Much of what has been written in recent years about the intersection of theology and information and communications technology has focused on how best to use the Internet and social media to spread the Gospel. And in the context of the New Evangelization, we talk about evangelizing the culture, a far more difficult and ambitious task. If we are to succeed at either of these endeavors, then we have to know and understand today’s digital culture. This is harder than it would, at first, seem, largely because we miss the wood for the trees.
Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ’s Cybertheology: Thinking Christianity in the Era of the Internet enables us to step back, take a deeper look, and reexamine our assumptions. It is a slim, timely book that raises more questions than it answers, one that manages to steer a middle course between enthusiastic appreciation of the Web’s capabilities on the one hand, and sharp criticism of its deficiencies on the other. This delicate balancing act is no easy feat, neither is it wholly successful, but it does allow for a welcome moderation. Perhaps Fr. Spadaro realizes how much of a personal stake millennials have in this absolutely vital conversation.
Before examining his arguments, it might be worthwhile saying something about who Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ is. A professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and editor of the Jesuit weekly La Civiltà Cattolica, Fr. Spadaro was little known outside Italy until the election of Pope Francis. In 2013, the Italian interviewed his fellow Jesuit, who famously remarked “I am a sinner.” It remains one of the most important interviews of Pope Francis, the one that effectively introduced him to the rest of the world. Considering these Jesuits’ rapport, it is quite possible that Pope Francis has read Cybertheology; it’s not difficult to see how the book might have influenced his thinking about the New Evangelization and shaped his interactions with young people.
Cybertheology, as Fr. Spadaro defines it, is “the intelligence of the faith in the era of the Internet, that is, reflection on the thinkability of the faith in the light of the Web’s logic.” For example, how do we think of the Church in this new context? Is it like a social network that links Christians together, or a search engine that enables us to find the answers to life’s questions? Is tradition, in the sense of handing on the faith, like peer-to-peer file sharing networks? And is the Internet’s gift culture, especially Clay Shirky’s notion of cognitive surplus, like grace?
And what about the meaning of words? Saving, converting, sharing, and reading have quite specific meanings when used in relation to digital files; they mean something rather different when applied to Christian faith. Do these various meanings interact with one other? If so, how? The meanings of words, of course, are by no means fixed, no matter how hard we try to pin them down.
Many of the writers whose work informs Cybertheology will be familiar to English-speaking readers. In addition to Clay Shirky, there is Marshall McLuhan, Sherry Turkle (best-selling author of Alone Together) and Eric Raymond. The latter’s influential essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” was one of the first ruminations on open source software. Raymond likens the transparent, distributed model of open source software to the bazaar, in contrast to the vertical, hierarchically-oriented cathedral. Naturally, this is not a very attractive comparison for Catholics, and Fr. Spadaro is rightly concerned to safeguard authority and tradition. He is perhaps too critical, however, of attempts to align theological methodology with open source software development, so-called “open source theology,” for open source communities are not anti-authoritarian. The Linux operating system, which is the quintessential example of open source software, was carefully managed by its originator, Linus Torvalds, even though he relied on a community of coders. And tradition was also operative, since there was always the threat of “forking.” This occurs when one or more software developers takes the source code and develops it in a different direction, leading to a kind of schism, as often happened with Unix. Eric Raymond considers it a “bad thing” and notes that that there is “serious social pressure against forking.” Sadly, Christians, including Catholics, are far too prone to forking. And this is one of the paradoxes at the heart of the Internet: the more we become connected to one another, the weaker those connections become.
There is much to think about and to wrestle with in Cybertheology, not least the book’s final chapter on collective intelligence drawing. Drawing on the thought of yet another Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Fr. Antonio Spadaro connects cyberspace with the noosphere and the cosmic Christ. It is all rather speculative, but breathtaking in the possibilities and new horizons it opens up. A wide-ranging exploration, Cybertheology traverses the realms of social theory and theology with insight and intelligence.
Barnaby Hughes is a Catholic Periodical and Literature Index Metadata Analyst at the American Theological Library Association.