By Cara Singer
A response to a public conversation with Jennifer Egan on February 7, 2012.
When Jennifer Egan was pushed to think about religion in her novels, as moderator Willing Davidson led her to do last Tuesday evening, she located it soundly in the technological. Despite Davidson’s reading of stigmata, spiritual searches, and a messianic figure in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Egan insisted she wasn’t actively thinking of religion. “Overt religious inquiry” had been part of her earlier novel, The Invisible Circus, in which the protagonist searches for her dead sister, Faith, an archetype of 1960s transcendence. Now she has a certain distaste for the obviousness of a search for “Faith.”
What really fascinates her is the seeming universality of longing for transcendence. This yearning, she said, “ricochets through modern life through media.” Facebook—the same network she described as resembling a Soviet-style apartment in which everyone occupies an insipid space that is vulnerable to sweeping changes beyond their control—may also, in her mind, be a response to a spiritual urge. She went on to ask, “Is there a spiritual aspect to the intensity with which we crave connection?” And I wondered, what makes this connectivity spiritual for Egan?
In the late 18th century, Friedrich Schleiermacher reacted against philosophical thought from Descartes to Kant, dismantling traditional reasons for religious belief by appealing to an idea of religious experience. He argued that what religion truly is, instead of doctrine or ritual, is an ineffable feeling of unity—or, to bring it back to Egan’s language, of connectivity. In making religion personal, Schleiermacher kept it out of the philosophical or scientific crossfire. We still feel the legacy of Schleiermacher’s intellectual work today, from American revivalism to the intrigue of Buddhist meditation or various mystical traditions like Kabbalah. Is Egan’s recognition of the human urge for connectivity part of this tradition, which seeks true religion within an ineffable experience of unity? And if so, why have humans been acting out that longing within the technological?
Egan, early on in her talk, explained that while she isn’t against modern technology—and is fascinated by it as a social phenomenon—her children think she’s on a crusade to rid the world of screens. She is afraid of her children being transformed into people she doesn’t understand: people who don’t read. What should we make of her personal reticence toward technological change with her suggestion that technology may be fueled by a spiritual urge? How might the spiritual engage with the dystopic possibilities of science and technology?
Consideration of Egan’s writing process further complicates her stance toward technology and spirituality. At one point Egan portrayed her writing process like ventriloquism, with characters coming from a beyond inside her head while she is present as an observer to write them down. This can be understood as a sort of spiritualism (a belief in a world of spirits, which became popular in 19th century America). Ventriloquism, as Leigh Schmidt has written, was used in Schleiermacher’s day to rationally debunk religion as illusion. Egan writes in long hand, she said, because screens bring out her overly rational mind, which doesn’t produce ideas that surprise her. Should we see Egan’s (at least metaphorically) enchanted writing process as a way of pushing back the overly rationalized, scientized, technologized world? Perhaps today, for Egan and surely countless others, there is comfort in ideas of enchantment or Scheirermacher’s true religion being somehow entangled with the technological.
Egan and Davidson’s discussion speaks to the hybridity of the technological and the spiritual. Scholars of science and religion often drive home the point that science and religion are not in conflict but engaged in complex sets of interactions. This recognition, of course, is not universal in public discourse (as demonstrated by the Galileo Affair, Scopes Trial, evolution debates, and arguments over stem cells and abortion), but it serves to refute scholars who doubt the level of nuance in the public’s thinking on these issues.
For me, the content of Egan’s work raises the possibility—and indeed the potential—of breaking down barriers between the categories of religion and technology. Rather than the combination of two separate categories, what I found in the subtext of Egan’s talk was an urge to create and join networks in a way I call technicospiritual (an imperfect term, of course). With this in mind, perhaps we may begin to consider how “true religion,” to point to Schleiermacher, need not be shielded from the scientific or technological but may in fact be constructed through it.
Cara Singer is a doctoral candidate in religion at Columbia University.