Posted February 18, 2003
Profound spiritual thoughts for those of us who utilize electronic communications
Spring 1983, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 4-7.
Spirituality and Electronic Communications:
Introduction to the Theme
(Bishop DuMaine, first bishop of San Jose in California, chairs the U.S. bishops' committee on communications and is a member of the board of directors of the Catholic Telecommunications Network of America.)
THE theme of this issue, "Spirituality and Electronic Communications," may strike many as a contradiction in terms. Spirituality, after all, directs us "inward" toward personal union with God, whereas electronic media turn us "outward," engaging us with "the world," diffusing our energies, and exposing us to manipulation by forces at best incompatible with, and at worst hostile to, our inward orientation to God.
The antagonism is, of course, more apparent than real, as we may see if we ponder the nature, rather than the technology, of communication.
A fruitful insight into the inward dimension of communication comes from an essay aptly titled "Apostolic Contemplation: Inwardness for the Outgoing":
The charism for now is communication leading to communion and made visible in community. The movement begins from within and reaches out . . . . When lived with constancy it forms community; the outward movement circles back to its sources within, holding the many in one, making one of many .... The Church now calls for this outgoing on the part of those whose deepest life is lived within.(1)
We might add that the church also calls for "inwardness" on the part of those whose apostolic commitment is lived in a dense and devouring communications environment. Furthermore, these inward and outward movements become mutually enriching for the Christian only in an ecclesial context, as Avery Dulles has noted:
The more I think about the matter, the more convinced I become that communications is a part of what the church is all about. The church exists in order to bring people into communion with God and, thereby, to open them up to communication with each other. If communications is seen as the procedure by which communion is achieved and maintained, we may also say that the church is communications. It is a vast communications network, designed to bring people out of their isolation and estrangement, and to bring them individually and corporately into communion with God in Christ.(2)
The link which both writers see among communications, communion, and community is obviously more than verbal. It transcends both the process and the technology of communications and reveals communication as an exchange between persons.
In this personal and ecclesial perspective, the Christian sees spirituality and communications as not only compatible but as essential to each other, and necessary for the wholesome growth of individuals and communities. It is a specific application of an axiom of the spiritual life expressed by Dietrich Bonhoffer: "Let one who cannot be alone beware of community. Let one who is not in community beware of being alone."(3)
Does this nice theory of communication as "personal communion leading to community' break down when the exchange is not direct but is electronically and impersonally transmitted? Or when it is not directed to someone known, but to an undifferentiated mass of dispersed and unknown people? Or when the communication is predominantly or exclusively "one way," without dialogue? Under these and similar conditions the theory might break down, but it need not. I am confident that the contributors to this issue, most of whom I know personally, will address these issues of spirituality and technology in ways that will support my own conviction that we can and must lay hold of the electronic media to implement a Christian vision of communion and community, in accord with basic principles of spirituality and ethics.(4)
The Christian "vision" and "principles" I have in mind again stem from verbal clues to deeper meanings. If "word" and "image" are the "media" by which people are joined through electronic communications, then the Christian communicator will seek to know and model the "Word" made flesh, the perfect "Image" of the Father, the perfect "Mediator" between God and the creatures made in his image.
This inward search for the Christ who is the model and motive for our outward movement to others is not theoretical and abstract, but concrete and incarnational, as the pope's own commission on communications has made clear:
In his life on earth, Christ revealed himself as the perfect communicator . . . . He utterly identified himself with those who were to receive his communication and he gave his message not only in words but in the whole manner of his life. He spoke from within, that is to say, from out of the press of his people . . . . He adjusted to his people's way of talking and to their patterns of thought. And he spoke out of the predicament of their time.(5)
Thus the spirituality of the communicator is not only an inward identification with Christ but an outward identification with the people to be drawn into communion with him. A "spirituality" or a "communication" that fails to be both will be revealed as hollow, self-serving, and ineffectual. Any attempt to speak a word or project an image which is not authentically oneself, or which reveals a self that is not authentically Christian, will betray our fundamental mission.
Thus the deepest link between "spirituality" and "electronic communications." Our most successful efforts to use modern media will only magnify our true image and amplify our true voice. Whether we originate or receive the messages of modern communications, we must be prepared to be tested in our basic Christian convictions and commitments, more than in our mastery of techniques and technology.
I hope that the perspectives outlined in this issue will help us all pursue anew that inward search for the one who alone will enable us to reach out and "bring people out of their isolation and estrangement, and to bring them individually and corporately into communion with God in Christ."
Sister Margaret Williams "Apostolic Contemplation: Inwardness for the Outgoing," Supplement to THE WAY, 7 (June 1969): 97.
"The Church is Communications," The Catholic Mind 69 (October 1971): 7.
Life Together (New York: Harper-Row, 1976), p. 77.
Since spirituality and ethics are essentially complementary in our apostolate, readers of this issue will be interested in reading also Bernard Hääring, "The Ethics of Communication," Free and Faithful in Christ, vol. 2 (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), pp. 153-99.
Pontifical Commission on Social Communications, Communio et Progressio, no. 11, in Austin Flannery, ed., Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents (Northport, N.Y.: Costello Publishing Company, 1981), p. 297.