By Richard Thieme
Defining the Challenge: The ‘Study’ of ‘Sacred Texts’ in the Digital Era
The single quotation marks around ‘study’ and ‘sacred texts’ signify that the words inside them no longer mean what they used to mean. The symbols and images of religious experience are no longer fixed in print but are now flowing. They feel less like objective artifacts ‘out there’ and more like pieces of thin ice in a moving river, dissolving and forming again and again. The context that defines our thoughts and actions is itself being redefined by the distribution of digital information through networks, and we humans too are being transformed into nodes in that network. As Marvin Minsky said, individual human beings are brains in bottles, like stand-alone desktop computers disconnected from the network.
The study of a sacred text is analogous to a community of people gathering around a fire, drawing on the energies of the flames. The words of the sacred text turn to flame, becoming fire and light that define a community and disclose possibilities for the future. The sacred text is a transformational engine that discloses, discovers, and creates an image of who we are now in relationship to a potential state, the discovery of which is simultaneously the discovery that we are not in that state. Thus, our interaction with the sacred text immediately creates a bridge of images and symbols that span from our present state to that future state. Of course, there is no ‘future’ state; both states are always present here and now.
The encounter of individuals in a community with a sacred text is analogous to space shuttles docking at a space station. We come together in momentary groups, exchange energy and information, and then move on. In a digital world, however, the space station is made up of pixels (light, energy, or information), and is given form by our collective will and intention. To think of the morphing forms of communities in this way makes sense in the current context of frequent, rapid transitions. We live between images that made sense in the past (the mental artifacts of formerly shared consensus realities) and those arriving faster and faster from the horizon of the future. We used to derive our liveliest metaphors from books, printing, and publishing—metaphors such as “turning over a new leaf,” “her life is only a footnote,” and “beginning a new chapter.” Now we derive our liveliest metaphors from life in the network, distributed computing, and technologies of information and communication. To speak of morphing, interfacing, rebooting, multi-tasking, or crashing is to articulate our shared life with metaphors derived from a shared experience of networked computing.
That is happening to the study of sacred texts as well. The study of sacred texts is a specialized subset of the study of all texts, with its own vocabulary and goals. But the word “study” is not adequate to describe what we do when we read linked documents on a monitor and explore them hypertextually. “Text” does not describe very well what we experience when we interact with an iconic flow of information in an immersive virtual experience. Those are last year’s words for last year’s experience. We virtual voyagers, exploring dimensions of the human soul that did not previously exist, need to invent new words to describe our new experiences.
A More Literal Description of the Problem
The process of interacting with hyperlinked sacred symbols changes who we think we were before we left the shore and began our voyage of discovery.
The digital world, in conjunction with other technologies, is recontextualizing what it means to be a human being. Inevitably the quest for a sacred dimension of life, and how we articulate that quest, will be redefined as well.
The energy of transformation always derives from a perception of difference, from a critical distinction that discloses a new possibility. The difference is defined metaphorically as a future state that will never be attained; if wholeness or completion were achieved, we would disappear and become something else entirely. Hence, images of ourselves as perfected at the climax of time are carrots after which we always trot. Because Judeo-Christian belief defines spiritual growth as a spiral rather than a circle, these images are not exactly Sisyphus rolling his boulder uphill, but they resemble Sisyphus once we admit that within the constrained domain of human civilization and its inadequate measures of time (in mere centuries rather than billions of years), there is no measurable moral progress.
To speak of ‘sacred text’ is to identify ourselves as Print People, post-Gutenberg pilgrims voyaging through vast typographic seas. The sphere of consciousness inhabited by our collective field of subjectivity is bounded by the way printed text has taught us to see and perceive. Our brains and the symbols it manipulates seem to have co-evolved, hands and tools together, so to speak, and we cannot escape that feedback loop. Our field of subjectivity, then, is a horizon defined by our genetic heritage, but we can see clearly that we were formed in the image of language that was spoken, then written, then printed, only because we can now manipulate symbols digitally. We do not speak language so much as language speaks us, and today the language speaking us is digital. So we have left the shores of Print Culture forever and can return to that now-imaginary world only through a digital simulation of print culture, just as Print People could enter into oral cultures only in and through their experience as Print People, understanding oral cultures in ways that people in them could not.
Here is an analogy: When I moved to Hawaii I believed there was such a thing as Hawaiian culture. But I learned that Hawaiian culture ended in 1780 when Captain Cook sailed into Kailakakua Bay.
Over the next century, the invaders did everything they could to dismantle that culture, in particular using Christianity to replace the framework for thinking, feeling, and being of the indigenous people. With the birth of various consciousness movements in the sixties (among African-Americans, women, etc.), Hawaiian culture was also reborn, but in the only way it could be reborn—in images of itself generated by the invaders over several generations and given back to remnants of the Hawaiian people who reconstructed themselves and their culture as seen by the Other. The taxonomic manner of understanding other cultures axiomatic to anthropology, although alien to Hawaiian oral culture, became the means of Hawaiians appropriating their own transformed identity from texts of the invaders that their ancestors could never have read.
It is not necessary to attend a staged luau as a tourist to witness ‘Hawaiians’ acting as the now-dominant culture expects and teaches them to act.
Hawaiians who refuse to act like ‘Hawaiians’ for tourists and insist on thinking of themselves as ‘real Hawaiians’ are playing roles in another’s script to just as great a degree. The prisoners and the guards are the same people. Touristic space is a nested set of images of self and identity, images in a hall of mirrors. But it always begins with an image in the eye or mind of the Other.
In the same way, the Digital World is an ongoing voyage into seas of transformation (Print People becoming Digital People), which we see as a process because the digital world teaches us that processes are primary. We see now that the sense of fixity derived from texts was temporary. The Digital World is characterized by verbs, not nouns.
Instead of determining a single objective and heading for it in a straight line, we see multiple possible outcomes because computers organize options into multiple outcomes fanned like playing cards in our hands. Quantum reality is replacing Newtonian physics as ‘common sense.’
What Came Before and What’s Coming Now
After this process has continued for a while, Digital People will no longer interact with images of (i.e., ‘worship’) gods-in-Print or follow print-text religious founders, such as Martin Luther or Joseph Smith. Digital People will interact with digital images of gods-in-Pixels and with whatever animatrons, bots, simulants, or replicants represent religious founders or leaders in a world in which all information is dynamic and distributed, gathered and integrated on the fly. Digital ‘beings’ will emerge from chaotic waters just as textual beings such as Luther emerged in the historical memory of a textual people. (I intentionally use the word “god” with a small “g” to mean the hundreds of images of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other “gods” to which we still refer anachronistically as “God.” The gods we can name never mean the God we cannot name.)
Luther and Joseph Smith are not the only ones to exist in the labyrinthine verbal structure of historical memory. Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, Buddha, Confucius, and Lao Tzu are also ‘textual beings’ who were translated from flesh-and-blood historical beings into mythical beings, first through stories, then through writing. Every major religious founder emerged in historical time when writing was redefining the field of subjectivity of humanity. The names of the gods worshiped for thousands of years in oral cultures either vanished or were translated into writing, just as written manuscripts were translated into printed text to remain viable.
Handwritten texts might exist in museums as objects of aesthetic or historical interest, but they no longer gather adherents around them. The words on those beautiful archaic pages no longer turn to flame.
All gods being worshiped today, such as all the founders of today’s major religions, emerged in history as ‘textual beings,’ known in and through text.
They ‘mean’ for us the way text means. Inevitably, transfigured, digitized images of those former gods, as well as new, exclusively digital gods, will be born. For the moment, however, we do not know their names. Or if we do, we do not yet know the significance of their names. None has yet emerged as a frontrunner in the twenty-first century religious marketplace.
The study of ‘sacred texts,’ then, will evolve into interaction with digital images aggregated in flexible groupings (hypertext rather than text) according to (1) the design of the enabling technology itself and (2) the design of the symbol-manipulating minds that engage with the technology. The exact contours of those interactions are difficult for us to define, given our predominant experience with, for example, Bible study groups in which individuals hold cheap portable books in their hands that are defined by the boundaries of their covers and that are read aloud together or silently to oneself. Such groups would have been as unthinkable to denizens of oral cultures or writing cultures in which literacy was closely held by priests and aristocrats as dynamic Internet culture was only a few years ago.
Hackers as Paradigms of Digital Humanity
My work with several generations of technophiles (what we used to call “hackers” before the word was hijacked by the media and used to mean criminal hackers only) has revealed how a generation now in their thirties engaged in a reflexive dialogue with the computer technology that created them as they created it. But the next hacker generation, now in its teens, has always known a digital world, and has always lived inside a network of distributed information and processes. The electronic games they play are more ‘real’ than the games they replaced. Their online gaming communities are more ‘real’ than town-hall meetings. Their digital selves are more real than the print-text selves they displaced. For example, a father and his young son often visited an online dinosaur museum that was physically located only a few miles from their home.
One day they were disappointed after visiting the actual museum. As they left, the son told his father he had enjoyed the visit, but “I like the real one better.”
In the study of sacred text, which is the ‘real one’?
The one that emerged when we developed the capacity to live inside the domain of speech and convinced ourselves that it was reality itself? The one that emerged when writing became ubiquitous, an event that Plato believed meant the end of civilization? Or the one that emerged during the Renaissance and Reformation, after movable type was invented?
Those periods define nested levels of identity and self, and the self is once again transcending itself and spawning new ways of being human. As digital symbols, icons, and glyphs replace printed images, everything—including our deepest experience of religious truth, our modalities of spirituality, and our religious community life—is being transformed.
Naturally the meaning of processes like “redemption” and “salvation” will be transformed, too. We see that the gods we worshiped were conceived in the image of written symbols. We see that when the introduction of the printing press translated the names of those gods into print, Christianity, for example, experienced the widespread division of its several gods (Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, etc.) into hundreds of gods, each at the center of a community that defined itself by subtle distinctions from neighboring communities.
These differences did not and could not exist before the medium of print enabled them to be created or discovered.
Identity, a coherent self, images of ongoing transformation of self or community (spirituality) and world (historical/mythic narrative), and processes and tools for transformation are some of the ‘deliverables’ of religions. They are delivered in and through communities defined by their sacred symbols. These deliverables are not delivered once and for all, however. Those religions that claim to do so are whistling in the dark. New identities are difficult to sustain, or else the community would not need to meet so frequently to reinforce them. Transformation is a hoop that hands must keep rolling.
The study of ‘sacred text’ is the willing participation in the process by which identity, self, and templates for future possibilities are created and discovered for individuals and communities. Words like “free individual with rights” and “intellectual property” designate concepts that emerged post-print. Something of those notions will likely persist in the digital era, but who we are and, more importantly, who we think we are, will never be the same. A collective sense of religious identity, like that which is axiomatic to the Hebrew Scriptures, will likely be reborn, but this time through symbols that will be moving targets.
Reflecting on the study of sacred text in a digital era is like entering the mirror-world of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, in which the dreamer dreamed of a dreamer dreaming the dream. Which one dreamed it? Which was the dreamed? The symbol-using brain that believed itself to be an “I”? Or the symbols of that “I” in the brain? Or the symbols in the larger brain of the hive mind? Deliverables presume an identity determined by boundaries around giver and receiver. But how do we play chess when the board itself is disappearing?
Interactive, Modular, and Fluid
In contrast to the field of subjectivity that we shared in the past, the digital world is more highly interactive, modular, and fluid. Because our lives are shaped and changed by the technologies with which we interact—context creating content or perhaps context becoming content—our lives and how we think of ourselves are also becoming highly interactive, modular, and fluid.
Let us not underestimate the extent of the changes we are facing. The advent of a digital era will turn currently established religions on their collective ears. It has happened before, and it will again. The critical question is, will the collective identities of those religions persist in a recognizable form that includes and transcends the forms that came before, or will there be such a disconnect that when we look into the digital mirror, the face we see does not even resemble who or what we used to see?
That question confronts individuals as well as religions, societies, and civilizations. Our longer life spans are segmented into a greater number of identifiable developmental phases. The word “adolescence” did not exist prior to the invention of the printing press; adolescence has come to mean the postponement of adulthood into another decade while individuals are socialized as literate adults. As recently as Daniel J. Levinson’s 1978 book, The Season’s of a Man’s Lives (which identified developmental stages of American males into their fifties), the author could only sketch vaguely the stages beyond the sixties, which he called “old age.”
As longevity is extended, we will have to learn how to integrate a dozen stages of adult life in a modular fashion, using a memory storage device that augments our biological memory in a way that does not violate the sense of a unified, persistent self that integrates all the stages— if, that is, we decide that the continuity and persistence of a seemingly single self is still valuable. Some biological models picture complex organisms like ourselves as colonies or hives. Perhaps that model will be deemed more appropriate when people live two hundred years or more and the pieces of memory that persist are mix-and-match, plug-and-play modules.
That our lives have already become modular in every department testifies to the impact of multiple technologies. Only a few decades ago, people had a single stable religious identity, a single career, a single marriage. Today we change careers, religions, marriages, and even identities, by design and intention, and we try to teach our children skills that will help them manage modular lives rather than pick a single course and stick with it.
It is not uncommon when one changes one of these modules—a religion, a career, a spouse—that one also changes communities and ‘starts over.’ That way we can create the new persona appropriate to our new self-construct without interference from people who cling to memories of our other stages.
We dock, as it were, at different space stations, according to our needs, often ones with different sets of values. That is why so many religions are so highly competitive, offering constructions of reality and templates of sanctioned behavior (both secular and religious) in a fiercely contested marketplace. In this context, the study of sacred text means the use of sacred texts to reinforce the subset of religious life that each institution is offering its members. In the future digital world, these religious contexts may well evolve in simulated form first, like complex models of spacecraft or weather systems, and we will try on digital religions for size and see how our personas during particular life stages fit them. (Today we call that “shopping for a church.”) If we feel ‘at home’ and the religion fits our current stage of life, we call it ‘true.’
One way of studying scripture is to choose stories which archetypally illuminate a critical passage or transitional episode in the lives of the faithful. The passages of scripture typically chosen by a lectionary in liturgical churches are images of healing, deliverance, and transformation. The preacher ‘reads the space’ of the congregation in light of his or her deeper intuitive knowledge of the body and illuminates possibilities using those passages much like a Tarot deck reader uses archetypal images to illuminate an insight into the life of the person for whom they are doing a reading.
The lectionary does the shuffling, and the word-pictures of deliverance, healing, and transformation provide the images.
Extrapolating on the distributed interactivity enabled by the Internet, sermons will likely be more interactive and fluid. Because the online conversation continues 24/7 and can deliver insight, consolation, or encouragement when it is most needed, the choice of when to offer access to sacred space will be customer driven, just as Roman Catholics now have the option of attending a Saturday service. The socioeconomic context has always determined the fit of sacred time and space with societal time and space. The choice of a one-day-in-seven kind of Sabbath was equally determined by the technologies of the time and the nature of work and community life.
The fragmentation and relativism of ‘truth’ itself in a distributed postmodern world, the difficulty in reaching consensus, and the toleration of multiple thought-worlds will stretch the capacity of religious structures to tolerate ambiguity and complexity.
That it means to be redeemed or saved will be transformed in both the from- and to- sides of the equation. The human condition of sinfulness will be understood differently, as will transfigured or redeemed humanity, individually and collectively.
Doctrine always follows facts the way ethics follows the power to act that is liberated by new technologies (e.g., in sexuality and child-bearing).
This will test all religions, but Christianity will be the hardest hit. Christianity claims to be exclusively true, and however that claim is nuanced to take into account the sensitivities of others in a pluralistic world, it still comes down to this: Either Jesus is the ONLY way, truth, and life, or Jesus is ONE way, ONE dimension of a larger Truth, and ONE path to life—one that works well enough for Christians but is still one path among many. The pressures of the digital world will continue to transform formerly exclusive paths into preferences. Those who need to be right and define being right by others being wrong will be flummoxed.
This means that the transformational energies of this period will turn into a real fire storm when they encounter formerly inviolable core proclamations. If Christianity is to embrace and be transformed by those energies, it will necessarily become something other than what it has been or at least what it has been thought to be. (We always save ourselves by saying that Truth is eternal and that we were merely mistaken about what it was). Either Jesus of Nazareth will take his place as an image of possibility among other viable images, or he will be the King of the universe without peers.
The history of Judaism is instructive for Christians pondering options. Jews today are either Jews by identity, behavior, or both. Some Jews believe themselves to be Jews and live their lives from core Jewish identities but are not observant. Still, their destiny is to live life as a Jew, because identity is destiny. But when identity itself is in question and is no longer correlated with observable behaviors, the primary mode of social control is absent from the community. When claimed identities and explicit behaviors that proclaim identities are intentional choices, how will we know who or what we are?
American Jews today feel a threat of annihilation not so much from marching jackboots as from radical assimilation. That threat faces Christians and others as well, but many are not aware of it yet. They live inside the Kafkaesque world of “The Great Wall of China,” a narrative that describes how the word has gone out from the emperor to the entire kingdom, but has not been heard by those who live on the edges. That word today is that the God fashioned in the image of the structures of prior minds, cultures, and civilization is, as Nietzsche said, dead. Of course, Nietzsche was not talking about the Creator of everything when he claimed that “God is dead.” As a linguist, he knew that to speak of “God” was to be a prisoner of linguistic structures. He meant the social construction of God, the glass house in which Christendom lived while it threw stones.
It is difficult to remember that the God of our sacred texts is not the glass but the stones. In order to be transformed, one must move through a zone of annihilation in which everything one believes oneself to be is called into question. This is as true for individuals losing the fact of individuality to an electronic collective as it is for societal structures and nation states, the boundaries of which are dissolving into a single global political and economic system.
To talk about the study of sacred text, then, raises important questions. What is the nature of humanity in the digital era? How will the symbols constitutive of human and cultural identity be different in the digital era? Who will we think we are?
In the first Christian communities, first Jews and then Gentiles brought their current identities to the scriptures and to the Christian community to be transformed. But all we can know at the outset of the journey of transformation is a possibility, glimpsed dimly from inside our current way of thinking and perceiving. From within the old paradigm, we can never predict the new paradigm. The genuinely new is predictable only after it has appeared.
The six seasons of the Christian year are six segments of a spiral of ongoing transformation, derived from the extended Christian narrative and transformed into time-calibrated rituals. The segments also define the transformational journeys of non-Christian spiritualities, but in those other contexts they are correlated with other stories, other symbols. In all cases, however, the rituals are mnemonic devices used by the community as portable bridges, easily carried and always at hand when we need them. Then we are tutored by the community in how to turn those memories into useful spiritual tools. The calendar of the Christian year is derived from a sacred text, then translated into other media based on drama and ritual. That process will happen too in the digital world.
Our identities derive from a complex interplay of genetic and cultural factors. We can only become what we can potentially become by virtue of our genetic heritage, which offers up possibilities of selfhood and identity to be framed in cultural forms.
Genetic engineering is an opportunity to self-direct human evolution so that the genetic determination is itself turned into a cultural decision.
One interesting discovery of genetic research is that qualities we thought to be subjective, such as the capacity to feel awe and wonder, a tendency toward mysticism, or a generosity of spirit, all seem to cluster around certain genes. Not to oversimplify, but it is likely that the genetic and chemical basis of religious experience and emotions such as awe and wonder will be identified and pre-set or manufactured. Then we will have to answer difficult questions about how many mystics we really want to have in the population.
Given the fact that in our society so many people use chemicals to adjust levels of well-being, anxiety, and depression, this trend of genetic engineering will advance a few more steps. We may be able to determine who and how many people we will want to interact with sacred symbols at all. We may want to retain a select group of sociopaths to fill occupational niches like Army Rangers, intelligence agents, or corporate lawyers. We may also want to make available religious experience in a modular fashion, letting someone “jack in” to the symbols and use processes or chemicals to enhance their capacity to have a meaningful experience and alter their subjective states.
Of course, that’s pretty much what we do now, isn’t it? Religious experience in an organizational context is designed as a mood-altering experience, often using primordial rituals, music, and drama to enhance our feeling of having a meaningful experience and to bind us to one another and the institution. The difference in how that process is conducted in the digital world will be one of degree, not kind.
In the 1470s William Caxton introduced the printing press to England. Questions of identity were immediately raised. One needed to choose a dialect in which to print, which then imprinted that dialect’s way of thinking on a people who, Caxton realized, were no longer certain who they were.
Walter Ong identified one religious consequence of the printing press: the process of self-examination prior to confession during which the self examines itself in scrupulous detail, then says what it sees to another person, did not widely exist prior to the printing press. All technologies of information and communication, Ong said, initially distance the self from itself and from others. The printing press helped the English language explode from thousands to more than a million words, just as the colors on an artist’s palette increase exponentially the artist’s ability to express subtleties that did not previously exist. The newly created self feels isolated for a time as the technology creates appropriate ways for that self to connect once again with itself and other selves.
No one thought the telephone was a device for personal communication when it was invented. The telephone reproduced a simulation of the human voice so imperfectly and unnaturally that people did not want to use it except as a form of telegraph. A few generations later, we say, “Don’t send an email—call me. I want to talk to a real person.”
Once the technology and the simulations it delivers have been so internalized that we experience the simulation as a ‘real person,’ we become like fish in water, unaware of the water in which we are always swimming. New technologies are noticeable only by contrast with the world to which we have grown accustomed. Then the technology itself becomes the means for bridging the greater distance and creating genuine communion among those more subtle, more complex selves that subsequently emerge.
One cannot fly a stealth fighter with a propeller or run Windows 98 on an IBM XT. We also cannot put new wine into old wineskins, only no one knows what that means anymore. We do know what it means to use an obsolete operating system, though. When spiritual leaders insist on clinging to old metaphors that are no longer understood, they are binding the people to themselves by mystification, the keys of kingdom safely tucked into their privileged pockets. However, when we use current metaphors, drawn from the everyday language of the people (as Jesus himself once did with the wineskins metaphor), we subvert the monopoly power of an organizational framework that has become synonymous with archaic images and behaviors. As digital technologies transform Print People into new kinds of human beings, sacred text will become sacred digital interaction and the study of the scriptures will become a distributed process, blurring the distinction between humans and their wearable and implanted information machines. The dreamer and the dream will exist in a new relationship to one another. Genetic engineering and pharmaceutical advances will help us breed those new beings.
The dilemma of whether or not a single unifying self can persist over an increasing number of segments of life is a problem that will be solved by humans who will be enhanced by augmented memory and cognition and new kinds of sensory extensions. And we cannot discuss the impact of technologies of communication and information without at least mentioning the impact of genetic engineering on identity, self, and community. Like the replicants in the movie Bladerunner, whose manufacture blurred the distinction between manufacturing and breeding, we will see increased ambivalence toward memory-based identity. Our expertise in genetic engineering will enable us to be fitted with wearables and implants that make communication instantaneous, multi-level, and unconscious. The boundaries between us will at times be nearly invisible. Just as replicants were given manufactured memories borrowed from others’ lives, the real memories of individuals will be indistinguishable from false ones.
Of course, memory is creative, not a passive recording of what passes, and our biographies are personal mythic histories, how we want our lives to have been rather than how they were. Biography, like history, is a symbolic narrative designed to sustain the chosen identity of the present. Religions too are based on mythic memories and symbolic narratives.
The Christian world has split into those who can stand knowing that the memory of the Christ-event is a symbolic event and those who insist that the scriptures are a historical record. The latter viewpoint supports a rigid structure which admits neither dialogue nor flexibility. Whichever viewpoint comes to dominate the Christian future, the nature of the memory at the heart of Christian proclamation will be revised, because, as Bladerunner reminds us, memory is malleable and therefore never wholly trustworthy.
Cyborgs are blends of humans and machines. We are already cyborgs in rudimentary ways, with our pacemakers, implants of chemical catalysts for essential biological processes, transdermal patches, synthetic hips and hands and hearts, contact lenses, vision scopes that bypass the eyes of the blind and plug directly into the brain, and neural avionics that socket the optic nerve with fiber optic cables so that fighter pilots can fire weapons merely by thinking. Indeed, it’s already cyborg time, and as we engineer ourselves to accept more readily transplants and artificial devices, we will become more and more cyborg. Our cyborg selves will exist embedded in ubiquitous wireless real time networks, with chips in everything—furniture and appliances, automobiles and airplanes, houses and offices—and above all, chips in us. We do not merely use computers; we are becoming computers, nodes in a ubiquitous network.
Try making a large purchase for cash and see what happens. Only your digital self with its digital markers for identity and authentication can trade in the digital marketplace. ‘Real’ currency in the digital economy is digital. In the same way, only the digital self that uses the right metaphors for, say, inclusion in or exclusion from a redemptive religious network will have constant and immediate access to the energizing, mood-altering scenarios of renewal and transformation made available by the network.
Online passwords to the communities that mediate religious experience will resemble “recommends” by Mormon bishops permitting adherents to enter a temple. This is analogous to the delivery systems of medicines, drugs, and chemicals used to enhance emotional well-being and cognitive ability available through the network. The network, in other words, will be self-referential and will maintain equilibrium, not only of individual bodies, but of the network itself, of which we will be but a part. We will interact with sacred digital scenarios as online gamers today participate in communities of tens of thousands in real time. Those scenarios will be an important part of the self-regulating mechanisms of the entire network, i.e., the trans-planetary society into which we are evolving.
Religious rituals have always used dramatic techniques. Once they become virtual simulations, using scent, sound, images, and tactile feedback to integrate distributed individuals into a unified experience, we can ‘run’ those rituals whenever we need them. Those who control the technology will be high priests. ‘Services’ will be available anytime online, and because we will participate in them through complex and sophisticated avatars or online personas, which may well evolve independent and intelligent behaviors of their own, our ‘spiritual companions’ will always be available. We will ‘call them’ whenever we want to experience ‘real people’ and they will always show up.
The technology world calls them “early adopters,” those people out on the edge who make first use of new applications. Nietzsche called “original thinkers” those who see new realities just moments before others do and give them names. The nose of the snake gets to the mouse first, but the whole snake eats the mouse. If we are part of human society, participation in this digital transformation into cyborg humanity is unavoidable.
We will still have simulated experiences of prior times, of course, the equivalent of reading historical novels today or visiting a recreated nineteenth-century village, but we will know that the actors are in costume and that we, too, are actors in costume. But then, what else are Christmas oratorios, Purim pageants, or liturgical dramas, but historical simulations?
Religious claims to universal truth will both intensify and diminish. They will diminish as we are recontextualized in a situation that continuously reminds us that the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon. But they will intensify because those with their hands on the levers of power in organized religion often use anxiety and fear as glue for communities. Those communities use rigid rules to maintain order. The more rigid the structures, the more obvious the pathology for both individuals and organizations.
Every age picks and chooses the “books of the Bible” or the scenarios that speak most powerfully to it. The potency of the stories is a function of their relevance to our current context. The Gospels were written, redacted, and juxtaposed with each other (which changed their meaning by placing them in new contexts) by communities articulating comprehensive visions. Which stories will lend themselves to digital interaction and which will diminish?
More Questions than Answers
The history of the study of sacred text is also a history of control over the interpretation of the text, the maintenance of boundaries as a safeguard of power. That control requires a stable environment, so that the decisions of the elders will matter and so that social and psychological escape hatches are not available to individuals who choose to contradict traditional teachings. Otherwise shunning has no effect. That control is lost in distributed networks.
Who can enforce rulings when alternative communities are readily available, and anyone can invent another by going online, sowing seeds, and pruning what grows, while plowing under what withers? What kinds of consensus will establish canonical texts, or will there be any consensus, just as today we draw our own conclusions about sacred texts? The person in the street does not care what a hierarchy says if it cannot enforce its decisions with physical coercion. In the absence of an invisible fence, the dogs run wild.
The imaginative reader may by now have begun to ponder the meaning of mysticism in the climate I am describing. The distributed network is a concrete manifestation of the unity of all things, the connectedness perceived in the past as a transcendent vision seen by those whose genetics inclined them to dream dreams and see visions.
Mystics do not see a different reality, but they see the wiring inside the wireless circuits. Mystics see structures of information and energy as it flows, a self-luminous tangle that can only be described using metaphors and symbols. Paradox is the language of the unconscious, which is why, like riddles or jokes, either we get what mystics say or we do not. Either mystical insights make all the difference in the world, enabling us to recontextualize everything, or they sound like snake oil.
Digital mystics are everywhere these days, searching for the words to give voice to their experience. Those who live life as nodes in a network cannot help but notice that they are enmeshed in a complex system of energy and information. The computer network becomes an image of the larger network, the planetary civilization, and even the galaxy, all the way out to the edges of the universe. We see that everything is part of one vast system of energy and information. Information is the form of energy. Information and energy, which look like two things, are aspects of a single thing, the way light is both particle and wave. The words “Let there be light!” give form to the potential of energy or perhaps make energy intelligible.
The digital world is a projection that lets us see ourselves seeing ourselves. For example, the other day I made a speech during which I moved in front of a huge video screen on the platform. The audience watched the ‘real’ me through the camera as I pointed to an image of myself pointing to an image of myself pointing to an image of myself, ad infinitum. “That,” I said, “is the digital world.” When I moved to the front of the platform, the audience divided—half looking at my digital image to the right, half to the left. This division changed my job description from a speaker engaging with an audience to a wizard creating a digital image with which the audience could engage. In fact, I am doing much the same thing now, whether you read these words in digital-made print or in pixels.
Now, these sentiments clearly tend more toward the tenor of the Gospel of John than to the hard truth of crucifixion at the end of the Gospel of Mark. The balance between the two ends of the spectrum will be as important to preserve in the digital world as it was when narratives were interlaced in leaves of printed text. But the aesthetics of the online experience will not be the aesthetics that have characterized our experience of reading. We do not yet have a vocabulary to speak about the aesthetic experience of online interaction. The narratives that report online mystical experience (e.g., the sudden socketing of minds through telepathic portals as they feel each other through the wires, answered prayers or healings, or synchronous flows of words of deeply felt feelings) are scattered now in diverse Web servers and email archives. They are not yet filtered through a digitally informed imagination into the momentary stasis of a ‘sacred text,’ nor are they collected into edifying cycles of music, words, and images for a digital generation.
The Twilight Zone
Let’s add to this rudimentary sketch the fact of trans-planetary culture and the inevitable encounter with multiple civilizations. It is not a question of whether ‘they’ come here or ‘we’ go there. Once the interface of our species with others becomes more conscious, we will see that there is no here or there to come from or go to. The distinction between ‘alien’ and ‘earthling’ will blur as the distinction between, say, Albanian and Greek, has blurred, and for similar reasons. Identity is a function of boundaries, and when boundaries dissolve, a new identity emerges that includes and transcends the identity that is then seen to have been the politically and economically determined structure of a prior time. When we first encounter other societies or civilizations, our initial shock at the differences of others pushes us into a self-transcendent space and forces us to realize that consciousness in its many forms is just one thing, one dimension of space and time in a universe that is becoming self-conscious. On the other side of the annihilation of an earth-bound identity, we will locate ourselves in a more complex matrix of universal self-awareness.
Throughout world history, the encounter of one people with another has often resulted in the assimilation of the technologically inferior society into the technologically superior one, but that has been in part because of the massive physical presence the superior civilization has been able to muster. A scout ship or an expedition, like Lewis and Clark’s, can absorb another civilization only if a massive presence follows. But contact can nevertheless radically impact the way the impacted society sees itself in the universal scheme of things, including how it uses selected sacred texts.
Hawaiian society, for example, began to dissolve the minute the explorers came off the ships. Their sacred stories were discovered to be interlaced with the entire fabric of their society, and when that began to unravel, the sacred stories dimmed and lost their numinous glow.
During times of radical transition, such as encounters between different civilizations, we tend to favor apocalyptic texts that provide symbols and images that can mediate our anxieties and that can make sense on a cosmic scale out of what we previously believed to be nonsensical. Only open-ended symbols (like the cross) that insist that the dissolution of our structures of meaning is itself a meaningful event can help us through the darkness of seeming meaninglessness that attends the end of our illusions. As we voyage to distant planets and come to terms with our status in the universe as toddlers coming down the steps of their house for the first time, rather than as Alpha Primates at the top of the food chain, images of the end-time will help earth civilizations keep their sanity and balance. Sooner or later things will stabilize again at a different level of equilibrium. We will then become aware of ourselves (or OurSelf) as an extended network or system of self-conscious nodes in a more conscious matrix, self-invented in ways we can only dimly glimpse now. How will we recontextualize images of a swarthy, uncompromising, street-smart rabbi, who several thousand years earlier lent his life to the creative memory of an emergent civilization, and who was fixed in archetypal images of self-transcendence just when that civilization could frame those memories in written words? Will we still value Bronze Age images of humanity as existentially relevant to our quest?
The Future is Behind Us
Any discussion of the future is speculative, of course, particularly since the future is a choice of one of several possibilities that we have constructed from the way information flows and organizes itself in distributed systems. Science fiction writer, Bruce Sterling, acknowledged in a private conversation that his own horizon for the future has come down to five years, more or less, as science fiction as a genre has shifted from technological speculation about the distant future to near-term issues of identity and self. The right-brain dreaming of a left-brain society dreams less of the physical landscapes of the fortieth century and more of sociological, even epistemological, contours of current interior landscapes.
Still, some likely scenarios do emerge, based on this cursory discussion of genetic engineering, the realization that we are becoming a trans-planetary civilization, and the emergence of a ubiquitous, embedded network with augmented cognition, memory, and senses. Cyborg humankind, in this imaginary scenario, is indistinguishable from its augmentations and machinery, except to the degree that the seeing self retains a feeling of autonomy and self-will, still feeling itself to be a self. That capacity will be an intentional choice, as we take the reins of evolution into our own hands. We may choose to retain the illusion of freedom because it serves our species so well. The field of human subjectivity that animates the human species will experience itself as selecting and directing its own evolution, even if the laboratory evidence indicates that this also is an illusion, a necessary fiction embedded in genetic code.
Cyborg humanity will be indistinguishable from its inventions and replicants. The power of projection will be used to glue feelings of respect, even affection, onto our own creations, much as we value dogs as companions and breed them for that purpose. The distinctions between property and persons will blur. Parts of humans, including memory modules and chemically catalyzed and activated behaviors, will be interchangeable, as well as our ‘artificial’ parts, a distinction that will also blur until it disappears. Not only will we grow hearts, lungs, and kidneys in laboratories and in other animals, we will grow memory banks and neural functions using processes that will come to us first through war, entertainment and child’s play, and sexual fantasy.
This field of subjectivity will be a network of extended self-consciousness, aware of itself as a collective with a collective memory and multiple modes of nodal operation. Long-term memory storage devices will augment innate memories. and, once we master the creation of memory clusters to cushion the impact of longevity, what we call “repression” or “forgetting” will be a conscious decision, the way societies remember or choose to forget historical experiences now. Disciplines that have already converged (such as public relations, advertising, and marketing; intelligence, counter-intelligence, and disinformation; mass media and entertainment) will cycle down from the top level (images, symbols, and media) to the level of perception. Percepts as well as concepts will be manufactured and delivered in support of a previously chosen consensus. That is, not only how we think about what we see but what we think we see in the first place will be designed. The quest for truth and justice in a designed world will itself be a simulation of the quest for truth and justice.
We will choose which memory modules are valuable as distractions (an extended romantic narrative can neutralize people as effectively as professional sports) or as useful tools (if a 150-year-old man were alive today, what memories from the Civil War or the spread of the railroads would be of survival value?). We will answer these questions as we answer all questions, through trial and error, which will of course raise ethical questions as to what to do with our mistakes.
The nodes in the network will be discrete human beings who have lost much of the notion of being an ‘individual’ and will look upon our time (when they visit virtual memory museums) as an era of lonely isolation in which the illusion of individuality enabled some successes but at the high cost of the security, community, and stability that, as in Brave New World, they will value more highly. Because the interchangeability of parts and processes as one ages through a century or two of modular life will erode the sense of the “I” that Christians believe is saved or redeemed, planetary consciousness might skew toward Buddhism, which is a good default choice during times of radical transition. Why?
Because Buddhism purports to describe “what is so” without reference to teleology or ultimate purposes, i.e., to what Christians call “God.” So Buddhism provides a convenient receptacle for dealing with prolonged transitioning by relating what are obviously the passing scenes of a moving narrative to a non-self that survives the extinction of the illusory self. When it becomes obvious that the contents of mentation are illusory, it helps that one of those concepts is the notion that all is illusion, including the self that thinks about such things.
Perhaps that metaphorical framework will further recontextualize Christianity in Buddhist terms. Perhaps the ancient Jewish and Christian belief in reincarnation, always a best-seller, will turn Buddhist/Christians toward the scriptural assertions (“Some say Elijah . . . ”) that reinforce such a contextual shift.
The boundaries around what twentieth-century humans call “the Canon” will continue to dissolve, accelerating a process already begun by print publishing over the last several hundred years. The rapid evolution of interactive scenarios with spiritual content will push more power to decide toward the nodes. People will pick and choose which paths to follow and will use archetypal symbols that correlate best with the needs of the moment. But then, this is merely extrapolating the present into the future, isn’t it?
The ‘study of sacred text’ will look like a collective consciousness choosing to distribute aspects of itself around archetypal symbols, themselves in flux, that resonate in terms of then-contemporary experience. We will step into or out of the virtual immersive experience at will or what will seem like “at will.” We will accept being conditioned to choose those moments of renewal and experience them as we have bred and manufactured ourselves to experience them, much as Brave New World suggests. Deltas will be glad they are Deltas.
Alphas will be glad they are Alphas.
A Digital Parable
All great truth, said George Bernard Shaw, begins as blasphemy. And here are my words in a different poetic form, a parable that searches for that great truth.
Islands in the Clickstream
A sacred canopy of shared belief used to soar above our heads like a large umbrella, keeping us warm and dry as the contradictory data of real life beat down.
A canopy doesn’t have to be sacred—any canopy will do—but because our understanding of the cosmos and our place in it is such an important part of our stance toward life, a canopy always has a sacred component. What we believe determines how we act.
No model of reality contains everything. Life is larger than our models of it. All we need is an umbrella that is ‘good enough’ to manage the odd drops by keeping them irrelevant. As long as our model of reality makes enough sense of the world to let us act, we hold to our beliefs.
But there is an awful lot of rain these days, forty days of rain, more than forty days, and it keeps on raining.
Our trans-planetary network of computers is a rain-making machine that—finally!—works. There is no snake oil this time, no flim-flam man. It’s really coming down out there. More and more data just doesn’t fit. Our umbrella has more than a few holes in it, and the water is trickling through.
At first we act as if we don’t notice. The real experience of our lives contradicts what we say about life. When we hear ourselves speak, we sometimes sound like someone else, someone we used to be or someone we’re overhearing. If we refuse to believe our experience and believe our beliefs instead, we get a headache, a very, very bad headache. We crawl into bed or pop a Prozac, but we keep getting wetter and wetter.
Alas! we’re all too human—stubborn, blind as umbrellas, frightened out of our shivering skins—so we still insist that we’re not wet. We hold the handle of the umbrella more and more tightly, telling ourselves and everyone else how dry we are and what an excellent umbrella we have found. Others politely suppress giggles and move on.
It’s so easy to see holes in someone else’s umbrella.
Finally the umbrella is so battered that we can no longer deny what everyone else has seen for a long time, that we’re holding nothing but shreds of wet black cloth on a skeletal metal frame and we’re soaked to the skin.
We all want to stay dry, but one legacy of living in the twentieth century is that no canopy spans us all. We join organizations to experience the momentary consolation of agreement, but we can’t live there.
Life today is like living in a village of grass huts in which everyone has a radio tuned to a different station. However high we turn the volume, we can’t shut out the other songs.
I recently spoke about “The Stock Market, UFOs, and Religious Experience” to an investment conference. The speech distinguished between things we think we see out there and things we really see. It was about the psychology of projection and the psychology of investment.
I noted that in the United States and, increasingly, in the world, an attitude of respect for other religious traditions creates a good deal of tension. We both have to believe in our own belief system and acknowledge that others are entitled to contrary views. Entertaining mutually exclusive truths simultaneously in our minds is difficult. We’re not even always sure which is the umbrella and which is the rain.
We will try to surrender our freedom to those selling cheap umbrellas, but we cannot avoid our destiny: we are each responsible for inventing ourselves, for creating our own lives. There is no high ground on which to hide.
Our calling is made more difficult by the digital world. The digital world consists of simulations, models so compelling that we mistake them for reality. Sometimes the digital symbols refer only to other symbols, what Baudrillard called simulacra, simulations of simulations, copies with no originals. All those simulations are umbrellas, and all those simulations are rain.
Nietzsche saw it coming at the end of the last century. It’s what he meant when he said “God is dead.” He wasn’t talking about the creator of the universe, but about the gods in our heads, the cultural artifacts that we invent. He saw that our sacred canopy had shredded and the rains were pouring down.
Prophets are people who get wet and start sneezing before everybody else. We try to quarantine them, but reality is a cold it is impossible not to catch.
As did speech, writing, and printed text, electronic media are transforming what it means to be human and what kinds of gods we are likely to worship.
Gods,” that was, not God. God is always God, and God is with us, out here in the rain, getting wet.
In the digital world, Nietzsche’s questions are more urgent than ever. Never mind that he asked them long ago. Civilizations take lots of bullets and walk dead for a long time before they fall.
Some treat the digital world as if it is an umbrella, as if simulations can be more than an umbrella, as if they can be stitched together into an ark. And who can blame them? Who does not want to be warm and dry? But the words “warm and dry” will not keep us warm and dry, nor will digital simulations of 3-D umbrellas dancing and singing on the screen. The digital world is water, a rising tide, a tsunami impacting our consciousness with revolutionary force, leveling our villages, sweeping away our shrines and altars, sweeping everything out to sea.
What games, asked Nietzsche, what festivals shall we now invent? Indeed, my friends. And what games shall we simulate? What games shall we play? What games shall we dare to believe? (Thieme)
Levinson, Daniel J.
1979 The Seasons of a Man’s Life. New York: Ballentine Books.
1985 The Society of Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Ong, Walter J.
1982 Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen.
1997 Islands in the Clickstream. [electronic newsletter] November 14, 1997
copyright American Bible Society 1999-2004. All rights reserved.
This essay is included in ”New Paradigms for Bible Study: The Bible in the Third Millenium,” Robert M. Fowler, Edith Blumhofer, and Fernando F. Segovia, Editors. T&T Clark International, New York: 2004.