iPhones and other forms of technology function as alternative liturgy, James K.A. Smith suggests. They are “covert incubators of the imagination, because they play the strings of our aesthetic hearts.” But instead of stretching our imaginations to encompass an irresistible view of God’s kingdom, the habituated bodily practices of such technologies “implicitly treat the world as available to me and at my disposal, to be selected, scaled, scanned, tapped, and enjoyed,” Smith writes.
Smith’s claims raise important questions for us. If we, like Smith, believe that “the way to the heart is through the body,” then it matters for our spiritual well-being what rituals we are practicing with our bodies. What does it do to our spiritual imaginations to be regularly hunched over gadgets that presume to place to world at our fingertips? Does walking around with earphones blocking most outside sounds in any way affect our ability to listen for God’s voice in the world? How does something like masturbation, which presumes that we can somehow meet our own physical desires, condition our hearts to respond to other unmet longings?
I’m not sure how to answer these questions. I think it’s crucial to ask them, though, because the habituated postures of our bodies affect the postures of our souls. This goes for all kinds of body habits, including how we handle technology, how we eat, and how we live out our sexuality.
I don’t think we will be able to escape using technology, but at least we can be aware of the psycho-spiritual effects that our iPads, laptops, and Kindles have on us when we cuddle with them in bed and when we touch their screens so intuitively. We can also intentionally immerse ourselves in liturgies that do call us out of ourselves and into God’s kingdom.
One of the most powerful liturgies in which I regularly participate is a monthly Taizè gathering. After a few meditative songs, children are invited to go forward and light their candles, which they then use to pass on light to the rest of us. I love how this simple act of receiving light from the tender hand of a child sends a message to our souls about what it looks like to enter the Kingdom of God.
During the Alleluia chorus, we raise our candles high, proclaiming with our arms and eyes and hearts and voices the truth that God’s light overcomes all our darkness. Later, we kneel and plant our individual candles at the foot of the cross up front in an embodied act of surrender. During the Lord’s Prayer at the end of the service, we join hands with our neighbors and form long rows of the people of God connected in body and spirit.
Our lives are filled with liturgies, whether the intentional liturgies of worship services or the unintentional liturgies of technology. How are these liturgies training our bodies? How are they shaping our souls?
For a powerful meditation on the spiritual effects of technology, check out Derek Webb’s latest album, CTRL.