Theology in a Digital World

David Lochhead

Theology in a Digital World is a collection of six essays on the subject of the church and the computer. These essays were delivered over a three-year period in a number of different contexts, and they reflect an attempt by a theology professor at the Vancouver School of Theology to come to grips with the impact of the computer on the Christian community. Even though the essays have been revised for publication in this collection, for a work as short as this, repetition occurs too frequently. As one reads, one feels that one has read this before--and usually one has. Thus as a volume, this book has all the weaknesses of repetition that one might expect in six papers on the same subject delivered by the same person. But that is a criticism of the collection as a volume; it is not a criticism of the individual chapters.

Lochhead speaks to the issue as a comfortable user of computers, and he generally reflects a balanced view, granting to the computer neither the essence of demonic evil nor of redeeming good. But I am concerned about the degree of abstraction (if not mysticism) that affects Lochhead's language about computers. Says Lochhead:

An unprogrammed computer contains, in traditional metaphysical language, pure potentiality. The computer is the reverse image of the classical God who was described as pure actuality. If the God of classical metaphysics could be described as "the One who Is," the computer as hardware can be described as "one who can be." (p. 11)

But could one not say the same thing for an artist's brush or a carpenter's hammer? From my own perspective as a computer user, I see no difference; all are mere tools.

From Lochhead's perspective, the computer is different. He is even prepared to suggest that the computer, as a rational machine, has called into question the traditional view of the image of God in humans (Chapter 3: "Does God Love Computers?"). Now, says Lochhead, we tend to see emotions, rather than rationality, at the heart of what it is to be human (p. 43). In saying this, Lochhead seems to grant more substantial rationality to the computer than I have found in anything on my desk.

When Lochhead speaks of the power of computers, he seems again to grant too much. Experiencing the power of the computer, we are confronted, Lochhead tells us, with the question whether we should become like gods (p. 75 of Chapter 5: "The Tower of Babel Revisited"). That may be, but from the perspective of traditional Christian theology, we are cautioned that we are confronted by that kind of question through much of life, if not indeed at every point of decision. We grant too much to the computer when we see it as different in kind from the variety of other instruments that destroy our humanity by making our aspirations toward divinity appear attainable.

I am concerned as well that Lochhead has been so positive about the possibility of the creation of "community" online (Chapter 4: "The New Electronic Church"). "Computer relations can be very warm and very intimate," we are told (p. 59). Yes, there can be an online community. Yes, it can be warm and intimate. But there is a problem here. Online communication has a way of hiding race and gender. (I assume some indication of social class comes across in online relationships, since computers, modems and telecommunications cost money. Few online relationships will include the poor from our decaying urban slums.) We must ask ourselves what kind of community is created if it is multiracial, not because it has had a deep cleansing of its prejudices, but because it isolates itself from conditions where race can present itself? How healthy is an online relationship in which a white minister will use a sermon illustration from a distant (race unknown) black minister but would not submit to that black minister in a local position of authority? We must be careful not to allow computers to aid us in developing sanitized relationships, as free of dust and dirt as the computer expects its own environment to be.

Lochhead's collection of essays is most likely to be of interest to computer users who grant a degree of personality to their machines. Those who find them as tools--and just that--may have difficulty in finding the critical theological questions as focused as they need to be in a digital world.



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