God and the cloud

Posted Oct 17, 2011 | New Media Project

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By Kathryn Reklis


When Steve Jobs died last week there was an outpouring of grief, celebration, even ritualistic memorializing on blogs, Facebook accounts, and Twitter feeds around the world. Every major magazine that aspires to cover culture or news printed his face on the earliest cover they could manage. It is hard to think of another living human who would inspire such immediate and comprehensive coverage in death.

In all the online tributes, there were several discussions of the religious or theological significance of Jobs’s work and the tech revolution he inspired. The one I found most fascinating was a blog by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a theologian from Chicago Theological Seminary. Writing in the Washington Post column OnFaith, Thistlethwaite argues that Jobs grasped two central theological truths: the finitude of human beings and the degree to which we are driven by desire to know more than our finitude allows. Evocatively, she suggests that the symbol for Apple itself is an allusion to the archetypal story of the human desire for knowledge: the apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the one in the garden of Eden that Eve and Adam are commanded not to eat. In a provocative and playful way, Apple, Inc., suggests that their products extend human knowledge to the level usually reserved for God.

Around the same time Thistlethwaite posted her blog, the New Media Research Fellows who regularly post to this blog were meeting in New York. We didn’t talk very much about Jobs, but we did talk a lot about the theological implications of the technological and communications revolution he helped create. With the help of Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, we dug into central theological topics like Christology, theological anthropology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and the doctrine of God—asking how our understanding of each is transformed, or not, by these revolutions. At some point in our discussion on images for God, Serene suggested that the placeholder of the “omni” had been filled with the Internet. That the “omni” words we classically ascribed to God—omniscience and omnipresence at least and maybe omnipotence to some degree too—are now being used to describe the cloud. For the first time in human history, something exists that is made by humans and is humanly accessible that comes close to achieving what was previously reserved for God alone: the ability to know everything at once, to be anywhere at once.

Jason Byassee pointed out that, of course, this isn’t real omniscience or omnipresence—even the Internet cannot record what it was to be at the beginning of all things. On the other hand, most of these classical assumptions about God’s nature were ascribed to God by means of negative reasoning. We start with what we know to be true about humans—we change, we die, we are limited by our bodies to a particular time and place—and we reason backwards that the most perfect, ultimate being will not be these things but will in fact be the opposite of these things. But as many feminist and process theologians have argued for decades, this kind of reasoning assumes that God cannot be like the parts of us we assume to be wrong, weak, or limited. It is only if change is assumed to be a problem that changelessness is a perfection one imagines God must have. It is only if finitude is a limitation that God must be infinite.

The “omni-ness” in the Internet might be changing these assumptions. The cloud exists because of the connections between millions of people, the knowledge they generate, and the presence they exude. We don’t have to reject our finitude to participate in this kind of infinity. It is precisely from our embodied locations in time and space that we access the cloud to connect to people and ideas far away from us in both time and space. Having already tasted from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, maybe this is just one more bite out of the Apple.

Kathryn Reklis, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is the Executive Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D candidate in religious studies, concentrating in theology, at Yale University.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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