Cancel

We are always walking into the unknown. While this fact is often obscured by the regular rhythms of everyday life, it sometimes becomes disconcertingly plain to us that we do not know what tomorrow will bring. It is clear that we are now living through such a time, as nations struggle to manage the pandemic that has swept across the globe in the last few weeks.

Suddenly, we live in what feels like interrupted time. Our regular schedules are scrambled beyond recognition. We struggle to find new rhythms as our old ones are disrupted. Time itself seems to warp unpredictably. Our present crisis, however, also gives us an opportunity to reconsider our old habits and practices, or what we used to call “normal.” Perhaps many of us will recognize that we could have done a better job ordering our days and structuring our time. Most of us are sure to take some lesson from the unprecedented and prolonged disruption of everyday life, and it will be good for us to have done so.

We might especially take the opportunity to rethink our relationship to digital media. Over the past few years, there’s been mounting concern about the place of digital technology in our lives. Thanks to mobile devices and nearly ubiquitous access to wireless networks, the internet has gone from being a place we occasionally visited on our desktop computers to an ever-present reality weaving its way through almost every conceivable dimension of human experience. As digital media has enveloped our lives, it has raised a host of moral, legal, philosophical, and even theological questions regarding the nature of privacy, the health of civil society, the value of human labor, the status of artificially intelligent machines, and the conditions for human flourishing.

Under intense and justified pressure to remain physically distant from one another, most of us are now turning to digital tools in order to remain connected and to carry on with as much of the business of everyday life as possible. We would do well under these circumstances to think carefully about what these tools can and cannot do for us and how we might use them wisely and creatively during a time of uncertainty and anxiety.

In the coming weeks and months, there will be a heated debate about the deployment of the digital surveillance apparatus—much of it already in place in our apps and devices—to track, monitor, and contain the spread of COVID-19. While that will be a critical debate worthy of our attention, I will focus on the more prosaic uses of digital technology in our time of crisis. Specifically, most of us will turn to digital technology, even more than usual, in order to stay informed and to stay connected.

During a health crisis, it is crucial that we have access to the best information possible so that we can care for ourselves, our families, and our communities. By one measure, digital technology presents us with an embarrassment of riches in this regard. With minimal effort, we can keep up with the work of leading epidemiologists, virologists, and public health experts all over the globe. We can also follow national and international health organizations and local health and emergency management officials. But we know, too, that we can just as easily encounter misinformation, some of it potentially dangerous to both the health of our bodies and the health of society. As I write these words, health officials are warning of the dangers of experimenting with unproven drugs and therapies that some are now turning to in panicked desperation. It doesn’t take very much work, either, to encounter unfounded theories about the origins of the virus or to encounter, more likely, others who are downplaying its deadly consequences.

The need to wisely navigate this information landscape is nothing new. Digital communication tools have always presented users with the risk of encountering misleading and even dangerous information. A pandemic only heightens the need for discernment. But the digital media environment presents us with other risks as well. Even if we were careful to limit ourselves to sound and responsible sources of information, we might still end up with a disordered relationship to information technology.

Many of us may now find ourselves obsessively checking our news feeds for the latest available information, perhaps unable to turn away in the same way that we talk about not being able to turn away from a train wreck. Social media in particular has been designed to induce just such a state of compulsive engagement even in ordinary times. The danger is now more acute as we all try to find our way without a reliable map. But our desire to stay as well informed as possible may also paralyze or emotionally overwhelm us.

Our hope is not to be severed permanently from our bodies but to partake of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

We should also be very clear about what information can and cannot do for us. We certainly need good information to know how we might mitigate the spread of the virus. We need to know what our local governments are requiring of their citizens. We need to know how we might continue to serve our communities. Good sources of information address these needs. More and better information, however, will not necessarily ease our anxiety or bring us peace. Perhaps we’ve not put it quite this way to ourselves, but, if we are honest, many of us may be seeking information in the hopes of assuaging our fears or gaining control over a frighteningly uncertain future. But this is to ask of information what it cannot give. If we catch ourselves in these moments, we should set our devices aside and take a moment to pray through our fear and anxiety.

It may be wise to set aside a particular time each day to check in on the latest developments, or to cultivate the discipline of walking away from our information feeds when it becomes necessary. We may do well, for example, to quickly check some reliable sources at some point during the morning and then get on with our day. Unless I am a health professional or emergency planner, it will not help me to know the precise number of coronavirus patients in each state throughout the day. Unless I am a legislator or policy expert, my day probably should not be consumed by news about partisan wrangling over potential solutions. In an age of information abundance, we need the virtue of knowing when we have enough information to act on. As counterintuitive as it may seem, there does come a point when too much information becomes an impediment to action.

Along with turning to our digital tools for information, many of us are now turning to our screens to stay connected with friends and families. Indeed, many churches are now holding their services virtually in order to help mitigate the spread of the virus. We should not belittle the value of such tools at this time. We are social creatures, and companionship and community are essential to our well-being. Some have noted that the now-familiar phrase social distancing might better be termed a physical distancing. What we need is to remain physically apart. But if we are to do so successfully for any period of time, we will also need to remain socially present to one another.

Most of us are by now well-practiced at the skill of remaining digitally connected. Texting, social media, and apps such as FaceTime have become an ordinary feature of our lives, and we are now using them more than ever. Videoconferencing tools have proven especially valuable in these early days of relative isolation. These tools, imperfect as they may be, nonetheless grant us the opportunity to interact with one another in real time and to take solace from a smile and the sound of a beloved voice. We do well to afford ourselves such comforts.

But here, too, there is an opportunity for clarification and recalibration. Forced to rely on digital means of companionship for an extended period of time, we might also come to a better appreciation of embodied presence. Humans flourish when the needs of the whole person—both physical and spiritual—are accounted for and met. We are embodied creatures. Our embodied status, along with the rest of God’s creation, was declared good in the beginning. Our hope is not to be severed permanently from our bodies but to partake of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Likewise, in our present condition, our bodies are an essential part of our humanity, and we will rightly find ourselves longing for the physical presence of our dear friends and loved ones. While we will delight in hearing the preached Word through our screens, we will rightly long for the day when we can be surrounded by the voices of our brothers and sisters singing God’s praises, when we can extend the hand of fellowship to one another, when we can hold the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper again and taste these divinely appointed means of God’s grace.

We might also rediscover the difference between loneliness and solitude, the former so destructive of human well-being and the latter so essential to it. For too long, we have sought to remain superficially connected with one another while allowing no time for solitude. It would be no small thing if, through this distressing time, we rediscovered the limits of digital communication technologies and put them in their proper place.

Editor’s Note: This post was first published on March 31, 2020.

What Advice Do You Have For Ministry...

What Is a Good Work?