by Dr. David Diener
My previous post discussed the challenge that digital screen technology poses for spiritual solitude. Another important aspect of our spiritual lives challenged by digital screen technology is contemplative silence. Like solitude, throughout the history of the Christian tradition contemplative silence has been understood to be an important component of a healthy spiritual life. From the apostolic writers to the great theologians of the fourth century to the medieval mystics, many have highly valued the study and practice of silence. One reason for this is the essential role that silence plays in a life of prayer. As C.W. McPherson explains in his book Keeping Silence: Christian Practices for Entering Stillness, “Prayer is a two-way conversation, so it must involve listening to God. And in order to listen, we must be silent. . . . Cultivating silence enables us to understand and recover our own humanity; it serves as a catalyst, bringing the presence of God into our lives and into the world.”
Whether in prayer or contemplative meditation, the cultivation of silence has long been understood to be a valuable, even essential, spiritual practice. Despite these benefits, however, many find contemplative silence to be a difficult discipline. In silence we cannot be conscious only superficially as we can be when surrounded by noise, but rather are brought face-to-face with the depths of our souls. We are reminded, as McPherson notes, “of ultimate questions, of life and death, of meaning, of finitude. Many of these are issues that people prefer, consciously or unconsciously, to avoid.” Wrestling with these issues makes us uncomfortable because in silence they are brought to the fore. According to Maggie Ross in her book Silence: A User’s Guide, the very mention of silence in today’s society “instills fear into the majority of Western human hearts.”
While the practice of contemplative silence always has been difficult, digital screen technology makes it almost impossible due to its continual bombardment of stimulation. The glut of images and sounds that are pushed into our eyes and ears systematically accustoms us to an incessant yet often superficial “background noise” that makes silence—true contemplative silence—almost impossible. As Ross explains, “our minds, overloaded with extraneous information, and stressed by the frenetic speed required merely to stay alive in our artificial world, have lost their relationship with the original silence. . . . This loss of communion has gradually eroded our humanity.” McPherson similarly notes that, “Noise is now natural to us, while silence is strange and foreign. We have come to accept the current noise level as part of the natural order of things, even though it isn’t.”
Again, the challenge is not merely that our screens make silence harder to obtain. While they do function as a perpetual obstacle to silence, they also, by their nature, condition us against it. They teach us that a life full of noise and devoid of silence is the norm. Contemplative silence thus becomes not only uncomfortable and difficult but also an abnormality that, in our aversion to it, we do not attempt to cultivate.
As I wrote in the previous post on spiritual solitude, I do not think the conclusion we should draw from digital screen technology’s assault on contemplative silence is simply to reject such technology. Digital screen technology is probably here to stay, so the relevant question is: How we can interact with it in ways that minimize its potentially negative effects on our spiritual lives? Given Socrates’s claim that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” we at least ought to examine our lives and consider the effects (desired or not) that digital screen technology is having on us. Based on this analysis, we then should make intentional decisions about how we interact with this technology and the extent to which we permit it to shape us. Digital screen technology certainly offers a number of benefits, but if allowed to flourish unchecked, it also can have serious negative consequences on our spiritual lives that should not be underestimated or ignored.