The Church’s Algorithm

  • Ian Sutton
    • a day ago
    • 4 min read

The Church’s Algorithm

In a recent post Ugo Bardi suggested that we live in a time when central governments are losing control of the narrative. Power is shifting to those in charge of the new forms of communication — particularly the social media platforms. He argues that, as society becomes decentralized and power has become increasingly localized, so the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, Google and amazon become modern versions of feudal barons.

The recent events at the United States capitol would seem to support his thesis. The events themselves have received plenty of publicity; there is no need to rehash them here. But what has been particularly interesting is the way in which the narrative has been not so much about what happened, as it has been about who controls that narrative. The media barons have indeed become increasingly important and powerful. For example, as I write these words, I see the following headline on a Google news feed.

Twitter Bans Over 70000 QAnon Accounts in Conspiracy Crackdown.

In other words, private corporations are making political decisions while the elected government debates what to do. (We saw a similar response in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic — the companies that supply health-related equipment were taking action while government agencies were figuring out what their response should be.)

Scott Galloway makes a similar point regarding the power of the social media executives.

The FBI, voters, our laws … all of them sit secondary to thirty-something innovators who hold the real power: algorithms that decide who sees what, how often, and from whom.

Galloway is suggesting that control is moving not just to the social media barons, but toward the artificial intelligence systems that they have created, but which are, to some degree, out of their control.

If governments have lost control of the narrative to the Zuckerberg/Dorsey algorithms then what about the church? After all, its central form of communication, the Sunday morning worship meeting has been shut down for almost a year. In its place most churches have handed over control of their messaging system to Facebook and YouTube. The church has also had to largely stop its traditional ceremonial functions such as weddings, funerals and baptisms, another important communications channel.

Church pews sealed with barrier tape during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In another of his posts, 2020: The Collapse of the Christian Church, Bardi says,

I already noted how some institutions have been shattered at their foundations by the COVID crisis of 2020. One was the university, destroyed by the sudden discovery that it is an expensive machine that produces nothing useful for the state. Another illustrious victim is starting to crumble: it is the Church. Primarily, the Catholic Church in its claims of universality, but all Christian Churches have been affected by a crisis that left them stunned, suddenly realizing that they had nothing to say and nothing to do about a disaster that seemed to affect everybody.

Bardi is, I hope, exaggerating to make a point. But the point is real: when it comes to the major events of the last twelve months — the pandemic, the drum beat of climate crises, and the collapse of large sections of the economy — the church all too often has had little to say to the world at large. We meekly place barrier tape on our pews and ensure “both-sidesism” in everything we say.

Excessive consumption of alcohol was one consequence of the industrial revolution. The image is of Hogarth’s Gin Lane.

Hogarth’s Gin Lane

Some time ago I wrote a post entitled Gin Lane and Social Media. In it I compared the impact of social media now to that of alcohol during the industrial revolution in the 18th century. The industrial revolution resulted in increase in prosperity for many people — indeed, it led to the creation of what we now refer to as the ‘middle class’. But that revolution also led to appalling working conditions for many of the people of that time, including children working in factories. The result was a drastic rise in the consumption of alcohol and its associated dissipation, a crisis made famous by Hogarth’s famous picture of Gin Lane.

We can see an analogy with social media. They have offered many important benefits, particularly during a pandemic. People can keep in touch with family and friends in a manner that they could not have done before, and they can have healthy discussions on all kinds to topics. These media have also allowed church services to continue, albeit in an unsatisfactory manner. But there is a downside. People now live in social bubbles and echo chambers and are largely insulated from hearing different points of view. That is bad enough, but the commercial model followed by the platforms exacerbates the problem. The platforms make money through advertising so they need increase the time that people spend on the site; they need to maximize the number of clicks. The way to do this is to publish increasingly outrageous and controversial information — whether such information is factually correct is immaterial.

The ethics to do with all this are still being worked out. The church needs to be in the middle of that work. The church also needs to consider how it is can best convey its message. For example, should the church react in the way it did 250 years ago when faced with the problems of alcohol abuse, and declare a total abstinence? If not, what are the boundaries to do with our use of social media? The church could develop its own platform, but that would reduce the degree to which it can communicate with those outside the church.

None of this is easy. The only thing that we can be sure of is that we should not leave it to the social media barons and their algorithms to tell us how to communicate.

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2021: The Church as a Leader

Credit: Unsplash


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This post is based on the material at the site Faith in a Changing Climate and Technology for a Changing Climate.

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To say the least, the year 2020 has had its challenges. More than a million people have lost their lives to the COVID-19 disease which is not yet under control, millions more are unexpectedly out of work, many others cannot make the rent or the mortgage, thousands of small businesses have closed their doors, and many industries, such as tourism, have been decimated.

Bad as the situation is, it does provide an opportunity for people of faith, and for the church overall, to provide much-needed leadership. After all, the church’s message never has been about material prosperity. We see that our secular leaders have all too often failed to respond to the events of 2020 — in fact, they have not actually been leaders in most cases. Maybe now is the time for people of faith to step up to the plate.

Direction for the Church

Ugo Bardi (1952- )

A blogger whom I follow is Ugo Bardi, a professor of chemistry at the University of Florence in Italy. In an earlier set of posts Bardi showed how Augustine of Hippo developed a successful theology that successfully provided the intellectual basis for the medieval church. (The need for a new theology for our times is discussed toward the end of this post.)

But Bardi’s latest post 2020: The Collapse of the Christian Church suggests a different outcome for the church. He argues that the church has been mostly quiescent during the pandemic, and that church leaders have meekly followed instructions from the civil authorities. I agree with him on that point, but this does not mean that the church cannot provide leadership from this point forward. However, if the church is to provide leadership in a post-pandemic world, what form can that leadership take? I suggest that we consider three issues as a starting point.

1. What the Virus Has Taught Us
2. The Need for Ritual
3. The Need for Theology

What the Virus Has Taught Us

Organizations of all types have learned that they don’t need physical office space as much as they once thought. Most managerial and back-office functions can be carried out remotely. The same goes for the church. Virtually all of our activities are now, well, virtual.

There was already a trend to a model where the church has a small number of central buildings (cathedrals and large churches) and a large number of home-based congregations, with not much in between. It is likely that this trend will be speeded up. The large central church will mostly communicate with the smaller units through Zoom and other electronic media.

This model is fine for business activities such as vestry or finance committee meetings. But this model is not so good for those activities which call for worshippers to gather together in community. Which brings us to . . .

The Need for Ritual

Credit: Unsplash

Bardi claims that Zoom has had the effect of making both Universities and Churches irrelevant because they have lost their fundamental ritual — the purpose for which they were created. In both cases that ritual revolves around people gathering together and sharing in certain activities as a group.

We need not go as far as Bardi in his gloomy assessment as to the future of the church to realize that he makes a good point. As we enter the post-pandemic world it will be important for the church to emphasize the importance of ritual, rules and discipline. Two-dimensional windows on a computer screen are not going to be sufficient.

These challenges mean that we need a new way of thinking, which brings us to . . .

The Need for Theology

A theme of this series is that we need to develop a theology that is appropriate for our times. An example is Methodism and the Industrial Revolution. There is nothing in the Bible that tells us to completely avoid the consumption of alcohol (there are many admonitions about drinking too much alcohol, which is not quite the same thing). Yet 250 years ago reformers such as John Wesley preached that we should not drink at all. They were responding to the widespread drunkenness and degradation brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Belief in abstinence became a foundation stone of their faith system.

In future posts we will consider what a theology for a world that has been transformed by climate change may look like. How will we respond to resource shortages, destruction of ecosystems, gross pollution and climate change? The church needs to work on a response. It could be that, in future years, the church will consider it sinful to drive a vehicle powered by gasoline or diesel, just as earlier reformers considered that it was sinful to drink alcoholic beverages. Or maybe it will be a sin to use Facebook.

We will see.

Conclusions

The year 2020 has been one that we are all glad to see the back of. But, bad as it may have been in so many ways, 2020 has offered us some ideas as to how we may have to live in a world of climate change. In particular, 2020 has provided people of faith, and the church overall, a sense of mission and opportunity for leadership.

Of one thing we can be sure — there is no going back to the ‘Old Normal’, nor should we even want to return to those times.

Sitzkrieg

The British Army in France 1939-40 Troops reading copies of the Army newspaper ‘Blighty’ outside their dugout, December 1939.

This week’s blog post is Sitzkrieg. It refers to the ‘Phoney War’ that took place at the beginning of World War II. The post refers to an article published this week by Leonard Pitts in which he suggests that we are not behaving as if we are at war, both with the COVID-19 pandemic and with climate change. In other words, we ourselves are behaving as if we are in a phoney war.

The situation highlights one of the theological suggestions of the site: Understand and tell the truth.

Alternative Energy Reality

This week’s post is Alternative Energy Reality.

One of the theological discussion points that forms the basis of what we write here is, “Understand and tell the truth”. But understanding the truth in complex systems is very difficult.

Many people who write and speak about climate change and related topics say that we need to transition from fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) to alternative energy sources (solar and wind). This is a goal that we can all support. But is it realistic? The project management and financial challenges are formidable, and we don’t have much time.

Understand and Tell the Truth

Pontius Pilate asking Jesus, “What is truth?”
Pontius Pilate asking Jesus, “What is truth?”

One of the themes of our posts is that we need to develop a theology for our times. I have suggested three topics that can be used when considering what that theology may look like. They are:

– Understand and tell the truth;
– Accept and adapt; and
– Live within the biosphere.

This week we look at the first of the above points: Understand and tell the truth.

Mission Statement

St. Wilfrids Church Calverley Yorkshire

For the last ten years or so I have been working on issues such as resource depletion, climate change, biosphere loss and population overshoot. I decided to pull the various strands of my work together in a new web site Faith in a Changing Climate at https://www.faithchangingclimate.com/.

Developing the site forced me to think about my goals for what I am trying to achieve, so I developed the following Mission Statement.

To work with people of faith and with churches to provide technically sound leadership in response to the predicaments of a finite world

At the home page of the site I offer the following discussion to do with the above statement. Here is a summary.

People of Faith

The materials at this site, blog and book are directed primarily to people of faith who are aware of the momentous changes that are taking place in the world, mostly to do with climate change. However, they hear so many conflicting messages that they are unsure as to how serious these changes may be and how they and their communities may be affected. They want to know the truth. They also want guidance as to how they can respond, and how they can best provide badly needed leadership.

Churches

The response to the predicaments we face can be either bottom-up (people working by themselves or in small groups), or it can be top-down. Both approaches are needed. The top-down approach often means working within existing large organizations, including the church.

Technically Sound

The issues we discuss at this site are technically very complex and difficult to understand. Most church leaders do not have a background in mathematics, science or technology. Therefore, there is a danger that they could promote programs that are unrealistic and that cannot work.

The article Episcopal Renewable Energy Proposal provides an example of this concern. In the year 2019 the Episcopal Church (USA) issued a policy statement to do with renewable energy. On its surface, the statement is something that we can all support. However, an analysis of the proposal with regard to energy and project management basics shows that it is not technically feasible.  Nor does it recognize project management realities.

Predicaments

A fundamental premise of the work at this site, the book and the blog is that we face predicaments, not problems. Problems have solutions, predicaments do not. When faced with a predicament we can respond and adapt, but we cannot make it go away.  It is this way of thinking that lies at the basis of the second theological point, Accept and Adapt.

Finite World / Age of Limits

We live in a finite world. We are using up the earth’s resources such as fresh water, crude oil and fish in the sea. We are also filling up the environment with our waste products. (Of these the most serious is carbon dioxide, CO2, in the atmosphere.) And we are degrading and destroying the biosphere — ranging from coral reefs, to the Amazon rain forest, to iconic animals such as polar bears.

Another term that is used at this site to describe this dilemma is ‘Age of Limits’. Moreover, these limits are linked to one another, often in difficult-to-identify ways. A more detailed description of these issues is provided in the article: Age of Limits.

One topic that is not discussed at this site is social justice. This is not because the subject is not important — indeed, it is of central importance, particularly to people of faith. Those at the lower end of the economic scale are affected the most severely by events such as climate change. Yet the changes that we discuss are going to affect everyone, regardless of their social or economic standing. Our response needs to be for society as a whole.

Further Information

Additional information to do with the Mission Statement and the goals of the site are provided at the home page. Please take a few moments to visit it and let us have your feedback. Thank you.

The New Normal (10): A Theological Paradigm Shift

Environmental communication

This post is the tenth in a series to do with the ‘New Normal’ — thoughts to do with the world that may come out of the wrenching changes that we have seen in the first half of 2020.

For years, decades actually, environmental activists have been preaching the message that we need to radically cut back on our use of fossil fuels. This message has been widely ignored and has had little impact. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen quite smoothly, as we see in the chart below.

CO2 concentration 1960-2020

But suddenly, in a just a few short months, we have witnessed:

  • The collapse of international tourism and its associated airplane flights;
  • The demise of the cruise line industry;
  • The end of the shale oil industry;
  • A drastic reduction in the amount of commuting;
  • An enormous cut back in airline travel; and
  • An equally drastic reduction in the restaurant business.

These are just the sort of actions for which we have been looking for all these years. And it all took place in just a few weeks.

To summarize: a virus that is 100,000 times smaller than a human hair or the period/full stop at the end of this sentence has done far more to mitigate climate change than any number of exhortations and sermons.

This improvement has come at a terrible human cost. In addition to the tragedy of hundreds of thousands of lives lost, millions of people in the United States alone are newly unemployed, face eviction from their homes, and are having trouble feeding their families.

The environmental community needs to think through how this sudden and dramatic shift occurred. What were environmentalists doing wrong for all those years? Clearly, the manner in which environmentalists communicate needs to fundamentally change. A paradigm shift is needed.

Here are three initial observations.

  1.  Fear seems to be a stronger motivator than the desire to “do the right thing”.
  2. There is a wrenching human cost when we transform the way in which we live and work. So many environmental messages contain within themselves an unstated assumption that we can move to a zero carbon lifestyle without reducing our standard of living. This assumption needs to be challenged.
  3. We are not going back to the ‘Old Normal’. Too much has happened too quickly for that to happen. And maybe we don’t want to go back to the ‘Old Normal’. So what does the ‘New Normal’ look like?

One of the themes of this blog and associated publications is that we need a theology that addresses the issues of our times. One person who worked on a new theology for his times was Augustine of Hippo, whose book City of God was written in response to the sack of Rome in 410 CE. A thousand years later, Martin Luther developed a theological response to the corruption and indolence of the medieval catholic church. Three hundred years after that, John Wesley and his colleagues developed responded to the social tribulations associated with the industrial revolution.

A challenge for today’s church is to work out a theology that addresses the predicaments to do with the Age of Limits. It is likely that the lessons we are learning from the pandemic will help us in that process.

Gin Lane and Social Media

John Wesley (1703-1791 )

A regrettable feature of today’s world is that we are increasingly polarized. It’s not usually a matter of ideology — it’s just that we do not listen to one another. Communication is breaking down. One reason for this polarization is that we all tend to reside in our social media bubbles and echo chambers. We hear only opinions that we want to hear. Maybe life would improve were we to abstain from social media.

The situation is analogous to what happened in the late 18th century as the industrial revolution developed. Working conditions for many people were utterly miserable. Therefore, they took solace in alcohol, often to excess. The well-known Hogarth cartoon is of Beer Street and Gin Lane, published in the year 1751. The sketch on the right shows destitution of all kinds due to the over-consumption of gin.


In response to this social crisis many religious leaders advocated for temperance — no drinking of alcohol at all. Many Christian denominations continue to ban the consumption of alcoholic drinks. Maybe we need something similar now with regard to social media. It’s a new addition to our culture — we got along fine without it as little as ten years ago. We don’t need it, and it is causing much harm.

However, closer examination of the temperance movement shows that many of its advocates were not in favor of total abstinence. The left-hand panel of the Hogarth cartoon shows that people who drink beer, as opposed to gin, have prosperous and successful lives. We can see the same ambivalence in the works of John Wesley (1703-1791). In the paper Methodist Origins: John Wesley and Alcohol, Ivan Burnett says,

Wesley’s position is not that simple. It is far more complex than later Methodists actually thought. His position appears even contradictory. On the one hand he drank beverage alcohol; on the other he stood for a form of legal prohibition. While sometimes condemning the use of wine, he also held it to be “one of the noblest cordials in nature.” He called spirituous liquors “liquid fire” and those that sold them “poisoners general”; yet he himself said that there was a place even for these stronger liquors. He even wrote a book in which he went so far as to recommend their use. Wesley’s position on beverage alcohol, then, was anything but simplistic . . .

It is probably fair to say that the early prohibitionists were not so much against the consumption of alcohol, as they were against drunkenness, with the consequences that we see in the Gin Lane sketch. Maybe we can apply this lesson to our own lives. Social media has some benefits — not least of which enabling churches to conduct virtual services during the course of this pandemic. But we need to be moderate in our consumption, we need to avoid drunkenness.

The Parable of the Blind Golfers

Parable of the prodigal son
The Prodigal Son

Parables and Scripture

The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables.

Mark 4:11

Each chapter of the book Faith in an Age of Limits starts with a quotation from scripture that is pertinent to the topic of that chapter. Additional Biblical quotations are provided throughout the text. In general, the New International Version (NIV) is used. But, on occasion, the King James translation is chosen because its language is so magnificent.

Each chapter also starts with a parable or short story — a narrative, usually containing an unexpected twist in the story line, that aims to provide an insight into a spiritual or moral truth. As with the parables of the New Testament, no explanation or interpretation is offered. Indeed, multiple interpretations are possible. For example, is the parable of the Prodigal Son to do with the young man who wastes his inheritance, the resentment of the older son who obeys the rules and who feels slighted, or the naivety of the father? You, dear reader, have to figure it out. There is no right or wrong answer. Through his use of parables Jesus was telling us to think.

Chapter 2 starts with the Parable of the Blind Golfers — one that is particularly appropriate for those of us with a technical or engineering background.

The Parable of the Blind Golfers

Parable of the blind golfers

A priest, a doctor and an engineer are playing a round of golf. All is going well until they catch up with a group ahead of them who are playing badly and slowly. They ask the greens-keeper why this group is so slow. He replied, “They are firefighter heroes. They all lost their eyesight while rescuing children from burning buildings — they are totally blind. In recognition of their service we allow them to play here for free.”

The priest says, “What heroes. I will offer prayers of gratitude for their sacrifice and I will pray for their recovery.”

The doctor adds, “There have been big advances in eye surgery recently. I will contact some ophthalmologists that I know; they may be able to offer medical help.”

Then they all look at the engineer who says, “Why don’t they play at night?”

The New Normal (9) — Hubris and Nemesis

Nemesis following the hubris of science and technology
Nemesis, Rethel (1837)

Blog

As time and bandwidth permit, we publish two blog posts each week. The first blog — this one — discusses issues to do with the Age of Limits, and how the faith community can respond. Last week we looked at the relevance of the Gaia Hypothesis to established faith. The second blog, which is generally a YouTube video, focuses on some of the practical responses that we can make at an individual and local community level. In my case, that response is mostly to do with gardening. This week’s blog is a video at the following YouTube address: https://youtu.be/Y6MviVf3HnY.

Book

Front cover for book Faith in a Changing Climate: A New City of God

The book Faith in a Changing Climate is coming along well. If you are interested in having a review copy, please let us know. The current Table of Contents is available here.

The New Normal

It goes without saying that we live in interesting times. The pandemic has changed everything, and it is not finished with us yet. Some of the blog posts are to do with ‘The New Normal’ — what the world may look like after the pandemic dies down, and what lessons we may have learned to do with the manner in which we manage longer term issues such as climate change. The following is a list of the posts so far in this series.

This week’s post is the ninth in this series.

Hubris and Nemesis

About 500 years ago Galileo Galilei pointed his newly invented telescope to the night sky. He declared that the moon and the planets are made of the same material as the Earth — there is no celestial heaven or music of the spheres. Since that time there has been rivalry between religion and science as to which can best explain the physical world in which we live.

Science has generally “won” this competition — and, in the form of technology, it has greatly improved the human condition. Religion has been confined to the role of “mere” spirituality and an advisor of souls. However, science and technology have led us into the predicaments discussed at this blog.

Science is suffering from hubris: excessive pride and self-confidence. But nemesis or retribution always follows hubris. And that is where we are now. Albert Einstein is famous for saying that, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” So it is with science and technology. They cannot solve the issues discussed in this book.

A new approach is needed — one in which people who have what Aristotle called an “educational acquaintance” with both science and the liberal arts can chart a path forward. This is the opportunity for the church to provide leadership. But, before it can do so, church leaders will need to have an “educational acquaintance” with the laws and principles of science. One example of such a person is Pope Francis, as we can see in the encyclical Laudato Si’. He is not a climate scientist. But that’s just the point; he is able to understand the bigger picture to do with the causes and consequences of climate change.

The section of the book Faith in a Changing Climate that is to do with Hubris and Nemesis closes with the following words.

. . . the last three hundred years have been a time like no other in the history of humanity. It’s as if a person has been living within her current modest income and then is suddenly given a large inheritance. She spends the inheritance and has a wonderful time. But when the money is gone she has, once more, to live on her modest income, but has much greater expenses to take care of. She should, of course, have invested the inheritance such that she could live of the additional income generated without depleting her capital. But she didn’t.

This is the position in which we find ourselves now. Our inheritance was the stored energy contained in fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. We should have invested in learning how to create renewable energy sources. But we didn’t. We should have invested in technologies that prevent us from destroying the planet’s environment. But we didn’t.

Francis I — A Renaissance Man
Francis I