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The Moral Is the Message: An Interview with Communication Expert Quentin Schultze

“Can you imagine Jesus Christ being concerned about the speed of computer processors rather than justice and mercy?” So asks Quentin Schultze, well-known author, speaker, consultant and professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Schultze, a native Chicagoan, has spoken at a Baptist Center for Ethics conference, written more than 10 books and a hundred articles on human communication, and been quoted by virtually every major media outlet.
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His current interests include the intersection of religion and new media, especially how the latter impacts the former. His latest book, Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age, has just been published by Baker Academic.
 
Schultze recently spoke with EthicsDaily.com about the role of technology in corporate scandals, spirituality, community, the church and more.
 
On technology and corporate scandals …
 
Whenever technological innovation outpaces religious discernment and moral wisdom, we get into the kinds of problems we are now witnessing with the American economy. Greed and radical individualism eclipse even the most basic moral reasoning. Particularly in the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />United States, technological innovation is equated with “social progress,” and we temporarily go blind to the dark side of rapid change. 
 
We are witnessing the unraveling of some of the greatest economic scams of all time. And they are premised on what I call “database deception.” Thanks to the power of computers, numbers can be moved from one column to another one with the click of a mouse.  A loss becomes a profit.
 
On religious Web sites cultivating faith …
 
The Web seems to be better for pointing people to faith rather than nurturing faith, which happens in local community. Many people are searching for God online, as strange as that seems. When the history of the Web is written I suspect that careful researchers will find that two major quests dominated the medium’s early years: the quest for God and the quest for sex. Both involve intimacy. 
 
G.K. Chesterton supposedly said, “The man who goes up to the brothel door and knocks is looking for God.” I think it is the anonymity of the Web that leads to the religious as well as the sexual searches. Looking for God online is much less intimidating than going through the door of a church.
 
On community in cyberspace … 
 
The richest forms of human community will never exist “online,” only in person. Imagine a church community that “lives” only on the Web or via email. Once someone sent me an email to find out how to do the sacraments online. Can you imagine that? 
 
Real community, whether religious or not, exists in geographic proximity and is nurtured in relationships, which enable us to see and touch one another. The “passing of the peace” is a venerable Christian tradition in this regard. 
 
On changing opinions of the Internet …
 
My view of the Internet as a useful personal communication medium, and the Web as a helpful information medium, has not changed significantly. On the other hand, I have grown increasingly disenchanted with the ways that politicians and businesses use cyber-rhetoric to “sell” us on the “unlimited” advantages of these new media. All of the rhetoric about conquering space and time is ludicrous.
 
As I see more clearly the gap between such rhetoric and reality, I feel that we need to be careful not to fall into the trap of expecting technology to solve our moral and spiritual problems. For me, this kind of skepticism has become a significant part of my understanding of the Internet and other digital technologies. As I suggest in Habits of the High-Tech Heart, we should question the high-tech magic.
 
On limiting technology’s negative influences …
 
First, I foster non-technological practices such as hospitality, friendship, neighborliness and leisure, including Sabbath-keeping and worship. These kinds of deeply biblical practices offset the instrumental and impersonal character of technological pursuits. We have only one television set and it is nowhere near where we eat our meals. We want to eat together as a family and to use our table as a place of hospitality and friendship with others. 
 
Second, I have learned that one does not need the latest technological devices. The newest devices tend to fascinate us and thereby to drag us into excessive technological use. The “wow” factor of new technologies is a recipe for a kind of short-term techno-addiction.
 
Third, I try to frame each day within prayer, reminding myself every morning and every evening that God cares more about the kind of person I am than what I can accomplish on a given day.
 
On habits of the heart …
 
The state of the human “heart” has long been at the center of Christian faith. Our hearts, even more than our minds, reflect the kind of persons we are. 
 
The “habits of our hearts” are our moral tendencies, the kinds of persons we tend to be. To be a virtuous person is to be a person of good character in the eyes of God. Virtues that are particularly important in our high-tech world include discernment, wisdom, moderation, humility, authenticity and what I call “cosmic diversity”—a diversity that includes non-technological ideas and practices. I devote chapters to each of these virtues.
 
On being virtuous in a high-tech world …
 
It is not easy, because we tend to treat one another as “things” and to see God as a means to get what we want. So much of contemporary Christianity is self-help technology, not real spirituality. The saints were important in the history of the church partly because they represented particular virtues that people could admire and imitate. Today we need to identify virtuous people and seek to be like them. This is why mentoring is so important today, including spiritual mentoring. 
 
Also, we need to anchor our daily lives in the Word, particularly the Psalms, which frame life in distinctly spiritual and non-technological terms. 
 
Self-evaluation is also critical. In most Christian traditions believers are supposed to examine their own lives before receiving communion. We need to reinvigorate that practice and to extend it to daily living. 
 
On humanity handling technology responsibly …
 
I see no hope for humanity to use technology responsibly unless we gain humility before God. Technology appeals to our desire for power and control, not to our desire to be better people or to be responsible stewards of God’s world and human culture. Silicon Valley is our Tower of Babel. Its current “fall” is a precursor of what will happen to the wider society if we do not put faith and morality ahead of technique and manipulation. I don’t say this as a prophet, only as an observer of what is happening.
 
On Jesus and technology …
 
A reading of the Sermon on the Mount should be enough to boggle our technologically directed minds. Instead of hearing “blessed are the powerful and the technologically well-equipped,” we hear the opposite. This sermon should cause us to reexamine what the church is all about in a technological age. Blessed are the poor and the peacemakers, says Jesus. 
 
On humility …
 
The information age is the great era of human hubris, the flowering of the Enlightenment ideas of the autonomy of humankind and the power of human beings to control their own destiny. Yet we can’t even control the effects of the technologies that we create! This is the great, laughable irony! 
 
We are a moral mess in this grand technological age. The first thing we ought to do is admit our condition and laugh at our folly. Then maybe we can begin to reacquaint ourselves with the reality of our fallenness and our utter need for grace rather than more techno “solutions.”
 
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.
 
Look for our review of Habits of the High-Tech Heart next week.
 
Visit Quentin Schultze’s Web site.