"informational overindulgence" and religious dialogue

The very fact that you’re reading this blog illustrates the accessibility of information in this an age of technology. The reality is this: via Google, Wikipedia, and other such tools, we have the ability to know anything. We know now and we know fast. As a happy user of Hotmail since 1996 and one immersed in blogging, Facebook, and other social media outlets, computer technology has become an integral part of my life. And I’m glad for that. Sometimes.

Other times, I realize my own tendency towards “informational overindulgence” as Quentin Schultze describes in his thought-provoking book, Habits of the High-Tech Heart. The following quote sums up the issue well:

Our tendency to adopt every new information technology uncritically - without discerning the options, setting appropriate limits, and establishing humane practices - is simply irresponsible. North Americans are largely unreflective, voracious consumers of cyber-novelty and informational trivia... Although information technologies increase our capacity for acquiring and disseminating information, the resulting informational practices usually foster individualism and self-interest over community and responsibility (16-18).

Of particular concern for me, is how the access to information has effected my interaction with others, especially those who possess different perspectives on life and faith than myself. Recently I’ve been in dialogue with individuals from a variety of non-Christian backgrounds - Baha’i, Jehovah Witness, and Objectivist. As a Christian, how should I interact with these friends?

As a somewhat technological savvy Christian, you’d think the answer is obvious: I should google each stream of thought, likely using Wikipedia as a starting point, all as a way of gathering relevant information on each subject. Fairly simple. I can become an expert in three contemporary religious and non-religious movements in a few clicks of my mouse! And if this is in fact the case, the Internet should be revolutionizing inter-religious dialogue.

But wait, I tried that. It didn’t work so well. Sure, I acquired some relevant information on the interests of my friends that was helpful. But when it came to dialogue with my friends, the swallowing of basic information failed to bring understanding. Here’s the problem: If we limit our engagement with others to googled information, we fail to notice important nuances within particulars religions or worldviews. And by itself, cyber-dialogue can miss the subtleties individuals possess in relation to their worldview.

Now, I’ve heard it said that knowledge doesn’t equal wisdom. I tend to agree. I’d also extend that in our technological age and this tendency towards “informational overindulgence,” knowledge doesn’t equal relationship and understanding.

So I’ve decided to mostly put compiled Internet information aside for my inter-religious (or non-religious) interactions. I’d rather be an engaged learner. I try to meet regularly with these individuals (yes, face-to-face!) and have also been reading material from these people written from their perspective (e.g. Baha'i individuals writing about the Baha'i religion). I’m trying to counter our tendency as Christians to only read about others from our perspective (e.g. a Christian’s description of Jehovah Witnesses). We end up only learning about why we’re supposed to be against something, hindering constructive dialogue as we only learn what’s wrong about others. “Them” becomes a derogatory term.

All this to say, the accessibility of information doesn’t always lead to constructive engagement between people of differing religions or worldviews. Google can’t replace a chat over coffee and Wikipedia entries are shallow (and boring!) compared to reading a good book. We need to be engaged learners.

If you’re interested, several others have been reflecting on this idea recently - online, of course :-) - searching for ways we can adopt an appropriate use of technology, particularly as Christians. The following links inspired my thoughts here:


Joshua said...

Three cheers for "engaged learning." :) Thanks for your post.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff, Dave. The posture of an "engaged learner" is certainly preferable to the posture of "the guy who has read just enough to tell you why you're wrong."

Bravo for face to face dialogue, where the subtleties of how and why we inhabit the worldviews we do can be explored.

David Warkentin said...

Thanks Joshua and Ryan!

I'm already sensing this type of engaged learning across the spectrum of Christianity and other religions (and non-religions). But I think we still have a long way to go to counter the fundamentalisms that have a tendency to sprout up from all sides.

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