Thursday, 24 March 2011

A. S. Byatt

I was fascinated by novelist A.S.Byatt's recent observation that digital communication may sound the death knell of religion. I heard her saying that phenomena like facebook seem to be creating a world in which people try to form their identity through the responses they receive on interactive media such as facebook. You don't really feel good unless someone is sending you a message or tweeting or letting you know they like your latest post or image. The more people look at your profile, the more your sense of personal identity is strengthened and the more you grow in confidence. Self-worth means having friends who respond to your messages daily or tweet several times a day. The more responses you get, the greater your sense of your own value. If everyone appears to be ignoring you, what are you worth? Who are you?

How does this relate to religion? Well, Byatt argues, people have tended in the past to look to religion as a key source of their sense of value. They have sought meaning in religion personally. Think of the words of God at Jesus' baptism, 'This is my Son in whom I am well pleased' - this is also the the message of acceptance given to every child or individual at their baptism. And then people have sought corporate meaning in religion. They have looked to the world faiths to give a sense of pattern and overall coherence to existence, a map which helps them find their place amid complexity and shifting sands, 'What are human beings that you are mindful of them and mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with honour.'  (Psalm 8.3-5)  

So, is the value that is imparted to a person through the digital world gradually beginning to usurp the place of other sytems of value, including religion? My first reaction to this was to think that to find a reflection of who you are and to seek a feeling of self worth through internet relationships is no different from worshipping at the shrine of other false gods. Haven't we comfort-shopped and comfort-eaten and over-consumed and complained if we can't exercise endless choice in order to feel good about ourselves? How is allowing the internet to stoke up our sense of self-worth any different? All these things, including the internet, are but idols when used in ways that set them up as answers to our frail sense of who we are. But then I began to think that Byatt is on to something more profound, here. The artefacts of consumerism and choice are not interactive in quite the same way as digital media I begin to flounder....what is possible with digital technology is changing so fast that it does begin to seem that the boundaries of the real and the illusory, of the actual and the virtual, of the memory of what happened and memory of what didn't really happen are getting blurred in previously unimaginable ways. Will an increasingly digitally manipulated world lead us so far into the virtual and the illusory that we will lose touch with our own power to apprehend what is in fact influencing us?  I want to argue that digital media do not necessarily lead away from God and that the presence of God may be deeply apparent in this brave new world (and also God's absence.) However, as the forms through which we communicate radically change, religion - the systems by which we apprehend and understand God - is going to start to look and sound different. Religion has always adapted and been adapted; it has struggled with questions about what is real and what is illusory but it needs (and especially so for the Christian faith with the doctrine of incarnation at its heart) people to be encountering the life of God through the manifestations of new media and not holding back. To hold back and exercise caution is one thing as change takes place over centuries (as with the dawn of printing) but it is quite another when the change is taking place so quickly that there is little time for reflection and adaption. So I think Byatt is perhaps correct to see in the ways people are beginning to communicate something that will increasingly pull us away from religious expression. I suppose, however, that a theologian may have less cause to be pessimistic about this than a novelist whose great challenge is to portray human nature. The story of God's nature, at least in the Judeao Christian tradition, has always been the story of how creation has pulled away from the creator and I would see the digital age as the next episode in this narrative rather than the end of religious narrative. But it does all look very challenging or, at least, unimaginably different! 

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