Hunger for Wholeness: Technology Troubles and Satisfying Hungers with Barbara Brown Taylor (Part 2)
In the second part of this two part interview, Ilia continues her conversation with author and priest Barbara Brown Taylor. The two discuss the humanitarian challenges facing the world and church today, particularly those posed by technology and its allure of power and transcendance. In light of this, Barbara and Ilia predict the future of the institutional church, and what the religious communities of the future may look like.
ABOUT BARBARA BROWN TAYLOR
Barbara Brown Taylor is a best-selling author, teacher, and Episcopal priest. Her first memoir, Leaving Church, won an Author of the Year award from the Georgia Writers Association in 2006. Her next three books earned places on the New York Times bestseller list. Taylor has served on the faculties of Piedmont College, Emory University, Mercer University, Columbia Seminary, Oblate School of Theology, and the Certificate in Theological Studies program at Arrendale State Prison for Women in Alto, Georgia. Her latest book, Always a Guest, was released in October 2020 from Westminster John Knox Press.
“Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”
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Robert: Welcome to Hunger for Wholeness, a podcast from the Center for Christogenesis. I'm your host Robert Nicastro. In the second part of our conversation with Barbara Brown Taylor, Ilia and our guest discuss the humanitarian challenges presented by technology and the allure of transcendence and power.
Ilia: Where do you see us in this rather rapid development of artificial intelligence? Is this another form of darkness, or do you think it will take us into a greater light?
Barbara: Oh, you couldn't ask a less qualified person that question, I'm going to flip it on you in a minute, but I try not to pretend like I know things I don't know. And I certainly don't know that, though I'm very glad I got out of the classroom before students had this tool, and it's a tool that's not going to go away. So one reason I'm glad I'm not in the classroom is I'd need to redesign all my syllabi to work with it instead of against it. You know, to think of it to use students turning toward it in a way that could still—I just would have to rethink the whole way I did teaching in light of it. Though I don't know enough, I am, I will say, alarmed by how many leaders in the field are expressing reservations. It reminds me so much of the invention of nuclear power.
And as one of these AI guys said, you know, if I hadn't invented, I think this was Jeffrey Hinton maybe, who just left Google to talk about the dangers of technology he helped create. But he said, if I hadn't invented it, or if we hadn't, somebody else would've. But gosh, I mean, it's a growing list of people at least saying, slow down. Don't monetize this so fast. So I listened to them, I listen to people who do know and try to educate myself on what they're concerned about. And it's a big unknown, isn't it? Big unknown. The cat's out of the box. There's no putting it back in.
Ilia: Oh, for sure. For sure. And we created it, you know, it's not that it dropped down from Mars or something; we created it. And that's what I think is really interesting is that we created it and we keep creating it even more now in such a way that we're merging with technology. It's becoming smaller and smaller. It's not just invasive. It's really interspersed with all aspects of our life. And I see that will become increasingly so in the future. And it's funny because we have a hard time thinking about technology. You know, nature is more easily graspable in some ways, insofar as we experience nature. You know, we can touch a tree and pick up dirt, but artificial intelligence, you can't pick up an “it” or a bit, you can't quite touch it in the same way. And yet we have this incredible realm of virtual reality where there's infinite possibilities before us.
One way I like to think of artificial intelligence is like the collective unconscious is now at our complete disposal and we have all these possibilities and we have nothing to guide us in choosing the possibilities. Like, what do we want to be when we grow up and become techno-sapiens? You know, what do we anticipate as we merge with our technologies and maybe become humanoids of some sort? And that just seems so inhuman to us, and we're like, I like being human. I don't want to be anything other than human. And I would say, well, guess what? You haven't always been human and you won't always be human. And we have to rethink, what does it mean to be part of a dynamic creation? Even the feels around where you live and where I live—I'm in Washington, DC not so many fields, but they're dynamic.
Nature is a very, you know, and I hate to overkill that word dynamic, but it's a process of energized life. There's something going on here that more than meets the eye. And so, I guess in some ways I'm not so pessimistic about technology. I think it's fascinating, but I also think we have to kind of look beneath it. What's taking shape here? You know, what's going on? What keeps driving it? Do you have any thoughts in that direction? Or is it just...?
Barbara: Oh, yeah. I have so many. I hope I can line them up to make some sense.
Ilia: Oh, good.
Barbara: The first thing is when I go way back to when even the constant presence of a screen was becoming the way things were, and an audience member really woke me up to how social media technology was liminal space for her. And especially given where she lived, you talk about it being a manifestation of the collective unconscious. And for her, it was also access to people, to community, to discourse. She couldn't find where she lived. So she was the first person to name that technological space as a liminal space, so she really changed my mind. Because I live where I live, though, I'm also aware that the nature, the tree you talk about, doesn't require an AC/DC supply or a battery pack. And the technology that so many of us have become dependent on is very dependent on a power grid and on that power grid, staying lively.
It also points out people where I live in a county with a pretty high poverty rate of how reliance on technology quickly marginalizes the old and the poor who are not able to keep up. I live in a place where kids pulled into the Chick-fil-a parking lot to finish their homework when they couldn't get their computers to work. We live in a low broadband area, so I think all those things at once. And I worry about the collective unconscious as danger bias, that psychologists tell us we're way more likely to be attentive to what frightens us or might hurt us. And so, how does that bend the collective unconscious? You know, I wish we had an equally strong positive bias, but that's why beauty is important to me, and technology has a part to play in the creation and sharing of beauty.
Ilia: And I think you're absolutely right. I mean, in terms of the way technology can divide even more, the rich and the poor, insofar who has access to the technology and who could afford it type thing. And yet, there's something—I remember years ago, not that many years ago, about, oh, that nine years ago I was in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and I was in a part of the city that had no running water. And I was really struck that while there was no running water, a lot of people had a cell phone, and they were all on their cell phones looking at everything from Amazon, Bolivia, to the gap to whatever the latest musical icon was. And there's something about technology that speaks to the transcendent dimension of our being, there's something that pulls us beyond ourselves.
So I think even the poor, I mean, they may not be able to afford technology, but when there's access there, it's alluring, there's something. There's dreams, there's the possibilities of otherness, of moreness. And that's what's interesting. It does have something like the platonic ideal around it. You know, we're in this cave and there's something beyond, you know, it's like the sun is shining in this virtual world, and my whole desire is to release myself from the chains of where I am to get to where that is and so on. On one hand, there's something that will not go away, because we are, I think transcendence is our deepest nature. As much, and this is why I think technology and ecology, why they ideally should be working together. Technology just has us in its lore; it's so captivating for us. Whereas ecology is like, yeah, it's nice. It's like, we go work in the dirt and look at the tree, beautiful. It's beautiful. So technology is like, wow, and ecology is like, oh, that's beautiful. You know, it's nice. And there's something there because ecology has the imminence. It's the presence of a power that pulls us inward, but technology pulls us beyond-ward to this moreness. Have you thought in those directions?
Barbara: Oh, I love your idea of the otherness. I've seen the same thing now that you mentioned your experience in Bolivia, of being in places of the world without much beauty, without many resources, and yet the cell phone is first of all, the only connection out of there for a lot of people. So, the first metaphor I was playing with was escape hatch. But the more you talked about it, it's a periscope, it's like a periscope to the wider world in a life giving trans—you used the word—transcending way. I love the idea that that is what I rely on these devices for, is to show me more than my local newspaper and more than my local news. It is a huge human responsibility though, to manage our inventions.
Ilia: Yes, yes. Well said. I agree. Huge human responsibility. And I don't think we have really accepted that responsibility. Certainly not collectively. We have no real ethics even for corporate development of technology. I'd like to see, like Google and Microsoft have teams of philosophers, theologians, ethicists, as well as computer software people.
Robert: So what should the church do in the face of the humanitarian issues presented by technology and its various forms and power? Next, Ilia and Barbara question the future of the institutional church and whether religious community and spiritual life can satisfy our hunger for wholeness.
Ilia: I think religion is actually a natural phenomenon. I think it's part and parcel of our whole development, our whole evolutionary development. And I personally am alarmed by some of the divisive issues today in the churches and what people are actually, not just arguing, but an out and out conflict over. I think religion could play a much more vital role in this development with artificial intelligence and human becoming. But I find it, I find certainly from a Christian perspective, I don't know about the other religions, but I mean, arguing over issues of racism, gender, inclusivity, the LGBTQ community, gay marriage, all these things, and we have such an unhealthy, narrow kind of theology that kind of lands us in this inwardness, this kind of inward opposition when in fact, religion could be vital. I think religion could be the vitalizing energy that can help us deepen and shape our lives. What are your thoughts there on religion, technology, and futuring?
Barbara: Oh, I can talk about religion until the sun goes down. Again, I would be an imposter if I tried to speak very intelligently about the others. My mind was spinning while you were talking about possible differences between Catholic valuing of the issues you just listed and Protestant. Because in Protestant circles, so often the arguments spin around this verse or that verse. It's a textual fight about who can pull out the verse to say, this is of God and that is not of God. And my little bit of experience with Catholic educated students at Piedmont was really impressive to me, because they didn't do that. It was a broader sort of view, a sort of a sacramental view. I'm not making one group bad and one group good, but the place of the text and some of the Catholic educated students had broad theological chops, but they felt bad that they didn't know if Philippians was before or after Colossians. So a lot of the divisive issues you're talking about for me, spin around a kind of scary, literalism, scary, scary idolatry of a text that points beyond itself to the possibility of relationship with others and a god beyond all imagining. And people want to argue about nevermind the translated into English words on the page, so that there can be no conversation about how they might have meant something different in the languages in which they were written or at the time they were written. So, that may be a Protestant problem, but in that case, it's pretty broad one.
Ilia: That's interesting actually, because recently I was thinking—I'd been sort of adopted a little bit by post evangelical theologians who are trying to build an open relational theology. It's really interesting work that kind of reread scripture in terms of like process ideas, you know, deep relationality, a God who is, can be changed because God is in deep relationship with us and these type things, and moving away from certainly a type of biblical literalism. Catholics on the other hand, you're right, we do not know the scriptures. At least I should speak from my limited understanding. When I grew up, scriptures did not play an essential role. I mean, the priest gave us the homily on Sunday and that was our understanding of scripture. But we were never encouraged to read the scriptures as part of our spiritual life. We in a sense were, you know, to obey and listen to what father said in Mass, and that was the source of our spirituality.
And I do think there's something still with Catholicism. I do agree that if we do have that sense of the sacramental life, I don't, maybe that is more pertinent to us, but we're very institutional, you know, even more so than Protestantism. And I do think the institution, in other words, the institution is what governs theology in a sense, in the reading of scripture rather than theology and the interpretation of scripture governing the institution. And I've thought about that and it's kind of hampers, I think the impact that Catholicism and I take “catholicism” with a small “c”. I like catholicity as a sense of wholeness because I do think that's what the word originally meant. It meant having a sense of the whole, which is why they borrowed the word, you know, the early Greek fathers because it was like, there's a new wholeness here, like this risen Christ, there's something going on here that's different from what the Jews believed.
And so there's something that kind of broke in I think with Jesus of Nazareth, but how we have developed that kind of new disclosure or this new break-in of God in a new awareness, new consciousness of divine presence has been, I think too constrained by institutionalism, and maybe from the Protestants, maybe too constrained by interpretation of scripture itself. So that either side has really not—and you know how all this gets I don't want to say it's very male-driven, but it, and we have these kind of male power plays. And it's like all about like who's right and who's got the best argument. And it's been so unhealthy on so many levels. I'm like, get over it. People are dying and you know this so well, because your books and your writings and your talks have reached so many people, and you hear it over and over and over. People are really hungering, for meaning, for purpose, for depth for God. And I just think as these churches are just kind of a little bit locked up in themselves, you know, get out, get over it and move on.
Barbara: I too have been adopted by a slice of post-evangelicals, which include tons of young people, but also a few older who are looking for a way to continue being Christian, but not that way. And I got invited to one, maybe it was a podcast, but they said go easy with the word God, because that's a trigger word for a lot of our audience. I thought, oh my word. I mean, that was phenomenal. But the more I talked to them, it was because God and the text and God's truth had been used as a weapon. We've almost made a cliche out of the weaponization of scripture, but it goes back to an earlier thing I think you said, which is sort of, can this thing, can we pull this out, this whole church endeavor, this institutional endeavor to create communal identity? That was my hope somehow in serving a congregation that we could go beyond individual and even family, like nuclear family identity to a communal identity in our little town, and it would work alongside other communal identities. But at this moment in time, it really does seem like tug of war, and the pastors who can hold together congregations with 50/50 or 60/40 percentages, I take my hat off. They're still hanging and hoping they can not give up on the collective.
Ilia: Yeah, I know. It's holding on to the end. I mean, with the Catholic church, I'm to think of like Dan Brown's novels on angels and demons, you know, it's going to be like, we will not change. We hope we are not going to budge anything and we will hold out to the end, and so it's going to be just like one bonfire or something. Not to get caught up in that; I think being really rooted in this incredible reality of God who I take to be the overflow of life, life abundant, that wholeness, that future that's already present and accompanying us and with us in an unconditional love. I think we have this capacity to form in a new way. I don't think church should ever have been just kind of hammered into stone.
I mean, where do we have this kind of, I mean, it's kind of a whitehead we call the fallacy and misplaced concreteness; church has always been this way and will always be this way. No, it hasn't. It's about gathering. And I do think when communities are no longer gathering in a spirit of love and forgiveness and peace and, and celebrating the beauty of life and looking forward to being part of something that is breaking through in our lives into the world. And it's no longer that, I don't know what it is, honestly. And so imminent in the Center for Christogenesis, which people get like, "Oh, Christogenesis, I don't have a part in that." But it's about building up, it's birthing something that's going on here and not in some kind of uniform homogeneous way. It's rather, we have what we call Christophany groups, little local groups awakening to this presence of God, this incredible wellspring of love in our midst, and how do we live out this reality within ourselves, among ourselves as we are part of a large society.
So, I envision church up ahead as not what we have, but I do think it will eventually form sort of local federated communities who are like entangled, like a giant cell of entangled communities. And then maybe by then we will have invaded probably Mars, or we'll have met extraterrestrial life, a greater reality.
Barbara: Oh, I love your confidence that we’re going to last. That's great. No, and that's a wonderful rejoinder. What I love is just as you've been speaking now, first of all, you're speaking to the title of this podcast, but also that hunger. Where does this imagination of this kind of community come from? Because it comes, it's a transcendent thing and it's an imminent thing. It's both, because I do think about churches that may not be pulling things off at the macro level, but at the micro level, people are getting rides to the hospital for their chemo, and people are coming over to sit with them, to grieve. And people are in my community helping them dig a hole or build a coffin, or in other words, there's just some wonderful way in which the imagination of wholeness and the hunger is a thing in itself. And it's not dependent on a biblical text, and it's not dependent on saying the right words as you're celebrating a sacrament; it's experiential, but it's also beyond, but we have an instinct for it.
Ilia: And I think that's what Jesus was about, right? Where do we see in scripture he said please build large institutions that you can make sure I'm memorialized forever. I mean, we have nothing like that. He said like, take down this temple and all we build it in three days. And they thought he was completely out of his mind because he wasn't talking about a building. He wasn't even talking about like a set of constitutional instructions or a magisterium or some kind of imprimatur. He was talking about himself, the human person as the dwelling place of God, as St. Paul tells us. And then we go, we go right back to this incredible, incredible reality of incarnation and all that that means.
Barbara: This is so daring what you're saying, because I have always, you know, I think it was Von Hugo or somebody who taught me the three intersecting circles. One was institutional, and that's to get the story from generation to generation. And the intellectual, just to question—push beyond, press—the institutional, and then the mystical or the direct experience. And that they all three of those realms of religion want to be in balance with each other. So in a way, what you just described, these federations, this incarnation, this unwellness imaginable, not yet fully fleshed future, depends on what; on trusting the spirit? Am I feeling Pentecostal right now? In other words, the future of this doesn't depend on the doctrines, on the catechisms, on the buildings, on the pensions, on the orders of ministry. It depends on the evolution of the hunger for wholeness and the ways in which we embody that.
Ilia: It's about being aware. I believe even this is the spiritual life, right? You so well, like, it's becoming an awakening too. Like this spirit is not something that's about me; it's the energy of my own life, it's what's breathing in me. And sometimes I worry when we make these things abstract and doctrinal and we have formulas around them, we put them outside ourselves as objects of study, when we're talking about a deep reality that's blowing through our lives that's pulling us. And I guess part of it's like bringing these—getting them out of the frameworks of this kind of abstract concreteness. Like, this is what God is Trinity, I'm like, "Well, how do you know that, I mean, unless you experience God as relational and expressive and love." And so, I guess Barbara, I really want to lose us back to a breathable type of religious spirit, a breathing Christianity. I think Jesus Christ is a living grieving body, but that body now is us. You know, we're part of that Christic mystery.
We will always have a hunger for wholeness. Can we ever satisfy that hunger for wholeness? I guess that would be another question. Do you think we could, at some point in the future? Do you think that's maybe what heaven is, you know, your hunger for wholeness? Welcome to heaven, your hunger for wholeness has now been satisfied.
Barbara: Oh, well, I'm going to get in so much trouble, but no, if that's what it is, I don't want to go. Just don't want to go. I think the hunger is the thing. I mean, I think about the Holy of Holies, you know, that when the broken soldiers got in there, maybe I made this up, it was empty, and they expected it to be full of treasure and gold, but the Holy of Holies was empty. And that's the hungry place, and it's the hungry place that keeps me in community with other hungry people. It's what keeps me up at night. I know it's what keeps me alive. So, the satisfaction of the hunger, I'll do it for 15, 20 minutes, but then I want to get hungry again, because there's just too much to go look for and be in search of. And I won't do it unless my hunger's intact.
Ilia: Yeah, I, I love that. And I think that's absolutely true. It's the same kind of reasoning in the sense why we don't want to eliminate suffering entirely from the world, which sometimes some forms of transhumanism want to do. They will use technology to overcome all our limits or sufferings, even use technology to fulfill our hungers. And you're right, if we're satiated, we'll be bored, then we will extinguish ourselves for sure. We'll be so bored to death; we'll have nothing to do. There's something about hunger, about suffering, about not having that's creative in itself. It pushes us. It awakens us to something. There's more that we have to, you know, wake up to, to look in a new direction. And so, as difficult as—I mean, real hunger is a terrible thing, right. Real hunger where people in parts of the world are just literally starving for food, and that is a horrible reality.
Barbara: I've heard you said that because I was just thinking, I live so much, I traffic in metaphors, and it's so important from time to time to say, literal hunger is not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about a spiritual hunger. And it's not that they're not related, but no true hunger—that is a deal. Right now I give, the UN food program is probably the most interesting charitable thing going on right now, so thank you for saying that.
Ilia: Yeah. And I think of people, you know, the people of war torn Ukraine, and in places where war has just devastated people's lives and their livelihoods and I just can't imagine, and truthfully, I don't think we're completely exempt from something like that here at some point in the future. But we're just having a piece of bread is all that you long for in a single day. But there's something to these, the reality of war tour places, of real physical hunger. And it plays back to the fact that in the more comfortable sectors of the world, we have become preoccupied with things that lead us away to not realizing our actions, our being in the world affects everything about the world. Like, I do think we have a part to play in the wars of the world and the real hungers that are taking place. We're not exempt.
And that's why I think coming back to a religious sensibility that grounds this divine reality in the stuff of our lives, it's a matter of justice. These kind of religious searchings are not just sort of a new spirituality to make us feel good, it's a matter of rebuilding a world. It's a matter of building a world towards justice and a world that can become more compassionate, and perhaps peaceful. I don't know. I think those things are held out before us, but we have the capacity to create such a world, but we have nowhere, we're nowhere near the will to do so. We like our consumer lives, quite honestly, here in the US. There's really nothing that we really want to change about it. And which just goes back to technology and why it's so driven. You mentioned monetization. We love this stuff, right?
We buy it, and we're investing in companies that keep making smaller chips, so we're preoccupied with money and power and comfort and consumerism. And I do think that's partly at the part of a world that is suffering in parts, where there's war and devastation and people who are physically hungry. There's something that ails us, and there's something that within us that we deeply long for. And I guess going back and time together is, this is where I find religious institutions that are too wrapped up in themselves, or the right interpretation of scripture, or who has the power or letting women into the church. Oh my god! These things are just silly, honestly.
Barbara: I just read the sermon by a wonderful Baptist pastor, and he said, from the pulpit, Christian nationalism is just silly. The day of Pentecost shows us that. I love the word silly, but you used another word "towards," I just fell in love with the word towards justice, and then I put in towards wholeness. And when I think of it that way, I also realized this isn't a linear journey. This is a circling. I mean, I've experienced wholeness in my life many times. It doesn't last, maybe what we've been talking about is, is there any hope of everyone being whole all at the same time? Not so far, not so far. But the idea that we live towards this is beautiful to me. So much better than a striving for arrival, right?
Ilia: Oh, sure. Absolutely. I don't think we'll ever arrive at any. In fact, I think the journey is the striving itself. I think you even pointed to this before. I think we've misplaced the emphasis. I think even maybe in our interpretation of scripture, this notion of heaven, like we're supposed to arrive as some as eschatological goal. I'm like, what do we think heaven is? It's this earth and it's longing forevermore, homeless in God for this. And there's a dynamism, I think that's why we have the spirit. It's like, yeah, they've had this thing called divine energy, divine love, and there's energy—is neither created nor destroyed, right? It's constantly in movement and ever. So I think of life as never really arriving, but always departing in every arrival. And that's the beauty of it. And so, the thing is, stop waiting until you want to arrive at something and just embark on the journey. This is it. I mean, and really, it's an amazing adventure of love.
Robert: A special thanks to our guest, Barbara Brown Taylor. Be sure to check out her latest book, Always A Guest. And listen next time when we'll be joined by astrophysicist, Neil DeGrass Tyson. As we continue with our June fundraiser at the Center for Christogenesis, we would like to extend our gratitude to all our supporters and donors who help to make our work possible. As always, I'm Robert Nicastro. Thanks for listening.