By Richard Thieme

This formal theological essay was originally written in 1988. It was quite dated when published by the Anglican Theological Review in 1993.

The transition from a culture created by the technology of print to one created by electronic processing of information is an occasion of excitement and great opportunity as well as a time of confusion, resistance, and pain. We can imagine that the same ambivalence characterized the transitions from orality to literacy and from literacy to print. Anxious efforts to retain the thinking habits of the past — an inevitable reaction to both the form and content of the artifacts of the new culture — are futile. We are well on our way toward feeling, thinking, and perceiving in new ways.

This transition is marked by polemics against the new technology written by polemicists using that same technology to state their case. The arguments Plato raised against writing – that it inappropriately externalized an internal process, that our memories would be weakened or destroyed, and that the written text was unnatural because it was unresponsive and could not engage in real dialogue – were disseminated through writing.1 In 1477, one Hieronomo Squarciafico sounded the alarm that the growing abundance of books was making people less studious, destroying the mind, and weakening the memory — and he did it in a book.2 Similar arguments against the use of computers are written on word processors and sent to publishers on floppy disks or via modem and marketed worldwide through computerized industries. We use the highest forms of technology available to critique the effects already wrought by that technology.

The emergence of a new domain of knowing and being threatens the very foundations of society because our modalities of perceiving, knowing, and communicating are not incidental to our identities; on the contrary, within the context of a particular culture, they form our identities. They are axiomatic to our self-conscious experience of ourselves and give us possibilities for being which are so much a part of ourselves that we can not see them. Writing does more than “raise the consciousness” of an oral culture; it transforms it. Plato was empowered by the technology of writing to make radically new distinctions, including negative judgments about writing. The interiorization of the world of printed text formed the modern psyche in all its manifestations, and we are in the process now of being recreated by the world of electronic technology.

It follows that religious experience, as one domain of human consciousness, and the modalities of spirituality which nurture and sustain it, are being transformed as well. I will indicate some of the possibilities for spiritual development and religious experience engendered by the emerging electronic culture and note some sources of inevitable resistance. Many people fear computers. Employees often must be gently introduced to new technology because of resistance to using the medium. Computer jokes — beginning with the days of “do not fold spindle or mutilate” — are one index of the depth of the threat posed by the technology. Because computers, like Rorschach tests, elicit projections from users, our conversation about computers is an image of our new selves.

One of the shrillest cries of alarm came early on from a pioneer of artificial intelligence, Joseph Weizenbaum of MIT. Weizenbaum created a simple program called ELIZA, which used an elementary natural language interface to create the illusion that the computer was engaged in meaningful conversation with the user. ELIZA mimics a Rogerian therapist, that is, one who follows the Carl Rogers model by feeding back to the client restatements of his own feelings without interpretation, so the client can direct the therapeutic process. As a caricature of such a therapist, ELIZA restated sentences as questions by swapping pronouns and reversing verb tense, made understanding responses such as “I see,” and referred to prior statements by responding to key words like “mother” by scripting, “You mentioned your family – tell me more about them.”

Initial users of ELIZA projected onto the program a persona with which they subsequently engaged as if they were in a private conversation with a therapist. Weizenbaum was shocked when users asked him to leave the room so they could have more privacy. He endeavored to warn us against exaggerating the powers of computer programs in such unrealistic ways. While he did correct some unrealistic claims being made for artificial intelligence, I am more interested in the intensity of his own anxiety, which drove him to warn us at book length of the dangers of a medium he himself had helped to create.3

Both Weizenbaum and his excited users were responding to the power of the computer to engage users in a way that is deep and transforming. Users project a gestalt or persona onto their experience of using a program which both reveals themselves and creates a new dimension of consciousness of which they immediately become aware. The exploration of this new dimension, with its disclosure of horizon after horizon of meaning and possibility, generates excitement analogous to that experienced by someone learning to read.

Weizenbaum’s anxiety was elicited by a real phenomena, the creation of a new domain of consciousness which had not previously existed. But there is another source of anxiety as well: the apparent encroachment of a computer program on the domain of the sacred. Psychotherapy is one context among many in which the sacred becomes real in our society. The psychotherapist, one contemporary analogue of the shaman, mediates separate realities and assists in the integration of the contents of both. To a machine that had functioned in the “cold” domains of mathematics, science, economics and business, or statistical branches of the social sciences, was suddenly imputed powers of prescience and healing. Weizenbaum’s reaction was out of proportion to the phenomena he described unless it is understood in this broader context. As computers expand the domain of religious experience, mediating in new ways the transformative power of sacred symbols, this anxiety is likely to become even more intense.

Artificial intelligence threatens us with its promise to replicate not aspects of our intelligence but us in concatenations of silicon and plastic. Computers, however, are not sentient beings, but physical symbol systems4 more comparable to other processes which have technologized the word — speech, writing, and print — than to living persons. Computers are indifferent to the content of the symbols they manipulate, but we are not. When they operate in the domain of spirituality and religion, they are more threatening than when they crunch numbers or search a database.

Absolute authority will no doubt be claimed for some computer programs in the same way that we once cried, “But the book says …” in an effort to settle a dispute. The medium of print carried with it the illusion of self-validation by virtue of its form and not its contents, and the same will be true for computer programs. This simply means that a critical and reflective sensibility is as necessary to the task of interacting with computer programs as to reading books.

ELIZA, of course, does not function like a real therapist. Programs like ELIZA can more realistically be compared to workbooks than to human beings. A smart workbook, its interactive capacity enabling the user to sort through feelings about current issues, ELIZA in its most elementary form was still a valuable tool. The value was provided by the intentionality of the user, who reacted in good faith to a series of prompts and therefore derived value from the program. The synergistic relationship between the user and the possibilities disclosed by the program generated the power of the transaction. Something similar happens when “users” use journals, as in Ira Progoff’s Journaling Workshops, to explore themselves. Computer interaction simply defines a different kind of “psychic space” as a possibility into which to grow.

The willingness of users to operate within the narrow parameters defined by the program made ELIZA useful within its limitations. Some users, of course, took great delight in sabotaging the program. It was easy to figure out ELIZA and make it say silly things. I believe the need to make ELIZA respond in inappropriate ways is related to the degree to which the program mimics human intelligence or a human personality, making it threatening. A program so easily outwitted, we seem to be saying, can not be so smart after all. Perhaps the hacker’s delight in crashing programs stems in part from the need to outsmart a medium that frightens even the Doctors Frankenstein who have invented the technology.

Weizenbaum was taken aback by the users’ desire for privacy. Privacy as we understand it did not exist before writing. It did not exist in an oral culture because the particular interior world one enters when writing or reading silently to oneself did not exist. The diary, a book that invites confidences, creating for the user a deepening sense of self as he or she discloses and discovers latent or potential thoughts and feelings, is a relatively recent invention. Children given diaries behave very much as ELIZA-users behaved because the diary, although inviting a less intense response, is also a projective medium — a “special friend” (“Dear Diary …”) in which one confides, keeping one’s secrets safe under lock and key. The diary could be said to elicit the consciousness one discovers as one uses it, as a journal elicits the contents of a psyche illuminated by the light of conscience during self-examination. ELIZA and the more complex, more intentional spiritual guides that will be its descendants will call into being a kind of consciousness the contours of which we do not yet know how to describe.

What might some of these spiritual guides be like? An interactive program might facilitate self-examination or guide periods of contemplation with text or visual images during an extended Ignatian retreat. Expert systems might assist in identifying salient issues in ethical dilemmas. Twelve Step spirituality can be facilitated step by step by a Spiritual Companion. Spiritual Companions and interactive Bible studies might incorporate users’ responses, integrating data so that subsequent lessons can be illuminated by what the program has learned.

One form of Bible study might derive from the similar processes that underlie two seemingly disparate experiences: readings with Tarot cards and preaching from the cycle of biblical readings in the three-year lectionary in liturgical churches.

A Tarot card reading consists of a random sort (shuffling) of a collection of archetypal images, of which some are then selected and juxtaposed in a proscribed pattern. The archetypal symbols resonate deeply with the psyches of the reader and the seeker, calling forth from the latter memories, feelings, and associations which it is the task of the reader to discern. The point of departure for sermons during the Eucharist are lessons from the Scriptures which rotate on a three-year cycle. The lectionary also “shuffles” readings through the church year. My own preparation for preaching consists of allowing the three lessons (juxtaposed in a predetermined pattern) to resonate with my own psyche and the feelings and experiences of parishioners with whom I interact during the week, resulting in a “reading” of the meaning of the archetypal images for the corporate personality of the parish. Intuition is required in both cases in order to discern the possibilities latent within the symbols for a particular person or community. Some Bible studies also choose or sort selected passages on which participants in a group reflect. The study is an opportunity to discern the emotional and spiritual dimensions of their lives insofar as they are illuminated by the archetypal stories from the scriptures. The dynamics of all three processes — the card reading, the preacher preparing to preach, and the bible study — are similar, although different images will of course yield different contents. Computers are uniquely suited to provide the basic material for such an enterprise.

A computer program might connect Biblical narratives in a variety of meaningful patterns — chronological or historical, metaphorical (patterns of words or root-words, allusions or images) or thematic/theological. Even a random search would generate clusters of meaningful patterns, surprising and delighting us (the serendipity factor of computer searches) as well as leading to new insights. Of course, intentionally woven webs of metaphors or stories using Hyper-text, their complexity, balance, and comprehensiveness coming from the combinatory or integrative power of the imagination of the poet/programmer, would be a magnitude of power greater than a random search. A randomly-generated meaningful construct would still have to be identified and selected, like Hamlet in the billionth monkey’s typewriter or the one good poem among millions produced by poetry-writing programs plugging pre-selected words into syntactical slots. The process by which parts of the whole are unified harmoniously — irony, association, dramatic revelation of human character or God’s plan — is still a task for human imagination.

The evolution of human consciousness is marked by growth in our ability to attend to our various selves. 5 The self we observe has become increasingly distant from the seeing self, but the distance is transcended by virtue of new opportunities for intimacy. We can know ourselves, others, and God only because we have first become aware of our distance from ourselves, others, and God. The flawed self at the heart of all symbolism of evil is a felix culpa, an occasion of communion at a deeper level.

By separating the knower from the thing known, writing enabled an increasingly articulate capacity for introspection without which Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam would not have been possible. 6 The impact of print on religious experience was equally profound. By making possible small portable Bibles which could be read silently to oneself, a radically new experience of the scriptures was made available by the new technology.

The Reformation is unimaginable without print, but a new kind of Catholic spirituality was engendered as well. Print ushered in a greater focus on lengthy examination of one’s conscience and more frequent confessions. 7 In the twentieth century, traditional forms of spirituality, including self-examination and confession, have fallen into disuse. The “death of God” as a cultural phenomenon earlier in this century signalled the disintegration of traditional forms of spirituality and the primacy of a secular paradigm for the social construction of reality. Fifty years ago, however, at the depths of the Great Depression, one model of spiritual regeneration emerged which spoke a secular language that twentieth century human beings could understand.

The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous shatters the isolation of the practicing addict and discloses a means of integrating the fractured self. I will discuss the Twelve Steps in some detail because (1) they are a generic paradigm of spiritual regeneration — a paradigm of paradigms — which addresses not only addiction but other kinds of “sinful” behavior, (2) they illustrate recursion as a principle of spiritual renewal, and (3) the Twelve Steps can be readily adapted as a powerful means of computer-assisted spiritual direction.

The Twelve Steps are:

(1) We admitted that we were powerless over [alcohol] [death] [sin] [etc.] and that our lives had become unmanageable.

(2) Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

(3) Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

(4) Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

(5) Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

(6) Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

(7) Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

(8) Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

(9) Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

(10) Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

(11) Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

(12) Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to [those who still suffer], and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Many persons other than the chemically dependent have used them as a guide to recovery, recognizing that the process engendered by the twelve steps follows the basic principles of ascetical theology for the regeneration of the alienated self. To speak of dysfunctional or addicted families has become a way of speaking about all of us. It is the modern idiom into which original sin and all its consequences has been translated. Dr. Gerald May in Addiction and Grace identifies dozens of so-called addictions including ice cream and art, work and golf, status and responsibility. 8 He is speaking, in effect, of any and all behaviors used to escape from the reality of the here-and-now and a real relationship with ourselves and others, including God. Hence an addiction is any idol to which we turn inordinately to escape the pain or perplexity of life. This is a way of saying that original sin denotes the condition of alienation in which we all find ourselves, and our lives embody various futile ways we try to escape that reality. “Consciousness is a disease,” Unamuno says, referring to the divided consciousness of fallen humanity, and our compulsive rituals are efforts to relieve its symptoms. 9 When we have exhausted ourselves emotionally and spiritually, and we see how we have made our lives unworkable, we become more willing to surrender our self-defeating behaviors and turn to God — however we understand God. The Twelve Steps are a translation into the vernacular of what it looks like to “turn to God.” Practicing the principles embodied in the steps raises the spiritually dead self to new life.

Our private rituals are often amusing to others because so much meaning and power has been projected onto such obviously impotent gods. We turn again and again to alcohol or bigger cars, drugs or gambling, prostitutes or excessive work, doughnuts or “intimate” relationships. Anything in creation can become an idol or fetish if given a priority in our lives out of proportion to its true value. Because we return in vain to the same ritualized behaviors, our sinfulness is recursive.

Recursion is a mathematical term referring to a cyclical or repetitive process generated by a set of rules which repeats itself indefinitely until a specified condition is met. Recursion differs from iteration or simple repitition, however, in that earlier rules are called or invoked by subsequent rules as part of the process. A rule, in effect, invokes itself. Iteration resembles a circle, recursion a spiral.

“Use scotch to feel better” might be the only rule in an alcoholic’s program. (IF [uneasy] [anxious] [frightened] [angry] [etc.]: THEN use scotch.) When you are content, the “stop rule” might read, put down the bottle. (IF [peace] [well-being] [confidence] [etc.]: THEN stop.) Because peace is achieved only intermittently if at all, the rule will repeat: use scotch. Even while one is drinking scotch, the rule [use scotch] can be invoked. The rule becomes internalized to such a degree that over time it alters the program: (IF [anything] THEN [use scotch]). 10 The alcoholic can not stop. The power to choose has been lost.

Spirituality is also recursive, however. So are computer languages and computer programs. So are the Twelve Steps.

The Twelve Steps are recursive because as we progress up the spiral of spiritual growth, prior steps are often called or invoked. The first step, for example, may be invoked as part of the ongoing process at any level. We are always in a process of recovery — we are never recovered — so there is always farther to go. Long after the primary behavior has ceased, the flaws from which it issued — anger, resentment, or pride, for example — continue to generate behavior over which we are powerless and to which we must in turn apply the twelve steps, if we are not to regress. We are always powerless over our flawed selves, so we will continue to experience the consequences of self-defeating behaviors. We are not Sisyphus, however, pushing the rock of our lives up the same hill again and again, because we are growing spiritually, and we know from our own experience that our movement resembles a rising spiral more than an eternally recurring circle. We do make progress; we arrive at the same choices again and again, but at a progressively more profound level of awareness and spiritual depth. We do experience greater freedom, peace, and wholeness. The specific practices of surrender, self-examination and confession, and repentance, and sustaining this process through daily surrender, daily self-examination and confession, and daily repentance, become a lifelong discipline, a new recursive structure within ourselves which we use in order to respond to life. Now the program reads: IF [uneasy] [anxious] [etc.] THEN [use scotch] OR [call someone] OR [go to a meeting] OR [write down your feelings] OR [pray] OR [meditate] OR [etc.] The power to choose more acceptable alternatives is restored.

Like the double helix that contains our genetic program, the declining spiral of the practicing addict — the unregenerate man — is mirrored by the ascending spiral of the recovering addict. The person in recovery is no longer conformed to the fallen self, but is in a process of being transformed by the renewal of the self. The power of recursion enables this to take place through the practice of a very few rules. Those rules, applied recursively to all of the circumstances of our lives, result in an infinite variety of spiritual pathways, all manifestations of a single paradigm.

In The Recursive Universe, William Poundstone analyzes a computer program, “Life,” to show that a universe of replicating dots, manifesting extraordinary variety and complexity, can be generated by a few very simple rules applied recursively. He suggests that recursion is the means by which everything — from the evolution of galaxies to the forms of life on our planet — have been generated. Recursion allows a great deal to be done with very few rules. 11

The Twelve Steps are a paradigm of paradigms which are encoded in the narratives and rituals constitutive of the major religions of the western world. The sequence of events in the story of Moses and the Exodus, for example, or the Christ-event of the New Testament, manifest this process. The six seasons of the church year, the movement of the Eucharistic liturgy, the Passover Seder, all recapitulate the same spiritual journey. The Exodus-event or the Christ-event are forms or patterns for our lives.

Knowing this is not enough, however; the steps must be applied in order to work. The twelve steps engender an attitude of openness, willingness, and humility. Participation in a ritualized re-enactment of the twelve-steps — the Eucharist, for example–may alleviate anxiety for a moment, but in the long run will only deepen the isolation of the individual by reinforcing pride and self-righteousness, unless the transformative power of the ritual is internalized and acted upon. In the same way, studying and understanding the Biblical narratives, without allowing them to transform one’s life, will only sustain one in the illusion that one knows what is needed for salvation and is saved by that knowledge. That belief, which inflates the ego, is at the heart of all Gnostic heresies in their many historical manifestations. Practicing the steps deflates the ego and returns us to our proper place in the scheme of things. That practice must take place in community because disclosing ourselves to others results in a face-to-face encounter with ourselves and with God: to practice the steps in isolation reinforces the self-deception which isolated us in the first place.

Computers are well adapted to support twelve-step spirituality through interactive programs. The capacity to backtrack recursively through rules and to branch and loop generates pathways almost as numerous and complex as our own journeys. A computer program to facilitate the reality of surrender, self-examination and confession, repentance, and the sustaining practices of prayer and meditation might move through each step in detail, returning the user to prior steps as new insights into one’s life evolve. In comparison with the flexibility and exploratory power of such a program, a book is fixed and rigid, as limited as a typewriter in comparison with a word processor.

Spiritual Companion might begin by exploring the meaning of “surrender” with a multiplicity of resources — readings, meditations, testimonies — as well as an ELIZA-like reflexive examination of the areas in which one needs to surrender. Self examination could be coached with examples and suggestions based on likely scenarios from others with the same presenting problems. The ten commandments, the seven deadly sins, or some other schema are good points of departure for self-analysis, or the seeker might prefer a biographical approach: the program could prompt for memories on the basis of relationships or phases of one’s life. Self-examination would generate data from which one’s flaws could be identified as well as the pattern of behavior which has been self-defeating. When the time comes to identify those one has hurt in order to make amends, the database will have material ready at hand to facilitate that process.

A personality inventory like the Myers-Briggs might assist seekers in understanding how they perceive the world and suggest styles of prayer and meditation appropriate to their personalities. The Bible Study could be used to choose passages that address concerns of the moment, as a Gideon Bible provides a topical index. Testimonies, affirmations, inspirational writings, one’s own private notes could all be cross-referenced to Biblical passages.

Inevitably computer programs and the computer itself will provide metaphors for the spiritual journey of the self. The vocabulary of the electronic world is making its way into our everyday life. We forget that phrases like the “Word made flesh” or “written in the book of life” are metaphors generated by prior technologies of the word. New metaphors — the world as computer program, for example, our destinies latent in recursive code hardwired into its very molecules — will evolve over time.

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