“Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word.”
—Reverend Father Walter J. Ong, Ph.D.
I caught myself saying something ridiculously 21st-century the other day. I was at my local Starbucks having a latte with an old friend from college—a Rihanna hit playing in the background, espresso machines gurgling, our cell phones periodically buzzing on the table—when a political conversation about the Syrian civil war slipped into a theological debate about the problem of evil.
At one point, my friend suggested that God allows evil to exist so that salvation is an individual choice. If God wanted to, he said, S/He could utterly eradicate all the pain and suffering in the world in an instant; but S/He wants us to have free will. That’s when the words came bubbling out of my mouth:
“Eradicate all the world’s pain and suffering? Does God actually have the bandwidth to do something like that?”
Bandwidth. Really? As soon as I heard myself say it, it felt wrong, like such a contemporary metaphor didn’t belong in a theological discussion. I wondered whether my friend would raise his eyebrow and say, “Bandwidth? Are you serious, dude?” but he didn’t. He just nodded and sipped his double espresso, and went on talking. With its origins in electronics and computing—worlds away from the Bible’s agrarian metaphors about vineyards, mustard seeds, and fishermen’s nets—this word had hacked its way into our discussion and passed as legitimate. As I drove home with my iPod plugged into my dashboard, listening to Beck sing about the new pollution over a post-modern frenzy, I wondered: Is the technology of the digital age beginning to shape the metaphors we use for God?
It’s stating the obvious to say that human beings often use metaphors to wrap their heads around abstract concepts like “God” or “good/evil.” But what fewer people realize is that our political, cultural, socioeconomic, and technological milieus exert a powerful influence over which constellations of metaphors come to dominate our collective consciousness in a given age. Here we’re not just talking about linguistic clichés (i.e., “bandwidth”), but the more profound habits of thought they reflect—what Walter J. Ong calls “interior transformations of consciousness.”
Consider the changes to our collective consciousness that accompanied the popularization of the mechanical clock. As Nicholas Carr says in his best-selling book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize): “Under the sway of the mechanical clock, people began thinking of their brains and their bodies—of the entire universe, in fact—as operating ‘like clockwork.’ . . . God became the Great Clockmaker. His creation was no longer a mystery to be accepted. It was a puzzle to be worked out.”
All this begs the question: Was my bandwidth comment an insignificant remark, or just one of a million signs that our metaphors for God are undergoing yet another historic transformation? Is God the Great Clockmaker becoming God the Great Programmer?
The technologies of the digital age have definitely affected how we talk in general. How many times have you heard a friend or coworker say, “I don’t have the bandwidth to do that right now,” or “Let’s meet and have a quick download,” or “Our brains aren’t programmed [or hardwired] for monogamy”? I doubt many of us have reached the point where we conceive of God as a programmer, super-computer, supreme social networker for good, or some other metaphorical stretch of the imagination like “the Great Clockmaker.” But I do suspect things are changing in subtler ways that will become clearer as time goes on. Hopefully, someone will write a book about this topic one of these days.
Until that happens, I’ll be thinking about it as I drive down the road of life listening to my iPod.