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Spirituality x Technology
There is disagreement between scholars as to how to define spirituality, but I see it as a reaching out beyond individual and collective experience, to find that which transcends our place in the universe. Spirituality deals with questions of purpose, it is a search for how we define what flourishing means for our lives. If we think of spirituality this way, it should not be a surprise that technology interacts with spirituality because technology itself is also a form of humans reaching out to the world. Technology is just an extension of human tool making; a tool can be as simple as a branch to ward off predators, or it can be a predator drone. Both spirituality and technology come from our nature as humans; we are beings who are capable of self-transcendence who seek out meaning and purpose. Ethicist Brian Patrick Green, in comparing the work of cognitive scientists and Aristotle’s understanding of purpose (telos or teleology), eloquently states that “teleology is deeply natural to us and prized by us, and that teleology is active in both practical and theoretical aspects of human thought.”1 Technology is one way in which humans explore purpose in a practical sense, whereas spirituality is a theoretical exploration of purpose.
It should also not be a surprise, then, that there are attempts to use technology to further explore our spirituality. Again, this happens in practical ways, such as applications that remind us to put down our devices and be more mindful of the moment, or to even use these devices to help us be more aware of our heartrate and to assist in guided breathing or meditation. There are theoretical methods of help as well, such as providing people access to information, beliefs, and traditions that they were not previously aware of but can play a role in their journey.
Sociologically speaking, science, religion, and spirituality all play a role in what Berger and Luckmann refer to as “universe maintenance.”2 Universe maintenance is needed when there are strains or cracks in the symbolic universe of society, the view of life presented is longer taken for granted as reality. This happens because socialization is never complete, and so these mechanisms of universe maintenance help shore up the symbolic universe. I would argue that for some, religion contributes to the breakdown of the symbolic universe, because people do not believe in the systematization of symbols it presents, or because of its failing as a human institution. Spirituality, which is inherently more individual, does a better job of maintaining the universe for these individuals because it allows them to create their own set of symbols that help explain and give meaning to life.
I think a big question the last two years have highlighted is whether technological connection is as meaningful as in-person. Online interactions have provided a greater sense of community during the pandemic than many believed possible, but there is still a general view that it is not a full substitute for face-to-face interaction. As a social species, humans experience loneliness and reach out to others and to the universe in a variety of ways, some of which are technological. It is my hope that we remember that part of our purpose is to acknowledge and respond lovingly to this reaching out from others as we do the same ourselves.