aside from maybe 100 of them. So I think it brings into question the quality of our relationships, and how we wield influence is one thing, but how do we actually effect something beautiful in our relationships ,especially given, you know, what we’re talking about is religion and spirituality, and so like you know, what is the quality of the way we interact with people whom we know and whom we don’t know online? One of the things I like to tell young people is like, being the best person you can be online – I know it’s hard – but it’s unusual to find someone who’s beautiful and sweet and kind online. Most of us are a little caustic and edgy. But if you can, it’s like – how do we want to relate to people in this new era of being able to relate to people we know, and people who we only know through this medium. Which is very fragile, I would say.
Geoff Mitelman: What’s interesting is, it’s not just how is the internet changing religion, but how can religion and religious values inform the way we act online and use all sorts of different technologies. There’s the wonderful line, it says “before you say something, is it necessary, is it true, is it kind?” And those are very religious values, however you manifest those. And that can change the way the online discussion happens as well.
Paul Raushenbush: Right and then we can – the internet has kind of transformed who we view as our community, so we can all of a sudden be following a situation like a Ferguson and say like, “OK, I’m not really there, this is not my immediate community, but actually this is something that I’m feeling engaged with. How can I engage with it again, productively, but also like saying this is a social justice situation that I feel invested in?”
And I think that the other piece of the relationship puzzle is that when I was growing up in Madison, Wisconsin in the 60s and 70’s, there was no – kind of no way I could meet a Muslim, or interact with a Muslim, or even a Hindu or a Buddhist. That was, I mean – maybe a little bit, because Madison had some cosmopolitan element, but – what the Internet does is it allows us to be the potential for communication with people who are very different from us, who have a very different worldview than us.
How we engage those people, though, on the Internet is really important. How are religious leaders offering opportunities for that engagement? But the possibility for interfaith engagement is much better than it was when I was growing up. It’s much more – even if it’s not on the Internet, it’s much more, in some ways, 3-D than for me growing up, if I had even realized that I wanted to learn about Islam, I would have had to gone out and gone to the library…
Joshua Stanton: Encyclopedia Brittanica…
Paul Raushenbush: But now you can really follow religious leaders who are Muslim and learn and like, that’s a quote that you find interesting. So there’s all sorts of ways that the Internet is allowing us to be engaged, but again, I think we all have to take responsibility for the quality of our engagements. And it’s very hard, I find myself getting worked up sometimes online. And I have to try to, you know, try to remember the humanity that’s behind the like, the icon.
Joshua Stanton: Well I wonder, one of the insights that Rabbi Michael Paley had is that we might be moving back into an age of orality. Where we write and communicate through – across platforms, across media, in a way that resembles speech, and that has all of the benefits of speech in its organic nature, in its connectivity, in the way that it immediately energizes our emotions, and has some of the downsides in the sense that it’s unedited, it’s off the cuff, it’s spontaneous in such a way that we can really help people and connect with them, or we can hurt them because of its immediacy.
Paul Raushenbush: That’s really great. I haven’t heard of that as far as the oral tradition versus the written tradition. You know, the other piece of the Internet is time. I mean the factor of time is – we immediately will find out what happens in Israel, in the Palestinian areas, and then we immediately – like, that’s not like, “and then the news came to us the next morning on the news,” we get it immediately, we get everything immediately. So that, you know, this is a really interesting thing for religion, because there’s no time– you know, many times I think people used to look towards authority, whether that was religious authority, or you know, media authority, or political authority to kind of help us kind of understand what is happening. We rarely have that filter anymore, or we get it from whoever we’re following. You know I mean, like Twitter–
Joshua Stanton: That’s right.
Paul Raushenbush: It depends. That’s the reason one of the things I talk about to religious communities is like, religious communities should be preaching about the Internet from the pulpit, and they should be talking about who are you following? Why are you following them? What’s the quality of the information you’re getting? How can you gauge that? Because many people don’t understand the internet, don’t understand how it works, and don’t understand the pitfalls of what can be a very positive thing.
Joshua Stanton: Well but that’s using, interestingly, a traditional medium to convey a message in a different way but something going on in a whole new medium, which is fascinating, and it brings up for me the question of religious leadership and, to your earlier point, religious authority. One of the things that comes up for as a congregational Rabbi is the issue of immediacy, that in a very different way I feel responsible to respond to needs within the community, either presenting my opinion if there is an external event taking place, or responding directly to people’s needs, some of which feel very immediate and some of which might feel less immediate but could be responded to instantaneously. So instead of just getting a letter or a phone call, I get text messages, I get Facebook messages, I even get tweets responding to my tweets, and so it’s lovely in terms of opportunity and for me raises the question of the shifts – I mean, I became a rabbi in this environment, so I don’t know differently, but you’ve been a pastor before the age of the Internet. What do you think is happening to religious leadership? Or what should religious leaders do nowadays in an era when they are connecting and communicating in so many different ways?
Paul Raushenbush: I think it’s such an interesting question. I don’t have the answer. I’m not working in a pastoral position right now, so I can’t exactly tell you. I think that there’s something to be said for leading by example, so how you decide to make yourself accessible via these various means to your congregants, could maybe say something about how they as a professor at a university, make themselves accessible to students, which means accessible, but not manipulated.
Joshua Stanton: Yes.
Paul Raushenbush: And I think we need to talk about that, like, you know “wait, did you respond to my text, I texted five minutes ago, I mean you know, why are you ignoring me or why do you hate me?” You know, I mean, I think that those kind of things, you know – that’s a pitfall. But you know, I think ultimately, once you figure that out, I’ve had pastors say to me “I’m a sole pastor, I have two daughters, I have so much I’m supposed to do and now my congregation wants me to tweet and I’m just like, going crazy.”
And so my basic message is, that’s good news, because it means they want to hear more from you. They want you more in their life, because they’re online all day doing whatever their jobs are, they’re following Twitter or whatever, and they just want to be reminded that they have this spiritual leader that cares about them and will tweet something that may say like, “I’m just praying for my congregation today,” or you know, “prayers for the people in our neighborhood at the soup kitchen,” whatever, you know what I mean. So that so that it is it does allow this opportunity for engagement outside of the normal avenues that we viewed as how religious leaders interact with people. But again, you know, how public a religious leader or any other public figure wants to be with their persona predates the internet in some ways, but it does provide different problems – challenges.
Geoff Mitelman: I want to put a different question out there that relates to what you’re talking about, which is the communication, not just between people and people, but there’s been historically a belief that religion is about communicating with the divine, talking with God, or, for some people, God talking with them. Some people joke that the two tablets that Moses gave, now we have different tablets that we have here. How are you seeing the changes in communications technology affecting the way we think about and talk about our relationship with God and theology?
Paul Raushenbush: Thank you. That’s super important. And one of these questions I used to pose that is “so if there was a prayer app that just had, you know, a blank field, and you put your prayer in, and then you pressed send, and that’s it?” And the question I like to consider is: is that prayer? Is that a real prayer? Or does it require me like, putting kind of a pious look on my face, and going down like this, and then, say, “You know, God, I right now am full of despair, and I don’t know what to do, and I just need your help.”
Does it matter which way I do that, if I’m coming authentically from the heart? And so technology sometimes gives kind of a – it’s almost a ritualistic online vehicle for certain acts, I mean there are there are Hindu temples which view it as totally legitimate to drag an offering to a deity, press click, and you dragged a kind of icon of a flower and done some sort of cash donations to the temple. And that is – you know, I mean I would say there’s a quality difference, but in some ways, we can’t always get to the temple, we can’t always go to the Western Wall and put in a prayer, but someone can do that for us, or we could maybe – I mean – I just don’t know, I still think that’s a theological issue that’s being worked out, what does it mean to really do something?
I think this is what the virtual world, where a lot of us live – I mean, I hate to tell you how much I live on the Internet, because you know, I’m always, for me it’s so weird, I’m one of those people like, I write you an email, I’m like “tick tock, it’s been five minutes, why don’t you do it? ” But, you know, I live so much on the Internet, but what is it, is that really living if I’m interacting on the internet or does that not count, and it’s only when I’m talking to you guys directly?
Joshua Stanton: Well it raises the question: if prayer, if one of the functions of prayer or spiritual practice is to heighten a moment, to make it special, different and significant, then there is a subjective element to that. It could be a tightening the moment we would have anyway, which is opening our phones. It could be heightening a moment of conversation. It could be heightening a moment of reflection. And so I do think that there’s an adaptability inherent to it. From a Jewish standpoint, prayer as we know it today is a relatively new innovation. I mean, you read the book of Leviticus and it’s when I say – perhaps a little too irreverently – great Jewish barbecue was seen as the way that one worshipped. And since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E, prayer has totally, totally evolved and come into its own. And so it is seen from a historical lens of a tradition that’s maybe 4 millennia old as something that inherently has to involve, or evolve, pardon me. So I feel as though –
Paul Raushenbush: The question I would ask you, which has a Christian corollary, is if 10 people are online together, is that a minyan?
Joshua Stanton: You know, what is communion?
Paul Raushenbush: For Christians, it’s like Jesus says “where two or three are gathered, I am there.” So if I’m having like some sort of, you know, Skype prayer chat, is Jesus there, or do we have to be enfleshed? Which is a real question and I don’t know the answer.
Joshua Stanton: Or another question – so the three of us could be physically together, all interacting on our iPhones. What does presence mean in an era of technology? What does it actually mean?
Geoff Mitelman: The flip side of that, what’s interesting, is my old congregation and other congregations are doing this with the visual tefillah, a visual prayer service, where traditionally in Judaism everyone’s looking down at their prayer book and what ends up happening is when you’re singing, you’re muffled, and you’re not able to see people, so what they created is this visual tefillah, where it’s not just the words but it’s images and they’re projected, almost like a megachurch, in a way. And the ones that I’ve seen and have done have been some of the most spiritual services I’ve been to, because everyone’s singing, everyone’s seeing each other, everyone’s seeing more images, is this the next evolution of what prayer might look like? Because does it feel like traditional prayer? No. But the goal is to create a spiritual experience that works better than davening, praying in a standard prayer service.
Paul Raushenbush: So it evokes questions of subjective versus objective, individual versus communal, and whether prayer is dialogical at all. And whether, you know, what sort of cuts to the core of prayer, and I would imagine that technology in general is evoking questions that might have resided below the surface, and now all of a sudden are front and center very different way.
Joshua Stanton: I think that gets back to your original point that the diffusion of authority, and how we decide to do these things, we don’t know what like, some cool Jewish teenagers are doing, you know, maybe innovating in a way that we haven’t even seen yet. I think that there’s stuff, you know – I think the important thing is that. is that we neither dismiss nor wholly just take it hook, line and sinker. (I don’t even know. I’m not a fisherman. Is that right? It sounded basically right) But I do think we should be examining these questions using the tools of our faith, but also using like kind of – I think that there is something about the efficacies question, like what is working, you know, how do we feel engaged in our tradition? How do we feel more engaged, more – how do we make ourselves better people?
Geoff Mitelman: And it’s almost a conscious use of technology. There was an interesting piece that just came out, I have a 13 month old, and the American Association of Pediatrics, as a lot of people know, had said no screentime up until two years old. There was an article I think in Slate or somewhere a couple days ago where were some people pushing back on that, that it’s a different world and it’s not so much about no screen time, but conscious screen time, and how can you use that as an opportunity to create relationships with your children. And what’s the right balance, and how are you using all these different kinds of technologies? Is it mindful or is it mindless? Which is now – we’re going to the Buddhist tradition there as well.
Joshua Stanton: Looking at another piece of technology – I see I’m going to have to run in a second – just one meta comment, our conversation was qualitatively different because it’s being recorded, and I wonder if it was actually heightened. And so we often look at technology as something that reduces the quality of Interaction or it makes it so we can’t talk about big questions. And I wonder if there are some ways in which being on in a moment can happen by way of technology by way of recording, by way of knowing that there will be other people in dialogue with us inherently, that motivates us to actually have deeper conversations.
Paul Raushenbush: And you know, our conversation would have had a similar quality if it had been in front of people live as well. It would have been like like this. So perhaps one of the effects of technology is that we feel like we’re in the presence of others even when we’re alone. And so that the gaze, the examining eye perhaps could be a way of winnowing our behavior and our thoughts, that other people are thinking with us, even if you were alone on our computer.
Geoff Mitelman: A wonderful way to end this conversation. Thank you so much, Paul and Josh, for a very thoughtful conversation about the way changes in communications technology are changing religion, they way religion can inform how we communicate with each other. So thank you both for taking some time to talk this afternoon.
(This post is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our Fall 2014 series, “Are We Using Technology, or is Technology Using Us?“)