The television and the tabernacle—it is uncanny how deft the forces of darkness are at leading man from the truth by imitating it. Both boxes, one black and one bright; both enthroned centrally in a place of congregation (although, in many churches, the one is becoming less and less central while, in many homes, the other is becoming more and more); both hold a world inside of them for those who gather before them. Parody and perversion are the principal stratagems of the Tempter. The analogy of the television and the tabernacle is old news. There exist now a whole host of new analogies that are not simply distorting the elements of religion, but actually commandeering the role of religion in human society. A new pantheon of iDols has risen for the neo-pagans, many bearing what could be seen as an insignia of fallen nature: an apple with a bite out of it.
There is a devious irony at work in the parallels between religion and popular technology. The Internet fulfills a primal human desire for another “reality” and another “life.” Social media and cellphones provide “communion.” Updates, upgrades, and data-deletion bestow a “clean slate.” Wi-fi brings a permeating, invisible source of “power” and “security.” The iCloud lays up “treasures” where neither rust nor moth consumes. Search engines are the man-made “mind of God;” a source of all knowledge that can be consulted regarding all things. And don’t forget the Gospel according to Wikipedia.
Is it really going too far to intimate that religion has, in some ways, been replaced as the guiding force and principle of human life? If people can be said to have faith in anything these days, or to retain faithfulness for anything, wireless widgets and the World Wide Web would certainly be strong candidates. To be fair, no one strictly speaking worships their iPhone or their iPad. Of course not. But is there a dependency on such devices that mirrors a standard of reliance properly owed to God? Food for thought. There does appear to be an enthusiasm present that goes beyond pragmatism. It is often said that these gadgets are addictive, and addiction is a reverse image of devotion—and that perversion of devotion is nothing more than a species of idolatry.
Idolatry is not limited to the context of worshipping false gods. The word and the practice also apply to the veneration of anything that distances or obstructs man from God. Idolatry is the act of divinizing things other than the Divine (cf. CCC, 2113), which can occur through rendering the reverence due to God elsewhere, diverting a natural impulse to an unnatural object. The error that has entrenched itself through the mass acceptance and the mass use of personal tech-products is one that parodies action for an end by confusing the very idea of what an end is. Convenience poses as an end in itself rather than a means toward an end. This essential confusion leads to essential corruption. As in any form of idolatry, there is a misplaced faith and fervor toward something unworthy of that fidelity and feeling that postures as a fitting recipient—a fitting end. The only result is that such things drag man away from his true end—his ultimate End.
Many Catholics recognize and admit that electronic tools and toys interfere with their relationship with God with that pernicious ever-readiness to fill up a quiet moment. As distractions and interlopers, they render prayer and spirituality more difficult or less frequented. What is even worse, they are usurpers of the identity and capacity of prayer and spirituality. We are a plugged-in people; obsessed with iTunes in some form or another—while God is in the silence. Distraction is the device of the devil—distracting us from our God and ourselves with our devices. People have been manipulated by machinery only to become slaves to their own creation, making it hard to establish a link with their own Creator. Man has allowed his life to be formed and defined by his tools instead of using his tools to form and define the world in accordance with the good life.
To say that these possessions and these practices are idolatrous is significant for the fact alone that no one decided to establish a cult or a creed around them. No one looked to Steve Jobs (God rest his soul) to fill a God-sized hole in their soul. The way that these items are used is not a new religion; but it is a new way of being religious—religious without revelation or dogma. Modern man’s enchantment with gadgetry is rooted in a primal religious hunger and impulse for transcendence—but God has been left out of the modern equation (cf. CCC, 2114). All that we have left are people who check their email religiously.
The season of Lent is a challenge to impose privations on ourselves so that we may gain mastery over ourselves. Gifts must be possessed before they can be given, and Lent is the occasion to possess ourselves in order to then give ourselves to the Risen Lord. For many, Lenten questions concerning technology are fitting since technology takes up such a large part of our existences. Who is in control? My cell or my self? Who comes first? My iPod or my God? Which is the ruling reality? Virtual or spiritual? Despite where people stand intellectually, the way life plays out on a day-to-day basis may fly in the face of that reasoning, however sound. The fact is that Christian people everywhere do not always realize that they have idols, things that run interference between them and their Maker.
The best way to resist idolatrous invasion is to limit the involvement of things that threaten to become idols. As has been said, such things are rampant in the modern world. Self-examination, honesty, and resolution are all that are required—and precisely what Lent requires. Don’t answer the phone when you are with other people. Talk instead of text. Use your brain before your browser. Allow more time for silence. Don’t go to Google before going to God. Substitute online time with prayer time. Put the state of grace on a higher level of priority than a state of connectivity.
In our tech-soaked culture, everyone has responsibilities and habits that involve these devices, but use should always be distinguished from abuse, the necessary from the unnecessary. Channeling what is due to God to God—especially our basic awareness—prevents obsession. Do all things in moderation, as the saying goes, except perhaps making God the most prominent part of daily life. That can never be overdone. This Lent, let us reopen our ears to the voice of the Spirit, all too often drowned out by the voice of Siri.