Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Being Human (body & spirit): Borgmann and Watts

I've attended a variety of different churches in my time (Presbyterian, Australian Baptists, Sydney Anglican style, and more recently Mennonite from the non-Amish end of the spectrum obviously). One feature binds all these together in a strange kind of way. The physical body - emotions, food, place etc doesn't get much of a look in. We discuss Christian belief in a rather abstract often kind of boring way. We say that we should be patient etc, but the sermon rarely covers the ground of what do you do when your world is falling apart or even if you suffer from conditions that make it hard to keep a level keel on life. Some people just physiologically find some things easier than others - this doesn't make them more faithful.

We don't want to admit it but our physical beings shapes applied theology and our theology shapes what we think of our physical selves. To give one quick example by way of introduction. Moving to Canada, I can not help but notice thanksgiving once a year - a time when seemingly the whole community celebrates what it has (not what it doesn't). Another example, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank where farmers on the prairies supply grains to give as aid overseas.  That comes from a theology of grace but we should not overlook it also comes from fertile soils and mild climates that produce solid crops yields year after year. Place, theology and the working lives of farmers coming together. Now, the Australian situation is a little different, poor soils, unpredictable rain and a legitimate fight for survival. There farmers show, patience, long suffering often and faithfulness waiting for the crop. Two different places two difference responses to grace.

So I am interested but poorly educated theologically to think about Christian faith and technology because technology interacts with our bodies and our identity. We spend so much time in Church on theological points divorced from everyday life that we end up with a tangled mess in our heads confusing God with the economy or our physical situation.

It is easy then to take for granted points that appear self evident but are really more messy than they appear. Take for example the key points of many who argue against, or fear, the emergence of cyberspace. Typically what is argued is that as physical beings we go virtual at the peril of loosing some integral nature of our created beings - we become less than the full image of God. It sounds like a legitimate concern but is this true theologically?

So back in 2011, yes a long time ago, Albert Borgmann gave the Laing Lectures at Regent College. Borgmann gave 3 lectures with Craig Gay and Rikk Watts, both Profs at Regent presenting responses to each lecture. I want to highlight the responses of Rikk Watts, not only because they were tantalising glimpses into new ideas but because I think any attention and ink spilt (virtual or on parchment - here here) on the lectures attended mostly to the arguments of Borgmann and he has already written several books voicing his opinions. So why now? Quite simply I didn't feel ready to take on this topic before now. It is time but I do so with trepidation.

To cast Borgmann's arguments crudely and straightforwardly, I'll pinch some elegant summaries from elsewhere. Rikk I will take in his own words either from the Audio available through the Regent bookstore or from Rikk's own notes which he kindly emailed me. Of course I take responsibility for any interpretation and thoughts, although Rikk if you ever come by this and what to comment, feel free!

During these three lectures, Borgmann was most concerned with determining the ontological quandaries that face us in an ever de-materializing technological existence and in light of that elevating the mystery of our material lives. Translation: we all spend more and more time in cyberspace, our lives are becoming virtual, and we’re missing the grace that abounds around us. This has disastrous consequences for how we understand ourselves as humans and greatly restricts our ability to live fully and freely. Tim Boland and Ryan Munn Printed in Et Cetera October 25 2011.

So much of what Borgmann hammered on for three lectures was the body physical. As one example, being present, truly present (body and mind) at meals with others rather than being distracted by cyberspace.

Rikk Watts in his 2011 Borgmann response suggested something interesting and different that I have been thinking about ever since. However, I don't pretend to understand everything Rikk said in his 'lectures' but I hope to surface here a point that I've not come across before. Here is a snippet from the beginning of his first response taken from the text version.
Consider, for example, Professor Borgmann’s concern with the “distance-less” nature of cyberspace. Yes, “distance-less-ness” seems inherently opposed to the three dimensionality of physical presence which is inherent in image language. But central to image is also the language of spirit—and isn’t there a sense in which Spirit is also “distance-less”? That is, might it be better to see the two as complementary elements of our humanity? Part of what makes me human is my ability to collapse distances, first, and perhaps foremost, with my mind. Might cyberspace be seen in this respect as also reflecting and perhaps extending, as does much technology even if more sharply, our image-bearing nature? At the same time, to the extent that cyberspace can make present—albeit in refracted image—those who are bodily absent, might it be seen more positively as an agent of at least partial incarnation? Of course cyberspace can be an escape, a means of hiding in the garden. But these potentials are present in book or telephone, and we’ve had to learn to develop best practice. Cyberspace we are told is
different, even radically so. And in important respects perhaps it is—though how radically, I’m not yet certain. But since in terms of “present partial-image” and “distance-less spirit” it apparently reflects and therefore shares our ontology I would caution against a too quick reaction. We have learned best practices before, is there any reason we cannot do so now? Perhaps, then, one of the fundamental ways forward is to consider to what extent cyberspace affirms or hinders our (plural) “embodying God’s character upon the earth”? In this respect, and so in spite of the sometimes near apocalyptic rhetoric, I do not find cyberspace’s collapsing of distances and of contexts necessarily troubling. Not only is the vast majority of my life still lived in a spatial world, so too are the means by which I engage “cyberspace”: I still have to touch, type, swipe, hold, look, listen, speak to, and so on, and one always does so in a particular temporal and spatial location. I myself collapse distances and contexts all the time, precisely because I myself am a transcendent being with a psychosomatic unity that remains “me” across various contexts.

The taped version reveals something a little tweak that nuances the above text in an important way.
There are elements of earlier technologies like books that will do that too, enable us to hear voices from distant ages from different parts of the world etc.
This helps make sense of Rikk's latter notes [again lecture response 1] where he says (and the tape is reasonably similar):
Thus I find the previously mentioned distance-lessness equally in my pocket Greek New Testament—whose origins lie in the first century, with the problem of the absent author going back thousands of years before that—as I do in my Accordance version on my iPhone. Anytime, any place, I can begin a private “conversation” with a faceless Mark—and that regardless of WiFi coverage. But in neither case am I necessarily tempted to commodify the gospel. I’m not convinced that knowledge, in principle, becomes foggy in moving from brains to computers—fogginess of mind is hardly a 20th century innovation. On the contrary, if I attend to the particulars, I’ve learned a great deal as I’ve joined the astonishing number of people who have downloaded and listened to or read serious academic materials from or on the web. If the Encyclopedia Britannica and National Geographic can bring the entire world into clear and colourful focus with the mere flip of a page, why not on the web with a switch? And all the while, the same real world of trees, gardens, and blue skies continues to exist outside my open window.
Now Rikk made all necessary comments on agreement with Borgmann and the cautions we need to acknowledge that technology can be taken too far for a given person, but that is normal temptation. However, the comments above hint that we have the capability of coping with distance-less-ness as part of our image bearing. This is a profound thought.

As I ponder this it seems to me that what Rikk is saying is that with the power of our rational minds and imaginations we have the power to comprehend otherness. Without both faculties reading Mark would mean nothing to us - we could neither put ourselves back into a 1st century world to understand the context nor connect it to our daily lives. Those who suffer from severe Autism give us insight into image bearing when it goes wrong. They cannot understand emotions, they cannot imagine themselves into a story and because they cannot imagine they cannot create. So with cyberspace, by which Borgmann I think means the attending to the reading of material on the web, dealing with emails or skyping he is worried that we will attend less to being physically present, but we can do both as as Rikk points out we have done both. Story telling around campfires on the African savannah surely involves a virtually a cyberspace of the imagination.

It leads to a number of thoughts.

1. Technologies must tap into realities of being human. So for example, truly alien technologies would be impossible for us to invent or use because they would link to personhoodness that are intrinsic to the alien species. Thus, cyberspace works for us humans because it links to some reality of what it is to be human.

2. More importantly, Rikk is pointing to two deeper issues, I think, that he doesn't draw out fully. First, when we read, we somehow manage to travel in space and time. more impressive, I think than a telephone call. We have an innate ability to mostly comprehend what another human is trying to convey through dead words on a page. An impressive achievement. Second, this points back to the earlier technology of language. Language is in a sense virtual - it is a wonder that I can speak words that travel through the air and another can hear them and interpret them, often with a high degree of accurateness. Somehow we have minds that can tune into the minds of another human. Language as a technology works because we humans have an identity that somehow transcends the sound waves themselves. If we are going to talk of cyberspace and virtualness we need to grapple with the created identity that allows us to know another human - not completely for now but know well enough.

Indeed, humanness seems to be even stronger than the technology of language. Just the other day I came across the following in a book by Tim Flannery that prints excerpts from the journals of early Australia explorers (aptly called The Explorers). I think it captures this spirit, transcendent identity of humans.

There is a certain moment in Australian exploration which has always transfixed me. It is the instant when white looks on black and black on white, for the first time. Neither knows it, but such meetings bridge an enormous temporal gulf, for they unite people who became separated at least 50,000 years ago. That's 40,000 years longer than people have been in the America's or Ireland, 20,000 years before Neanderthals finally surrendered Europe to my ancestors, and 25,000 years before the worst of the last ice age turned most of Australia into a howling desert, a vast dunefield. No other cultures, meeting on the frontier, have been separated by such an unimaginable chasm of time. The thing that fascinates me about such meetings is just how clearly both sides managed to make themselves understood. A smile, anger or fear are immediately comprehended - as if the separation of millennia never existed. That understanding is a tribute to the great commonality of experience that shaped humanity on the African savannah for a million years before the diaspora of the late Pleistocene brought people to Australia. It speaks to me of a common humanity that makes differences in colour, race and culture almost invisible in their triviality. That magic second of reunion between black and white in Australian exploration has resolved itself in as many different ways as there are explorers. ... p5-6
So this strikes me as simultaneously as being in agreement with Borgmann and Rikk. These meetings were deep engagements made possible by physical presence. Smell, sounds, sight, touch even taste were all important to these meanings, the meeting of minds may not have been possible in quite the same way without physical presence, but there is something else going on. There is a virtualness going on here as well; the meeting of minds points to the unity of humanity, its single identity. It strikes that me that there is something amazing here, we can too easily speak of what it is to be human and created in the image of God. But our humanity is a deep mystery.