A new digital reality

Illustration by PÂTé

Having forced theological schools to move to different models of learning, the coronavirus pandemic is now giving schools the opportunity to consider how to best reach students in new ways. The In Trust Center’s Matt Hufman spoke with Mary Hess, Ph.D., professor of educational leadership at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota and author of Engaging Technology in Theological Eduation: All That We Can’t Leave Behind, about what schools should consider. This is an edited version of their conversation. You can read more about spiritual formation, things faculty can do online, and insights for board members on the In Trust Center blog.


Are there lessons learned from the pandemic?

I don’t know that we are in a place where we can pull lessons out yet because I think that the world is shifting dramatically. At the time the internet really started in the early 1990s we had a lot of hope and optimism about the ways in which it would decentralize communication, connect us globally, and make it possible for people with not a lot of structural power to be able to transform things. We had a lot of big dreams, and I think many of those dreams have come true in some ways. As Christian theologians, perhaps we were not as aware as we should have been of how sinfulness pervades humanity. So put humans in the midst of digital tech and you get things like this world where people live in different realities.


How would you explain the different realities?

For example, where for some of us what happened on Jan. 6, 2021, was a hugely problematic insurrection in the temple of democracy, for others it was like, “Oh, it’s just a bunch of guys.” The difference in the perception of those two events has a lot to do with how the Internet shapes our meaning-making. The Internet is funded to a large extent by how it captures our attention. And the little mechanisms, the algorithms and the things that live behind what we see, are constantly paying attention to how long you are logged into a particular site. It’s a lot easier to keep people’s attention through fear, outrage, and anger. What I see happening is it’s building up these alternate spaces and these different kinds of realities. And that is a huge problem. The question of what theological education needs to look like and what communities of faith are going to be doing has as much to do with what I would call context collapse as it has to do with just the digital tech.


The technology can make some things possible, but you have to be intentional about it.


Would you talk a little bit about context collapse?

As theological educators, context is something we’ve spent a lot of time really trying to help everybody think about. Now context is collapsing. Consider Zoom. The kinds of cues and nonverbal language that we would have if we were sitting in the same space are gone. We are spending energy and time figuring out if we can be in a conversation, so we are creating a space and a context. When churches had to go away from physical gatherings, figuring out how to help pastoral leaders help their congregations through it was important. So now what happens when the pandemic ends? Are they going to stop being online? Probably not. They’re probably going to keep doing some of that. Now the question is what are we going to keep from this time, and what are we going to let go as we re-gather in person? I’m certain there will be many answers.


What does that mean for online classes?

I love the way digital tech makes it possible for me to bring into the classroom different voices and different experiences. I love the way it helps my students. I can take them anywhere. Several of my classes ordinarily would meet in person for an intensive week and visit local leaders, but didn’t because of the pandemic. At least with Zoom, they can still have some of those conversations. One of my classes is about learning in the presence of other faiths, and my class went to a synagogue service one Friday evening on Zoom. The technology can make some things possible, but you have to be intentional about it.

Years ago, a board member asked me, “What do you want in the smart classrooms?” I’m the digital tech person, and I said, “I want comfortable chairs that can move easily, and natural light.” So this board member was puzzled, but this is the thing: How do we listen to each other? How do we convene spaces? My favorite definition of “to teach” is Parker Palmer’s earliest version, which goes this way: to teach is to create a space in which obedience to truth can be practiced. Now, how you do that in digital media might look different from how you do it in a physical classroom, but the goal is the same for both. You want to privilege the relationships. You want to privilege the creating of spaces that allow those kinds of practices to emerge.


What do you mean by privilege the relationships?

You want to do your best to support spaces that afford good relationships. One of the things that I think the pandemic has done across different disciplines, not just in schools, is it has caused a lot of us middle-class folk to ask what our priorities are. What really matters to us? If you ask us that question, a lot of us will say that it matters that we be with family, that we have health, and that we can be in touch with people we love. Those are also things that are true in churches. So how do we help pastoral leaders learn to help that happen? Boards can be asking good questions about that. What are the enduring questions that you want your school to be focused on?

You can find more of the conversation, including some of Dr. Hess' ideas about making the digital space more accessible, here. 


A new digital reality

Illustration by Amrita Marino


“Actually, our entire theological tradition is expressed in terms of mercy, which can be a messy business. Indeed, like the Good Samaritan stopping for wounded Adam, attending to someone in need is no simple affair. It means entering into the entire ‘problem’ or ‘chaos’ of that person’s particular situation. In fact, that’s how I would define mercy: the willingness to enter into the chaos of others.”

— Rev. James F. Keenan,
S.J., Boston College, Vice Provost for Global Engagement, Canisius Professor of Theology, Director of the Jesuit Institute

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