The Influence of Information Technologies on Theology

Article excerpt

INEVITABLY, COMMUNICATION SYSTEMS have an influence on theology, just as they affect every other aspect of human life. Orality and literacy studies, for example, have shown how a basic cultural practice such as writing affects how cultures flame knowledge and organize the world.(1) Oral narratives, with their focus on the concrete and specific, give way to more analytic thought: the Greek gods fell victim to textual scrutiny.(2) Similarly powerful transformations occurred with the introduction of the printing press into early modern Europe,(3) or with the rise of telegraphy in the United States.(4) The former led to an increase of literacy through an increase of books; the latter, to instant communication across wide distances. In each case, the larger cultural wave washed over theology: the multiplication of theological texts and copies of corrected biblical manuscripts in the 16th century; the immediate contact between religious groups in the 19th century.

This article explores some of the ways that current information technologies now influence theology and religious expression, and ways that such influence might move in the future. Explorations into the influence of communication suggest, not a technological determinism, but reflection on the contexts of teaching and studying theology.

Communication technologies have wide-ranging interactions with the cultures that foster them. Past research has shown how communication systems connect with cognitive practices,(5) human relationships and interactions,(6) educational systems, entertainment, business, trade, inter-cultural influences, power arrangements,(7) political systems, and religious practices.(8) That communication systems and practices should influence theology today comes as no surprise.

Walter Ong in a 1969 article, argues that communication does indeed bear on the state of theology.(9) His concern remains primarily at the level of the oral substance of the Bible, the formulaic structure of Latin theology, the polemic economy or argumentative framework of medieval theology, and the growing circle of contemporary scholarship, increased by interdisciplinary communication. All reflect structure. We hope to show that, in fact, the role of communication in (and on) theology runs much deeper. For example, the international communication network, rooted in telephony, has now acquired a low cost, easily accessible, easily recoverable means of storage. Where the printing press made texts plentiful, the World Wide Web and Internet technology make plentiful texts searchable and linked. Where the telegraph gave instantaneous, though mediated, communication, the Internet hides the mediation, giving seemingly direct access to millions of pages. Where the telephone increased one-to-one contact, the Internet allows seamless many-to-many interactions. Even something as simple as Napster's distributed database of digital music files stored on personal computers suggests that our cultural notions of privacy and separation may need rethinking in the face of this (economically driven) willingness to share, not only files, but also computer access.

What will all of this do for theology? The initial extrinsic effect will later give way to a more powerful intrinsic change. We examine this phenomenon in four steps, asking "How will new communication technologies affect theology?" They will do so by affecting the context for and of theology, the resources theologians work with, the communication methods linking people, and the cognitive processes with which we approach any intellectual work. After exploring these questions, we will speculate about their impact on theological education.

THE CONTEXT

The world that people inhabit affects them--their religious outlook, the questions they judge important, and their religious practice. Obviously, theology shares in this. Yet the new media are not yet triumphant. While the Internet and information technologies play a role today, most people still live in a world defined by the relatively old media of print, television, radio, and film. …