Presentation discussion for Sebastian Mahfood

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I began working at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in the fall of 2000 as a volunteer educational technologist working with a few priests and laymen to help them develop ways in which to use appropriate technologies to resolve long-standing issues in their teaching and learning environments. Over the past nine years, I've grown into the realization that the technologies we use as extensions of ourselves wherever we apply them become an indelible part of our spiritual life. This is not just because of Marshall McLuhan's caveat that every artificial amplification of the human person brings about a natural amputation that leads us into a greater reliance on our tools - though there is something to that - but also because of Walter Ong's explanation that our technologies are transformative of our consciousness.

Once literate, for example, I find that I feel more complete - if such an expression can be used in the comparative - when I'm able to express myself chirographically (either in reading or in writing) than I feel when that option is closed to me. When I hear something I want to remember, I instinctively reach for a pen and paper (proving Plato's thesis in the Phaedrus, perhaps, where he argues that the introduction of writing would cause our memories to diminish in strength). When I learn about a concept that I ought to understand better, I instinctively reach for a book - in today's age, that translates into my ordering it from Amazon.com.

The technologies we allow to transform our consciousness, however, are not active agents that work on our passive natures - the only way they can be truly transformative, in fact, lies in our being actively engaged in developing them as extensions of our personalities, of our acting natures. Any technology that is merely thrust upon us is not a tool but a foreign object. It only becomes a tool when we develop some significant application for it. A data projector in a classroom, then, is no more an extension of the lecturer who's only ever used plastic transparencies than was a cell phone to my aging grandparents who never knew how to use one to call for help when they fell. When we develop an application for a new tool, on the other hand, we come to rely upon that tool to enable us to perform in a certain way, and we feel its loss when it is no longer available to us.

That point being made, it's a smaller step to exploring the inverse of the maxim "who we are enables what we do." This explanation of the relationship between "being" and "acting" is an important one for us in spiritual terms because it also means that what we do is an extension of who we are. The way in which we extend ourselves in the world is directly correlated to the spiritual presence we have as contingent beings within that world. The technologies that we use as extensions of ourselves, then, are instruments of our spiritual presence in the lives of others analogous to the way that sex is defined as the corresponding physical expression of the spiritual union present within a relationship. If our bodies are instrumental for spiritual union in a certain kind of relationship, that is, then our bodily extensions are also instrumental for spiritual union in other kinds of relationships.

Because the nature of our spiritual presence is relational, we have to remember, as I wrote in the attached article that defines what I call a personalization principle, that the technologies we use as extensions of ourselves never interact merely with other technologies but always with other people who are using their technologies as extensions of themselves, too. Whenever we encounter an object in cyberspace, consequently, whether it be a chirograph, a photograph, an audiograph, or a videograph, we are encountering another person - a human person - who put it there - even if we are only encountering that other person asynchronously.

The implications this has for distance learning initiatives and for other kinds of relationships expressed through communicative media should impress upon us the value of others in our lives rather than isolate us. Every click within a browser window is a search for relationship even if the habits and dispositions we bring to these encounters blind us to that reality, for we may persevere in viewing that which we find online as digitally chthonic, as having sprung up from the ground, as it were, with no parent or guardian to defend it against objectification as a freely appropriated artifact. This reality is what gives intellectual property rights a moral - even spiritual - basis.

In nine years, then, as coordinator of instructional technology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, this is what I've learned about spiritual formation in cyberspace - that it has to be intentionally engaged through all eight semesters of a seminarian's sojourn, and it has to be dealt with at the level of their most basic experiences in cyberspace. Future priests should come to understand the grammar of cyberspace as a relational tool that enables them to reach parishioners who have already integrated cyberspace into their realspace relationships.

As John Paul II and the Pontifical Council for Social Communications have put it - the Church must enter cyberspace and make it a truly human place, for if there is no room for Christ 'in there,' then there is no room for man. I advance this idea in the first semester graduate writing seminar, I teach, and my ongoing work with the faculty in facilitating their development of appropriate technologies enables them to meaningfully enter cyberspace with students they are forming for the Catholic priesthood.

We've extended this work into our exclusively online teaching and learning environments by spearheading a Wabash-funded consortium of seminaries called the Catholic Distance Learning Network, which enables, to paraphrase John Paul II's idea of the nuptial meaning of the body, our seeking relationships with others in cyberspace and our participation within those relationships. The Network enables participating seminaries to share human and material resources with one another through the offering of online courses freely available to any of their students for transfer credit.

A possible vision for the road ahead lies in the development of reciprocal agreements with non-Catholic theological consortia and, for the sake of interfaith dialogue, with non-Christian theological consortia. The days of Tielhard de Chardin's noosphere are already upon us, and we live in the Christosphere that he predicted would arise through the technologization of the world. With only 1.5 billion humans online at various levels of training and mostly at the level of consumption rather than production, we are only at the beginning of a long journey that lies ahead of us. Those of us with an understanding of the nature of cyberspace as a tool of spiritual formation have a responsibility, I think, to humanity to be part of the kind of evangelization that will transform the world through the love of Jesus Christ.
Attachments:
Just in is an article I co-authored with Fr. Sergius Halvorsen and Dr. Mary Beckmann. It's located at http://www.kenrickparish.com/halvorsenmahfoodbeckmann.pdf and is entitled "Online Teaching and Learning:
On the Road to Developing Distance Learning Standards for Communities of Learners."

The point of the article is to emphasize the importance of learning communities in online teaching and learning. It resonates with today's presentation given by Dr. Greg Bourgond.

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