Despite our best intentions, the default practices of digital life can deform our souls.
No one with a good car needs to be justified,” declares Hazel Motes, the protagonist of Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood. If O’Connor were writing today, perhaps she’d have one of her characters proclaim, “No one with a good smartphone needs to be virtuous.”
Such blanket statements about a particular technology may seem unfounded. After all, you can use your car to drive to church or you can use it, as Motes does, to run over a rival preacher. You can use a smartphone to read the Bible, or you can use it to watch porn. The tool itself is neutral, right?
Wrong, argues Samuel James in his perceptive and pastoral book, Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age. The internet and the default practices it encourages can damage our souls despite our best intentions. Online, we reside at the center of a world designed to cater to our every wish.
Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate the dangers of this position is by reference to C. S. Lewis’s observation in The Abolition of Man that “there is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.”
The online ecosystem provides an incredible suite of tools to subdue reality—in apparently magical fashion—to our appetites and preferences. To the extent that, as James argues, the digital “cut[s] us off” from reality, it makes wisdom and virtue appear obsolete. …