Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Technology is Enhancing Our Religious Lives

As a rabbi, it should come as no surprise that religion is my work. I think about such concepts as God, faith, spirituality, community and religious education on a daily basis. What may be surprising is that I also think about technology every day. I see a strong connection between the two categories of religion and technology. In fact, the rapid growth of technological innovation in our ever expanding digital lives is revolutionizing the way we humans engage with matters of faith, both inside and outside of the traditional religious institutions.

About five years ago, former Newsweek religion editor Lisa Miller warned that advances in technology could demolish the Christian Church. She cited the introduction of Bible apps for tablets and smartphones that amounted to a “new crisis for organized religion” in which “believers can bypass constraining religious structures - otherwise known as ‘church’ - in favor of a more individual connection with God.” That warning, unsurprising to me, has proved false. Technology has not hindered the Church or any other organized religion. Religion has not been demolished by tech advances, but it has been augmented by the many innovations including the Internet and mobile apps.

In a response to Lisa Miller’s admonition, Jonathan Merritt of the Religion News Services, writes, “Prophetic predictions of the demise of the Christian Church have almost become a tradition among religion writers. As with the others, Miller’s has amounted to naught. Instead of having a completely negative effect on the Christian religion, technology has become an empowerment tool for both pastors and parishioners. Online versions of the Bible are one factor people point to when citing reasons for increased engagement with the Good Book. But on the other side of the pulpit, technology is now empowering pastors to minister more effectively.”

Technology’s Enhancing Our Religious Lives

I have found the same to be true in the Jewish faith. In the past few years, technology has entered Judaism and Jewish education with positive results. I now routinely meet with bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah teens using FaceTime, a funeral I officiated was broadcast using Skype to relatives unable to attend in person, I’ve toured ancient Jerusalem using virtual reality, and have watched my students quickly research commentaries on the Talmud using their iPad during class.

At the beginning of 2016, we are beginning to see that the wildly unbelievable technology prophesies of the last century are materializing. Virtual reality and augmented reality will allow us to experience what previous generations only dreamed about. We’ll be able to completely erase the borders that once divided us. With high definition, seamless, real-time video communication we will be able to form new communities both within our faith group and with other faith groups. This will allow us to grow our own communities while also linking silos with others to learn about their religion. In this way, technology will be deployed in ways that contribute to inclusive growth. As technology becomes better and faster, it will become less expensive as well. This will ensure that technology won’t be only for the wealthy or under-educated.

The tech innovation that we are witnessing today and that our children will come to take for granted is being driven by the speed, breadth and complete systems innovation of change. Breakthroughs in science and technology will help solve problems from the unequal treatment of women to climate change to national safety to public health. Technology will continue to drive purpose forward instead of detracting from it.

As technology increasingly becomes second nature in our daily lives, we will seek out new and innovative ways to interact with each other through religion and spirituality. We will find that out religious learning and spirituality seeking will be easier and quicker, more authentic and more intensified. In the Digital Age, we will engage with our faith tradition in virtual ways that will feel just as real as they ever have before. Our relationships to our bricks and mortar religious institutions and to our clergy will only be enhanced by technology.

The gatekeepers of traditional religious expressions will continue to feel threatened by new tech like virtual reality, wireless devices and social networks. Today’s adults will have to adapt to the new technology pathways to religious life, while today’s children will not know from anything different. Religious leaders will have to adapt as their role will continue to change because content is more within reach of their parishioners and congregants.

As we modern co-religionists continue to plug in and engage with technology in order to come closer to God and more involved within our faith communities, we must do so with caution. No, technology will not demolish institutionalized religion — it won’t even hurt or hinder it. However, we must be mindful that technology left unchecked could have negative effects for our society in general and for our spiritual experiences in particular. On the whole, I’m very excited to see how modern tech innovation brings humans closer — to each other and to God. The future is bright and I’m excited for what is still on the horizon.

Originally published on The Huffington Post

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