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Issue Seven

Issue Seven: Religion Online & Techno-Spiritualism

Dialogue on the Cyber-Sacred and the Relationship Between Technological and Spiritual Development

Michel Bauwens and Father Vincent Rossi

The following is a dialogue on the notion of the cyber-sacred and the relationship between technological and spiritual development. The first entry is written by our guest editor Michel Bauwens, who penned down his conclusions after finalising a three-hour documentary on this subject, entitled TechnoCalyps, which will be shown this fall on several TV stations worldwide. The response is from Father Vincent Rossi, who is a priest in the Christian Orthodox tradition.

Part One: Is a new kind of basis of society - the "cyber-sacred" - beginning to take shape?

Some hypothesises to understand the 'cyber-sacred'

By Michel Bauwens, <[email protected]>


1. The technological quest is a spiritual quest

I'd like to start with the premise that the quest for the transcendental is in fact 'wired' in the human psyche. Even if we are not spriritually or religiously inclined, we cannot escape thinking about our relationship with the 'totality' of existence, and forbid our souls to yearn for an escape from the humane condition and our inescapable death.

Hence I believe that the history of human civilisation can be characterised by a kind of competition between spritual transhumanism and matieralistic or technological transhumanism. For thousands of years humankind has chosen the first route, believing that there was a transcendental 'supernatural' reality beyond the material world, but which could be accessed through inner development. This gave rise to traditional societies such as the HIndu civilisation, medieval Christianity, etc...where society was more or less organised to support that quest, by creating a social infranstructure to permit certain layers of the population to devote themselves to that quest.

For a series of complex reasons, outside of the scope of this essay, a break occured in the Christian West. Spirituality became a creed or belief, without any realistic spiritual 'technology' to actually achieve salvation or human liberation, the result being that from the Renaissance onwards, this liberation was no longer sought in the spiritual realm but in the material realm, and a process of secularisation began.

However, what used to be sought in the supernatural, was sought in material reality, and science and technology became a means to achieve transcendence. As explained by David Noble in 'The Religion of Technology', this relationship between technology and spirituality has often been quite explicit, and always implicit. Hence technology is actually carrying out a religious program for immortality, a utopian 'New Heaven and a New Earth. Where I differ with David Noble is that he believes such a relationship is wrong and that science and technology should be decontaminated, while I would argue that transcendence being inherent in our condition, we should merely be conscious of it, but it is otherwise unavoidable.

I'd also like to point out the Hindu notion, put forward by Richard Thompson (author of 'Alien Identities' and 'Forbidden Archeology') that for each yogic power, there is an equivalent technology being put in place in the material world; and it echo in Hasidic Judaism, which considers that technology is putting in place material proofs of divine powers (as explained by Jozef Kazen of the Chabad website). Here it becomes very clear that behind the technological quest, there is a programmatic blueprint which comes straight out of our spiritual traditions.

2. The spiritual unconscious can cause damage if it is not brought to awareness

Like all unconscious personal and societal content, it can cause damage when it is not brought under the light of reason and consciousness. Hence there is a lot of hubris in current technology (and the social forces promoting it) that could be detrimental to our human future, with an unspoken yearning to go beyond our bodily condition (the theme of the obsoleteness of the body), beyond our minds (replacing it with superior artificial intelligences) and in fact, beyond the human. Quite an important percentage of the discourse on the cyber-sacred could fall in that category, and I'm particularly thinking of movements such as the Extropians, the transhumanist philosophy, and authors like Hans Moravec, Frank Tipler, etc...

3. Technological transcendence is not real transcendence

I have no clear position on the realism of current technological transhuman or posthuman aims, and whether things like extreme longetivity, mind downloading, and such are really possible. However, it can be said that even if they are realisable, this technological transcendence is not real transcendence. Indeed, what techno-transhumanis wants to achieve is longer life, more time; having control over more space, etc.. Itall stays on the horizontal axis, stays within time and space, and doesn't actually go beyond it, doesn't move on the vertical axis. Hence technological transhumanism can in no real sense ever replace the need for genuine spirituality.

4. Technological development can/does stimulate spiritual awareness

This positive statement may surprise after my previous criticism but yes, there is a sense in which technology stimulates spiritual awareness. I'd like to refer to the works of Jean Gebser (The Ever-Present Origin) and especially Ken Wilber (The Spectrum of Consciousness) with their viewpoint on the evolution of human consciousness through time, establishing a clear link between the psycho-genesis of the individual human mind, and the socio-genesis of civilisations, showing that the latter move along the same stages than the individual in his spiritual maturation. Wilber makes the interesting and crucial distinction when he shows that there are two lines of development. One for advanced practitioners and spiritual realisers with an evolution from shamans to saints to budhas, each 'generation' building on the knowledge of its predecessors. Another line concerns the broader population, and here, there is an absolutely clear link, in a Marxian sense, between the general level of communicative technology, and the average level of awareness of a given society. Hence, yes, in this specific sense, the globalising technology of the internet will in all likelyhood lead to a 'jump' towards some kind of more planetary consciousness. (this process, depending on the human will, maturation, and a host of subjective factors, is of course not automatic, and hence, regression would be possible, and catastrophic, and of course, we can all see the many reallly regressive forces at work, such as fundamentalism, cultism, etc..), or in other words, when the 'hardware' changes, the software (our humans minds) should follow. Both Gebser and Wilber define the new state of consciousness which has been budding during this century and is being stimulated by the new technological infrastructure as "vision-logic', the first transpersonal state beyond pure rationality. I am posting a separate article explaining these perhaps complicated or even enigmatic notions (see the essay 'Ken Wilber and Cyberspace'). Hence, when we speak of the cyber-sacred, we should say what exactly we mean, and I'm certainly not suggesting a new agey notion of universal harmony, but yes, a broadening of the human mind seems in the cards.

We should be very careful in distinguishing the transrational (i.e. trans-mental states such as when one is contemplating one's own mind's workings in meditation) states, from the pre- or infrarational states. In our opinion, lots of the so-called cyber-spirituality can be or is regressive, such as the trance-inducing and pharmaceutically aided techno music. While perhaps in a sense temporarily liberating in terms of the control of the self, these techniques are in no way a guarantee for spiritual maturation.

5. Spiritual development is necessary to technological development

It seems pretty certain that with technology giving us 'transhuman' powers over our environment and ourselves, we do need an additional level of spiritual development as well. Technology has many negative influences over the quality of our life (an increase in the 'speed of life', is just one), where spiritual techniques can help. To mention but a few: the rules of sacred architecture (and its power to create restful minds) could be used to create vivogenic (livable, life-enhancing) cyberspaces, a notion put forward by VRML-founder and techno-pagan Mark Pesce and practiced by Michael Heim. Think of notions such as the possible development of some kind of "cyber-feng shui."

Spiritual psycho-technologies (and body-work techniques) such as meditation, contemplation, relaxation, concentration, yoga and such, will become necessary complements to our sedentary lifestyles, and the stress induced by hyper-technology. Technologies such as the internet continuously draw our consciousness out to the external material world (or rather, the 'materialisation of our culture' in cyberspace format), and make it ever so difficult to look at ourselves and our functioning, and a counterforce is an absolute necessity for mental and spiritual balance.

6. Technological and spiritual transhumanism should not bej opposed, but integrated

Technological transhumanism is totally legitimate and will undoubtedly bring a number of important benefits for our social and bodily wellbeing (in terms of better health, increased lifespans, etc..).

7. Spiritual transhumanism is equally necessary for our individual and social growth and further evolution.

Well understood, both can be complimentary. The central task of our current epoch is to spiritualise technology (by becoming conscious of the unconscious drives that push it forward, and using it in positive ways) on the one hand, and to 'technologise' spirituality on the other hand. By drawing out the valid psycho-technologies within the core of religious traditions, purifying it from the layers of belief and literal myth. Or in other words, in a more broader sense: we need to spiritualise rationality, and to rationalise spirituality. Only when this is achieved, can one really talk about the cyber-sacred in any real sense.


Part Two: Cyber-sacred? A Response to Michel Bauwens

by Fr. Vincent Rossi

The only fruitful contribution I can make to a discussion of the concept of the "cyber-sacred" is to speak from the spiritual tradition to which I belong and in which I have been intensely engaged for many years: Eastern Orthodox Christianity, specifically the spirituality of hesychasm. Now one of the key spiritual principles of hesychasm is nepsis, which in Greek means "sobriety." This sobriety is not merely the avoidance of physical intoxication nor is it merely emotional sober-sidedness; rather it is a spiritual state composed of acutely focused attention, moral discernment, psychological balance, mental clarity and centred inner silence. Without attention-nepsis nothing can be accomplished spiritually. Elder Nicephorus the Solitary (13th c.) called nepsis-attention "the greatest of all great doings," and said further that "attention is the beginning of contemplation, or rather its necessary condition: for through attention God comes close and reveals Himself to the mind." So I propose to try to think neptically about-to pay spiritual attention to--what is being said here about technology and spirituality in cyberspace.

I agree with many of the points made by Michel Bauwens in his excellent and provocative text, including, with certain reservations, most of his numbered "hypotheses to understand the cyber-sacred." I concur especially with his over-all conclusion, which is, if I am not mistaken, that without a seriously significant increase in spiritual awareness, any talk of the 'cyber-sacred' is at best a waste of time, and at worst a spiritually dangerous delusion.

My reservations centre on a couple of the essay's presuppositions, which seem to presuppose the reality of the concept of the 'cyber-sacred' and the validity of terms such as 'technospirituality,' whereas I want to begin by questioning whether these words have any legitimate meaning. It is not just an idle or academic exercise to try to be clear about what the words we are using mean. When dealing with matters of the spirit, it is absolutely essential, for meaning is the 'integrated circuitry' of the spiritual realm. Thus hidden meanings, partially understood meanings, subconscious meanings affect spiritual outcome as much as conscious, intended meaning. On that basis I think it is wise to approach the concept of "cyber-sacred" with caution. Before we begin to dialogue on the presence of the "cyber-sacred," we need to be certain that we share a common understanding of the meaning of key terms like spirituality and technology, not to mention the "sacred" in itself.

For example, all six of the hypotheses that Michel offers as an aid to understand the 'cyber-sacred' have to do with the relationship of technology to spirituality. So it would seem we need to be clear about what technology and spirituality mean. Simply on the basis of the six hypotheses, it seems reasonable to assume that for Michel, the cyber-sacred is the marriage of technology and spirituality, for 'cyber' is more or less equivalent to technology (at its cutting edge) and the 'sacred' is more or less equivalent to spirituality. I have no quarrel with the first of those assumptions but a serious reservation about the second. Another question which calls for a sober response is whether technology and spirituality can be authentically and without distortion 'wedded' or 'merged and morphed,' in Heiner Benking's words.

Spirituality is a notoriously vague and ambiguous term. Technology, on the other hand, seems on the surface to be pretty straightforward and obvious. In Michel's essay, however, it is not easy to pin down the meaning of either of these terms. For example, spirituality sometimes seems to mean 'consciousness'; sometimes it seems to imply moral or ethical awareness; sometimes it is used to mean the opposite of the material realm, spirit as opposed to matter; then again it seems to be a synonym for transcendence, or the spiritual methods that may produce experiences of the transcendent. The same thing is true with technology, which is being used in at least four different ways rather loosely or colloquially. Sometimes it is used in its hard sense of the practical, mechanical, industrial arts and applied sciences, sometimes as a synonym for tools, sometimes it means the total scientific and technical knowledge available to a culture or an era, and sometimes it is applied to spiritual methods. Note: both technology and spirituality have been used to mean spiritual methods!

Because these two key terms are being used loosely, and in some cases interchang e ably, in all of these meaning contexts, it is not always easy to see if the argument-which seems to be that technological development and spiritual development are parallel, analogous and related movements of transpersonal transhumanism, resulting in the emergence of the 'cyber-sacred'-actually holds together or not. Technology and spirituality, therefore, need to be clearly distinguished from each other. Then and only then can we think clearly about if and how they might be integrated. And that is before we get to the point of determining whether the 'cyber-sacred' represents such an integration.

From the standpoint of Christian hesychasm, however, the most important distinction that needs to be made is that between 'spirituality' and 'the sacred.' They are definitely not identical or equivalent. All that glitters is not gold, said J.R.R. Tolkien, and, by the same token, not all spirituality signals the presence of the sacred. The world of spirit is ambiguous. The spiritual is not the same as the good. Evil spirits exist. And evil can exist in spirituality. Therefore the sacred is not the existence of a spiritual dimension, nor the presence of spiritual beings, nor the experience of 'transpersonal' consciousness, nor is it spirituality as such, all of which can be manifestations of distinctly unsacred phenomena. The sacred can only mean the presence of the ultimate reality, the Absolute, the Tremendum, the Divine Ground, the Real, God. It is not for nothing that the Divine Immanence present in all creation is called in the Christian Tradition the Holy Spirit. This clearly shows a recognition that not all spiritual manifestation is holy or good or whole. If we can agree that the Sacred can only mean Divinity, Absoluity, the Supremely Good, the All in all, or by whatever Name is appropriate, then we have a basis for a fruitful discussion about the place, if any, of the Sacred in cyberspace.

Spiritual methods are not strictly speaking 'technologies' except in the most general and vague sense of the term.. It is confusing to speak of genuine spiritual methods as 'valid psycho-technologies' within the core of religious traditions. This logic of fusing and confusing (or 'merging and morphing') technology and spiritual method leads the essay to conclude that it is the task of our era to 'spiritualise technology' and to 'technologise spirituality.' Whatever the former may mean, and I think there is a valid moral sense in which one can speak of spiritualising the use of technology, the latter seems more than a little sinister, in my view. At best, it can probably only mean what the author means when he speaks in his final paragraph of 'purifying it (To what does 'it' refer here--religious traditions? spiritual methods? valid psycho-technologies?) from the layers of belief and literal myth,' a conclusion which itself begs an important question about the nature and substance of spiritual progress-a question too complex to go into here.

I do not deny that there is a relationship between technology and spirituality, simply because both are aspects, elements, products, fruits of human nature. As Michel rightly points out 'the quest for transcendence is "wired" in the human psyche.. So human nature is the unifying factor between technology and spirituality. Still, in order to understand the relationship, if any, between the technology of cyberspace and the reality of the sacred, we must clearly distinguish between the two. Technology is to spirituality as science is to religion as matter is to spirit. Ultimately, these three pairs of terms point us to the reciprocal but asymmetric relationship between the outward and the inward in the microcosm, the macrocosm and the metacosm.

Distinguishing technology from spirituality, technological 'technique' from spiritual method, and spirituality as such from the Sacred as such allows us to make the following clarifications of Michel's basic presuppositions for understanding the 'cyber-sacred.'

The technological quest is not as such an authentic spiritual quest, but as a means of control and dominance of the natural, the human and the spiritual-as, in other words, a reduction of the human to forces essentially non-human and artificial--it is a serious distortion of the spiritual quest. The hunger for transcendence which is part of the essence of what it means to be human can and has been channelled into inferior and material projects; so perhaps it is more correct to say, as Michel does on at least one occasion, that the technological quest is a materialisation of the spiritual quest.

Technology as such cannot by its own nature be 'spiritualised'; technology is technology-it is what it is. What can and must be spiritualised are the uses to which technology is put and the motives employed in its use. In other words, what needs to be spiritualised are human beings, human communities, societies, cultures.

Spiritual development is not necessary to technological development. Technology can develop by the logic of its own rationalisation and the powers unleashed by its own actualisation, without reference or regard to spiritual development. Spiritual development is, however, absolutely necessary and vital for the appropriate uses to which technology can be put by human beings. Spiritual development is necessary for developing the discernment and sobriety needed to acquire a spiritual understanding of the metaphysical reality of limits, and to put a stop to the uncontrolled (i.e., cancerous) development of technology before we are overwhelmed.

Technology is not trans-rational, but infra-rational, that is, infra in the sense of fixed or frozen or virtual rationality, not the living reason (ratio/logismos/dianoia) that is the responsive servant of higher spiritual faculties. Even cyberspace technology is infra-rational in this sense. Since the thought of Ken Wilber seems to be the paradigm for a number of the points Michel is making, we need to clarify that infra-rational does not mean 'pre-rational'. The rational, properly understood, as it is by the great Christian hesychastic masters, is not a fixed state but a dynamic one, open at both ends, lying as it were between the infra-rational and the supra-rational (or trans-rational, if you prefer). The infra-rational is not an evolutionary stage that comes before the rational but the shadow, as it were, thrown by the rational on the mutable nature of matter or the fixed nature of technology. It is the virtuality of reason and, thus, the reason of virtuality. People who believe technology to be trans-rational or capable as such of transcendence as such or productive of 'transhumanism' or supra-humanism are committing a fallacy analogous to the famous Wilberian 'pre/trans fallacy, which we now christen the infra/supra fallacy.

'Technological transhumanism' is not transcendence in any meaningful sense. Why? Simply because the 'transhumanistic' effects created by ever-rapidly developing technology are not truly transcendent or supra-human, but abstracting and virtualising. To be fully human, human beings need 'roots and wings': grounded in the real world and liberated in spirit. Beyond a certain point, virtualisation is dehumanising. Each level of technological development creates a layer of abstraction or virtuality between reality and human experience. Technology is not 'free'. Virtuality is not virtuous. We pay a price for every kind or order of technological advance. Part of that price is always a degree of abstraction from the natural world, from our bodies, from ourselves. As Michel himself notes, what technology gives with the right hand, it takes away with the left. And if, as Arthur C. Clarke observed, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, we would do well to remember that magic, in whatever form, is never won or wielded without cost. The magician always pays a price for his power. Regarding technology, we must heed the message of Goethe's Faust. Every power or extension of human senses a rtificially or virtually created by technology tends to create a dependence and a loss of capacity in the natural and actual human sphere. It is precisely at this point that spirituality needs to "increase" in its power to shape the theomorphic potentiality of the soul, while technology needs to "decrease" its mechanomorphic, virtualising, and thus, dehumanising impact upon the human spirit. However at the present moment we are faced with a technology that seems to give us reality itself-yet it is a reality that is not actual but virtual reality, abstract reality-maya in its subtlest and most beguiling form.

Technological development can stimulate spiritual awareness. I agree with the statement but I don't accept the underlying explanation based on Wilber's evolutionary schema, because that implies that technological development goes hand in hand with spiritual development, which is something neither necessarily nor actually so. Technology can stimulate spiritual awareness, but so can war, sickness, natural disasters, a punch in the mouth, a brush with death. A one to one relationship of technological development and spiritual development does not hold; it's naïve, impossibly optimistic, indeed, untrue. Cyberspace does provide opportunities for spiritual insight-that is not questioned. But so does sitting in a traffic jam in one's car, an experience also created by technological 'development '. The evolutionary inevitability of techno-spiritual development is a chimera. We must not let our wishful thinking about technological progress blind us to the hard realities of authentic spiritual growth. Spiritual growth is not an evolutionary process that develops by incremental quantities over time. Genuine spirituality involves breakthrough, awakening, the transcending of time. Time, space and evolution are not functions of spirituality. Intellect and will in one-pointed concentration, attention, prayer and meditation, illumination, the breakthrough of the eternal into the temporal, the piercing awareness of the Absolute in the relative-these are the trans-temporal, trans-spacial, transfiguring aspects of a spirituality conscious of the Sacred.

Finally, although it is not directly related to our subject, I cannot avoid making one or two comments about this supposed 'break' which occurred in Christianity such that 'spirituality became a creed or belief, without any realistic spiritual 'technology' to actually achieve salvation or human liberation.' Here again one senses the influence of Ken Wilber in this essay, and it is not a positive one. Now much of what Wilber has written is admirable and worthy of praise, but when it comes to Christianity, he does not know what he is talking about. Wilber's writing displays an intimate knowledge of and sensitivity to Buddhism and the other religions of the East, but he i s remarkably obtuse when it comes to Christianity. He has no feel for it, he has not studied it, he doesn't really care for it, so naturally, he does not understand it, and, in this instance, is simply wrong. In fact, in the Orthodox tradition to which I belong, no such break occurred. Spiritual masters of the very highest degree have always been present and been honoured; the spiritual knowledge and spiritual methods that lead to human liberation and deification have never been lost in the Christian East; and Orthodox Christianity is conscious of an unbroken transmission of grace (baraka, theurgic power, spiritual transformation) from the time of Christ to the present.

Does the 'cyber-sacred', then, exist? The answer must be no. The Sacred exists. The technology that produces 'cyberspace' exists. The fact that it is possible to use cyberspace technology to communicate spiritual ideas and principles or to create so-called "sacred spaces" in cyberspace does not justify calling these possibilities the cyber-sacred, if the 'sacred' is to mean anything close to what we said above. Sacred spaces are not automatically the Sacred in space. The Sacred is essentially communion with God. The Sacred is known and experienced-and only known and experienced--in an I-Thou relationship. What lies beyond that can neither be known nor conceived nor communicated except in negative terms-not this, not that, no matter, never m ind, no-thing, Beyond-being. It is the Sacred in its ultimacy. What can be said definitively is that the language and logic and legerdemain of technology are left far behind, transcended totally. To paraphrase the Muslim Shahada, which is very useful as a formula for expressing the inexpressible, there is no sacred if it be not the Sacred. The Sacred is the Presence of God or it is nothing genuine. Anything else is idolatry, not sobriety. This does not, of course, answer Michel's pivotal question 'Is a new kind of basis for society-the cyber-sacred-beginning to take shape?' Such a new basis for society is very probably taking shape as we speak. However, what I think is clear, and what I have tried to make clear, is that such a basis, whatever shape it might finally take, will not be the Sacred.


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Issue Seven