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Interview with Father Antonio Spadaro SJ

Fr. Spadaro, editor of the Civiltà Cattolica Review, and author of the essay Hacker_Ethics_and_Christian_Vision, is interviewed by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

"* Let’s get into the details of cybertheology. What drives it, what does it tell us, where’s it going?

We need to start with the human condition to answer that. For as long as humans have been around, we have been searching – for answers, for transcendence, for places to go and things to do. The instinct and need to search is deep in the race. Clearly, the Internet changes the nature and aims of our searching, and it has a deep impact on how we think and live in our “real-world” lives. God and meaning have always been trending search topics, if you will, and that’s no less the case in the age of Google than it was in the age of cave paintings. Theology is intellectus fidei, “thinking faith”, so given all of the above, it seemed logical to me to start thinking about the ways in which the Internet has affected our faith lives.

It’s important to consider that theology involves different methods, interests and values than sociology. I’m not so much interested in offering answers about whether the Internet is good or bad (it’s not inherently either) or what it does to the nature and quality of your social life. There are plenty of people writing on that already. Thus, I’d say one of the big points of my work so far is that we need a shift in how we think about the Net in general. By nature, it’s a network, not a physical reality; moreover, it’s a network with access to lots of things – some good, some not so good. We’ve got to get away from moralizing about the Net to thinking about how to use it and towards thinking about how to live in the time of the Net.

Actually, to briefly address the issue of how to use the Net, we’ve got to approach it knowing that our relationship to the Net is governed by free will: you can find pretty much whatever you want there, so it’s up to you to decide what you’re going to go looking for. Same with time spent online: that’s basically up to the individual to decide. Of course I don’t encourage looking for nasty things online or spending your whole life staring into the screen; everyone’s got to find the proper morality and balance for his Internet usage, but he’s more or less got to find and maintain it for himself.

Now, as far as thinking faith in the age of the Internet goes, there are a few topics and trends I’d like to highlight. First of these is the theory and nature of authority. There’s no central power or mediator on the Net, as the common example of online news consumption highlights. Instead of leaving judgment of the slant and veracity of an article to a professional editor or producer, many people now produce and “edit” their own news sources. In that environment, how do we decide (and who decides?) which source(s) of content are considered trusted and authoritative, and why? We’re starting to see the same questions popping up in real-life spirituality, too: when people can search out and find whatever texts, theories or practices they want, that pretty clearly changes the relationship they have with liturgy and the Word.

Another big spiritual/cybertheological development is the move towards a participatory-interactive model of approaching thought and consumption of thought. At this point, I have to really hand it to Ignatius: it turns out the Spiritual Exercises, in their imaginative and interactive elements, are in many ways perfectly suited to Internet-age spirituality. They do lead people towards interiority, but they do so by way of interaction. You go deeper not by hearing or reading some Scripture and silently pondering it but by being asked to imagine yourself in the Bible stories and in fact speaking with (colloquy) the characters. That’s very much the way in which people approach online thought (read/watch, leave comment, post to share site). Incidentally, that interactive model is changing our notions of “presence” in the online world, which has huge liturgical implications. People are certainly present to us in a very different way by Skype than they are in occasional letters…could you conceivably say a valid Mass by Skype? These are the kinds of (cyber)theological questions we’re going to be dealing with very soon.

* Any further thoughts on what Net means in the context of spirituality and global integration?

The big trend I find really encouraging about global Net usage and networking is that people are starting to really think together and build collective intelligence across borders, cultures, time zones, faiths and what have you in ways that just weren’t possible before. This, in turn, is building global consciousness: if you can read or watch content from someone or somewhere, interact with him/her/it, and even collaborate in expanding it, that person or place becomes real to you in a meaningful way, even without physical contact. With increasing Internet freedom, the only real borders left are language (you can’t read something if you can’t read the source language) and censorship. Governments that are worried about global consciousness creation are the ones that censor their citizens’ Net usage the most heavily. On technology and spirituality, I’d say first and foremost that the opposition that’s often posited between technology and spirituality is a false dichotomy. Like I was saying a few minutes ago, technology challenges our concepts of liberty and morality, both of which are topics on which the spiritual literature is already very rich. Even the idea of building global consciousness is in some sense spiritual – people are encountering and dealing with different cultures and faiths through technology, which is a process rich in potential for spiritual challenge and growth. I’ll close with this: Pope Paul VI said that the mechanical brain is to help the spiritual brain, not to oppose it. That’s a great paradigm from which to approach globalization and technology – putting our ever-increasing technical prowess to work for the building up and the betterment of the spirit." (