“Understanding God and People Better”: Digital Theology graduates share their changing views on society and the world

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“Understanding God and People Better”: Digital Theology graduates share their changing views on society and the world

When REALIS and Durham University’s Centre for Digital Theology came together to offer a Digital Theology course in September 2019, no one realized that it would become bread for the hungry and water for the thirsty.

As quarantines expanded and churches closed their doors, virtual spaces became one of the few places where the church could share Christ and his salvation. And the eleven graduates of the program know how to do this best, having received their Digital Theology diplomas in December 2020. Four of them share how the Digital Theology program changed their view of the world, Christianity, and their mission in secular Ukrainian society.

Dmytro Shynkaruk, 32, member of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, programmer

The course changed how I view the modern world, though this was more of an expansion of my worldview than a drastic change. I started thinking about things I had never pondered before, especially artificial intelligence. Now when I watch a TV series like Westworld, I catch myself thinking about it from a theological point of view. Thanks to the course, I learned to talk about things from a theological perspective. My final paper was titled “Can artificial intelligence be a person’s ‘neighbor’?” If someone had told me a year ago that this would be my topic, I wouldn’t have believed them.

I was especially amazed by the faculty: Sergei Timchenko – a wonderful theologian and very wise man; Father Georgiy, who was the press-secretary for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) during the time of Metropolitan Vladimir and has been very active in the UOC for the past few decades; and Andrei Meleshko – a young instructor with serious experience and a Western education. We also had professors fly in from the U.S. and U.K. for three days of lectures. Dr. Bryan Widbin is a person who researches the history of the writing of the Old Testament. He asks questions such as, “In what historical circumstances and context did these semi-nomadic ancient Israelites create the Scriptures and what crises in their history influenced and were reflected in the Old Testament?” He even lived among modern-day Bedouins in order to learn how a nomadic person thinks. And of course, Dr. Peter Phillips, the founder of the Digital Theology course at Durham University in England, was great.

We also heard from Stephen Williams, a man who studies artificial intelligence technologies from a theological standpoint in the U.K. He actually works for an AI company as a theological consultant. There was also Joseph Terracina from the U.S., who taught us the proper way to write and format theological papers in English. In other worlds, people came from all over the world just to teach us.

I was somewhat surprised that in addition to regular lectures and discussions, a major element of the educational process was watching futuristic films such as the series Black Mirror and Ghost in the Shell. But now it makes sense: we’re not just preparing for the challenges of today, but of tomorrow as well.

This course significantly added to my picture of the world. Of course, I had read the Bible before, but I had never encountered texts that described theological concepts or tried to write a theological paper myself. So for me personally, this course introduced me to theology.

First of all, I recommend this specific program because it’s incredibly interesting. In the very first session, Dr. Peter Phillips encouraged us to enjoy this course, and that’s exactly what we did. I don’t recall a single moment when I didn’t want to attend a lecture or discussion. Second, I recommend this course for the instructors that you will meet. These are extremely qualified, high-caliber lecturers. In the future I would like to write a master’s thesis and develop the theme of my final paper.

Ivan Bylodyd, 39, attends Christ Baptist Church (in the town of Boyarka), manager

What made the program memorable was the outstanding faculty…and COVID-19. During lockdown and a mass transition from traditional liturgy to online church, the relevancy of a Digital Theology course became very clear. If at the beginning of our education some asked, “Why do we need this?”, then by the end everyone understood that the program had started just in time and no one questioned its necessity.

Now, more than ever, it has become important to share the evangelical message in a digital environment, wherein it is crucial to keep the message from being distorted by the environment itself.

What was particularly helpful for me was our group’s introduction to Christian ethics, specifically in the area of artificial intelligence (AI). We studied the existing approaches to regulating artificial intelligence. Christianity’s answer to questions born from the development of AI is a serious task.

I don’t think this program will be suitable for all Christians. It is more geared towards ministers who are interested in developing digital projects. These are the people who should form action policies in the digital world. To these people I would highly recommend taking the Digital Theology course. This program would also be helpful to people who market Christian resources on social media so that they can understand their work as part of the digital church.

The certificate I received will allow me to attend Spurgeon’s College in the U.K., so I should use the opportunity. I plan to write my master’s thesis on this topic.

Hierodeacon Nykodym (Oleksiy Sementsov) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, 36

The course stands out in my mind primarily because of its unique approach to learning. Every student was actively involved in the process, and lectures were more like discussions about contemporary theological and philosophical books and films.

Due to these discussions, the possibility of a newer and deeper worldview opened up. Regular people usually view these things superficially, without getting into the cause and effect of various technological innovations. Because of this course’s unique approach, we were able to look at new things through the prism of spiritual analysis.

The most important thing, in my opinion, was the exercise of delving into a society’s culture (whether Old Testament or modern) using theological knowledge in order to interpret physical (or virtual) phenomena from the viewpoint of Holy Scripture and church tradition. I saw what risks emerged from new technologies and their permeation into all areas of life, not only for the church, but for humanity as a whole. At the same time, I learned how we could use the flow of technological progress for evangelism.

I would recommend this program to those who have both theological and practical experience. This would allow us to solve the problem of opposition between science and religion.

I would first like to strengthen my theological knowledge and get a graduate degree in the field, which will take a lot of effort and time. So I will probably continue studying digital theology on my own for the time being.

Olexander Arnaut, 44, council member at Spring Methodist Church, works in logistics

I will remember this program for its instructors and their unusual approach to questions, their fresh ideas, and their view of the past, present, and future. It was like opening new horizons.

The program allowed me to get a wider view of everything that is happening in the world and that could happen. When we started the program, no one guessed that it would become so practical, but little did we know that the future which took five months to arrive for us had already been here. Many things that we discussed in the program aren’t seen yet, but it’s possible that they already exist. And a little more time will pass, and tomorrow they will appear. That’s what happened with online church services: we knew about them and watched them from time to time, but it was always “somewhere else.” But then 4-5 months passed, and they became an everyday necessity for all.

For me, education (especially Christian education) means understanding God and people better. The more I understand God and people, the more confidently I view this world and the more I can understand how God sees this world. I try to leave the borders of my culture and upbringing in order to get a wider view. And this is a direct result of education: I encounter different opinions and positions, which in turn increases God in me because he is so much bigger than I can imagine.

The most important idea emphasized by the program is that God’s presence isn’t limited to live fellowship. Even in virtual fellowship, the Lord remains the same. This follows from my reading of the passage, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

I will recommend this program to other Christians because I believe that people should continue learning so as not to freeze in their frameworks. For us Christians, it is important to understand this new generation that lives in an entirely different world. It views, thinks, and interprets things differently. It has grown up with the internet, computers, and smartphones.

The church is reconsidering its relationship to the digital world. For example, there is a man who wants to be a part of our community, but physically can’t because he lives far away abroad. But back where he lives he couldn’t find a church, so he wants to be with us. And this will be possible thanks to virtual fellowship. The relationship of the church to mission and evangelism is changing, and this program has given it a strong nudge. For example, right now we are preparing a virtual Christmas geared towards non-Christians. We’re trying to make it easy to find on social media and YouTube because people spend a lot of time in the virtual world, and especially on social networks. We have to represent there too in order to make contact.

The Digital Theology program was just the beginning of my journey. I would like to learn more and study this discipline independently.

Interviewed by Oleksiy Gordeev.

Date: 23.12.2020