Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age, Stephen D. Lowe and Mary E. Lowe. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.
Summary: Proposes an ecological model of faith formation and the possibility of creating this kind of spiritual ecology in online educational settings.
It was in a college biology course that I was first introduced to the reality of ecosystems. My biology prof wisely told us to select a patch of nature and to take time to observe all that was going on–from the soil and the creatures that lived in it to the vegetation, shrubs, trees, to insects, animals, and birds. I never thought before of how these were not disparate elements but interdependent on each other to flourish.
Stephen and Mary Lowe propose in this book an ecological model of growth for human beings consisting of six elements: physical, intellectual, emotional, social, moral, and spiritual ecologies. The first part of the book develops this ecological motif in scripture, particularly in the parables and Paul’s image of the body of Christ. The authors argue that this is possible not only in shared physical communities but that spiritual ecological communities may form online as well and contribute substantively to each other’s growth.
They especially engage the criticism that online community is a weakened form of mediated presence. They note that the doctrine of the communion of saints and the bonds of the Holy Spirit are not limited by distance and share examples from thoughtful online discussions eliciting more than what people would say in a classroom to compassionate support when difficult circumstances are shared with a group on Facebook. Online connections serve as a form of social capital, as do in-person connections, and sometimes these intersect. Instead of creating autonomous, isolated learners, online technologies foster connected, collaborate learning and growth. The Lowes also note how this is not new to our day. The Apostle Paul uses the mediated communication of letters, read by emissaries as a way to be absent in body but present in spirit to churches in different locations. They also note the power of reciprocal influence in social networks, especially as the diversity of those networks increase (diverse natural ecosystems tend to be far more robust).
The final part of the book focuses more on the nature of connectedness, looking at our connetions with Christ (syn Christo), with each other (synkoinonos) and the “one anothering” that runs through the New Testament. They propose the idea of ecological or contagious sanctification with examples of leaven and root and branch systems used in scripture.
Finally they propose a series of propositions for thinking ecologically about spiritual growth:
- God created a universe that exists and functions as a cosmic ecosystem.
- The earth exists within a larger cosmic ecology and operates by ecological laws.
- Natural growth follows ecological laws and teaches us that everything grows through ecological interconnections and organic interactions in a mutualistic relationship of interdependence.
- Ecological laws that govern natural growth operate similarly in the spiritual realm.
- Christians have a spiritual connection to Christ and other Christians, which forms a spiritual ecology.
- The spiritual connections we have with other Christians create opportunity for reciprocal exchanges of spiritual nutrients.
- The spiritual ecology created by Christ through the Spirit is unbounded by time and space, enabling Christians to enjoy the benefits of this reality at any time and in any place, whether in person or online.
- Christians who share a connection to Christ through the Spirit receive an imputed holiness that makes them mutually contagious and provides us with the ability to spread our contagion in online ecologies of learning (pp. 211-222).
This last point seems to engage in theological imprecision. Scripture speaks of the righteousness of Christ being imputed to the believer, but not holiness, a progressive work of the Holy Spirit in transforming our lives. I also question how we can spread something imputed by God. We can only point others to the one who imputes righteousness through Christ. That said, Christians may certainly influence one another to endeavor, with the Spirit’s help, to live holy lives.
I also thought that this book tries to do two things and does one reasonably well, and one less well. The book makes a good case for an ecology of spiritual growth, for the ways we are interdependent upon one another, whether together, or separated by space and time, in fostering each other’s growth. This book thus makes a good case for online community and its power to contribute to our growth in Christ.
What the book does less well is describe how this may be done well, as well as dealing with the dysfunctional aspects of online media. Just as good gardeners work with the ecology of places in choices and arrangement and cultivation of plants, it seems that those who curate online spaces likewise can do things either to foster or inhibit spiritual growth in those spaces. It would have been very helpful for these educators to give more specifics, and not just anecdotes, of how they translated their theory into practice.
Good gardeners often plant in groupings rather than single plants. Plants thrive together. The Lowes help us see that the same is true for Christians–we grow better together, and together can include online forms of togetherness. These can be substantive, and formative. Hopefully this work will contribute to the development of good practices that foster such outcomes.
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