March 1997


The Future Shape of Religious Structures

by Richard Thieme

Religious artifacts are symbolic structures. Whether sacred writings, liturgies of word, music, and drama, or institutional and organizational structures, such symbolic constructs are always maps in danger of being mistaken for the territory. That's why Buddhists warn us not to confuse the finger pointing toward the moon with the moon, for example. (In Judeo-Christian tradition, we call it "idolatry" when we confuse words or images of God for God).

All religious structures simultaneously exist on two levels: variable structures, bound by time and space, comprise the forms of religious experience, while the meta-structure includes and transcends all variable structures, both actual and potential. The meta-structure is like a Jungian archetype in that it can be known only in and through its concrete manifestations in our lives.

The four great eras of the Technology of the Word--speech, writing, printing, and electronic media--each gave birth and are giving birth to distinctive forms of spirituality and religious experience.

We still live in the lingering context of the Textual Beings who are constitutive of the dominant world religions. The patriarchs, founders or messiahs--Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, and others --all emerged in human consciousness during that very narrow bandwidth of historical time that coincided with the ubiquity of writing. Their translation from flesh-and-blood human beings into oral constructs and in turn into textual beings enabled them to mediate meaning to the cultures that coalesced around their symbolic presence.

Electronic Media and Psychic Life

Now electronic media, of which the global computer network called the Internet is both a primary vehicle and a symbol, are transforming the variable forms of religious structures into digital images.

The psychic life of beings constellated in pixels will differ from the psychic life of beings embedded in text. Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and the rest have already been translated into myriads of digital images and will no doubt persist as digital beings.

But it is also likely that digital beings will evolve to mediate new forms of spirituality and religious experience for those who are being programmed or "back-engineered" by their interaction with computer networks to experience themselves and things external to themselves in new perceptual forms.

The forms of information technology with which we habitually interact teach us to be the kinds of beings who interact with them effectively. We are in a symbiotic relationship with the structures of information technology; new technologies transform how we apprehend meaning, constitute ourselves, our lives, our cultures as meaningful, and reflect upon ourselves through metaphors generated by that very interaction.

As digital humanity hungers for wholeness and meaning, redemption, deliverance and healing, in short, for spiritual transformation, digital constructs will evolve to mediate those possibilities in new ways, including and transcending all that has gone before.

It is reasonable to expect the emergence of a digital messiah and equally reasonable to expect that--in addition to good ones--legions of false digital messiahs (constructs that are just a little bit off the mark, like all tempting heresies) will climb onto their simulated soapboxes and gather disciples in cyberspace as televangelists and radio preachers gathered audiences before them.

The Religious Structures of the Future

Religious structures of the near future will be determined by three defining realities.

  1. Religious structures will be shaped by the "space" created by a singular global economy.

    The American experience is now the world's experience. In America, many religious people believe simultaneously in two mutually exclusive things: (1) my religious belief system is right and (2) everyone is entitled to his or her own religious beliefs.

    Even fundamentalists (who ironically resemble one another more than the modernists in their own traditions, whether Jews, Moslems, or Christians) are borne along on the irresistible tides of modernity and must live with this paradox. There is, after all, nowhere else to go. The Tao moves in only one direction, and we can move with it or--we can move with it.

    Once a villager owns a radio and hears a broadcast, the isolation of the village is over. The emergence of a "sacred canopy" perhaps analogous to "civil religion" in America--a consensus reality that factors in the relativity of traditions, each of which claims nevertheless to be exclusive--can enable us to live together without mutual assured destruction. The American experiment is the laboratory in which the planet earth is testing this possibility.

  2. The transformation of religious structures is driven by the same revolution in information technologies that drives the transformation of all organizations and institutions. The shape of religious structures will be determined by the shape of the virtual world.

    The translation of experience into text, images and other symbolic constructs which are mediated through a digital interface means that we all live, and move, and have our very being in a simulation. As Baudrillard observes, we are simulating not only experience, however, but also our symbolic constructions of experience, giving us what he calls simulacra, copies of copies that may have no originals.

    Computers are symbol manipulating machines; so are human beings. The interface of our parallel evolution is a rising spiral of mutual transformation. That spiral is generating a community life mediated by digital symbols which will include constructs fusing the attributes of avatars, smart agents, java applets, and other emergent digital realities in the distributed computer network of the world. Some of them will mediate religious experience or govern the boundaries of spiritual communities so effectively that we may even mistake them for gods.

    "Imaginary gardens with real toads in them"--that's how Marianne Moore defined poetry. That is cyberspace as well. Spirituality in cyberspace today is mostly implicit because those symbolic markers have not yet evolved that identify our virtual experience as universally meaningful, in the way that the Hebrews transformed historical events into religious symbols that in turn pointed to all historical events as potential carriers of spiritual meaning. Those constructs, glowing with the ineluctable allure of the numinous, are emerging out there on the edges of virtual life, where they always appear first. Perhaps MUDs, MOOs, and MUSHes, the brackish tidewaters of life online, are habitats in which they will evolve, crawling out of the water on stumpy little legs, breathing air for the first time and looking around with wonder at the sacred groves of cyberspace.

  3. Religious structures of the future will be determined by the dynamics of interplanetary culture.

    Past encounters of one culture with another have always been occasions of hierarchical restructuring.

    This singular world I have described, a global political economy defined by consensus realities--including religious - mediated by electronic networks, will experience its unity-in- diversity for a fleeting moment before it enters the larger life of inter-planetary culture.

    The exploration of outer space is simultaneously the exploration of inner space. There is only one journey, the expansion of self-conscious awareness through spacetime.

    McLuhan reminds us that Columbus was a map maker before he was a voyager. Making maps discloses new possibilities as we internalize "outer space" into "inner constructs." The images of colliding galaxies, exploding stars, and proto-planetary systems disclosed by the Hubble Telescope on the screens of our computers is one way we are mapping the possibilities of the next century onto our awareness.

Religious systems fused with remnants of bronze-age thinking locate our planet at the center of the universe. Only recently and with great pain did we wrench ourselves toward the sun as a new center, and more recently toward the black hole--symbol of the luminous darkness into which we can not peer--at the center of our galaxy. We are like children wiping away the mist on the side-windows of an automobile, just beginning to see something other than our own reflections. We are taking baby steps out of our comfortable houses, down the steps and onto the sidewalk, for the first time.

One day we will even walk all the way around the block.

Possible encounter with other planetary cultures will shock us into a new understanding of what it means to be human beings on the planet earth. Our theological reflection will incorporate and be changed by ways of thinking that are genuinely alien. We cannot imagine on this side of an encounter how we will frame ourselves as humanity after the fact.

The meta-structure of our religious traditions is not limited to our planet or even our galaxy. The variation of form that pours from the womb of the universe will shock us, shake us to the core, and snap us into an awakening of exploding souls. But have no fear. When the dust settles, the meta-structure will hold. It always holds. There is nowhere else, after all, for the universe to go.

Richard Thieme (, owner of ThiemeWorks, is a professional speaker, consultant, and writer. His focus is the impact of computer technology on people and organizations. Called "a prominent American techno-philosopher" by LAN Magazine in Australia, he helps people understand the relationship of computer networks to their lives and stay flexible during times of accelerated change. He works with businesses, government, and school districts on everything from the transformation of religion in cyberspace to the stresses of working in virtual organizations.

Copyright © 1997 by Richard Thieme. All Rights Reserved.

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