Saturday, March 7, 2009

Communicating with God

Reflection on one's faith is one of the oldest sources for the creation of art in a variety of media. With the emergence of modernism, this source became supplemented by reflection on the faith of others (with both positive and negative connotations). According to a story filed last night on the BBC NEWS Web site, Dutch artist Johan van der Dong chose to consider the role that technology plays in such reflection:

An art exhibition opening in the Netherlands will allow people to call a telephone number designated for God - but they will have to leave a message.

Dubbed God's Hotline, it aims to focus attention on changes to the ways Dutch people perceive religion.

Dutch artist Johan van der Dong chose a mobile phone number to show that God was available anywhere and anytime, Radio Netherlands reported.

Critics say the project mocks those with religious beliefs.

Forming part of an art installation in the town of Groningen, the voicemail message says: "This is the voice of God, I am not able to speak to you at the moment, but please leave a message."

Exhibition spokeswoman Susanna Groot said there was no intention to offend anyone.

"In earlier times you would go to a church to say a prayer and now [this is an] opportunity to just make a phone call and say your prayer in a modern way."

Instead, the aim is to provoke debate about the priorities of modern life.

The very idea of communication between man and God is so rooted in Western civilization that it can be traced all the way back to the third chapter of Genesis (where the conversation is not about prayer but about the first violation of one of God's rules). Prayer is but one of several ways in which religious rites are ultimately about communicating with God, so it is no surprise that contemporary artists should continue to reflect on the nature of this communication in terms of both the technologies and priorities (as Groot put it) of modern life.

I have always thought that one of the best interpretations of prayer was expressed by Peter Barnes in his play and screenplay for The Ruling Class. In the film Peter O'Toole plays Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney - 14th Earl of Gurney, the youngest of a long line of English nobles with an apparent history of eccentricities. Jack's particular eccentricity is that he goes around dressed like Jesus in a Passion Play and believes he is the embodiment of God. Early in the script we encounter the following exchange:

Lady Claire Gurney: How do you know you're God?
Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney, 14th Earl of Gurney: Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself.

I find this entirely consistent with George Herbert Mead's assertion that conversation is not limited to our exchange of linguistic symbols with others. We can also "exchange" those symbols with ourselves; and Mead even argued that the best characterization of thought is in terms of conversations we hold with ourselves.

Recent technologies have reinforced Mead's assertion in some interesting ways. I was a student when Joseph Weizenbaum first released his Eliza program on the MIT Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) in 1966. Following the "non-intrusive" precepts of psychoanalyst Carl Rogers, this program "conversed" with the user by doing little more that providing cues to encourage the user to maintain the conversation. The "doctor" version of this program structured its cues around the sorts of things that a Rogerian might say in an analysis session. As Weizenbaum's Wikipedia entry puts it:

Weizenbaum was shocked that his program was taken seriously by many users, who would open their hearts to it.

Weizenbaum further observed that many (including his own secretary) would only use the program if they were left alone in a room with a connection to it. However, his "shocked" reaction missed the point: His software had provided users with the opportunity to converse with themselves about their problems, thus satisfying Rogers' hypothesis that conversation-with-self (as in Mead's serious thought) provided the best path to working through those problems. Eliza offered the first technology-based secularization of prayer.

Once we recognize that communicating with God is more like conversation-with-self than like an actual dialog, we appreciate that there is no reason to expect God to reply, so to speak. We can thus put down our thoughts on a piece of paper and cram that paper into the remaining wall at the site of the ruins of the Jerusalem Temple (the "Wailing Wall"); and I remember that, when fax technology became a commonplace, those who looked after the site of the wall set up a fax machine. You could send off a fax to that machine; and someone "on site" would take care of "delivering it to the Wall," so to speak. All van der Dong has done is replace fax technology with voice mail technology and circumvented the need for the Wall. I can see why those who attribute "divine power" to the Wall could take offense; but, once we understand (as Barnes did) the real nature of prayer, there is nothing particularly radical about leaving a message on "God's cell phone." For all we know, van der Dong's installation may revive an appreciation of the true nature of prayer; and, viewed in the context of those "priorities of modern life," would that be such a bad thing?

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