Winter 1988, Vol.40 No. 4, pp. 292-307.

Dennis C. Smolarski:
      The Spirituality of Computers

Although Christians may regard computers with suspicion as they reshape the fabric of life today, this new technology of communication also has the capacity to enhance our appreciation of the marvels of creation and redemption.

Fr. Dennis Smolarski, S.J., earned a doctorate in computer science at the University of Illinois and teaches mathematics and computer science at the University of Santa Clara, California. His well-received book, How Not to Say Mass, was published in 1987 by Paulist Press.

AT the end of the movie Stand by Me, the author-narrator finishes typing the text of his reflections into his home computer. He then appears to reach for the power switch to turn his machine off. At some showings, I am told, viewers have reacted instinctively by shouting, "save it!" Losing hard work because of forgetting to save a file is a very common experience. As a result, some computer owners cannot restrain themselves from giving helpful advice, even in a theater.

The computer has become well-established in the United States. It is a rare individual who has not encountered some sort of computer, whether it be the "intelligent" cash register at the market, the automated teller at the bank, the word processor at the office, or the home computer in the den. But what are we, as believers, to make of this new marvel?

My basic suggestion is that we have no more or less to fear from our newly-found mechanical friend than we had to fear from the automobile, the telephone, the radio, or the television. A tremendous amount of good that has occurred because of these inventions. In the hands of certain individuals, evil has occurred as well. These marvelous inventions have at one and the same time made our lives simpler and also more complicated. With their assistance, more can be accomplished with less effort on our part. Yet we also realize that, with their assistance, more can be done in building up the Kingdom of God.

Nevertheless, as with so much that is part of this world, even though we may have very little to fear, believers may still need to be cautious in using this new marvel. For, it seems to me, if problems do arise, they may result more from human misuse of a new part of God's creation, than because of any intrinsic evil in creation itself. Sin still exists in our world. Human beings continue to experience weakness. Individuals continue to serve themselves, rather than imitate Christ in serving others. Often we find individuals who are unwilling to look to the future and to use their talents (and created reality) to benefit the human race. Instead, they (albeit often unconsciously) remain self-serving and remain locked in an unhealthy and nostalgic past.

It also seems to me that as believers, we may also need to rethink our world-view and re-orient our energies, especially as computers are used more and more to do things we thought only people could do before. Finally and perhaps most importantly, we need to avoid a "direction by default" approach to the influence of computers in our world. We need to take a lead in determining appropriate uses, rather than be led by others who may have less of a divine vision of our world. As David Lyon suggests in his 1986 book, The Silicon Society, we need to shape the new technology before it shapes us.(1)


Misuse of God's creation always raises religious and moral issues, and the widespread presence of computers in our world merely adds another source of questions. Since the introduction of lowcost personal computers into homes in the early 1980s, numerous issues have already risen which some might (at least remotely) consider to be questions of a moral and religious nature. For example, how moral is it to copy expensive software, when (at least for the time-being) I cannot afford a personal copy myself? Or, how well-tested does my program have to be before I can sell it to my customer? What about "computer crimes"? How moral is it to use someone else's computer via phone lines, when the other individual doesn't provide enough security? (Remember the movie War Games in which World War III was almost started by a teenager who dialed into a defense computer!) What about displaced workers when a factory computerizes the assembly line? Is there an obligation to re-train workers, just because a company wants to keep up to date? Or does the company have a obligation to keep the factory only "semi-automatic," thereby integrating human and mechanical workers together?

Several years ago, Jeremy Campbell of the London Express reported that several major errors involving computers had led to near disasters. One item was particularly interesting. During a summer war games exercise off San Francisco, a Navy gun was shot in the wrong direction and nearly hit a Mexican freighter on the open seas at what should have been a safe distance away. This was due to a typographical mistake in programming the computer. But it raises the question of the moral use of machines which, in effect, make major decisions for us without human verification. We cannot continue naively to believe that "since the results come from a computer, they must be correct!"

Sometimes the religious issues which develop from new technologies are subtle. Often it takes a while for people to realize that problems that can and do arise. Computers may be put to use today in situations which we may regret (or at least reconsider) ten years from now. Are we unreflectingly using computers today in ways that can be destructive to our moral and religious life?

California newspaper columnist Dan Walters of the McClatchy News Service wrote in a column about the use of computers in government and politics and a debate about software to produce direct mailing lists which could be used to influence political views.(4) Walters concluded: "The debate demonstrates that the computer is simply a tool, lacking a moral compass of its own. And like so many tools, it can be used for benevolent purposes or malevolent ones." Although his conclusion hauntingly echoes the slogan of the National Rifle Association that "Guns Don't Kill People, People Kill People," nevertheless, the truth remains that computers (and any tool created by the human brain) can be used for good and for ill, depending on the user. Computers do not merely exist -- they are used, and it is in regard to their use that moral questions arise.

In one sense, every technological advance raises new moral and legal questions, which Christians need to address as people who live "in the world, but are not of it." Many of the moral questions raised by computers are not all that different from questions raised by the introductions of other new technologies. Yet, there may be some significant questions which were not raised by other recent inventions and which deserve special reflection by believers. And, even more important, what about the 'hidden' effects of any new technology? Too often the new invention may seem neutral at the moment, until upon reflection we realize the damage it has done! Television is a good invention, but how many election results have changed because of misleading political television commercials?


In his book, Turing's Man: Western Culture in the Computer Age, David Bolter suggests that the computer, like the clock, the printing press, the engine, and the car, is a "defining technology," that is, a technological advance that drastically affects how we act and define ourselves.(5) Like the clock, which mechanically imitates the motion of the sun, the computer has altered the way we live to such a degree that we now tend to define ourselves by computers (and clocks) rather than the other way around.

Bolter's book raises interesting questions for believers. How do we "define" or view ourselves in this post-computer era? Instead of viewing ourselves as created in the "image and likeness of God," do we now tend to view ourselves as highly sophisticated biological computers? How does this new selfimage influence our prayer-life?

Bolter goes on to make an even more penetrating and startling statement when he writes, "if religion survives in the computer age, it will do so only by accommodating itself to a new, drastically reduced scale for both God and nature."(6) Bolter's thesis is that we now think of our world as finite -- we do not worship the infinite. We feel limits -- the ultimate confines of the materials we work with. And within those limitations we are creative and we re-define ourselves.


Unlike previous defining technologies, the computer is different in the amount of interaction it requires of an individual. A vivid example of this is seen in interactive computer video games. The programs which underlie the operation of a computer or video game so mimic the action of another human being (intelligent life), that the user feels as if he or she is "speaking" to an equal (reflect on your reaction to the computer HAL in the movies 2001 and 2010). This can raise significant questions about humancomputer interactions which are distinctively different from questions raised with regard to previous technological advances. For example, Geoffrey and Elizabeth Loftus (both psychologists) suggest in their book Mind at Play: The Psychology of Video Games, that playing a pornographic video game can be a much more serious event than watching a pornographic movie, precisely because of the interaction that is necessary with the computer.(7) This phenomenon has even reversed itself to the extent that among some people, the verb "to interface" is used for humanto-human discussions.

Bolter suggests that our (exalted?) evaluation of God and nature in the past was due to the limitations that we felt were inherent in all of creation. In the face of those limitations, human beings felt the need to identify something that was limit-less. Hence, God and nature were able to account for the unaccountable, and this "love of infinity" (which formed our notions of God and nature) shaped much of western culture, and in Bolter's view even led to many modern world excesses.(8)

I do not completely share Bolter's views. The reality of God remains unaffected by the advance of technology and by our continual re-evaluation of what the human race can or cannot do. However, Bolter does present an insight when he suggests that we need to re-evaluate the role of limitation in our lives.

With major advances being made in computers almost annually we are faced with two seemingly contradictory positions. First of all, "limitation" seems to be an outmoded concept. This year's top-of-the-line model will be on next year's bargain clearance table. We appear to be in a situation in which we need only wait a few years until technology will have advanced to such a point where we will be able to eliminate those things now viewed as limitations. As E. F. Schumacher said in Small is Beautiful, "a breakthrough a day keeps the crisis at bay."(9) Yet, we realize we are bound by the limits of our machinery and understanding, and we accept those limitations, at least temporarily. There may be a hope that we may be able to go beyond a specific limit, but the infinite vision of the past is no longer there. In this revised vision of our world and our abilities, Bolter asks, what role (if any?) does God have?

And what of the "intelligence" that seems to be exhibited by these latest machines? What about this new field of "artificial intelligence" that is the hot topic of conversation? In the movie War Games, human beings were replaced by computers in missile command stations, because the machines could make the same decisions faster and more accurately, and not be affected by emotions (e.g., the machine would not worry about the fact that pushing a button might eliminate all life on earth as we know it!). But, for a Christian, should any significant decision ever be made solely based on raw logic without any concern based on love? Should we ever give in to the temptation to side step our responsibility for ultimate decisions, by passing the burden on to a machine? In Robert Bolt's play (and movie), A Man for All Seasons, St. Thomas More, imprisoned in the tower of London, speaks to his wife and daughter. They have come to beg him to make the logical, "reasonable" decision and sign the oath of allegiance to King Henry VIII. More's reply was: "it isn't a matter of reason; finally it's a matter of love."(10) Christians who believe in a God of Love (cf. 1 John), and who are faithful to Christ's commandment to "love one another," must continually make love the basis for their lives and their decisions.


The proliferation of computers over the last few years has also introduced other types of subtle changes. For most of us, it is hard to imagine life without cars, airplanes, telephones, radios, televisions, and, now, computers. Each of these technological breakthroughs shifted our vision of ourselves (or, perhaps more precisely, our view of our interrelationship with our world), some more than others. As a background example, let us consider the telephone.

Today, unlike a century ago, communication, aural as well as visual, can be instantaneous from one part of the world to another. One can reach for a telephone and dial directly to the other side of the earth in a matter of seconds. It is hard to conceive what life would be like without the ever-present telephone (even without call-forwarding and call-waiting features). Yet, in many ways, our spirituality has only begun to admit that questions involving modern technology need to be addressed, and that traditional religious ways of proceeding may now need to be modified to keep up with the latest inventions (e.g., television evangelists have done a better job in staying abreast of technological advances than have Vatican cardinals).

Over 400 years ago, in the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius of Loyola listed rules for Jesuits to follow in choosing apostolic works, when no easy recourse was had to a superior (cf. VII, cc. 2 and 3). Centuries ago, long distance communication (if one were lucky) required letters and couriers, and was far from instantaneous. How Ignatius would have written those rules today, with someone having virtually immediate access to any level of superior from practically any part of the world via telephones, is anyone's guess! Immediate replies are certainly in line with our contemporary culture, but they may not always be (spiritually) preferable compared to those replies which are the fruit of time and prayer. Although in many situations, "speed is of the essence" may be the motto, time also is a value, particularly in situations where emotions play a role and where insight is needed. Unfortunately, insight, like God himself and things like relaxation, cannot be rushed!

The use of computers raises similar questions. Besides being used for information (data) processing (such as data base storage and searches, word processing, etc.), the other major contemporary use of computers is for "number crunching" -- performing classical mathematical operations. In fact, for many years, computers were used only as giant adding machines. Up to a few years ago, mathematicians had given up on certain problems, because verification was impossible for human beings, even working in teams for a life-time. Such rote work can now be performed by a machine in a matter of days or even hours. The domain of interest for some mathematicians is now shifting from that of being able personally to produce ultimate results, to being able to produce the computational rules (i.e., "algorithms") which would enable a machine to produce the ultimate results. How significant is this shift? For some people, it is minor. For others, it is a major de-humanization of the discipline, and turns a discipline which took time and had prided itself with "elegance" and "beauty" in proofs into a discipline whose products are fed to machines which themselves grind out answers instant- aneously. Is the same shift happening with our spiritual lives spiritually, as well? Is a sense of wonder and inquisitiveness being lost because we can so easily turn to a computer for help?


Similar shifts have occurred before in history, some with serious theological implications. Thomas S. Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, uses the title "paradigm" to describe scientific systems purported to explain some aspect of our world.(11) Thus, two well-known paradigms describing our solar system were expounded by Ptolomy and Copernicus. For Ptolomy (and the book of Genesis), the earth was the center of the universe. For Galileo and Copernicus, this was not so. In both paradigms, scientists could predict natural phenomena with the same exactness. Even today, we still say that the sun "rises" and "sets" even though we know the sun is not moving at all. But what does it mean for a believer to shift paradigms? What does it mean for a believer to realize that his belief system (e.g., the Genesis account) is not literally true? What does it mean for a believer to come to grips with the scientific truth that the pinnacle of God's creation (the human person) is not the center of the universe, as was once believed?

Belief in Biblical literalism is not easy to relinquish for some individuals, and there are numerous non-religious implications of some of these beliefs. The United States Supreme Court as recently as June 19, 1987, ruled on a case involving a Louisiana Law demanding that "Creation Science" be taught whenever evolution was taught in schools. Human beings are less eager to change their minds and try new things when they are faced with bidding farewell to tenets of faith which they thought were rocks of stability in an ever-changing world. Galileo, as one famous example, suffered the consequences of the tenacity of other believers. But conflicts over paradigm shifts are not limited to bygone centuries. Many of us experienced the spiritual turmoil of the mid-1960's which resulted from the Church's shift in paradigms from a Latin mass to one in the vernacular. A significant number of people, after over twenty years, have still not adjusted to that particular shift of paradigms.

In the Copernican scientific revolution, there was a definite change in paradigms, and in that case, for some people, the change was traumatic, since the two paradigms are fundamentally incompatible -- one cannot hold that both the sun and the earth are centers of the universe at the same time. However, sometimes the shift is less dramatic, as far as the believer is concerned. Newtonian mechanics works quite well in the world as we perceive it (as does Euclidean geometry). However, it takes Einstein's Relativity (along with non-euclidean geometry) to make sense of the world of inter-stellar space. One might say that Newton's theory is a special case of Einstein's even though the underlying language and concepts differ, and that the theory might still need to be expanded even beyond Einstein. However, for most people, this shift in paradigms does not drastically affect their self-image.


I am not suggesting that we are on the verge of a shift in paradigms as drastic as that which occurred shifting from Ptolomy to Copernicus. However, subtle shifts are no less important, and the presence of computers is producing many such subtle shifts. In the face of these technological wonders that the modern human mind has created, I, for one, feel less in control of my world than I once did. I feel more in awe of the "work of human hands" especially since that "work" controls more and more of my life.

I also wonder how many more computers I will see in the future -- whether ten years from now, there were be any human bank tellers or any human grocery check-out clerks. Our society is de-humanized enough without people experiencing less and less human contact. Automation and mechanization can also lead to a certain amount of minimalism, as history has shown, and minimalism has had unhealthy consequences for our faithlife. The American Bishops in their 1978 document, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, suggested that many of the problems we experienced in liturgy in the past were due to a minimalistic and mechanistic approach to sacraments and symbols (par. 14), which among other problems seemed to hold efficiency as a high religious value. We assume that certain decisions are made by humans now -- will that assumption be true twenty years from now? Will any changes be for the better?

But interacting with computers has other dimensions as well. Every time one of my computer programs fails to run because of a simple (or not-so-simple) error, I once again realize my limitations and I feel more and more at home with St. Paul's quotation of Christ: "My grace is enough for you, for in weakness power reaches perfection" (2 Cor 12: 9). It takes humility and patience to be put into your place time and time again by a bunch of metal and wires which sits next to your desk.

My computer also challenges me, as an educated believer, in the same way those other modern inventions of communication challenge me -- radio and television. These inventions can reach so many so easily -- how can I influence what is being communicated? My talents in the field of radio and television are limited -- but what influence can I have at all in this new world of computers?


St. John's gospel and first letter use the image of "Word" to present the reality of Jesus. For John, the Greek word logos summarized God the Father's relationship to Jesus. That Word, we are told, became flesh and pitched his tent in our world (John 1:14). Logos, or its usual English translation, 'Word," is a word which at one time expanded its meaning with reflection. This was partially due to the way that "words" were used in culture -- they were oral tools to convey meaning, truth, and wit, among other things. They were finely crafted and well-spoken. And sacred scripture built on this human experience. The psalmist tells us that "by the word of the Lord the heavens were made . . . for he spoke, and it was made..." (Ps. 33: 6,9).

The advent of the printing press several centuries ago changed our perception of the word. In many parts of the world, a word is no longer something primarily spoken, but rather something primarily read -- no longer oral, but visual. Words are now meant to be examined, looked at, admired, but not necessarily heard. Until recently, the visual was merely meant as an aid to convey the more important oral meanings. But as more and more writers use computers for word processing, the visualization of words on a page (or computer monitor) rather than the original content may be the determining factor as to how something is written.

In addition to the way we utilize words, the metaphor "word" (i.e., the total set of meanings, nuances, and interconnections) has itself shifted. In a few years it may be impossible to recover its original meaning -- a meaning which biblical writers capitalized upon. Some have suggested this "metaphor-shifting" has already occurred with other biblical words, e.g., "sacrifice." We continue to use the word "sacrifice," but are totally out of touch with its original religious meaning, and, in fact, we may even have reached the point of non-recovery!


For many technicians, the word is now an electronic reality, used to convey a unit of information. It is best if it only has a univocal meaning -- ambiguity leads to problems in computers. Computer words do not last long -- they are here today and erased tomorrow. They are an easily dispensable commodity -- not at all enduring like the Word mentioned in Scripture.

The more our culture sees the computer word as the fundamental reality of "word," the harder and harder it will be to understand our relationship to Jesus as the Word of God. We are overwhelmed with computer words, and, to a great degree, with the visual printed words these computers generate. We now have so many words we have to build machines to shred them. How can we speak about being "starved for the Word," and also speak about and "shredding words," without some sort of schizophrenia? How can we reflect meaningfully on the reality that the "Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us;" when we most often think about the word becoming "processed" on the computer in the den or office?


John H. Wright, S.J., in his book, A Theology of Christian Prayer,(12) bases some of his comments on prayer on a distinction made by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in The Phenomenon of Man. Both speak about a "double aspect" to the structure of reality: all (created) things have a within and a without. As Teilhard says, "In the eyes of the physicist, nothing exists legitimately, at least up to now, except the without of things."(13)

Problems which have occurred throughout religious history seem to be due in part to the tendency to give religious answers to non-religious questions, or, to use the terminology above, to give answers about the without of things, as if it was the within of things. Part of the reason for this tendency is due, perhaps, to the inability we have had to identify properly what pertains to the within and what pertains to the without. People in Galileo's day believed that the world as center of the universe was a within question. Now we realize that it is a without question. Thus, most of us have little problem realizing that we can still be the crown of creation, and thus the center of the universe in the realm of God's love, without being at the same time the mathematical/astronomical center of the universe. The within reality endures, while we have seen that the without statement is nonsensical.

The history of salvation has shown us that we must constantly re-think our image of ourselves, and at times, re-adjust that image based on present events which become part of that history. The people of Israel presents a vivid example of a nation which has had to re-understand itself over and over again. God's promises seemed to be dashed time and time again: slavery in Egypt, captivity in Babylon, subjugation by the Romans, the destruction of the Temple, the Holocaust. Yet the basic faith in a God who saves remains. Christians should have a simpler time adjusting to changes in our world because of the revelation of Jesus that what is ultimately important is the love of God and the God of love. Love is the ultimate within, and it is in that image that we are created.

The computer has been described as the first invention by the human race which tried to imitate and assist the human brain rather than human brawn. Yet, the way the computer aids the mind is still basically in the realm of the without, and even though computers may imitate the human mind to an amazing extent, the within of the mind is still something beyond the reach of metal and silicon. We still need to ask why rather than merely asking how.

If some of our contemporaries have re-defined themselves as biological computers, it seems to me that they are missing as much of the picture as those who define themselves as rational animals. Both metaphors tell only so much of the reality and are fundamentally on the level of the without. For Christians, the reality of 'who I am' is based in the God of love who sustains me in my within since God is the ultimate grounding of my existence, and who shares with me divine love so I can share it with others. That love has no limit, even though my poor body which experiences it and tries to share it has more limitations that I would like to admit. The God of all reality calls me continually to stand in awe and wonder, both of God and also of creation, whether that creation be part of nature, or produced through the agency of human hands and minds. We must continue to serve God through the latest technology, and not merely serve the technology itself. The ultimate question is not whether I view myself as a fleshy computer, but whether God views me as simply a biological word processor.


T. S. Eliot once wrote:

All our knowledge brings us nearer to ignorance
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death
But nearness to death, no nearer to God.
Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?     ("The Rock," Chorus I)(14)
Our computer culture is an "information science" culture, but of itself it has brought us no nearer to God or to Divine Wisdom. We need to do that on our own.

I have raised a number of questions and have only begun to give directions for some answers. A few answers should be obvious. For instance, it is not right to duplicate software or dial in to someone's computer without authorization. But other answers may be less obvious, and may require more reflections. For example, how we should view ourselves and our God in a computer age. Some questions may be only first steps toward formulating more significant questions. My hope is that the few thoughts I have shared may lead to more fruitful reflection for readers.

We are still in the infancy of wide-spread computer use. As with the infancy stage of any child, these times are formative and the "child" is very impressionable. Once in a while, both the child and the parent may be overcome by tantrums. But the child which has been born of human talent and effort is quite marvelous. Even more marvelous is the genius of the collective human minds which created it. Rather than reducing my view of God, for me, it increases my wonder of the Creator when I reflect on the marvel I work with many hours of every day. We Christians have a unique opportunity presented to us by the birth of this new brain-child. So many beneficial uses have already been seen in so short a time. With love and direction, we may be able to use the computer (and even newer technological advances to come in the years ahead) to spread the Kingdom of love, peace and joy initiated by Christ our Lord with even more vigor! Let us hope so!


  1. David Lyon, The Silicon Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans and Co., 1986), pp. 7, 52.
  2. Micah 4:3.
  3. Los Angeles Times (December 21, 1984), Section I-A, p. 9.
  4. Santa Barbara News-Press (July 27, 1987), p. A7.
  5. J. David Bolter, Turing's Man: Western Culture in the Computer Age (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), pp. 8-12.
  6. Ibid., pp. 226f.
  7. Geoffrey R. Loftus and Elizabeth F. Loftus, Mind at Play: The Psychology of Video Games (New York: Basic Books, 1983), p. 108.
  8. Cf. Bolter, p. 226.
  9. E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p. 147.
  10. Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons: A Play in Two Acts (New York: Random House) 1962, p. 141.
  11. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, second edition, 1970), p. 10.
  12. John H. Wright, S.J., A Theology of Christian Prayer (New York: Pueblo, 1979), p. 43.
  13. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., The Phenomenon of Man (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), p. 55.
  14. T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems 1909-1935 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1936), p. 179.