A Techno-Savvy Theology

April 1, 2014
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This year marks three decades since George Orwell’s historic date of 1984 — the time he chose as the setting for his dystopian novel. Orwell’s trenchant exploration of dehumanization through technology, ominous and omniscient government, and the constant politicized retelling of history, offered a menacing picture of government-controlled technology growing excessively influential and pervasive.

In the 1984 of real life, my college television station granted access to precisely twelve channels, and I watched the nightly news at 6 p.m. or 11 p.m. on one of three national networks that shared basic editorial objectivity and production styles. If I missed the news, I waited for the newspaper or caught the next day’s broadcast. When I happened upon an interesting question at the dinner table, I went straight to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, an impressive compendium edited by respected scholars overseen by vigilant editorial boards.

I trusted the news anchor, the editorial boards, and definitely our religious leaders. Rabbis, as well as other clergy, spoke with authority, and we — at least outwardly — accepted their guidance.

Trusting authority, seeking meaning, and pursuing truth are much more challenging in our not-so-brave new world. This has serious implications for those who would be Jewish religious leaders, and any worthy postmodern theology must confront this epistemological quagmire. As some recent Christian scholars have suggested, certainty is hard to come by, and perhaps impossible in the new context. What, then, can theology do?

I would suggest two starting points for creating a contemporary theology. First, it ought to provide principles that help us to manage the dehumanizing challenges presented by our contemporary, technology-laden milieu. Second, it must serve as a countercultural influence that offers alternatives to what our current use of technology privileges, and it must ensure that we continue to consider and reconsider the assumptions inherent in this highly connected world.

To the first point, let us begin to imagine the highly creative and compelling Jewish uses to which technology can be put. Some cutting-edge uses of technology — in educational settings as well as for ritual purposes — foster what most Jewish theology clearly endorses: enhanced Jewish learning, thoughtful chevruta, communal dialogue, inclusion and remembrance of those suffering, and the building of religious community.  Consider a dying grandparent having an aliyah at a grandchild’s bar or bat mitzvah from a hospital bed, Israelis and Americans rethinking the future of their communities’ relationships by video, or families reuniting for a brit mila or baby naming that cannot afford to cross oceans — and we can begin to see the power at our disposal. Technology used in this manner becomes rehumanizing to the committed student deterred by geographic distance, the American estranged from Israel, or the family member excluded by illness. In these instances, it nurtures an open and progressive approach to the enhancement of Jewish life.

To the second point, I turn to Rabbi Arthur Green’s insightful definition of spirituality: a “religious life that recognizes and cultivates the human soul, seeking in daily life the holiness originally associated with sacred space, time, and person.” When technology can be harnessed to these noble goals, then it is unquestionably worthwhile, and it has a place in any Jewish theological approach. Abraham Joshua Heschel, for instance, speaks of radical amazement as a pointer to the divine. I must admit to such radical amazement every time Skype or Face Time allows me to stand on the street in New York and see and talk with my child in Israel (for free, no less) — and that this now verges on the mundane. I am awed by the all-knowing nature of search engines and the omniscience of a network that knows everything about everyone immediately. The challenge, though, is that such experiences can also reinforce our conception of humanity as extremely powerful. What, then, does that do to our conception of God? If our creations can appear to know everything, what space is there left in our world for God? In such a context, we run the risk of committing the ancient idolatrous mistake of worshipping what our hands have made, even when it is far from inerrant and ultimately quite limited. Theology demands that we do better in selecting the object of our faith and adoration.

Furthermore, a darker side is also present,  and so we must craft a theology that demands more of us and that objects more overtly to the dehumanizing and distracting nature of technology. Martin Buber’s theology of true meeting, where individuals are entirely present for one another, can easily devolve into objectification and disruption at the hands of technology. Can students truly engage with a teacher or a text when a rapid train of messages arrives seriatim during class on the laptops they use to “take notes”? Can individuals relate to one another when electronic forums extend the human penchant for the degradation and abuse of others, quickly turning “Thou” back into “it”? Technology can distort human relationships. A tech-savvy theology must remind us that every interaction with another human being is not simply transactional — but that its success transcends our hunger for money, prestige, or power. These interactions must reflect the will of God as we best understand it. They must take into account the idea that the individuals involved are, as our tradition insists, “made in the image of God,” and they must help us to give voice to the highest values of our faith. Such, after all, is the difference between cognizance of God and worship of self.

Some final questions arise from Kaplan’s theology: Would Mordecai Kaplan support or excoriate the sort of techno-civilization we are now building? Does it represent our core values, promote peoplehood, and continue the time-honored Jewish principles that have made us a community around the globe and throughout the millennia? Is what we are doing now serving what we perceive to be God’s purpose in the world? As the new president of a seminary with a long and vibrant history, I am keenly aware that the techno-civilization we build can reach new audiences, inspire greater commitment, and welcome new adherents. I hope to use technology in support of enhanced education for our students, alumni, congregants, and the greater Jewish world. But I am keenly aware of the potential costs to such utilization, and I know that we must ensure that technology
nurtures rather than obscures God’s presence in the world. Such concerns must inform our every action, hovering over us partially unanswered and challenging all that we do.

Technology (teknia+logia, in Greek, originally, “the study of an art or craft”), ultimately has enormous power to change us in both positive and negative ways. But such power must be tempered and shaped by theology (theos+logia, “the study of God”), to ensure that it is used for good. Only then will we ensure that it remains a tool for bringing the presence of God into our world.

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Rabbi Aaron Panken is president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He formerly served as a congregational rabbi and as dean and vice president of HUC-JIR, where he now also teaches rabbinic and Second Temple literature. He is the author of The Rhetoric of Innovation: Self-Conscious Legal Change in Rabbinic Literature and numerous scholarly articles.

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