Since the beginning of time, human beings have sought to escape and transcend the limitations of our embodied existence. The original sin came in response to the promise to “be like God.” Babel was constructed in the effort to “make a name for ourselves.” We do not like limitations. We want to be more, and we vainly believe we can make it happen on our own. We don’t want to submit to the givenness of our conditions, so we opt instead to create our own existence.
The great escape has taken various forms throughout history. The early church contended against an early form of what would later bloom into something historians call “gnosticism.” Adherents of gnosticism sought salvation in secret knowledge. They separated themselves from the pack of common humanity by discovering what they believed to be hidden wisdom from God. Such knowledge catapulted them to elite status. It also allowed them to transcend the filth of physical existence. Having discovered this saving secret knowledge, they were liberated from the pollution of creation. Under gnosticism, knowledge liberates us beyond the limits of physical existence.
Gnosticism as a philosophy of life is not around today, but the impulse to escape the limitations of embodied existence has never gone away and likely never will. We know we were made for so much more, and, absent discovering God’s amazing plan to bring us to that destination in Christ, we will always be cultivating inferior substitutes. Each new generation employs the tools readily at hand to pursue the great escape. The goal of escape and transcendence never changes, but the methods of pursuit change as new technologies develop.
I’ve been reflecting on the human quest to escape limitations and embodiedness as I’ve been preaching through 1 Corinthians over the past several months. However, Samuel D. James’s new book, Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age, has wisely guided me into seeing how digital technology provides the most effective—and most dangerous—tool yet for pursuing this age-old quest.
James argues that our dependence upon digital technologies—things like smartphones, laptops, social media, and basically anything that connects us to the internet—shapes us into less humane people. He’s not talking primarily about content. He argues convincingly that these technologies have an inherent value system that conforms us—the people who stare at them continually—into their image. In digital technology, expressive individualism, the philosophy of life that teaches us to look within ourselves to find happiness, fulfillment, and meaning, has found its “most important, most enchanting, and most effective vehicle.”
In illustrating his point, James makes a connection I’ve never been able to see before. As a historian, I’ve long been baffled by the transgender phenomenon. The preacher reminds us that there’s nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9), but the widespread phenomenon of human beings rejecting their given biological gender seems historically unprecedented.
James argues that “the form of the internet has radically altered how we read, think, feel, and believe” by investing “ultimate authority in our own stories and experiences.” In other words, through participation in digital technology, human beings have learned to escape their embodied limitations and the givenness of life as creatures in God’s world.
The internet and everything that comes with it allows us to be everywhere at once and anyone we want to be. Personal identity is no longer limited by embodiedness. I can now curate my online identity based upon the criteria I choose for myself. James writes, “The internet trains our consciences to think of ourselves and the world in disembodied ways.” It tells a new story that no longer requires bodily existence, a story “that humans are not essentially people with flesh and blood, voices, and facial expression, but ‘users’ whom we can sufficiently know from their words, profile pictures, and shares.”
Once identity exists apart from body, transgenderism makes sense. Why not choose to be a different gender? We already have complete control of our own identities and stories online.
James’s book invaluably points out several ways that digital technology is changing us for the worse and wisely points readers back to truth. His book is realistic. He understands that modern culture is unlikely to turn back to analog, and he doesn’t call his readers to spurn the technologies that are becoming increasingly intertwined with life in this digital age. However, he offers wisdom for those willing to listen. He wants his readers to navigate these technologies with discernment that sees past the surface to what is really happening and to cultivate healthy habits that keep us grounded in truth, goodness, and beauty.
True wisdom is life “fully aligned with ultimate reality.” It doesn’t reject embodiedness; it instead seeks to live within the given limitations God has placed upon us. We can live wisely, even in a digital age. This book will show you how.