Technology: Do We Have Anything Better to Offer?
By Scott Raymond, Nathan Geer, Stephen Milliken
Thomas Aquinas said, "Man cannot live without joy; therefore when he is deprived of true spiritual joys it is necessary that he become addicted to carnal pleasures."
Christian College students are telling us that they find technology completely helpful, sometimes more dependable than their nearby friends and, at worst, “more responsive” than their personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They share that they have no problem staying focused for hours surfing, gaming and social networking, but are easily distracted when it comes to classroom preparation, being involved in campus activities, reading the Word of God, worshipping or praying.
Locked in this battle of “what is more captivating and meeting my needs” between God and the Internet, one student defined the struggle saying, “God is the same-old, same-old boring thing. I keep an eye on my phone because I don’t want to miss out on anything going on right now!” Is student life passé? Is God unexciting and behind the times? Do we have anything better to offer our students than technology?
Imagine going back in time a thousand years, three-thousand years, ten-thousand years, back before the jarring cacophony of sin from the first pair’s plunge into disobedience, before Eve, before Adam, before the God-exhalation that made man in His image. Go further back in the pre-fall world before the land creatures, the sea creatures and the birds in the heavens, back before the stars, before our moon, before our sun, before all plants, seeds, land and water. Go back further before the first evening and the first morning, before light and before the Spirit of God hovered over the waters, before the “formless and void,” before the heavens and the earth, before the angels fell, before the angels were created and before the morning stars sang. Go all the way back to the moment before anything and everything (Genesis 1:1-31).
If you were there at that moment, at the center of infinite nothingness, what would you experience? Would your thoughts and feelings turn to crushing loneliness, terrifying isolation, paralyzing fear or overwhelming anxiety as you are alone and experience the most awful solitude (MacDonald, 1994)?
Some say that before the existence of what we call time and space it was empty. As Christians, we believe the opposite. We are convinced it was filled with God. Everywhere was filled with Him and the incredible relationship of the Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit. Everywhere was God’s reciprocating love, meaning, purpose, fellowship, glory, holiness, righteousness and mystery. In this emptiness, the tri-unified God—the Father, the ineluctable, Jesus, the inexhaustible, and the Holy Spirit, the irresistible—knew no needs. Everywhere was filled with divine Truth, personal Joy and relational Contentment. God was in glorious union, communion. The transcendent (Plantinga, 1980) Trinity was not sequestered, isolated or withdrawn. Its Members were face-to-face, eye-to-eye, nose-to-nose and breath-to-breath in one another’s presence. They were “…nearer to one another than we are able to think” (MacDonald, 1975).
This wonderful God shared as the three-in-one the same substance; there was no veil of separation, no film of division. They were neither autonomous (Letham, 2004) nor synonymous. They shared perfect conversation and intense silence (Barber, 1990). They shared an eternally intimate dialogue and they held all things in fellowship [koinonia]. They shared a differing rank and role, and neither confounded nor divided the other (Hodge, 1873).
They were, then, three-in-one, baffling and mysterious in their jollity. They were limitless creativity, overflowing with perplexing ingenuity; and their eventual word-breathed-creation bore their stunning fingerprints. The Trinity shared a “discourse of passionate love” (Pascal, 2001). They were the one true, altogether source of holy desire, unquenchable self-sacrifice and all-consuming fiery love that lived all right passions, all proper thoughts and all romantic expressions. There was “nothing unlovely found in Him,” so all that was in Them was “wholly lovely” (Flavel, 2010, para 3). They loved each other with every ounce of their being and loved their neighbor as themselves. They were the original, authentic and genuine spiritual community. There was no other love worthy to turn an eye to in wonder-lust; nothing more fascinating, interesting, higher (Wesley, 1983), exciting or greater; all else is finite, by comparison infinitely less; the delights (Wolters, 1985) of the Triune God versus the delights of the fallen world (Schaeffer, 1984).
Further, a derogatory, pejorative or offensive thought towards one another never crossed their mind, nor ever did any thought of being thought. They never reduced the others to an object or an it (Buber, 1970). One never dismissed the other with a short breath, a snort, or a rolling of the eyes. As a Triune being, They were Deep calling to Deep (Psalm 42:7). They were always right, always accurate and always understanding. He was all good thoughts at all times. They were “heavy with wonder, never-ending knowledge” (Heschel, 1991). They were eternally fresh, elegant in their comprehension and unfathomably wise. To Them all things were uncomplicated and simple. By His word He birthed an array ranging from the infinitesimal to gargantuan fancies of exquisite delicacies (Poe, 1846). He is the true source of all that we desire to know and learn. And yet, students complain God cannot capture their attention.
In the Godhead boredom and monotony did not exist, there was no vain repetition. He was both the epi-center and infinite reach of wave upon wave of inestimable awe and wonder. In Them was no thing tedious, no thing vapid, but all things thrilling, seizing and gripping. They were, in essence, omni-thrilling, omni-exhilarating, omni-captivating, omni-terrifying and omni-new. They were the out-of-mind timelessness (Bonnefoy, 1998) of spine-tingling freshness and hair-raising, goose-bumping magnetism.
If we bore into the Trinity’s depth, width, height and duration, we would shudder, quiver, seize and tremor with marvel and stammering fascination. They were sole satisfaction (Singh, 1926) of fulfillment, pleasure and contentment. Is this what we are trying to find in technology?
This One God in three-Persons redeemed us to be one with Him, to enjoy His life and fellowship. Consider Jesus’ words as He described the Godhead’s desire to share this Oneness with us:
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them (John 17:20-26).
Being one with the Father, Son and Spirit is infinitely more satisfying than technology!
Yet, as C.S. Lewis aptly suggests, “…it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased” (Lewis, 1976, p. 26). This has been the case since the fall, wherein our progress has led us continually away from this Trinitarian Presence. We have continued to look for the infinite pleasure in very finite and lesser pleasures; “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is searching for God” (G.K. Chesterton, n.d.). Humanity’s first action after the first sin was to hide from God’s Presence. When God called in the Garden, Adam and Eve fled.
Now, fast-forward your thinking from that first step away from God’s Presence to the beginnings of higher education in the United States. Initially, the purpose of creating institutions of higher education in the U.S. was creating good citizens (Briggs, 1901), and these institutions were all faith-based (Marsden, 1994). They were designed to help men better serve their communities in offices of law, government and other civil services. For decades faculty lived with students, ate with students, shared life with students, and were constantly in the presence of students (Marsden, 1994). As our culture progressed, faculty moved off campus, which led to the beginning of Student Affairs as a field (Briggs, 1901). Since that time we have steadily adjusted residential living to better reflect the ever-increasing individualized culture around us. Early residence halls were double-loaded corridors (where students interacted with 30-40 others). Next, suites were built (where students interacted with 10-15 students) and finally apartment complexes were built (where students interact with roommates only).
It seems now that faculty spend more time researching than teaching. In the past, Student Development was created to fill the gap left by faculty. However, more and more, this gap is being filled by technology rather than people. Students in a residence hall sometimes know their Resident Director more by the emails he or she sends than by the number of times they see him or her on their floor. We have progressed from Godly Presence to carnal disconnect, from physical presence to mediated interactions via technology, from living life together to thought fragments of less than 140 characters. In our classrooms professors have shifted from course notes to hitting just the highlights with PowerPoint. In relationships, students have “defining the relationship” talks via text messaging and Twitter rather than going for a walk. We are slowly letting go of Presence for the sake of technology; we are ignoring God's creation, replacing it with our own, and each advancement in technology threatens to remove us one step further from face-to-face, spirit-to-spirit, breath-to-breath connection.
As more and more students engage technology, they are further disconnecting from the presence of one another. Some examples include iPods, video games and more recently, online learning. Our connections with one another are facilitated through the dissection of our selves and the artificial recreation of them on screens. This can be seen on Facebook, eHarmony, Twitter, Second Life, etc. Each of these venues allows people to be whomever they imagine. We are better able to hide now than in the Garden.
Yet, in spite of all these advances, our society cries for something better. We see it across our media-driven culture, but most clearly in films. From Star Trek: First Contact (1996) in which the character Data (an android) spends his entire existence hoping to grasp the intangible elements that make us human, to The Matrix (1999) in which the difficulties of reality are praised above the artificial pleasures created by virtual experience, to Tron: Legacy (2010) in which a machine longs to experience a sunset. Sci-fi movies and filmmakers constantly give credence to the need for human interaction and presence in technologically filled worlds.
We have progressed, or do we dare say digressed, from the days when faculty lived with students, to students who no longer leave their homes or rooms in order to earn an education. And yet, students are busier than ever. Technology has allowed multi-tasking to not only be possible but expected and, at times, required.
However, for us to deny the feasibility of technology would be entirely hypocritical. Throughout the continued conceptualization and development of this article, we utilized e-mail, cell phones, even Google Documents to aid us in ruminating and postulating this topic to make it a reality. We discovered many important books, resources, and even people through social media and Web 2.0 that probably would not have been found any other way. So in a sense, our current learning and development are indebted to technology. It is, therefore, appropriate to affirm the benefits of these new techno-tools we are being offered every day, and put these tools into perspective as secondary to a greater and deeper tool in our proverbial belt: presence.
The reality is technology entices and captivates for a number of reasons. For example:
- Technology enables us to maintain important relationships during periods of great distance.
- Technology enables us to gather and organize a cacophony of information into ways that are understandable and accessible.
- Technology enables us to remain in constant connection in order to promote efficiency and time-management.
- Technology enables us to transcend the limitations of our physical selves (through human augmentation, prosthetics, pace-makers, etc.).
- Technology gives us access to a vast labyrinth of information and resources at an almost instant pace.
- Technology can provide a sense of connection through its own mediums (Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and many other avenues for social media).
Yet interestingly, connection through technology is often presented in very intimate and physical terms such as in AT&T’s age old advertisement, “Reach out and touch someone.” Under the guise of such marketing, we are duped into thinking that when we connect through these mediums of communication that they offer the same experience of connection that is achieved when we are physically present with others. Furthermore, we often times accept all technological advances as good, seemingly without question. If we do this, we forego our ability to use discernment by how we attend to the world.
As technology increasingly becomes the medium with which we choose to connect, we begin to use this medium to supplement our direct experience and interaction with others. When this occurs, we tend to point towards the reality that God can use both people and things to advance His Kingdom. However, when we do this we typically mistake the two—people and things—as being equal in worth and importance. Though conceptually we know this to be false, our actions many times profess a contradictory reality. We must come to terms with the notion that there is something fundamentally unique and irreplicable regarding the interplay that transpires between two human beings who are physically present with one another; that presence offers something nothing else can duplicate. If we believe that presence is the best thing we have to offer, everything else we do ought to continually point to this core belief.
This idea of presence is closely connected with the notion of intimacy. In the broadest and simplest terms, intimacy can be understood as closeness or nearness. This is why relational distance has such a profound effect on development. Acclaimed author and priest Henri Nouwen once wrote “Intimacy is free from distraction” (Nouwen, 1994.). Nouwen attests to the reality that intimacy at its core is an all-consuming attending to and focusing upon a singular person or thing. In a world convoluted with distraction, this kind of intimacy faces a field of obstacles to overcome. Oftentimes, instead of acting as a supplement to enhance relationships, technology tends to dominate and consume those very relationships.
It seems as if we are continually attempting to create our own obstacles to true intimacy; we remain distant and fearful. Indeed, in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, his unique conception of hell suggests that as time passes those in hell continually spread further and further away from each other (Lewis, 1973). In addition, Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, offers her own insight,
Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies. And these days there is no coyness about its aspiration to substitute life on the screen for the other kind. Technology is seductive when its affordances meet our human vulnerabilities. And it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely, but fearful of intimacy; connectivity offers for many of us, the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We can’t get enough of each other, if, if, we can have enough of each other in amounts we can control. Think of Goldilocks: not too close, not too far, just right. Connection made to measure—that’s the new promise; the ability to hide from each other even as we are continually connected to each other. (Turkle, 2011)
When misused and misunderstood, technology creates obstacles that obstruct our path towards intimacy. Current technology has created and subsequently emphasized a multi-tasking-oriented mindset. Never before have we attempted to do so many things at once; granted, never before have we even had the opportunity. Nevertheless, this speaks of a dynamic shift from what has been the norm for thousands of years, mono-tasking, to the opportunity to do the opposite, multi-tasking. In some cases, multi-tasking can be an efficient means to accomplish tasks. But relationships are not tasks. If we are to take seriously the notion that “Intimacy is free from distraction” it cannot be possible to fully attend to and be cognizant of two or more things with regards to relationship. Activist and theologian William Stringfellow describes the reality of this phenomenon,
People are veritably besieged, on all sides, at every moment simultaneously by… various powers each seeking to dominate, usurp, or take a person’s time, attention, abilities, effort; each grasping at life itself; each demanding idolatrous service and loyalty. In such a tumult it becomes very difficult for a human being even to identify the idols that would possess him or her…” (Stringfellow & Kellerman, 1994, p. 211).
Any owner of an iPhone or other smartphone can attest that this is a daily struggle. As we attempt to multi-task, we forego our ability to focus all of our valued attention, concentration and time to a singular object.
Technology most definitely has its place, and though its ultimate influence and power is much more limited than we tend to admit, it can be a buttress to the cathedral that is relationship. A buttress is defined as “any external prop or support built, to steady a structure by opposing its outward thrusts” (Dictionary.com, LLC, 2011). An external prop on its own cannot stand and its fundamental purpose is to give support for and continually point towards the central cathedral. And yet, instead of “opposing its outward thrusts,” technology attempts to extend humanity’s reach. Technology stretches the user beyond the limitations of the physical self to instantly transport them all over the globe. In his prophetic book, Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan suggests that every medium or technology is an extension of man (McLuhan, 1994). In a sense, technology attempts to extend man’s reach well beyond his grasp; it allows us to do what we otherwise could not do. Technology attempts to break all preconceptions and limitations that humans have been given and fundamentally rejects our inherent limitations as a viable reality. With the intense and constant immersion of technology into daily life, this rejection of limitation may illicit a consistent dissatisfaction with our basic constructs as limited, subjective beings. Social media itself has a tendency to promote and perpetuate superficial connection while fundamentally deemphasizing the importance of physical proximity and presence.
In contrast to technology’s ever pressing attempts at extending our reach, we would like to offer an alternative concept: viewing our limitations of subjectivity and physicality as important and integral to God’s design and plan. Therefore, we can understand the limitations of physicality and proximity as a blessing which frees us from the superhuman tasks of having to have it all which creates sufficient anxiety and stress in our lives.
When we attempt to extend ourselves to such superhuman proportions, we attempt to manipulate and control our surroundings in a god-like fashion, in very distant and dominating ways. However, spiritual formation is itself a continual movement into the presence and freedom of the Triune Community. When we pursue and experience the presence of another human being it is to plagiarize an ancient belief and practice: the Christ in me greeting the Christ in you. Undistracted and undisturbed presence then reflects, points to, and serves the ultimate presence within the Godhead which was previously detailed and articulated. Our intimate and present encounters with one another can increasingly reflect the reality of the all-consuming, life-giving nature of the Trinity. Thus, when we begin to truly value presence and regard it as a top priority—with other forms of communication and connection as secondary—a radical shift can occur in how we construct spiritual communities, implement spiritual programs, and pursue spiritual formation.
Scott Raymond is the Executive Director of Student Success at Huntington University. Nathan Geer is a Resident Director, Area Coordinator, and Adviser to International students at Huntington University. Stephen Milliken is a Child and Adolescent Rehabilitation Service Provider at the Otis R. Bowen Center for Human Services, and formerly a Resident Assistant at Huntington University.
Athanasius, S. (2000). On the incarnation. Crestwood: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.
Bailey, S. (Producer), Silver, J. (Producer), Lisberger, S. (Producer), & Kosinski, J. (Director). (2010). Tron: Legacy [Motion picture]. USA: LivePlanet.
Barber, S. (Composer). (1990). Adagio for strings op. 11. [S. L. Orchestra, Performer, & L. Slatkin, Conductor] Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.
Berman, R. (Producer), Hornstein, M. (Producer), Lauritson, P. (Producer), & Frakes, J. (Director). (1996). Star trek: First contact [Motion picture]. USA: Paramount Pictures.
Bondi, R. (1987). To love as God loves. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Bonhoeffer, D. (1954). Life together: A discussion of Christian fellowship. New York, New York, USA: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc.
Borst, J. P., Taatgen, N. A., & van Rijn, H. (2010). The problem state: A cognitive bottleneck in multitasking. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 36(2), 363-382.
Briggs, L. R. (1901). College life. Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press.
Buber, M. (1970). I and thou. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Crabb, L. (1999). The safest place on earth. Nashville: Word Publishing.
De Soto, E. A., Ansfield, M., Cohen, P., & Spurgin, T. (2009). Individualized learning across the curriculum. Liberal Education, 46-52.
Divines. (1986). The confession of faith (Larger). Atlanta: Committee for Christian Education & Publications.
Downey, S. (Producer), Feige, K. (Producer), & Favreau, J. (Director). (2010). Iron man 2 [Motion picture]. USA: Marvel Studios
Flavel, J. (2010). Christ altogether lovely. Benediction Classics.
Flavel, J. (n.d.). Fire and ice sermon series. Retrieved May 30, 2011, from Fire and Ice Sermon Series: http://www.puritansermons.com/pdf/flavel1.pdf
Forster, E. M. (1947). The machine stops. The Oxford and Cambridge Review. Retrieved from http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html
Gallagher, W. (2009). Rapt: Attention and the focused life. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
Gleick, J. (1999). Faster: The acceleration of just about everything. New York: Pantheon.
Hall, T. W. (2011). Spirituality at a crossroads. Biola University, 16-19.
Hipps, S. (2005). The hidden power of electronic culture: How media shapes faith, the Gospel, and church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Hipps, S. (2009). Flickering pixels: How technology shapes your faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Heschel, A. J. (1991). I asked for wonder. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.
Jackson, M. (2009). Distracted: The erosion of attention and the coming Dark Age. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Keaggy, P. (Composer). (2008). Inseparable [Recorded by P. Keaggy] On Inseparable. [Medium of recording: CD] Franklin, TN: Canis Major.
Kierkegaard, S. (1956). The prayers of Kierkegaard. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Koessler, J. (1999). God the Father. Chicago: Moody Press.
Lawrence, B. (1977). The practice of the presence of God. New York: Doubleday.
Letham, R. (2004). The holy Trinity in scripture, history, theology and worship. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing.
Lewis, C. S. (1964). Poems. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company.
Lewis, C. S. (1973). The great divorce. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
Lewis, C. S. (1976). The weight of glory. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
MacDonald, G. (1975). Diary of an old soul. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House.
MacDonald, G. (2000 - 2011). The hands of the father. Retrieved May 3, 2011, from The Literature Network: http://www.online-literature.com/george-macdonald/unspoken-sermons/9/
MacDonald, G. (1883). The princess and curdie. Puffin.
MacDonald, G. (2006). Unspoken sermons. Bibliobazaar.
Maloney, G. (1993). God's community of love. Hyde Park: New City Press.
Marsden, G. (1994). The soul of the American university. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
McLuhan, M., & Lapham, L. (1994). Understanding media: The extensions of man. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Merton, T. (1961). New seeds of contemplation. New York: New Dimensions Publishing Corporation.
Morris, J. (Producer), & Stanton, A. (Director). (2008). Wall-e [Motion picture]. USA: Pixar.
Nichols, A. (1987). The poetics of epiphany. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press.
Nicolelis, M. A. (2011, February). Mind out of body. Scientific American, 80-83.
Nouwen, H. J. (1994). The return of the prodigal son. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.
Owen, J. (1991). Of communion with God. Banner of Truth.
Pink, A. W. (1975). The attributres of God. Grand Raipds: Baker Book House.
Piper, J. (1991). The pleasures of God. Portland: Multnomah Press.
Plantinga, A. (1980). Does God have a nature. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press.
Poe, E. A. (1846). Marginalia - part V. Graham's Magazine .
Schaeffer, F. (1984). The great evangelical disaster. Westchester: Crossway Books.
Seerveld, C. (1980). Rainbows for the fallen world: Aesthetic life and artistic task. Toronto: Tuppence Press.
Sheldon, K. M., Abad, N., & Hinsch, C. (2011). A two-process view of Facebook use and relatedness need-satisfaction: Disconnection drives use, and connection rewards it. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(4), 766-773.
Silver, J. (Producer), Wachowski, A. (Director), & Wachowski, L. (Director). (1999). The matrix [Motion picture]. USA: Village Roadshow Pictures & Silver Pictures.
Singh, S. (1926). Meditations on various aspects of the spiritual life. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing.
Smith, J. (1989). Embracing the love of God. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers.
Smith, S. (2001). Objects of his affection. West Monroe: Howard Publishing Company.
Stringfellow, William & Kellermann, Bill Wylie. (1994). A keeper of the word: Selected writings of William Stringfellow. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Swindoll, C. R. (1986). The Trinity. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Technology Entertainment and Design. (2011). Alone together [Online video]. Retrieved May 10, 2011, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtLVCpZIiNs&feature=player_embedded
Tozer, A. W. (1982). The pursuit of God. Camp Hill: Christain Publications, Inc.
Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each
other. Jackson, TN: Basic Books.
Wesley, J. (1983). The John Wesley reader. Waco: Word.
White, J. (1998). God's pursuing love. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
White, J. R. (1998). The forgotten Trinity. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers.
Wolters, A. M. (1985). Creation regained. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.