Technology Meets Theology

By Dick Anderson Photos by Jim Block

Through an ambitious research and journalism initiative, Steven Barrie-Anthony ’04 curates a conversation about the impact of technology on human relationships

In Dale Wright’s 40-year teaching career, only once did a first-year, first-semester student show up in his office with a research proposal that they wanted to begin immediately. As a religion major at Oxy, Steven Barrie-Anthony ’04 “always had good ideas and interesting plans for what might be done,” says Wright, the David B. and Mary H. Gamble Distinguished Professor in Religion Emeritus. “He always seemed to have the ways and means figured out in advance, even if those entailed fine tuning and adjustments.”

About 18 years after that first office visit, Barrie-Anthony—now a psychoanalyst in private practice and research director at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley—shared a grant proposal draft with Wright for his review. “I could already see it—a huge grant from the Henry Luce Foundation to bring an incredibly diverse group of intellectuals together to consider something that almost nobody had considered before,” Wright says. “That's Steven."

In 2018, Barrie-Anthony received a $475,000 grant from the Luce Foundation to develop and lead Public Theologies of Technology and Presence (PTTP), a research and journalism initiative based at the institute that examines the impacts of technologies on human relationships. “The animating idea is that technologies are radically reshaping the ways in which humans relate to each other, and in ways that call out for attention to deep questions about what it means to be human and to be present with others,” he says.

In his proposal to Luce, Barrie-Anthony postulated that religion scholars from across the disciplines and traditions are uniquely suited to provide insight and guidance regarding technology’s use and creation. “The initiative seeks to bring meaningful new voices into public conversations about how we use technology, and to leverage religion research to help ethically reshape how technologists do their work."

Barrie-Anthony has been interested in the deep, spiritual, interpersonal dimensions of technologies for as long as he can remember. As a technology and culture writer for the Los Angeles Times from 2004 to 2006, “My stories sometimes began with more technical concerns,” he recalls, “but they would often segue in broad human directions, about shifting ways of being human and connecting with others.

“The Luce initiative is really an extension of this lifelong interest: identifying the deep questions, yearnings, hopes, and disappointments that technologies evoke; and sitting with these questions and turning them over to better find our way through them.”

“Steven's vision behind this project targeted a basic question about the effects of technology on who we are as human beings and set out to probe in various directions without any preordained answers,” says Wright, who was instrumental in introducing Barrie-Anthony to folks at the institute. “It was really wide open. And throughout the dozens of applicants who were eager to participate, we could see how this open, unanswered orientation was attractive.”

“It felt like the right moment for this project to come into being,” says Barrie-Anthony, who put out a call for proposals and assembled a demographically and theologically diverse group of 16 grantees—13 academics and three journalists—with the input of an advisory board that included Wright as well as Bob Sipchen, a former senior editor at the Los Angeles Times and an adjunct professor of writing and rhetoric at Occidental for the last 23 years.

“Steven has always had a unique view of the world, founded on his own experiences and his unusually active and nimble thought processes,” Sipchen says. “And that's what he brought to this unusually creative initiative linking technology and spirituality.”

In bringing the initiative to life, Barrie-Anthony also embraced the liberal arts mantra of bringing different disciplines and expertise areas into conversation with one another. “The energy and creativity that emerged from that has been a big piece of this project and of my career in general,” he says. “Oxy really showed me the way in that respect. From early on in college, I was talking to Dale about religious studies and with Bob about journalism and it never felt like the two were in separate domains.”

“The PTTP project has expanded my understanding on the many ways technology is influencing and changing human relationships and the formation of community,” says Ilia Delio, professor and endowed chair at Villanova University and one of the leading Catholic theologians and scholars on technology. “The richness of diverse perspectives has influenced my own research, inspiring me to explore areas such as time, contemplation, Asian religions, Africana religions—areas I would have never considered part of the technology discussions."

Ilia Delio, the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair in Theology at Villanova University.

In August 2020, Delio published Re-Enchanting the Earth: Why AI Needs Religion. “I do not think AI technology can achieve the lofty aim of replacing religion, although some proponents of transhumanism advocate such a position,” she notes. “However, AI technology is changing human personhood and the matrix of human relationships, and the PTTP project explores the many aspects of the new, emerging paradigms of human relationality.”

Prior to the pandemic the grantees met in Berkeley and other locations several times, and later gatherings took place online. In between gatherings, Delio says, “I was in touch with various members of the project who were working on articles or book chapters and asked me to participate in their projects.”

“Questions about our relationship to digital technology in general, and AI in particular, have migrated from geek discussion groups to mainstream films, television, and literature,” says Diane Winston, professor of media and religion at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC and a member of the PTTP advisory board. “By writing for popular media, as well as scholarly circles, the participants in the project shed light on a hot topic.”

Grantee Gregory Price Grieve has been a gamer since he first played Colossal Cave Adventure, a text-based adventure game created by video game pioneer Will Crowther in the 1970s. A professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Grieve has been studying digital religion since 1995; in 2016, he published Cyber Zen: Imagining Authentic Buddhist Identity, Community, and Practices in the Virtual World of Second Life.

Gregory Price Grieve, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

“About three years ago, I had a hunch that video games play a role in popular culture as ‘fictive evils,’ which allow us to grasp, understand and make some sense of actual evil in the world,” Grieve explains. “Through fiction we humans make sense of the humdrum exhausting monstrosity of actual evil.”

Grieve is using his PTTP grant to support the completion of his next monograph, Video Games and the Problem of Evil, which he hopes to complete this summer. The initiative “really helped me think of the difference between fictive and actual evil, and how these play out in popular culture,” he says. “It was very exciting to find others out there doing similar research and asking similar questions.”

Through the PTTP initiative, Grieve became familiar with Boston University Professor Margarita Guillory’s research on the intersections between Africana religion and digital media. He suggested that she submit a book proposal to Routledge, and now her monograph, Africana Religion in the Digital Age, will appear in the premier series for digital religion, Routledge Studies in Religion and Digital Culture, of which Grieve is one of the editors.

Margarita Simon Guillory, associate professor of religion at Boston University.

“For me, the networking opportunities that this initiative afforded remains one of the greatest assets of the overall program,” says Guillory, who also collaborated with journalist and fellow grantee Sigal Samuel on an article for The Atlantic that stemmed from her research on witches of color on social media.

“Much of my earlier research involves analyzing Africana religious traditions as they appear in print media, particularly in 19th-century newspapers, diaries, and letters,” says Guillory, who has taught at Boston University since 2018. “However, for the last six years I've sought to extend this trajectory by looking at how these religious traditions find expression in a variety of media outlets, which include emerging digital technologies.”

With her PTTP grant, Guillory also is developing an app called Religions of the African Diaspora—ROAD, for short. ROAD allows individuals to post videos, photos, and text that capture various depictions of Africana religions. The app will provide users with “a vivid, comprehensive view of religions of the African Diaspora,” she says, and serve as “a site of intersection” for practitioners and interested individuals to converge through Africana religious traditions.

R. John Williams, associate professor of English and film and media studies at Yale and author of The Buddha in the Machine: Art, Technology, and the Meeting of East and West (Yale University Press, 2014), saw the posting for the PTTP project online “and was immediately intrigued,” he recalls. “It seemed to coincide exactly with what I was working on at the time.

“The shape of my research has been radically informed now by the conversations I've been part of at the PTTP initiative,” says Williams. “It was a truly formative and engaging experience”—one that has shaped the development of his next book-length manuscript, World Presence: The Trouble With Mindfulness (which is under contract with the University of Chicago Press).

Williams’ PTTP project, The Spiritual Technologies of Presence, seeks to identify “the points of convergence between our experiences of art and literature and the larger possibilities of a network saturated World Presence.” In interacting with his fellow grantees, “It was helpful and exciting to be engaged in this topic with such a variety of scholars, artists, and technologists,” he says, “but I was also struck by how much my own approach to these things was different from the common assumptions I saw developing in these conversations. My ideas evolved radically during the project, but I also found myself reinforcing some of my own ideas and assumptions.”

Stephen Asma, professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, won a grant by submitting a proposal to study friendship and the new technology. “Friendship is a crucial ingredient in happiness or the good life—what Aristotle called eudaimonia,” he explains. “Face-to-face interactions, social touch, shared physical and mental activities all help forge and sustain friendships.”

Stephen T. Asma, professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago.

Asma’s work examines the levels of embodiment and the strength of friendships in the new digital world. “I’m looking at email communication, gaming, video conferencing, virtual reality, and also social robots and social AI,” he says. “Increases in loneliness are related in part to increases in online life and the reduction of traditional embodied social life. The story is complex, however, and I’m learning that even non-reciprocal and disembodied social interactions can be satisfying and beneficial for people under certain conditions."

The collaborative nature of the PTTP initiative allowed Asma the scholarly environment to try his ideas about friendship (derived from affective neuroscience) on a group of scholars from humanities and social science fields. “This helped me build important theoretical bridges between the biology of friendship and the humanities traditions”—ideas that shaped the later chapters of his 2019 book, The Emotional Mind: Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition (co-written by Rami Gabriel, assistant professor of psychology at Columbia College Chicago).

Asma so enjoyed the PTTP experience that he and a number of his fellow grantees are now collaborating on a book about their work and the idea of presence and technology. “It has been a very insightful and inspiring experience for me, and I think Steven’s leadership brought the best out of all the grantees,” he says. “He created a climate for dynamic interdisciplinary interaction between scholars with diverse viewpoints and training.”

“Part of my enthusiasm in applying for the program was in the broad multi-tradition and multi-discipline appeal of the project,” says Stuart Ray Sarbacker, associate professor of comparative religion and Indian philosophy at Oregon State University. The PTTP initiative supported the completion of his third book, Tracing the Path of Yoga: The History and Philosophy of Indian Mind-Body Discipline, published by SUNY Press in January 2021.

Stuart Ray Sarbacker, associate professor of philosophy and religious studies at Oregon State University.

“Being part of the PTTP initiative profoundly transformed my engagement with issues related to religion and technology in general and specifically on issues regarding human technological augmentation,” says Sarbacker. “Part of this was having the resources to pursue my own research on the application of the ethics of Indian contemplative traditions to emergent technologies, especially of ‘human enhancement.’”

Beyond his own research, Sarbacker found his engagement with his fellow scholars and technologists “perhaps the most transformative and encouraging” outcome of the project. “There was a real spirit of collaboration that developed over time,” he says. “It has definitely changed the trajectory of my work and career, and I think the larger reverberations of the project are going to yield fruitful results across a variety of fields of study for years to come. Steven set the tone for all of us as a scholar and as a serious but also generous, friendly, and encouraging colleague.”

Moesure Avenue in El Cerrito is a very steep street that runs from the El Cerrito and Richmond flats up to near Wildcat Canyon Regional Park in the hills above. “After a long day of sitting and typing, I’ll walk the avenue from its base to its peak and back again—get the blood flowing, the mind going,” says Barrie-Anthony, who lives in the area with his wife, Katie, and their children. “I have done plenty of PTTP thinking while hiking up and down.”

By his count, PTTP has helped support 13 books, more than 50 scholarly chapters and articles, articles in popular media from The New York Times and Vox to Aeon and Tricycle, and more than 80 presentations at venues nationwide. “The relevance and significance of Steven's project on public theologies of technology and presence has increased in the years since he first proposed it,” says Winston, who met Barrie-Anthony when she was new to USC and he was writing at the L.A. Times.

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“I've always thought that Steven is destined to change the world and I think this program is part of his generous and humble effort to do so,” Sipchen adds. “There is no shortage of academics, psychologists, and journalists pushing hard to impose their views on the world. Steven continues to patiently use the insights that stem from his fusion of passions to encourage others to let their ideas blossom in ways that they would not have considered without his influence.”

“This program may have a very long shelf life as new initiatives and new projects come forward,” Wright says. “Steven embeds timeless concerns about meaning, identity, and purpose in cutting-edge scholarship. I'm excited to see what he tackles next.”