In the Clouds

Cybertheologyby Antonio Spadaro, S.J.

Fordham University Press. 160 $24

For all its popularity, the Internet is raising very important social, cultural and political questions. Headlines remind us that texting while driving can have lethal results. University professors find themselves competing unsuccessfully with student smart-phone use in class. Parents find it necessary to place filters on computers to protect their children from exposure to pornography and violence. Hackers invade nations and corporations, leaking secret information, stealing identities, even halting movie distribution. Novels like David Eggers’s The Circle frighten us with the possibility that in the not too distant future web technology will be used to control every aspect of our lives.

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Antonio Spadaro’s newest book, Cybertheology, does not deal with these issues. Instead, this short meditation, which, at times, seems to suffer from a translation-based lack of clarity, turns its attention to the theological implications of the Internet. He asks, since the Internet is rapidly altering our experience of reality, how is it also shaping “the way we form a discourse on God and the faith, especially if this discourse is specifically Catholic?” Spadaro, who edits the popular Jesuit review La Civiltà Cattolica, published in Rome, and recently received distinction for his interview with Pope Francis (America, 9/30/13), does not demonize the Internet. In fact, he is active on Facebook and Twitter, and for many years has maintained a successful blog. He applauds the Internet’s “extension of our desire for communal life and knowledge,” its horizontal, connective logic, its ability to bring people together in new ways, its effectiveness in the communication of the faith and even its potential eschatological implications.

In a final chapter Spadaro even provides an imaginative application of the Internet to Teilhard De Chardin’s evolutionary theology, suggesting that the capillary diffusion of information and ideas provided by computer technology might very well be leading to the realization of an evolving collective consciousness, which Chardin famously called the noosphere. Spadaro suggests that this progressive consciousness might ultimately fulfill Chardin’s vision about the cosmic Christ who saves and animates the world, completing the transubstantiation of the bread on the altar, leading the world back to God and ultimate salvation.

But this book is mostly a cautionary exploration of the theological applications of the Internet in the information-saturated present, especially with reference to such things as evangelism, the nature of the church, authority and liturgy. In what follows I will briefly highlight each of these.

1. The new evangelism. In the fluid and flexible age characterized by the image of the iPod shuffle, information is randomized, truth claims are relativized and flattened out, and information becomes hardly more than background noise that does not demand our attention. Spadaro suggests that when what is true or real can be absorbed and disappear into the mass of virtual, equivalent data, which is what happens on massive religion sites like Belief.net, evangelism becomes a challenge. The Gospel becomes difficult to “hear” because it is just one more source of wisdom. Or else it can be “discarded, in favor of other, more important messages.”

2. The church. Apart from the fact that purely virtual relationships tend to promote what Spadaro refers to as “egoistical isolation,” the web does bring people into personal relationships. Yet when it is employed to sort through profiles of potential social contacts, or when programs like Foursquare or Gowalla enable an individual to choose when, where and with whom to connect, the notion of neighbor is reduced to selective affinity. I can include or exclude at the push of a contact button. Problems appear when this connective logic is applied to church. With a critical eye on emerging church movements, Spadaro says that while such technology and the social values it promotes might be a useful tool for community building in the church, it fails as a model for the church. In fact it gets things backwards because it runs the risk of defining the church entirely from below, as a process of selective networking of likeminded believers, and misses the fundamental function of the church as the mediator of grace that creates the community.

3. Authority. The web is driven by what Spadaro describes as a hacker ethic, which amounts to the creative force of free informational exchange. This ethic is fundamentally individualistic, and as such it resists control, competition, ownership and ultimately any authority from the outside. In theological circles this has led most recently to concepts such as “open source theology,” which is inherently dialogical, exploratory, incomplete and open to different conclusions. While this kind of theological enterprise has a place, Spadaro believes that it also “might be on a collision course with the Catholic mind and its vision of authority and tradition.” This kind of Internet theology prioritizes the “word,” and the physicality of the persons in dialogue becomes just another accessory that can be ignored. Spadaro insists that the logic of grace that comes to us from the outside is incarnated and is therefore not reducible to informational consensus. The church is neither purely collaborative nor purely cognitive. It is built upon a deposit of faith that has visible, tangible and apostolic origins, and has been transmitted through the ages by the magisterium to the present time.

4. Liturgy and sacraments. Spadaro asks whether it is possible “to imagine a form of liturgy and the sacraments that could take place on the web.” This question is not just speculative, since, as he points out, there have been many different attempts to create cyber-liturgies and eucharistic services on line. His response reminds Catholics that in the same way that it is impossible and anthropologically erroneous to consider virtual reality as a substitute for the real, tangible and concrete experience of the Christian community, the same applies visibly and historically to liturgical celebrations and sacraments. Therefore any liturgical or sacramental practices must be grounded in the real presence, which cannot be mediated at a distance through a computer screen.

Among the more illuminating ideas presented in this book is Spadaro’s insistence that while the web is a revolutionary tool, it runs the risk of creating a virtual reality that is individualistic and grounded in the communication of disembodied information. Though he does not say it, his analysis seems to be set against the more radical Protestant inclination to put on a pedestal the priesthood of all believers, establish the authority of the text alone and denigrate the “real” presence in the sacraments. In contrast, Catholicism has always insisted that God’s revelation, incarnate in the person of Christ, embodied historically in the authority of the apostles and their successors and made present in and through and by the sacraments, mediates what is true and real and creates the communal body of Christ, which is the church. For Spadaro, the principal theological danger posed by the Internet is the classic docetic tendency to sever mind from body, word from flesh, and in its modern form, to substitute virtual for actual reality. This book will provoke much discussion.

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