In a prior post, my fellow blogger Jordan Lorence wonders if market forces will push university education on-line and thereby undermine censorship at universities. I think that hypothesis is quite plausible since college is becoming prohibitively expensive and the on-line context is harder for administrators to manipulate. But I want to ponder the flip side of Jordan’s thought experiment: what will happen to university students in this predominantly on-line, educational world and does it bode well for religious expression?
Unfortunately, religious expression faces some severe obstacles in the online world. Specifically, I fear that religious expression will suffer because the on-line medium will undermine and dissolve religious community. Indeed, excessive internet use apparently undermines community in general, as Sherry Turkle has documented in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other. And this point resonates with Scripture as well since the Biblical authors lament having to use technology — for them pen and paper — in place of face to face interaction. See Romans 1:11; 2 Timothy 1:4; 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20; 2 John 1:12.
This loss of community, so lamented by the Biblical authors, may severely threaten religious expression in the university context because religious groups rely on community, perhaps even more so than other groups. Without real community to encourage and exhort them, religious students may draw back and refrain from proclaiming their beliefs. And, with Biblical concepts becoming more unpopular amongst students and administrators, religious students may cave to majority opinions around them without strong community backing. See Hebrews 10:32-34; Hebrews 13:3; Hebrews 10:25; Hebrews 11:1-12:3
This outcome is by no means certain. But it is certainly possible. And this possibility should push us to think critically and theologically about technology. It should also push us to protect and strengthen the ability of religious student groups to gather in community. With all the social and technological trends undermining community, we must do whatever we can legally to promote community amongst university students — i.e. protect the right of groups to gather together, to choose their leaders, and to worship together. With such legal protections in place, perhaps Christian student groups can buck the societal trend and offer real, authentic community in the midst of the fragmentation and isolation around them.