Sermon given at Evensong on the Sixth Sunday of Easter 2018

It was once assumed that the internet would make our lives hyper-rational; but we’re constantly distracted, addicted, manipulated, and angry.

The Venerable David Stanton Canon in Residence

Sunday, 6th May 2018 at 3.00 PM

When The Reverend Dr Pete Phillips arrived in Durham ten years ago, he was ejected from the city’s cathedral. He had been reading the Bible on his mobile phone in the pews. Phones then weren’t allowed there, and the person who approached him wouldn’t believe he was using his phone for worship and asked him to leave.

‘I was a bit miffed about that,’ says Phillips, who is director of the CODEC Research Centre for Digital Theology at Durham University. ‘But that was back in 2008.’

Since then the rise of apps and social media has changed the way many Christians worship and even what it means to be religious.

Although it is difficult to imagine life before Facebook, it is helpful to remember just how new social media is. Facebook was launched in 2004, YouTube in 2005, Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010, and Snapchat in 2011.

These sites have revolutionised the way we communicate and yet all is not what it may first appear. When we use them we rarely think beyond the immediate. Do we ever pause to think why it is all free?

Last Wednesday Cambridge Analytica, the firm at the centre of a controversy over misuse of private Facebook data, announced it will be shutting down, starting insolvency proceedings both here and in the US, and no doubt popping up as another company under another name.

Of course we’re right to be horrified by what they’ve done, but contrary to what Mark Zuckerberg would have you believe, their behaviour is nothing new. Political data mining was being used by Barak Obama back in 2008 and even more so with Trump and Brexit. Don’t forget Hilary Clinton used it too; everyone’s at it around the world.

For the most part Cambridge Analytica was only using social media in the way the big tech firms designed them to be used. In other words, free services in exchange for your data.

Facebook, and those like them, have always been gathering information and analysing it to identify our emotional vulnerabilities and exploit them to encourage, to nudge, us into buying a new TV or perhaps in this fine weather some contemporary garden furniture. So, why can’t the same techniques be used to recruit us to a particular cause?

Wave after wave of data collection, analysis and targeting harms our democracy because it means that we’re all subject to subtle forms of manipulation and control.

And those who really know about these things have discovered something even more worrying: emotive and divisive language and images outperform dry, rational arguments. That encourages us to appeal to our most basic, often irrational prejudices.

It is the digital age’s equivalent of old fashioned populism and we know from the experience of the last century what lies at the bottom of that slippery slope.

It was once assumed that the internet would make our lives hyper-rational; that we would make informed decisions on the basis of an abundance of information but the opposite has happened. We’re constantly distracted, addicted, manipulated, and angry. But perhaps the worst is yet to come.

Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t reacted to the Cambridge Analytica scandal by proposing to stop data harvesting, but promised to do it better. But when artificial intelligence really develops, our democracies will be undermined in new and unexpectedly sophisticated ways.

For the faithful it’s all ironic in the extreme because most Christians never make the close connection between politics and faith. Many think it’s too much of a taboo, and shy away from discussing such potentially heated topics.

But if Christianity is true, then it bears on every aspect of life and we must try and examine all things temporal in light of the eternal. If we confine our faith to just 'spiritual' topics, we begin to think inwardly, talk only to ourselves, and make little impact on our world.

Some argue, often a certain type of politician, that social action and religious faith are unrelated. Those with a passion for justice don’t always see a place for faith, and those with religious conviction don’t always see how it can impact society.

But of course there’s a vital connection between the two, and it involves both how we do things, and how we can make the world a better place.

I sometimes think that a new kind of mutated Christianity for a digital age is appearing, one that follows many of the ethics of the secular world.

This form of belief tends to be more focused on the charitable and moral side of the Bible, the underlying tenets of religion, rather than the notion that the Universe was created by an all-seeing, all-powerful creator.

This new form of religion was first described by sociologists in 2005, a year after the launch of Facebook, but it’s been further supercharged by the internet and social media.

In many ways, people appear to be looking for a more personalised religious experience. Many now prefer this generalised picture of God rather than an interventionist God, and they prefer God to Jesus, because he’s non-specific.

He stands behind them and allows them to get on with their own lives rather than Jesus, who comes in and interferes with everything.

Pick-and-mix religious beliefs are not new. But these days it’s easier than ever to fashion an individualised faith. The internet and social media help us to focus on this.

Today we all have more access to information, more viewpoints, and there’s a great temptation to create a spiritual rhythm and path that’s more personalised.

But whether you are like Pete Phillips, quietly reading the Holy Scriptures in Durham cathedral, or more comfortable with a luke-warm meditation before a lit perfumed candle with a little music by Enya in the background; faith demands that we engage our lives with God through Christ.  

Be in no doubt; the Gospel is both a spiritual Gospel and a social Gospel, and if it is a social Gospel then it is in part a political Gospel, because politics is the means by which society chooses to exercise its collective power.

In other words, the Gospel is as much concerned with the decisions you make about your own life as it is with the way you act in society.

The canticle Magnificat, that we heard sung earlier in this service, witnesses to this fact. Jesus lived this out as one who disrupted the political order, challenging both established communal and religious norms and indeed the authority of Rome.

Mentioning Rome, I finish with some apposite words recently uttered by Pope Francis: ‘It’s not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal’.