Given that I am writing this article on a computer, and using the internet to post it so that anybody who is so inclined to do so can read it, it may seem a little strange that the crux of this piece is to question the benefits of the digital age. So, I must first issue the disclaimer that the rapid proliferation of digital media and e-technology has many positive aspects, and the irony of my making use of these developments to examine any concomitant negative consequences is not lost on me. We all use internet based technology to some degree, and the vast majority of us will use at least one or two modern gadgets on a regular basis.
The question I would like to pose is this – what is all this digital encroachment doing to our souls? One could argue, validly, that having all this technology reduces the amount of things we have to do manually (e.g.; online banking, online retailers, various ‘apps’ that show us where to go and tell us what to do, etc), and so provides us with more free time to devote to spiritual exercises such as prayer, Bible and devotional reading, or voluntary work in the community. However, as I look around me, the opposite seems to be the case. People (including myself) seem busier, more stressed, with less free time and less inclination to dedicate it towards edifying pursuits. After a long day, it is so much easier to turn on the computer or the television.
Also, as I make my way to work everyday, both on foot and on public transport, I see people completely cut off from the world around them – either with their eyes glued to a computer game on their phone, browsing Facebook, (a small saving grace) reading their Kindle, or plugged into their own little world, cut off from the surrounding sounds by their ipod. All these forms of sensory deprivation seem almost designed to avoid any contact with another human being, which is worrying enough in itself, but the last – that of filling one’s ears with a constant soundtrack of one’s own choosing – has another dimension as well: it cuts us off from any kind of interior silence, which in turn inevitably cuts us off from God.
Kierkegaard famously said that ‘if I were allowed to prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence. For even if the Word of God were proclaimed in the modern world, how could one hear it with so much noise?’ In doing so, he drew attention to a strong current of biblical wisdom, particularly evident in the Psalms, where we read ‘Be still, and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10) and ‘Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him’ (Psalm 37:7), as well as ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation’. The basic point being that, if we are constantly surrounded by a sea of distractions, aural or otherwise, we cannot find that stillness and silence that is necessary for hearing the ‘still small voice’ of God (c.f.; 1 Kings 19:12).
If we are to grow in our relationship with God, we must devote time in our daily lives to prayer, and effective prayer can only be cultivated in an atmosphere of stillness and quiet reflection. Clearly then, the distractions created by the myriad digital media in our lives is at cross-purposes with developing a deeper relationship with God. How can we individually, and the Church as a whole, adapt to this situation? As the Church is the atmosphere within which we move, how it responds to this challenge will in large part determine how we do. Thankfully, she is guided by the Holy Spirit, and has the experience of adapting to many other changes over the years. With respect to cultural change in general, Dr. Edward Norman points out that:
‘Christianity has until now existed within the general parameters of Hellenistic-Latin culture, which may not prove so durable in the future. Perhaps we are still in the early days of the Church – taking a long perspective into the unknowable future. Perhaps it is near its end, with the end of all things. There is no way of telling. It is unlikely, however, that the main concepts of the Mediterranean cultures which have determined the development of Christ’s revelation will persist forever, and the Church will then need to bring forth treasures new and old in a much more radical fashion, calculated according to the terms available in future arrangements of human knowledge. The means by which truth is known to be true, the question of authority in teaching, will then be absolutely crucial.’
taken from Authority in the Anglican Communion (1998)
Whilst Dr. Norman is here referring to the way in which the abiding doctrinal truths of the Faith must be re-presented according to cultural changes, the same principle can be applied to issues of spirituality and devotion, such as the threat posed to prayerful living by digital media. I suppose though, that any attempt to counter the influence that the distractions of modern living have on our spiritual lives, must be part of a wider response to modern culture overall. The noise we plug ourselves into and which we face all around us in daily life is only a particular manifestation of the persistent triviality and superficial concerns of modern secular society, and the Church will only be able to deal with the former by dealing with the latter, as it is doing and will continue to do, in its own time.
But what can we do now? I think a reduction in the amount of gadgets introducing distraction and triviality into our lives must be an imperative. But I feel that if one is to take that step, it must not be done gradually – take radical measures: sell your ipod, cancel your TV licence (I have done this recently and it is a highly liberating experience), force yourself not to go online after a certain time of the day. Also, it is just as important to find positive replacements for these things – regular reading of Scripture and/or devotional literature, adoration before the Blessed Sacrament or attendance at evening Mass (if these are available in your area); and not just spiritual pursuits either: read good books and poetry (with the family if you have one), listen to some music (getting rid of the ipod doesn’t mean cutting that out completely!), take up a hobby, simply spend time talking with friends and family. There is plenty to do, and is vital that the time previously spent with gadgetry is filled with edifying, fulfilling activities. The main thing is not to let the door open to digital distraction again – it is suffocating many souls, and preventing many from getting to know God better. To put it in perspective, imagine if the Blessed Virgin Mary had had an ipod!