High-Tech Christianity

James J. O'Donnell

The earliest surviving documents of Christianity are letters written by Paul, the renegade persecutor, to people living in cities at some distance from where he sat at the time of writing. He had met those people, preached his message to them, and left them in some way altered by what he had said. Now he was managing that message and continuing to exercise his authority from a distance. He was at pains to emphasize that authoritiy was not his, but inhered in the community he represented: not the authority of a single local teacher, but that of a wider group.

These facts will scarcely be unfamiliar to anyone likely to read this essay, but I frame them carefully to make a point. What we have in those letters is primary evidence of the way the very earliest Christianity of which we have direct record used the power of a technology that had been hitherto, in the main, confined to the purposes of businessmen and a small social elite in order to extend the reach and cohesiveness of a community that began with few, if any, palapable advantages. For though we now emphasize the way that Paul's own doctrinal stamp was placed on the belief of those to whom he preached, there is truth to his implicit assertion. The people he had preached to in Galatia and Corinth and Ephesus really were being bound together, through the power of his written words, in a community that retained its cohesiveness even after the itinerant master had left. In the ordinary course of ancient things, one might have expected to return to those places a year or a generation later and found that the seed planted had sprouted in multiply mutant flowerings as the communities came under other influences than Paul's. Paul's letters helped him to resist this fission and to be, virtually, in several places at one time and at several times (as the letters were reread after first receipt). For reasons that will become clear in this essay, I might be tempted to think of this as the earliest known example of continuing pastoral education in a Christian context.

For Christianity, the link between resourceful use of textual technology and the cohesiveness and success of the community remained strong. When Christians fell under the baleful eye of persecuting magistrates and emperors, the texts they produced turned damage to advantage as the image of the martyr was extended beyond a single locality and outrage was roused far beyond the reach of a single magistrate's power. By contrast when, under Christian emperors, non-Christian religious shrines and functions were oppressed, there was no geographically broad common consciousness of wrong done or of community aggrieved around which sentiment might rally. From the late fourth century through the sixth century, as Christianity settled into place as the religion of state, it is particularly striking to observe how astutely not only individual writers (like Augustine or Jerome) but also the community's institutions (like the papacy) took advantage of the written word to shape community and structures of power. I have written elsewhere of the way the papacy, for example, used a variety of textual devices in the late fifth and early sixth century to create an public image for itself and extend its reach. The Liber Pontificalis told the papal story, assorted "forged" documents in at least one papal schism shaped the way participants reacted to current events by imposing a reading of history, and several generations of popes developed the letter-writing and other bureaucratic functions of the papal chancery in ways that quietly usurped power that once could have only been imperial. Gregory the Great (pope from 590-604) managed a papal staff of associates and deputies whose very structure closely resembles that of imperial government, and his extensive collection of surviving letters shows him using the written word at a distance to extend and deepen the power of the bishop of Rome in Gaul, Africa, and the Balkans.

I rehearse history to make some straightforward points. The intelligent use of new technology can privilege the underprivileged, build community, and change history. But equally, it can reinforce power and institutionalize the evanescent. This essay is not the place for macro-speculation about the ways in which the new information technologies will reshape the larger cultural domain in which we live, but that future history should be kept in mind as backdrop. My charge instead is to address the future of information resources in American divinity schools and theological higher education generally. To get to that topic, however, I must make a few preliminary comments on the present landscape.

The transparent centrality of the divinity school to the prestigious American campus that once may have existed has faded considerably. Even in the most entrenched institutions, divinity schools find themselves challenged to justify their existence or at least the extent of their claim on institutional resources. The mainstream divinity school is challenged on the one side by the increasing indifference of much of our culture to matters theological and on the other side by the increasing zealotry and anti-intellectualism of important and evangelically successful sectors of organized Christianity. The distinguished position that our best divinity schools seek to achieve, mixing evangelical and pastoral commitment with high scholarship, is a "low concept" (to use the Hollywood term) strategy that requires particular resourcefulness to sustain.. If such schools do not attend very carefully to what their business is and see how they can adapt themselves to new ways of doing that business, they risk obsolescence.

It might seem to a skeptic that divinity school is a form of inoculation therapy. Three years' exposure to committed teachers followed by a handoff to a longterm caregiver (an ordaining authority perhaps) is enough to establish a lifetime commitment and determine a career. On that reading, appropriate in a world where educational resources and the time to take advantage of them were scarce, you got what you could in a concentrated period of time and were then left on your own. When a clergyman might reasonably expect to find himself for a lifetime regarded by default as one of the best educated people in his community, his educational resources were probably adequate.

But to express such a model is to show immediately its impossibility today. No inoculation of this kind can last a lifetime, and no privilege conferred by education or orders is going to amount to satisfactory protection. It is not merely convention, but wisdom that drives our society to take advantage of the abundant availability of educational resources for a lifetime. Pastoral care in a rapidly changing cultural landscape, against a backdrop of scholarly advances and debate on a broad front, cannot be carried out by theological camels, living off education stored in their humps to last a lifetime. It is not, furthermore, merely a matter of perfecting individual practitioners but also one of helping them continue to find identity and strength in specific communities. The welter of competing ideologies and experiences in our time are enough to drown out the simpler technological devices by which a Paul, or even a Karl Barth, established and maintained a position of authority over a broad community.

I betray something of my own background here when I think as a first-order comparison of the traditional training program of the Society of Jesus. Stretching out in its full form for almost 15 years, it gave its young men an alternating cycle of study and practical experience, bound together with a shaping discipline, determined to turn out theological shock troops. Such a model would hardly find favor anywhere today, and is even much diluted among the Jesuits, but it is a reminder from a world already long past that sustained education and the interpenetration of theory and practice have the best effects.

Most readers of this essay will have a keen ear for that nuanced moment in a preachment when it might seem that the doxology is near but has in fact receded dramatically behind the bulk of a wholly new topic looming when least expected. This essay has come to such a moment. But I have rehearsed past history and present perplexity with a view to grappling more responsibly with specific questions about the future of theological education in our time. I have no responsibility to support the cohesiveness of denominational groupings or any form of orthodoxy, but I write as a benevolent observer asked to look "at electronic systems from a scholar's point of view," to discern "the most important investments in small- to medium-sized schools and libraries. What are short- and long-term advantages to developing electronic connectivity? Are there disadvantages? Do scholars even need local libraries to do this sort of work?"

My simplest suggestion is that we regard electronic connectivity as a tool, not an icon, a means, not an end. Like all tools, it has power for good and evil -- a power indeed inherent not in tools but in their users. The challenge in our time is to get to know the tools well enough to think creatively about their use and then for a moment to forget about them. Real advance comes, I believe, when we return to our old concerns and issues with a refreshed and expanded sense of possibilities. Serious investment may either go in the direction of blue-sky research and experiments on a small scale -- but my sense is that this is not what the Lilly project is about -- or it may look to address the standing interests of a community now informed by an awareness of what new tools can do. There will always be smart people pushing the envelope technologically with one or another pilot project of the sort that requires special hardware or special training or that can only be used by a few people at one time. These are worthy undertakings, but they are not suitable for the kind of institutional commitment Lilly and its partners are talking about.

So what I propose to do now in this essay is to walk through what I conceive, as that benevolent outsider, to be some of the issues facing divinity schools and theological education today and provide a model way of thinking about those issues in light of available tools. I claim here only the expertise of experience, for I have been using tools of this sort to publish an electronic on-line journal for over five years now (I like to boast that I invented the on-line humanities journal, and the boast is quite true if you recognize that unbeknownst to me several other people had already invented it! but I think that Bryn Mawr Classical Review is still only the second oldest such entity in the world) and have been using electronic tools aggressively in my teaching ever since our students at Penn got their universal e-mail access three years ago. I've put together a WWW site that I can recommend to readers of this essay as a place to go to refine your own thinking by having some of the tools described and demonstrated: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/teachdemo. I invite readers to regard my next paragraphs not as preaching (though readers of this essay may recognize that the preacher's style, once assumed, is hard to lay aside completely) but as encouragement to think in the same spirit about ways to achieve the same goals more effectively still through yet more creative application of these tools.

The questions I take as central are these:

I suggest that the first and second questions are really one question. At the University of Pennsylvania, the innovative dean of our dental school, Ray Fonseca, is beginning a program which will culminate in what he calls a "lifetime warranty" for his students, packaging continuing education and re-education along with the original commitment. (And incidentally creating a separate resource he can market: the continuing education as a separate function for students of less farsighted schools.) What would such a lifetime learning plan for theological students entail?

First, it would let the schools more explicitly imagine what happens during the initial period of three years (on the duration of the program see below) as initiation rather than perfection. Inculcation of specific skills, creation of habits of inquiry and discussion, and the patient formation of character are all missions of this period; but they can be done differently if even as you carry them out you can see beyond to the ways in which this activity will continue past schooldays. Think merely of biblical exegesis. Precisely how much bible study is enough? When have you taught the divinity student enough to turn her loose on a congregation? That is a far more nervous-making question if you really do imagine that once the student leaves your door, she will fall under no further educational supervision for a lifetime. That is already a fear not entirely justified, but imagine instead a divinity program that offered a ten-year program of indoctrination to biblical exegesis, beginning with an intense preliminary phase in residence, and then continuing dynamically over time. How many things would you do differently? What kind of tools would you give people to take away with them to participate in this endeavor?

Such a program is eminently realistic with today's technology. It requires no more than a commitment on the part of students to acquire and maintain the basics of Internet technology -- the most vanilla-flavored e-mail would suffice. It would not take much more to imagine some intensive face-to-face time interspersed in such a project over summer retreats or the like, but there could equally be video teleconferencing in small groups (already possible over the network with software such as CU-See-Me, which can handle 8-12 conversants at once and requires only some free software and a cheap [$100] video camera attached to your computer).

Mutatis mutandis, other equally pressing forms of education can be given a specific, time-limited continuing dimension. Take pastoral counseling. What you do in coursework and in practica will cover barely a fraction of what graduates will encounter in their careers. How would you do that job differently if you knew that you could set up a continuing consultation covering three or five years of initial pastoral experience? Imagine yourself as professor of pastoral counseling conducting a kind of electronic "grand rounds" of cases among a group of students who all know each other but have scattered to the four winds. The same technologies can make this possible. Augmented with some limited exchange of videotape, they could become vivid exercises helping students achieve a depth of experience and practice -- still in a professorially-guided context -- far earlier in their careers than would otherwise be possible.

By now it should be clear that the easily taken assumption a few paragraphs back that the appropriate length of time for a divinity school career is two or three years needs review. There must be a history to the way in which our degree programs have acquired their canonical lengths, but it is one we keep veiled from ourselves with a truly religious awe. (And note, of course, that the actual length of such programs has indeed varied sharply as course loads per term reduced and as term lengths themselves were altered. What is interesting is the way the number of years, once established, resists any thought of alteration in theory, even when in practice already we experiment with ways of shortening it -- by giving credit for non-campus work -- and lengthening it -- by encouraging and supporting part-time work.) In fact, time-in-residence is probably on its last legs as the sacred measure of educational comprehensiveness.

But once shattered, the barrier between work done on campus in a limited time and work done beyond reveals a wealth of possibilities. Traditional "distance" and "continuing" education only scratch the surface. Let us take the practicing cleric's perennial headache -- next Sunday's sermon. In many respect, no other moment in the ecclesiastical life reflects the educational and cultural dilemmas of Christianity in our time more clearly. At least three forces encounter each other in the pastor's study with increasing intensity through each week: (1) the need to achieve something of value in the midst of a welter of competing demands on time and attention -- the same people who expect nothing less than stentorian eloquence and mystical vision on Sunday morning will quite cheerfully take away the time needed to achieve those goals on Wednesday evening and Friday morning; (2) a genuine desire to maintain contact with the best exegetical and theological work being done today; (3) the welter of cultural competitors of every sort, down to and including quack practitioners hawking dubious spiritualities between pledge breaks on PBS. In this setting, the serious divinity school has an interest in doing what it can to increase the second force as against the others. Suppose there were an on-line resource for preachers that consisted of a rich collection of resources, organized around the lectionary year, constantly updated, presenting multiple points of view, current debate, and serious baseline scholarly resources. Suppose furthermore, that this were not merely a resource, but an interactive site for discussion and consultation. The serious pastor who found an hour or two a week to consult this resource on her own time would effectively a visitor to a kind of research seminar, with practical application, on a "just-in-time" basis. The commitment of time would be necessary, but the quality of the resource, the ubiquity of its availability, and the interactivity of its intellectual dialogue would all be powerful forces to encourage precisely the behavior that such a pastor wishes to display.

(Let me interject here that what I am describing is a special case of a wider social problem and possibility. For all the resources we invest in higher education, there is strikingly little effective contact between professors and the wider educated public. The quality of our common public discourse may be regarded as high or low according to taste, but it is undeniable, I believe, that the intensity of analysis and respect for precision of evidence and argument that academic life breeds are not what professors succeed in communicating to a broad public. Electronic networked communication will flood the world with its own species of silliness, but it also offers the opportunity to build piece by piece real communities of discourse bridging academic and non-academic life. If I did not think that a good think, I would not have become a professor in the first place.)

At that point it becomes clear that one can begin to cycle back to the question of what faculty do with their time beyond the classroom with a new set of eyes. The traditional model has functioned, as near as I can tell, something like this. Faculty teach; and then they engage in research because it is believed in principle that the creativity of the research scholar informs and enriches the effectiveness of the teacher. The feedback loop for this may be fairly tight (when teaching a research seminar) or quite loose (when taking a sabbatical to write a book). The other benefit of research is far less quantified: published material drifts out into a world of other research scholars, there to be read or neglected as chance and virtue would have it. It drifts in that empyrean well above the head of almost all former students. But if we extend the relationship with specific students diachronically, then a complementarity of the active and contemplative lives becomes more visible. The faculty member's contribution to the dialogic relationship is contemplative and scholarly, enriching the conversation along the dimension of research; the student at the same time is no longer a fragment of society detached from its roots and living in a never-never world of study, but a full partner in the dialogue, whose contribution consists of the enrichment of contemplation through experience. The presumed unequal balance of trade in conventional education (teacher enriches student who repays the debt, if at all, by enriching others) is upset and a new kind of relationship becomes possible. I confess that I am still groping to imagine how the relationships among students of different generations will emerge in this kind of economy, but I am quite sure that they will and that they will provide a third leg to a triangular relationship of great value to all who participate in it.

(This line of thought reveals a curiosity of our traditional social orders. The need to define relationships by co-location means that education, like family life, was virtually forced to institutionalize the liberating moment of "leaving the nest" and attenuating if not breaking ties between nurturers and the young. Some will be less isolated and lonely when these ties remain stronger, but others will feel oppressed. What rituals of passage will emerge then I would not try to predict.)

For now I will leave these imaginations at this point. They could and should be extended in a hundred directions, and I leave it to readers to pursue those lines of thought, perhaps further stimulated by the WWW site to which I gave reference above. My own responsibility here will be discharged if I finally get to the question of resources. If we have these fantasies of a transformed educational future, what do we need to do now (or at least soon) to make them come to pass?

At one level, the requirements are infrastructural and basic. No institution of higher education worthy of the name can afford not to have good electronic network connections virtually ubiquitous in its offices, libraries, and classrooms. Faculty must have good current technology on their desktops, regularly refreshed (3 years is the optimum cycle, 5 years probably a realistic minimum at the moment). Working out access to equipment for students involves tradeoffs to some extent dependent on the nature of the institution and its facilities: wired rooms in residence halls let you de-emphasize public access machines, but a commuter campus needs more of the latter. Transparent support that keeps these machines working but also proactively keeps faculty and students informed about current software and interesting resources must be supplied. Whether and how far this kind of service is provided through the traditional library is an open question in many places, but few would dispute that in the long run the provision of technology, the provision of electronic information, and the care of traditional library collections will need to be very closely coordinated.

How to apportion the distribution of resources between traditional print media and electronic information is of course the $64,000 question, but one to which there is no single answer, and certainly not one whispered in a librarian's ear beforehand by some genial or corrupt producer or wizard. What is needed rather is a culture and a strategy. The culture is one that can be in part created by emphasizing experiments in the kind of distance and continuing pedagogy outlined above, for those experiments will create both e-savvy users and demand for services. The strategy is to situate the library's collections development staff between the two worlds of old and new and make it clear that acquisition of e-resources must be considered not in a separate category but in a way integrated with the acquisition of paper resources. It must not be expected that electronic resources will substitute simply or cheaply for paper ones: costs in the short term will certainly rise.

Take for example the Encyclopedia Britannica. Now available on a license basis as a networked resource, it is far more useful when delivered to every faculty and student desktop than when available in a library building. But paper copies in buildings will still be needed until we have a sufficient number of public access terminals to handle all the demand that walks in the library door. A fortunate divinity library might see some savings if its University supplies EB at no cost to the divinity library and if it can then lengthen the time between buying replacement copies of EB, but that is really an illusory saving. Far more frequently, the library will have to make choices about electronic resources that complement and expand what paper resources can do but don't merely replace them.

This sobering news must be emphasized. The two primary areas of expenditure that new funding could address will certainly be expensive new technology and expensive new resources in electronic form. Are there complementary strategies that can reduce the impact of those costs? Could wise funding in modest amounts now make a difference? Two approaches seem to me to merit attention.

1. Consortial sharing arrangements between divinity schools in single localities are already common. Electronic resources are optimally designed for sharing and it is often possible to make a case to vendors for a better price when a single "purchaser" will aggregate demand for several. Whether such aggregations are best done locally or regionally or nationally will depend on a variety of factors, but one point is of interest: consortia, usually locally-based, have had an ecumenical motive and effect over the last thirty years or so; regionally or nationally based consortia offer an opportunity for reemphasizing cooperation along traditional denominational lines among institutions of similar character. But if such institutions care about their affiliation with each other, they will almost certainly be thinking more carefully about sharing teaching resources at a distance, and so it makes sense to think programmatically about information resources as well.

2. The stickiest issue facing use of electronic information is and will be respect for the rights of intellectual property owners under the terms of the Copyright Act and such license agreements as those owners propose. Recent court decisions emphasize the status of "Fair Use" as a category of protected use of intellectual property for educational purposes without compensation to rights owners. Divinity schools will have issues in common in this area, not least because they will have some specific resources they all wish to access as freely as possible. National or even trans-national action to collaborate with publishers and others who supply information of particular interest to this market could well create some meta-consortial ways of getting access to information widely and either cheaply or freely. And at all events, divinity schools need and deserve to know what their rights and opportunities are. They should also be encouraging their own faculty to consider carefully what and how they publish with a view to assuring that material of the broadest interest is broadly available at prices that the typically underfunded user of these materials (not merely institutions, but also individuals) can afford.

The future of information technology in our institutions holds myriad possibilities beyond what can be described in brief compass and well beyond what any strategic initiative can attempt to embrace. Wisdom consists in identifying a small number of nodal issues and addressing them in useful ways: infrastructure, cooperation, and alert attention to intellectual property issues seem to me to fall in that category.

But the strategic goal is what deserves attention. Perhaps this may best be imagined again if we return to the case of Paul. His many virtues included the vision to see how to use available tools to create a community different in many ways from any he had known; indeed, what we are told of his background would suggest that his vision was quite the last thing you would expect of him. For him, "technology" was not the goal or even (for all we can tell) a particular focus of interest. He built on his traditions, but he learned and learned quickly and put what he knew to fresh use. He was not always the easiest colleague but paradoxically just his most fractious moments turned into opportunities for community-building. To feel your way into such a man's mind and then use that sense to look at a situation in which you find yourself can be a vital learning experience. And in this moment, as I have tried to argue, Paul is a particularly apposite role model.

This essay was commissioned by Lilly Endowment Inc. and Auburn Theological Seminary.