Interspirituality and A Theology of Technology

Lead me from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality. A Shabda Yoga, Vedic mantra from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishads.

Cover of Jesus in the Lotus, required textbook for my SM 2021 Interspirituality and a Theology of Technology course, Spring 2021, LPTS
YouTube Link to Bhava Ecstatic Heart songs by Russill Paul, required music for my SM 2021 Interspirituality and a Theology of Technology course, Spring 2021, LPTS

வணக்கம் – vanakkam | नमस्ते – namaste | Welcome

This is a 1 credit unit course, which means approx. 45 hours over 15 weeks. I have designed it to be largely self-guided online learning with embodied practice. The course provides a space to critically reflect on what the pandemic of COVID-19 has revealed about being a global citizen, located in a specific place and time, and dealing with 24/7 information and communications technologies in our personal lives and ministries. Students will read an autobiography that integrates Christianity and Yogic Spirituality, learn of technological and theological movements, and practice attention, connection, and meditation activities using music and other media. The goal is to increase our understanding of the Ultimate Reality, what it means to be human, and discover ethical guidance for future adoption and use of technology that reflects the Divine.

Download the course syllabus available here.

Interspirituality is the thread that runs through this course, bringing and holding together the disparate elements of COVID-19, information technology, human life, and mysticism. The global pandemic of COVID-19, in March 2020 forced our entire humanity to significantly alter our ways of living. Coupled with the revolution of the information and communications technologies (IT) that has been growing exponentially since the 1950s these two disruptions are sources of great anxiety, loss, and stress but are also opportunities to re-imagine and re-build a better world in ways that reflect God for all humanity. Using interspirituality we begin to heal ourselves, our communities, and restore balance to 24/7 network-connected digital lives and ministries.

Introduction to the Course

Interspirituality is growing, enabled by the forces of globalization and multi-culturalism. According to Brother Wayne Teasdale, “Interspirituality, the sharing of ultimate experiences across traditions is the religion of the third millennium.” Father Bede Griffiths, an English Benedictine monk, is considered one of its foremost practitioners. In developing his theology of a Christian Vedanta–a collaboration of science, mysticism, and faith—Fr. Griffiths created an interspiritual model for how all religious traditions can benefit from each other’s beauty, depth, and richness. Our course textbook Jesus in the Lotus is a spiritual autobiography of Russill Paul, an American of south Indian origin who had a Hindu mother and a Christian father. At the age of nineteen Paul felt called to leave his engineering studies to become a monk in Bede Griffith’s ashram Shantivanam on the shores of the River Cauvery (state of TamilNadu). There as he learned to deepen his Christian faith using Yoga, he made some powerful discoveries. When he allowed himself to be influenced by two different traditions – Judeo-Christianity and the rich complex of Hinduism and Yoga of which Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism are a part – a mystical doorway opened, his spiritual journey enriched, and his life transformed.

Paul turned his Western music-oriented talents and trained in classical Indian music.  He learned the yoga of sacred mantras, chants, and naads (sacred sound current) that has the ability to connect people to the cosmic consciousness. Today, he is a world-renowned musician and an expert in the four major streams of sacred sound in Hinduism, Shabda Yoga, Shakti Yoga, Bhava Yoga and Nada Yoga. He is considered to be instrumental in introducing the Yoga of Sound to the western world; incidentally, Paul is also the author of a book by that title: Yoga of Sound.

Paul’s music CD, Bhava, Ecstatic Heart will guide a daily 10-minute practice of the stream or strand of Bhava Yoga; bhava is “sheer ecstasy, a condition caused when the heart is seized by the Divine embrace.” In Bhava Yoga, the cosmic power of Brahman (God) in the Vedas (Hindu Scriptures) becomes approachable through bhakti which means devotion. In India, there is a very strong current of the Bhakti tradition even today. Officially, bhakti goes back to the first or second century BCE, but it is traditionally considered to have been around for at last a thousand years earlier. Bhava Yoga uses sacred sound, bhakti mantras in the form of simple melodies, enabling an ordinary person to practice mantras without too many rules and technicalities, and making God more accessible. Paul’s musical sound has been likened to the collaborative productions of George Harrison with Ravi Shankar.

Interspirituality happens primarily within the arena of practice and experience. Therefore, we will engage by using our heart, body, mind, and soul. “Interspirituality is not a new form of spirituality, or an overarching synthesis of what exists, but a willingness and determination to taste the depth of mystical life in other traditions… [as such] it represents an especially vulnerable form of dialogue in which one actually opens herself, not only to the ideas held by another tradition, but to the actual experience of its lived spiritual reality… just as we may come to know and love many cuisines or languages, so too for religions.”

Our second area of exploration is the exponential growth of disruptive information and communications technologies (ICT) as well as the technological singularity (a moment in time when artificial intelligence will overtake human imagination). ICT have made globalization possible and revealed a “fourth world” – a world disconnected from others, without a specific location, and experiencing new inequalities. Using videos primarily and a few key texts by leading philosophers and theologians of technology we will study the future of work and death and dispel the fears around the technological singularity – yes, our phones and devices have become extensions of the mind and can control non-biological things – 2017 French Right to Disconnect legislation, the information age and accompanying diseases such as information anxiety and social problems such as misinformation and fake news. This examination will also be approached from the perspective that faith and interspiritual practices offer ethical guidance and healing.

Finally, we will consider the global pandemic of COVID-19 through which we have been living since March. When I first heard about the pandemic in December 2019, I was getting ready to move from Southern California to Louisville. I remember thinking “This won’t affect us, the USA; it will be just like SARS and EBOLA. We’ve got it covered.” Like COVID-19, SARS too first erupted in China in November 2002. But it ended in July 2003 (with some outbreaks in 2004) and less than 10% of the 8,000 people who contracted SARS died. A decade later, the 2014-2016 Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa made global news. Ebola is one of the deadliest viruses but its impact in the US was even more limited: Of the 11 people who contracted it only two died and the rest recovered. Contrast this with the number of COVID-19 deaths since January: 1,514 in the state of Kentucky, <240,000 USA, and >1 million globally. 

Fig. 1. Wolfson, E. and Wilson, C. (2020) Tracking the Spread of the Coronavirus Outbreak Around the U.S. and the World. Time, Updated Nov. 5, 2020. Originally pub. March 11. https://time.com/5800901/coronavirus-map/
Fig. 2: Team Kentucky COVID-19. https://govstatus.egov.com/kycovid19

COVID19 is here to stay with us for a while. Many human activities continue to be modified to help us limit the spread of the disease. Figure 3 shows Coronavirus riskiest activities, i.e. low, medium and high risk. Who’d have thought “church” would be a high risk activity?

Fig. 3. Coronavirus Riskiest Activities

The Fig. 3 graphic also shows that risk is reduced by wearing a mask, social distancing, and washing hands. Human behavior adaptations/modifications are key for our survival, it appears.

Conclusion:

The inconveniences caused by COVID-19 are lamentable and significant but I believe we stand on the threshold of a new world. This is our God-given moment to build a better world. That is how I’d like us to approach our memories and life in these COVID-19 times. Readings and videos have been brought together to help us examine global and local COVID-19 data, trends, and impact. They are meant to inspire and prompt questions such as: Why do India and the USA have such large COVID-19 incidences and fatalities? How did Taiwan control its outbreak? What are the lessons to be learned and changes needed? What is a theology of technology that can help us live globally, ethically, and into a “new normal’?

How will we learn all this in a 1-credit course?

Course material is organized into three modules corresponding to three student learning outcomes as follows.

Module 1 – The Call of the Divine Beloved

SLO # 1 Multiple religious belonging and the vocabulary to bridge differences between American yogis and Christians.

SLO #3 Life-giving practices that bring balance, guide ethical technology adoption, and use.

Module 2 – The Technological Singularity

SLO #2 Technologies that affect life and work.

Module 3 – COVID-19 and The Things That Make Us Smart

SLO # 1 Multiple religious belonging and the vocabulary to bridge differences between American yogis and Christians

SLO #2 Technologies that affect life and work

SLO #3 Life-giving practices that bring balance, guide ethical technology adoption, and use.

Daily Connect Activities are where I will provide detailed scripts for simple practices. Students will commit 10 minutes per day to practicing them. Embodied practice, primarily through sonic mysticism, is one of the main ways of learning interspirituality.

Weekly readings, videos, podcasts will provide the intellectual knowledge base.

The final project is where students will create and curate their own Coronavirus memories. Art, creative writing, craft work, anything can be a part of your Coronavirus Memory Archive. I will provide guidance to weave the diverse strands of the course in integrative and personal ways to discover your own sustainable theology of technology that reflects the Divine and restores balance to digital lives and ministries, beginning with our own.

More details in the course syllabus availble here.

Thank you for joining me on this journey!

Shanti. Shanti. Shanti (Peace).

Published by Anita

Anita Coleman joined Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary’s faculty as Associate Professor of Bibliography and Research and Director of the the Ernest Miller White Library in January 2020. Anita is passionate about the power of libraries to liberate and give life.

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