Is God Dead in Television?
Biblical Language and Communication Beyond the Contemporary Babel
Roma, 27-29 Settembre 1998
Media of the Future
Theological constructionism:
an effortful approach to spirituality

Walter Bender
MIT Media Laboratory

Who invited an engineer and why?

I would like to thank LUX VIDE and Mr. Bernabei for organizing such an extraordinary conference. Also, thank you Mr. Olmi for your very moving remarks. The topic of discussion is somewhat far afield from the usual problems that I research. Consequently, it has been a challenge for me to give an adequate response to the questions of the day. I appreciate the challenge and the opportunity and I ask for your patience as I stumble.

My apologies for not addressing you in Italian. Having listened in translation for the past two days, I understand the difficulty, and I am also sympathetic to the translators, since this has been a very challenging discourse and often we have used very specialized language.

When I first received the invitation to attend the conference, I asked myself, "Who invited an engineer and why?" To answer the question, I turned to the Bible. There I found many references to engineering, for example, the building of the ark and the construction of the tabernacle in the desert. However, in every example that I could find, man is not the engineer. God designs and man receives instruction. Nonetheless, man is not present just to receive instruction, but commanded to act, to construct. This call to action is a theme I will be returning to later in my talk. First, I will attempt to lay a foundation of faith, hope, and charity.

Declaration of faith

"Religion will admit that humans cannot understand the divine but that it is nonetheless vital that they try to understand it." -- Kenneth Haase

Let us first consider faith. Much of my thesis has been inspired by a colleague in the field of Machine Understanding, Professor Haase. Haase wrote, "Religion will admit that humans cannot understand the divine but that it is nonetheless vital that they try to understand it." This suggests that religion is not about answers. Rather, it is about questions. Moreover, to go down the path to answer these questions, as our host Mr. Bernabei suggested in his opening remarks, is hard work.

Religion, like science, is source of shared models--models that highlight and hide.

I would like to appropriate a further argument of Haase, that religion, like science, is source of shared models. The word model is a difficult one. Here it refers to a level of understanding that helps us to examine the world--both the physical world and the spiritual world. Let me elaborate on what is meant by the term "model." I will use two examples, those of Newton and calculus, and Copernicus and a heliocentric world. Newton's model of calculus enabled us to resolve Xeno's paradoxes, while Copernicus' model of planetary motion gave us the key to reading heaven's clockworks. Neither Newton nor Copernicus changed God or His creation, but they gave us new insights and tools with which to explore God and his creation.

Religion is an interface with a purpose--to help us understand, to help us navigate, to help us pray, e.g., to help us separate order from chaos.

The purpose of religion is to help us understand, to help us navigate, to help us pray, e.g., to help us separate order from chaos. Order comes from chaos because of the ability to highlight that which is important and universal. I will risk using a visual example in place where the visual arts have reached such an inspirational level--it is a risk to walk in the shadow of the likes of Fra Angelica and Giotto.

Order from chaos.

The initial image is one of chaos--a cacophony of color, lacking order. By highlighting the tension between complementary colors, a sign of faith is revealed. By highlighting the stability of monochrome colors, yellows and browns, a sign of hope is revealed. Finally, by highlighting the colors of the covenant, the progression of the rainbow, a sign of charity is revealed. In each case, I applied a color combination that is innately modeled by our human visual system. From chaos, order.

Declaration of hope

The Text is a boundary between God and man and religion is what makes it a permeable boundary rather than a barrier.

My thesis principally involves the Word. If, as Haase suggests, the Text is a boundary between God and man, religion is what makes it a permeable boundary rather than a barrier. What are the tools provided to us by religion and how can these tools help us better utilize the Text? The technologies of dissemination are numerous: word of mouth, Gutenberg, film and television, pocket electronic devices, the internet, etc.

Those attributes of the physical world that influence and diminish the flow of ideas, e.g., distance, barriers, time, etc., are themselves being diminished.

We now embark upon a path of hope. As it was so eloquently put by Mr. Olmi, the technologies of communication are numerous: word of mouth, the cathedral, the figurative arts, music, theatre, Gutenberg's press, film and television, wearable electronic devices, the internet, etc. These are not only the technologies of information exchange--they are the technologies of storytelling. The advancement and evolution of these technologies continue to have a direct impact on the flow of ideas. "Those attributes of the physical world that influence and diminish, e.g., distance, barriers, time, etc. are themselves being diminished." --Haase.

The technologies of understanding are fewer and not always useful.

The technologies of understanding are fewer and not always useful. As Professor Ossola pointed out, "the word is not enough." Technologies such as keywords and biblical codes treat the Text as simply a collection of words. Indeed, these "false" technologies treat the Text as if each word were cut out individually, placed in a bag, and shaken. These technologies do not acknowledge any syntactic or semantic relationships between the words.

Technolgies such as keywords and biblical codes treat the Text as simply a collection of words. Technologies beyond keywords view the Text as a collection of models.

On the first day of the conference, Mr. Colombo went so far as to say "language is not the same as life." True, but language is a useful tool for the living. Technologies beyond keywords, e.g., classification and clustering, feature augmentation, and extended feature sets based upon linguistic and domain understanding view the Text as a collection of relationships. These technologies are harbingers of a new generation of tools that will lead to more useful computational models of language.

Correlation, augmentation, and constructionism

Yesterday, Professor Boskovits demonstrated the use of correlation to explain the Text by the Renaissance artists. The stories of Joseph and Jesus were beautifully brought into juxtaposition in the Baptistery of Florence. Examples of computational models that consider the relations between words include:
(1) Correlation is used to reveal patterns in the Text. Connections within the Text itself and between the Text and contemporary documents can be highlighted. Daniel Gruhl's Quote Finder System uses correlation as a means of finding biblical quotes that correspond to contemporary news wire service stories.
(2) Analogy is used to elucidate the signs and symbols of the Text. Contemporary analogies can be used to augment and help ground the text. Sara Elo's Peace, Love, and Understanding Machine uses analogy to provide geographically defined context to stories.
(3) Metaphor may lead to more certain communication and less imperfect machine translation. As suggested by George Lakoff, metaphors of the physical world, e.g., the up and down of gravity, and the metaphors of a common culture, e.g., Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve, are the universal key to language.

Use the Text to ask questions--in the Talmudic tradition--and to construct solutions to social and spiritual problems.

As Professor Ska pointed out, the Biblical story of Joseph is an exceptional Text in that it has a singular, clearly defined plot and protagonist. Almost any other Text leads to difficult questions. Let us take Isaac as an example since it is a Text traditionally discussed this time of year in the Jewish tradition. No one can read this text without asking the questions: What was Isaac thinking? What was Abraham thinking?.

The Text does not give answers but asks questions--a Socratic approach. Questions opens the door to engagement.

The new technologies can be used not just to access the narrative elements of text, but to "read between the lines." Warren Sack has taken a Socratic approach to processing news wire service stories. His software transforms a news article into a list of questions about the text. These same techniques applied to Biblical texts would result in a Text that does not give answers, but, rather, asks questions of the reader. These questions open the door to engagement with the Text. Much as in the Talmudic tradition, the Text would be the basis of discourse--a discourse intended to construct solutions to social and spiritual problems.

Declaration of charity

There is 2nd revolution brewing--not one of technology--one of learning.

What of the path to charity? There are two revolutions brewing. The first is a revolution of interpersonal communication. The second revolution is not one of technology but one of epistomology and learning. Constructionism, learning through doing, is the revolution of Dewey, Piaget, and Papert. Learning happens best not in the formal setting of the classroom. It happens in concrete application. Hence, we should strive to build an environment for doing.

A time for doing?

Perhaps Professor Cassavola, who reflected so eloquently on Ecclesiastes, could tell us if there was foretold to be a time for learning, a time for study, a time for doing? That time is now.

A time for doing--this might offer further insight into the struggle of faith of Thomas. Professor Boitani theorized that Thomas could only find faith through the concrete, through touch. I suggest an expansion of Boitani's thesis--Thomas found faith through doing.

Who should act?

Who should act? Who should employ the tools given to us by religion? Certainly, those who have been given a gift of expression should be charitable with it. Their ability to craft a message that reaches the mass is enormously important. However, Zeffirelli reminded us that "the mass is made of thinking individuals." Those "thinking individuals" must also be given the tools with which to act.

D'Alatri told us of the difficult road to artistic expression. It is difficult, but everyone should attempt the passage. While some will be more successful than others will, everyone will become closer to God by making the journey.

Ask questions and seek answers

Zaccara spoke of an invisible Text. We have to make it somehow visible. We have to make the connection to people, to entice them on the journey, and perhaps--to keep to the theme of the conference--technologies like television, the twentieth century cathedral, are the way to do this. The clarity of television can be problematic. Without ambiguity, there is no room for questions. Perhaps this accounts for the popularity of sports television--there is always some uncertainty in the results. However, television need not be an end in and of itself. Many people, "fans" in the parlance of Henry Jenkins, having become engaged, fulfill themselves by constructing their own stories. Zeffirelli's thinking individual can and will ask questions and seek answers. This is where I differ with McLuhan and concur with Jenkins.

Technology can play a role here. It can lead to the sharing of questions and collaborative effort in seeking answers, social and spiritual constructionism.

Not every way works, not every way is right. -- St. Paul

Are there further consequences of personal doing and personal expression? Professor Pernot suggested there is universality to prayer, a thesis to which I subscribe. However, all possible points of view are valid but what is possible? Fancy is unconstrained while imagination mixes freedom and constraint. Paul said, "Not every way works, not every way is right." Religion provides models--it sets limits defined by love and provides guidance. Individuals must choose to apply these models to the problems they face. Religion [like our interpretation of the Text] is what we do with it. --Christ.

"Today, there are many many thousands times more people who understand calculus than 300 years ago." -- Kenneth Haase

I will conclude with another observation of Haase. "Today, there are many many thousands times more people who understand calculus than 300 years ago." Calculus is a model for understanding of the physical word.
Religion is a model for understanding of the spiritual word. As the world's people embrace the new models of spiritual communication and learning, we will have an extraordinary opportunity!

Connection, Construction, and Continuity = Community.

The text is the means to connecting with God. But man must put the text to use, i.e., construct, in order build and sustain community with God.