You’ve likely had more than one heated conversation with an automated voice messaging system or nearly lost it trying to buy avocados at the self-checkout. You’ve seen the images of robots building cars and now providing companionship for senior citizens. Our new creations are freeing us from work as never before, but we’re often left asking: Now just what were we created for?
If you believe, as we do at Comment, that humans were made for work, then our increasingly automated, digitized age provides good reason to panic. But in Richard and Daniel Susskind’s provocative book, The Future of the Professions, you’ll find that things are not as bad as the doomsayers suggest. Our work is not being done away with—at least not completely. However, it will look radically different in the coming years. How? We’ve enlisted professionals in medicine, automation, divinity, journalism, and business to bring us some critical, skeptical, and insightful reports from the future, as it were. Take a peek.
When I was twelve years old, I read a short story that captured my imagination primarily because it seemed so unimaginable: there were no schools. Set in a future when students could learn individually in homes through computerized instruction, one afternoon two friends came across an object they had never before encountered. It had a hard cover and soft material inside covered with words. But strangely, when they leafed through that soft material, the words stayed right where they were, seemingly permanent. One of the children wondered aloud if this was a book. They had heard of books, but never seen or held one. While they were astonished by both the arcaneness and inefficiency of print technology, I was shocked by the idea of a world in which books and classrooms were replaced by technological forms I could not even imagine.
Today, just under three decades later, I find myself teaching in a seminary that was one of the pioneers in online education. I pour myself into the formation of my students through the very technological forms that were unimaginable to my sixth-grade self. And I am repeatedly amazed at the community we experience and the learning that occurs.
I have pondered this development in seminary education in light of the argument of The Future of the Professions, wondering what it signifies for the profession of “divinity.” (Christians in North America might more readily use language of church, clergy, and ordained ministry to refer to what these British authors call divinity.) Fifteen years ago not a single program of this kind existed, but now 133 accredited seminaries offer some form of online degree.
It is important to recognize, as Susskind and Susskind argue, that forms of technology have the capacity not only to enhance current practices but also to transform them. As they remind us, the invention of the printing press did not just make more Bibles accessible to more people. It eventually revolutionized the way many Christians practice their faith. When I think back to that short story’s depiction of technology’s impact on education, it does not take a great leap of imagination to picture a similar scenario for the church. Instead of going to a church building with flesh-and-blood people and preachers, we could “do church” in our homes via livestreaming and call it good. Indeed, Susskind and Susskind anticipate a day when we will be comfortable with “clergyless parishioners.” They present this as an innovation along the lines of teacherless students, driverless cars, and doctorless patients.
As we consider this possibility, we do need to name one significant difference: “clergyless parishioners” already exist. Both Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses historically have gathered for worship without clergy. More recently, we can consider the increasingly popular narrative that you can be a Christian without church. These options have been rejected by most Christians, globally and historically, not because technology has not yet made the idea of “clergyless parishioners” possible but because of conviction rooted in interpretations of Scripture and traditions of the church. Or, if you’re like me, because of experiences in college when you were involved in a Christian group that didn’t want help from anyone older, wiser, or ordained, only to learn as you grew in life and faith that you were embodying the exact meaning of “sophomoric” (according to one trusted dictionary, “conceited and overconfident of knowledge but poorly informed and immature”). What I mean is this: as young Christians at a university with tremendous resources, we had access to knowledge related to our Christianity. What we lacked was the formation to know we needed more knowledge and to faithfully interpret the knowledge we did have. What we needed was formation alongside information.
This is what the Susskinds miss. Access to information is crucial to their argument, as if clergy are just gatekeepers between worshippers and the information in sacred texts. Now that technological advances have made knowledge more accessible, do we need the professionals to serve in this gatekeeping role? Shouldn’t we want to “open the vault” and share the wealth of the knowledge we have received with others who could benefit from it?
The clergy I know desperately want to share the vault of knowledge with the laity. The challenge in the larger church has not been lack of desire to share knowledge, but a lack of appetite for that knowledge.
This reflects one of the ways Susskind and Susskind’s conceptualization of knowledge is not nuanced enough to capture the specific realities of divinity. They call for a day when “spiritual guidance” will be widely available without cost alongside medical help, legal advice, and business assistance. But this reflects a reductionistic understanding of divinity, the church, and even preaching. The knowledge that we are talking about when it comes to Christian faith has as its goal not simply access to information but deep, substantial formation. As Christians, we believe that the Holy Spirit wants to form us through our encounters with the things of God, from Bible studies to commentaries, from reflections on Christian families to worship with the family of God.
Within the American context, we also have to consider Susskind and Susskind’s argument in light of what Nathan Hatch calls “religious populism.” Clergy, he argues in his landmark The Democratization of American Christianity, have not historically been revered as a separate and more knowledgeable body. Instead the convictions and impulses of the laity have been considered equal to those who are ordained. This populist impulse continues to mark American Christianity, many of whose movements flow from popular culture rather than from ordained professionals.
Helping parishioners recognize this is part of the prophetic work of divinity. Rooted in an awareness of the formative power of the cultures in which we live, we have to recognize that we are already deeply formed as we encounter these sources of information. We do not receive knowledge as blank slates, able and willing to digest the knowledge simply as presented to us. Nor is the knowledge we encounter itself neutral. It reflects the convictions and interpretive lenses of those who’ve prepared it. So it’s not simply that the Internet and other technological advances open a vault of knowledge to inform a wider group. We also need the sanctifying, sacramental work of the Holy Spirit to form us, which means we need to continue to gather together around the ancient technologies of Word and Table.