A meme, if that is the appropriate word, appeared on my Facebook page today. It seems to have been around for sometime, but remains fresh in its significance. It prompted a day of thought:
“If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about today?”
“I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in to arguments with strangers.”
Having an iPhone 6, there was a sense of guilt at the purposes to which it is put, perhaps not pictures of cats, or battles with trolls, but following French rugby matches and reading posts on an eclectic selection of blogs (as well, of course, as reading items on Facebook). Perceptions of reality are shaped by what appears on the screen, by the collective efforts of countless unknown people.
The entirety of human knowledge might not be readily accessed, and, even if it were, reading learned treatises on a mobile phone would be tiresome, but a significant amount of the world’s information is to be found. But who decides what is reliable and what is not? Who applies quality control? No-one. The Internet is an anarchic republic: “anarchic” because it is without rule; republic because it is the ultimate “res publica”, the ultimate public thing.
The thought bounced around in my mind because the church simply has not comprehended what a profound revolution has taken place. RTE Radio’s “History Show” this evening included discussion of the 1935 Dance Hall Act, a law which gave the church effective control of dances. It would have been funny were it not for the fact that clerical control of society had not much about it that was humorous. The bishops still behave as if it were the 1950s, stating opinions on matters of private morality (though, strangely, almost silent on budgets and charges that hurt the poor). Eighty years on from that piece of legislation, the authority of the church has been completely swept away by the new technology; censorship, barriers and prohibitions have become mere punching at the wind.
The technology in our pockets, the unfettered access to information, means ecclesiastical authority is completely relativised, it becomes just one voice among many. The church is thrown back into the First Century, having to struggle for a voice, having to compete for people’s attention; it is compelled once more to speak to people instead of speaking at them. In a world where faith is fostered by interpersonal contact and where local churches only grow where there is a feeling of community, the hierarchical church continues as if mobile phones did not exist.