Holy Technology, Sacred Innovation

Posted on November 12, 2008 by

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shrine1As missionaries in Japan, we would visit a local Shinto shrine for the New Year’s celebration. One year, while enjoying the traditional beauty of the sacred site, my companion and I got to contrasting the atmosphere of the shrines with that of our own temples.

Both are pleasant to the eye and to the heart. (I’ve decided that if I ever return to Japan as not-a-missionary, I will spend much time discovering and visiting shrines, as they are among the most peaceful, beautiful, and natural places I’ve ever seen.) However, one major difference between the two is their attitude toward integrating technology.

612012933_688e714910Mormon temples are built like any other modern building. They have electricity, air conditioning, and elevators. Technology is even integrated in several ways with the work performed in the temple. The shrines, on the other hand, derive part of their power from their traditional simplicity. They are built of stone and wood, appearing almost like a natural part of their environment. Technology doesn’t seem particularly out of place in our temples, but I don’t think a shrine could install an escalator alongside its long, winding stone steps without somehow diminishing the experience. (I’m sure that, as soon as I post this, someone will inform me that many shrines actually have escalators, elevators, and air conditioning. Even if that’s the case, those aren’t the shrines I visited, so for now I’ll continue in blissful ignorance.)

That said, it’s always initially jarring to find a new technological innovation in a sacred place. I was reminded of this when I visited the temple last month. I was sitting in the chapel as a woman, presumably the organist, walked toward the organ. I enjoy listening to the hymns while I reflect and pray, so I looked forward to hearing her play. I was surprised when, instead of sitting down, she just pressed a button on the organ and then turned and left the room. The organ started playing the hymns on its own, like a player piano.

This got me thinking about the role of technology in religion. There are two kinds of technologies: the kind that automates and the kind that facilitates. The organ example above is the automative kind — it allows a machine to replace a person. Perhaps the first automative technology in the church was the transcription of the scriptures. What used to require a person (direct conversation with a prophet to discern God’s will) could suddenly be achieved alone, with a book (or scroll or tablet or whatever form of literature transmission your culture uses.)

untitledIt’s a trade off. Automative technology allows a religion to disseminate its beliefs more efficiently, to a wider audience in a shorter amount of time. Ideally, we could each have full access to the prophet all the time (actually, ideally we could have full access to God all the time, so in a sense, the prophet is a kind of automative technology himself). This is what you see in guru-based traditions, where enlightenment is attained through direct training under a spiritually advanced guide. That is well and good for esoteric and individualistic religious systems, but in a socially oriented, Zion-building society it’s not practical. There are just too many people involved for them all to have direct access to the prophet.

However, these automative technologies are implemented at the expense of human relationships and flexibility. They create standardized systems (like the missionary discussions or the organizational hierarchy of the church — both of which are forms of automative technology), but lose the personal idiosyncracies that we associate (for better or for worse) with sincerity and authenticity.

Part of the drawback of automative technology is addressed through facilitative technology. These are innovations that, instead of replacing people, enhance people. The examples of facilitative technology that come immediately to mind for me are communication and transportation technologies. They expand the reach and influence of of an individual dynamically (as opposed to statically, like the words printed in the scriptures or the Ensign).

The ultimate example of facilitative technology is the internet. It connects me personally to the both fellow saints and to church leaders. Going back a hundred years or so, you had the invention of the microphone. This was the precursor to the internet, in that it allowed church leaders to dynamically address larger groups of people than would be possible otherwise. And, of course, radio, television, and satellite broadcasting all happened in between.

So, to tie it all back to the Shinto shrines, a religion with a global vision will need to use technology in order to connect with a significant number of people. We trade a sense of intimacy for a sense of community. And, in so doing, we become part of something that is larger than ourself and smaller than God — the fellowship of Zion. It’s not ideal, but it’s good, and I’m glad to be a part of it.

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Posted in: Church, Musings