If we are to use modern technology as much as we do, then we need to use it to engage with the world. CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey

Time for us to stop screening calls from God

  • August 10, 2023

A few years ago — let’s say 20 — I watched as the police handled a disturbance. An elderly gentleman was standing in the middle of the sidewalk talking animatedly to an invisible friend. It seemed to be a delightful conversation, and the man actually excused himself to his imaginary friend when the authorities intervened.

This weekend I passed by no fewer than three individuals having similar conversations. Then, as I walked down the grocery aisle, I was overtaken by a young woman laughing uproariously at the witticisms of an invisible comic. Were it not for the conspicuous earpieces that each of these more recent individuals were wearing, I wonder if we would have similarly called the cops.

When the Pokémon Go phenomenon hit not so long ago, I was working with students to map out the route for volunteers organizing the Coldest Night of the Year event. Our task was to install signage for the participants to follow as community members fasted and camped outside in solidarity with the city’s most marginalized.

What we didn’t expect was a phalanx of youngsters moving sightlessly across the waterfront park, eyes glued to their phones, mowing down anyone and anything in their path. The landscape on that sundrenched afternoon was exquisite, but I am 100-per-cent certain that none of them saw it. They were fixated on their screens. “I got Snorlax!” someone shouted as they knocked one of my students from the path.

Technology has transformed our existence, for better and worse. But what use is it to have the world at your fingertips if you do not use it to engage with the world? How can we forge true connections if the only links we have with others is virtual? I know. I feel old even writing this. And yet it remains true that on a recent excursion through Italy, I asked a group of youngsters what they saw. They pointed to their screens.

Where once we celebrated the opportunity to experience the real world and decried an inability to be somewhere in the flesh, increasingly the mediated experience has become the norm. Our phones, our computers, our laptops — stand between us and the real thing. Instead of lamenting this fact, the world has embraced it. One might well wonder how this impacts our faith life. Might we argue that prayer is an invisible lifeline that connects us directly to the experience of God? That unlike our cellular devices, our telephone to Jesus, to quote the popular song title, is direct and unmediated. Although, to be fair, the song does say, “operator, give me Jesus, on the line.” So perhaps we do need an aid of some sort to connect us.

Pope Francis, for his part, cleverly turned the paradigm around. In his March 2017 Angelus he dared to ask, “What would happen were we to treat the Bible as we treat our mobile phone? Were we to always carry it with us… to open it several times a day; were we to read God’s messages contained in the Bible as we read telephone messages, what would happen?”

The answer, I would like to think, is we would be more grounded. Instead of having our faith life quarantined to specific times — Mass on Sundays for example — it would infuse our daily living. The gap between best intentions and action would be narrowed because our guidebook would always be at hand.

Of course, Pope Francis, unlike me, does not fear technology. Indeed, he is arguably the most media-savvy Pope in history. He may even have suggested social media is a gift of God if used appropriately. However, he understands its limits. As he puts it, “It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal.”

For Pope Francis the answer is obvious: “If we had God’s Word always in our heart, no temptation could separate us from God, and no obstacle could divert us from the path of good; we would know how to defeat the daily temptations of the evil that is within us and outside us; we would be more capable of living a life renewed according to the Spirit, welcoming and loving our brothers and sisters, especially the weakest and neediest, and also our enemies.”

Hard to disagree with that. Let’s answer the call.

(Turcotte is President and Vice-Chancellor at St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi College, University of British Columbia.)

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