There is little doubt that we are living in a “digital age,” an age characterized by a move to the virtual and the electronic. The COVID-19 pandemic simply accelerated this trajectory to the point of no return. From an ecclesial perspective, parishes are equipped to live-stream their liturgies, and the need for a functioning and updated website has never been greater. From an academic perspective, virtual learning has become mainstream, along with conferences and webinars that scholars can participate in from the comfort of their home. Amidst the flurry of these innovations, one shift has remained under the radar: the role of theological education in the Digital Age.
Since its genesis, Christianity has embraced the media necessary for effective communication. This is why, for example, St. Paul wrote letters to various church communities to convey his message as opposed to painting pictures on the walls of a cave. From writing letters to composing dense theological treatises, to radio and television, to our days of the Internet, Christian leaders have found it necessary to utilize the best forms of communication in order to spread the Good News. But the democratization of the Internet—the fact that anyone can publish a blog or upload a video—has had unfortunate consequences for theological education. While there have always been false teachers, never before have such teachers been able to reach millions of souls in seconds.
Christianity is a religion of desire. At first glance, this statement may seem counterintuitive and contradictory. After all, Christians are told to deny themselves, to take up their cross and follow Christ (Mt 16:24). Several prayers, especially in the Divine Liturgy, also seem to downplay desire. In the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, prior to the reading of the Holy Gospel, the priest prays for the revering of the Lord’s commandments so that, “having trampled down all carnal desires,” the Christian may do that which is pleasing to God. Similarly, the the prayer during the Cherubic Hymn, the priest prays that “No one bound by carnal desires and pleasures is worthy to approach, draw near, or minister to You, the King of Glory.” Church history is filled with numerous examples of ascetics and saints who renounced their desires, whether that includes St. Benedict throwing himself into the thorn bush to chasten his sexual desire, or Eudocia the Samaritan (whom the Orthodox Church commemorated on Forgiveness Sunday) who abandoned her earthly riches and physical beauty to the disdain of her former lovers. Countless entries within the Church’s illustrious hagiography follow a similar trajectory: a person with worldly fame and material pleasures experiences a conversion, and then sells her belongings, and embraces a life of poverty and self-denial. It would then seem that “desire” has an awfully negative place within Christian discourse. In other words, if you desire something, it is probably bad and sinful, and the way to holiness is thus avoiding what we desire and instead pursue those things we do not like.
In May 2018, I graduated with my Master of Divinity, and immediately following the graduation ceremony, I boarded a plane to Rome, where I intended to undergo the 30-day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Although I had attended a renowned Jesuit university with one of the largest Jesuit communities in the United States, I chose to go to Rome to do the Exercises because the retreat director was an “orthodox” Jesuit, one who was not afraid to speak “the truth” and one who despised the way “liberals” had destroyed the Society of Jesus. As a reasonably conservative Roman Catholic with an overabundance of zeal and vocational angst, I seized the opportunity to make a retreat under this particular Jesuit, leaving the local Jesuits— who helped me grow as a person and a scholar—far behind.