Spiritual Life in the Technological Age

By Archbishop Demetrios

This Article was first given as a lecture at a conference of Orthodox College Students in 1969 and Published in “Concern” Magazine (Volume iv, Number 3). Our thanks and appreciation to the Orthodox Christian Fellowship for granting us permission to republish it here.

My thoughts are simply footnotes to the main theme. Let me say that I cannot think of the mission as of something which can be fabricated  in the dark office of some theologian or church official. Mission is something which emerges from reality. I had this feeling during the lectures of the other speakers. I felt that here is a description of the mission out of life. My own attempt then is going to follow the same pattern.

Now, looking at the reality before us we can see immediately two basic things. One, that here is a youth, an Orthodox youth. Two, that this youth lives in a precise place, these United States. On these two factors then one can examine the mission which could be understood as a three-fold task. Let me get immediately to the first one.

We can describe the mission of the Orthodox youth of this country as the development of the spiritual life not in abstract, not in the desert, not in the 19th century, but a spiritual life in this technological age and era of ours. It becomes more and more obvious that technology assumes an increasingly dominating role in our life. The impact of this phenomenon on spiritual life is so clear. And there is an absolute necessity to create and lead a spiritual life strong enough to co-exist with and be integrated in a technologically oriented society.

Spiritual Life in the Technological Age

Sooner or later technology is going to dominate the whole earth. Here we can see a mission for you because you are living in an advanced, technologically-speaking, country. You are the avant-garde and you can’t ignore this fact. Here in America technology is progressing at a galloping rate. The people of Europe and of other areas are looking at your an expecting from you the fashioning of a spiritual life for this precises situation. Then, when the situation is similar in other geographical areas the people will have something to work with.

The people of this country (i.e. the Orthodox People) have a wonderful tradition, a centuries-old tradition, which is the result of the struggles of your fellow Orthodox in other parts of the world. Now it is, in turn, the duty of the Orthodox People of this country, especially the youth, to return the favor by paving the way for a spirituality for the age of technology. There are some masterfully written books on the spirituality of the desert, on the spirituality of the middle ages, etc. Now it is your duty and mission to create literature on the spirituality of a technological time and era, because you live in the center of such an amazing development.

Let me cite a few examples in order to illustrate exactly what I mean by the phrase “developing a spirituality for a technological era.”

1. It is common knowledge that we live under a continuous “invasion”. Picture and sound invade incessantly our mind and soul. Our senses are constantly attacked by impressions whose intensity sometimes goes far beyond our possibilities. This increased impact of visual and acoustic impressions is a result of technological advancement. TV, movies, advertising signs, traffic signs, the increased number of pictures and images due to our rapid means of transportation, radio, music in almost all the places you go, the noise of cars and airplanes, the mechanical noise of our home appliances such as heaters, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, elevators, laundry machines, all these raid ruthlessly our souls. The impressions are not static by dynamic, they suggest movement and excitement (take the noise of a racing car). Therefore, they not only whip the senses, they also capture the attention and sometimes cause a profound hypnotizing effect on the human soul. This last point has been presented in a brilliant way by Eugene O’Neill in his play “Dynamo.”

The situation could very well be described as “picture and sound pollution,” a phenomenon con-commitant to technological progress. Under these circumstances, what exactly does happen to basic notions and forms of Orthodox spiritual life such as the silence of the senses, the concentration of the mind, etc.? How to concentrate and pray when you mind is swarming with thousands of strong, vivid, moving impressions? The answers to these questions must be provided by the Orthodox youth of America, and they must come primarily as a result of experience.

2. We are saturated not only with impressions, but also and this is characteristic of our technological age, with ideas and ideologies. One could call the phenomenon “an inflation of ideas.”  Through the communication media various ideologies travel all over the place, they enter everywhere, at any time, easily and mostly uncensored. The diffusion of ideas and the spreading of ideologies are clearly growing out of proportion, and at the same time they are getting more and more systematic and computerized. Even the fine arts are expressing to an astonishing degree strong ideological preoccupations and biases, and through the facilities of an advanced technology are able to domineer the life of millions of human beings.

Take for instance one of the “less ideological” arts, painting, and you will see the verification of the previous remarks. Look at the paintings of three significant modern American painters such as J. Pollock, A. Gorky, N. deKooning. If you look at the paintings of Pollock, immediately you get the impression that here the human being has lost the center, has lost a central idea around which to build his world. Human existence is completely fragmented. Here is the ideology of human decomposition in full bloom. Or you go to Gorky who through his paintings gives the feeling of emptiness. Look at his paintings for artistic beauty and you end up with the idea of emptiness. DeKooning’s human faces on the other hand, particularly the mouth, are expressive of the idea of the impossibility of communication between people. Through the paintings the ideology is at work. And these artists are not the exception.

DeKooning's "Woman VI"

The ideological inundation raises a serious problem for the spiritual life. How to withstand the charm of the non-Christian ideas which circulate everywhere? How to keep your mind clear from the various idols and false-gods? How to remain faithful to the true God and worship Him in spirit and truth (John 4:24) when your mind is besieged day and night by stunning streams of ideas? Here again is your mission: to provide viable positive solutions.

3. My third example pertains to this basic notion, to this fundamental feeling of the presence of God, which is one of the very essential things in spiritual life. If you go to the Bible you read many texts speaking about God being revealed in nature. You remember the passage from Romans 1:20, “Ever since the creation of the world, his [i.e. God’s] invisible nature, his external power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” Or psalm 103 which begins with the phrase “Bless the Lord O My Soul,” and then goes on to praise the Lord for the whole creation that reveals His glory and mercy. This is fine with people dwelling in some countryside or it is fine with us during these days of the conference. But this is not the regular situation.

In a technological society, where you have the phenomenon of megalopolis, you gaze at the sky and you think of air pollution. You look at the rivers and your realize they are no longer an inspiration for poets or musicians because they are simply dirty waters. You look at the woods and you come to the sad conclusion that they are gradually and steadily diminishing and being cut into pieces. Besides, how much of nature can a captive of megalopolis like New York enjoy? For millions of people nature is vanishing as a source for discovering or sensing the presence of God. This, of course, is one of the reasons for the modern feeling of the absence of God.

Nature is vanishing....

Technology — together with other factors — is responsible for the creation of the gigantic urban centers, where contact with nature is a totally different thing from what it was in the countryside. The people, however, have the same need for God, the want to feel His presence. There arises a necessity to discover God, to contemplate His power and glory and wisdom within the environment of the modern city.  Spirituality in a technological age must deal with the problem of how to feel the presence of God in a big, urban complex. There must be ways to magnify the Lord when you walk downtown Manhattan under the shadow of the skyscrapers, when you pass through an industrial area or ride a subway.

The above examples, chosen at random, underline quite clearly the necessity of creating a spiritual life — basically in terms of concentrating, praying, and communicating with God — in a technologically organized society. There is the first basic component of your mission.

Next to this I would suggest that your mission involves learning to live the Orthodox faith in a religiously pluralistic society. This is an absolute imperative. If you go to countries which are predominantly Orthodox, like Greece, Russia, Bulgaria — there you don’t have the problem of religious pluralism. The same happens with countries like France and England where the Orthodox are not only a minority but also in the margin. They are not integrated into the life of the country. Things, however, are different with America. Here the Orthodox people are an integral part of the American society, they are substantial elements of this society which is religiously pluralistic.

In the years to come, because of technology we are going to live more and more within a situation where we are constantly in touch with all sorts of religious forms and experiences. But in this country we are already. Here there are strong forms of religious life besides Orthodoxy. Protestantism in its various denominations, Catholicism, the non-institutional churches are strong, well organized, and you have to cope with them. Here is a challenge.

"In the years to come, because of technology we are going to live more and more within a situation where we are constantly in touch with all sorts of religious forms and experiences."

You young people who are in college together with Methodists, Catholics, Adventists, how do you differ from them? Is it a matter of difference in style of life, doctrine, tradition, roots in the past? How legitimate and how valuable are the points of difference and how must we insist in preserving this or that point? Here is the challenge to gain self-identity as Orthodox and the opportunity to describe Orthodoxy in terms understood by non-Orthodox people.

Learning to live our Orthodox faith in religiously pluralistic society means an awareness of our self-identity, a consciousness of the Orthodox truth. But then how to reconcile such an attitude and state of mind with the necessity for loving, understanding, and accepting people as they are? To solve a problem of such magnitude is a hard task. Nonetheless, the problem must be resolved for all Orthodox people.

Some people claim that they love truth, the truth of faith to be more specific, and they cant sacrifice truth for the sake of love. They create some sort of polarization between truth and love, and they choose truth. At the same time they develop a kind of hostility towards men of other faiths and not seldom end up hating them. As a clergyman told me a few month ago, “I don’t care for people, I care for truth!”

Some men jump to the other extreme: they pick up love and forsake truth. “After all Christianity is love,” they say. But if you lose your sensitivity for the truth revealed by God, how can you preserve a deep, genuine love? If your acceptance of the other people as they are means a deliberate ignorance of what they believe, then how real and complete is your care for them?

There is another category of people who advocate a third solution: indifference. “You don’t care if the care of your neighbor is a Cadillac or a Ford. You don’t mind if the house of your colleague is Colonial or Tudor. Likewise, you remain totally indifferent to this or that denomination.”

The above three attitudes –truth over love, love over and against truth, indifference– should be overcome by the only honest and courageous solution: to be conscious of your Orthodox faith and at the same time to be able to love and accept the non-Orthodox people. To preserve truth and live it with love. This is the second component of your mission as Orthodox youth. And this is your mission because the situation here and now calls for an immediate response to this problem, which is not the case with the population of the  predominately Orthodox countries. With the help of God the Almighty you might be able to establish a pattern of correct attitudes in such a complicated issue. Perhaps the Lord wanted you to be a generation of pioneers who will live genuinely and completely their Orthodox faith in a religiously pluralistic society in which they totally integrated.

The third main component of your mission is to create a genuinely Orthodox and at the same time truly contemporary language and frame of reference in order to cope with current problems. This, of course, is a duty of all modern Christians. I felt this need when I was working with students at the University of Athens. But here, this is a daily kind of thing for all of you. We don’t have ready-made solutions on the basis of our past. We have out tradition to give us much light, but we don’t have adequately developed terminology, simply because the problems are new.

Take for instance the problem of self-identity which is a critical issue in contemporary life and thought. Someone might perhaps say: “Well, the problem of identity was a very old phenomenon back in the Hellenistic era.” Of course, you can find analogies but I think the degree of the phenomenon and the specific form of the problem of identity is clearly ours. Consequently, we have to develop a language in order to deal with this problem from an Orthodox point of view. What is our answer? What is the correct way of formulating the problem?

What about the problem of human freedom? Freedom here and now is something different that back in the first or second century or during the Turkish occupation of Greece. It is something appalling to discover that we are slaves, moaning under the ruthless rule of a computerized economy or of a brain-washing advertising industry.