Spirituality and Technology: How Can New Ways of Communicating and Learning Support Our Ancient Practices of Prayer?

A few months ago I wrote about smartphone apps that are designed to support a daily prayer practice. Most of the people who gave me feedback on the post expressed how much they appreciated apps like the ones I wrote about, since they found that in today’s busy world, having words for prayer available on their phone simply made sense.

But, predictably, one person came along and made a disparaging comment — quoting a conservative Catholic cardinal — that using a smartphone to pray, instead of a traditional paper-and-ink prayer book, in effect “desacralized” the prayer. I thought this was nonsense, and I said as much.

But perhaps it’s a question worth considering. When it comes to technology — from our portable electronic devices, to such newfangled tools as social media groups and streaming videos — can we truly say whether it helps, or actually hinders, our spiritual lives?

Probably the most reasonable answer is, “it depends.”

Technology and Prayer

Technology, after all, didn’t just originate with the first computer. Books and candles are just as much forms of “technology” as e-readers and LED lights. Technology is simply a tool — and like any tool, it can be used wisely or poorly. Naturally, it’s important to acknowledge how some forms of technology are more powerful or more morally ambiguous than other forms.

Consider the difference between solar power and nuclear power. Reliance on nuclear power requires a strong security infrastructure which in turn depends on a significant government presence to provide that security; solar power, on the other hand, poses very little threat as a terrorist target; therefore solar energy could more easily be implemented in a society with a limited government.

Fortunately, the technologies that impact our spiritual lives are not as controversial or potentially dangerous as nuclear power! But even communications technology can have a real impact in peoples’ lives. Many historians see a meaningful connection between Gutenberg’s movable type printing press (ca. 1450) and the Protestant reformations that began less than 70 years later. Less happily, others have suggested that the development of mass communications (specifically, radio) in the early twentieth century helped to make Hitler’s rise to power possible.

So: when we pray, or when we gather for worship, or when we study scripture or theology, how does the use of the latest forms of technology impact the way we respond to God’s call in our lives? Does technology support our quest for God, or does it introduce new problems into the mix? A blogpost like this cannot even begin to address that question — other than to say, this is a question for our time, and hopefully all Christians who care about meaningful ways to live our discipleship while engaged with today’s world will prayerfully discern how technology can help us grow in grace — or introduce new challenges into our spiritual lives.

My Experience with Online Learning

Over the past few years, I have taught three online courses for the Center for Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian seminary based near where I love. I have a fourth class scheduled for this fall, on the topic of journaling as a spiritual practice. I confess that when I was first approached about teaching an online course — even for the spirituality program — I was skeptical. Communal conversation, shared prayer, and face-to-face interaction with both peers and course leaders are essential elements for a meaningful theological educational experience, even in the highly poetic and subjective world of spirituality. How can this translate to an online learning experience, where students are separated not only by many miles, but even by different time zones?

What I learned, partially through the mentorship of Dean Israel Galindo and partially through my own experience, is that online learning is truly an entirely new and different educational experience.

And like anything else in life that’s “different” from something else, difference can be measured in both positive and negative ways. Forgive me for repeating myself, but technology is a tool, and all tools have their uses and their limitations. Everyone knows you don’t use a screwdriver to pound in a nail — or a hammer to install screws. Technology’s place in education — or in spirituality — likewise needs to be evaluated by its own strengths, and not by comparison with other tools for learning or communication.

Spiritual journaling is a particularly good topic for online learning. Each student is asked to keep his or her own daily journal, seeing that practice as a way of praying — in other words, as an integral part of their daily spiritual walk. The course itself functions as a forum where the students, in conversation with me and most especially with each other, reflect on the experience of spiritual journaling, encourage and support each other, and explore some larger themes such as the role of creativity, self-expression, and discipline in the spiritual life. These are rich, deep questions, that are well-served when students have the leisure to prayerfully reflect on their meaning over time.

Online courses for Columbia Seminary’s Spirituality program typically last four weeks or more, in contrast to its “face to face” spirituality offerings that take place over a four-day period. Therefore, the online course gives us all the time to meaningfully experience a daily practice like journaling, and the freedom to contemplate and ponder the questions that we all reflect on together — as a community, even if one divided by miles and time zones.

Online learning will never replace the classroom, just as flashy new technologies (like ebooks) will never fully replace tried-and-true “classic technologies” (with a paper and ink book, you never have to worry about the battery running out). We may not have all the answers about which types of technologies best support our spiritual lives — but if we approach all forms of technology in a spirit of prayer and trust in God, we can discern together which tools best equip us for discipleship and mission.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.