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Back to The(ological) Future: Questions for a Digital Age

20 Feb 2018

Associate Research Fellow Tim Howles draws together the themes and questions from a recent theology workshop hosted by the William Temple Foundation.

On Monday 19 February a seminar took place in Oxford entitled Theological Futures: Digital and Ecological. It brought together a number of theorists and practitioners with interests in these themes. The seminar was organised by the Foundation’s Associate Research Fellow John Reader.

The first thing to say is that the mere existence of such a gathering was a sight to behold. Participants had come from far and wide: their commitment to attend, with the expense of time and effort that entailed, is a testimony to the passion and concern that is invested in these themes. The seminar was expertly curated by Ian Ball (from Pathways Inspirational Development) in such a way that (A) participants were given space to represent to each other where and how we might already have some expertise on the themes under discussion; (B) participants were brought into dialogue with each other, with the aim of formulating a number of research questions that could be developed at future meetings, and in academic and popular-level publications. These shared conversations were given additional impetus by presentations on the work of continental philosophers Bruno Latour (given by Tim Howles) and Bernard Stiegler (given by John Reader), both of whom offer innovative approaches to the themes under discussion.

Some of the questions that arose from the seminar included the following:

  • What is the nature of the “hope” that will be required for human beings to navigate the challenges posed to us by the contemporary ecological crisis? How likely is it that human beings will be motivated to change their deeply-embedded habits and patterns of material consumption under the brutal (and rather depersonalising) threat: “unless you do this now, then…” Is there a social imaginary powerful enough to incite a different configuration of human existence to the one currently being lived? Can this alternative future be one that is positively and collectively embraced, rather than reluctantly conceded?
  • What is the role and function of technology in constructing this alternative future? After all, some powerful lobbyists currently active in American politics are busy advocating what they call a “good Anthropocene” strategy, which argues that the key to addressing the contemporary ecological crisis is more human use of technology, not less, and in particular the development of large-scale geo-engineering projects. Is it really possible that humans can technologize themselves out of a crisis that their own hubris has created in the first place? Is this not somewhat akin to how a religious believer might appeal to his God to remove a sin or addiction in his life, without really wanting to wrestle with the spiritual situation that brought it about in the first place, and that likely will bring it back again in the future? What, if any, role might religion have in nurturing or generating the conditions for the radical conversion therapy that will be necessary?
  • How might “hard” forms of Artificial Intelligence and the attempt to develop technologies invested with a “strong” or even a sentient consciousness represent a threat to our shared human future? What about biotechnology? Where and how does technology transgress its instrumental functionality and become a vehicle of “values” beyond those humans themselves have chosen? Is technology best understood as a “pharmakon” in the Derridean sense, representing a potential remedy and a potential poison for the shared future we envisage? Or are some forms of technology better understood in Heideggerian sense as over-determining human agency and perhaps even as shifting the very nature of human subjectivity itself? Are we facilitating the conditions by which meaningful human agency might find itself quietly ushered off the stage?
  • To what degree is the contemporary ecological crisis, and the sense of “inertia” we often feel when faced by its gigantic form and severe demands, a function of the encroachment of negotium, or the business of work, on otium (to use Stiegler’s terminology)? That is to say, how have activities pertaining to commerce, business and subsistence intruded upon the space of personal education, artistic creation, intellectual work and spiritual contemplation, all of which might be understood as pre-requisites for a responsible human society? How might the younger generation be turning to religion, and some of its “cultural liturgies” (to use the phrase of James K. A. Smith), as a means of recovering the recuperative power of otium that has been denied to them by modern (and highly technologized) human existence?

This is just a flavour of some of the research questions that were raised. Participants will try to answer these questions, singularly and collectively, by means of a number of different channels and media, including a forthcoming Temple Tract.

The seminar was supported financially by the William Temple Foundation and by Pathways Inspirational Development, with thanks for their generosity.

More blogs on religion and public life…

Theology and Technology: Finding God in Cyberspace
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Physician Heal Thyself: Time for a Corporate Lent?
Eve Poole

Carillion – A Watershed Moment in the Neo-liberal debate?
Chris Baker

From Sustainable Churches to Sustainable Neighbourhoods
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