Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

7/15 2016

Pokémon Go and the Search for God

pokemon and godThe World through a Game

Our 11-year-old son was desperate to play Pokémon Go, trying to download the app on his iPod, learning only later he needed a smartphone.

Mother to the rescue: curious herself and eager to see him happy, she got the app on her phone. Before long, they found themselves at Arsenal Park in downtown Pittsburgh staring at the phone, clueless what to do next.

Since Arsenal Park is a Poké Stop, a small band of aficionados was also there, enjoying pizza on what must be called a pokébreak. Eager to help a couple neophytes, these gamers explained how this is an “augmented reality” game and how you capture the Pokémon by tapping them when the phone shakes, then flinging balls at these Pokémon superimposed on the world you see through the screen. At the park my wife and child managed to capture a Diglet and secure an egg with a Squirtle inside.

While writing that last line felt like using a foreign language, I can already see how this scene—my wife, son, and six gamers roaming around a park, watching it through their phones, waiting for a cartoon animal to appear as an overlay—is quite a good image of how we humans actually live our real lives and read our world: through filters.


Reading the World through Filters

Thomas Merton once suggested that only a handful of people see the world as it really is. I think he’s right. The rest of us see the world through the overlays, the filters we carry within us. Some of them were preinstalled before we were born—the filter called sin, for instance, which causes us to see the world falsely, as if we stand at its center.

Other filters we have downloaded along the way: the filters of ideology; the filters of our fantasies and fears, addictions and aversions; the filters of social constructions like race and social categories like class—all of which shape the way we perceive and misperceive reality.

When I see a colleague as a competitor, a student as a threat, or one of my children as an extension of myself, I am seeing them through a filter, not as they really are. And if I can’t see the world as it really is, then I certainly can’t do the thing most incumbent upon me, the one thing I was born to do: see the shimmer of God’s glory, God’s own presence, from within all that is.

The Second Century theologian Irenaeus is famous for saying, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” Rarely do we hear the second half of that quotation: “And the life of the human being is the vision of God.” The vision of God—exactly what our reality-distorting filters prevent us from seeing.


The Place of Spiritual Practices

Somewhere, someone right now is writing a sermon or a blog post suggesting Pokémon Go as an analogy for the human search for God: faith is like the screen we look through to see God.

I had a colleague who used to say that we must become “detectives of divinity,” but this is not at all what he meant, for until we have our reality-distorting filters of sin and ego and ideology deconstructed, the gods we find along our way are only idols we capture to serve our own interests.

Christian spirituality is not something we add to our lives like an app to our phone to help us find God. Rather, spiritual practices are meant to help us stay available to the God who finds us, the only One whose mercy can dismantle our filters so we can increasingly see reality as it is. With our distorted lenses, we see the world in the illusory way we want to see it. By making ourselves available to God’s grace, we can become disillusioned. We stop seeing neighbors as competitors and love as a zero sum game.

We can stop seeing the world through the narrow screens of sin, ego, and ideology. And we can start seeing the world as it is—the playground of God’s Spirit and the theater of redemption, shining from the inside out with the glory of a hidden God.

Now, where’s my son? I need him to show me how to get that game on my phone.


The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of leadership and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century.


2/18 2015

Would Thomas Merton Delete His Facebook Account?

giving up facebook for Lent

Updated 02/28/17

On the first day of Lent, I expect when I open my Facebook news feed that several of my friends will post this type of status update:

“Hey y’all! I’ve decided to give up Facebook for Lent. I need to spend some quality time with my buddy JC. If you need to get ahold of me during Lent, please shot me a text, an e-mail, or a tweet.
See you in 40 days, Facebook friends!!!!!”

This status update is followed by 35 likes, and 10 comments where my friend’s Facebook friends congratulate my friend on her self-discipline, and how this fast will help her grow closer to Jesus.

Having read Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, these status updates make me stop and assess the validity of social media fasts as a form of detachment. There seems to be a growing movement amongst my Christian friends to equate social media usage with un-holiness. I can understand why this link exists. Facebook can be a huge time-suck. Twitter could put newspapers out of business. Instagram might be producing a generation of narcissists.

I’m not denying that excessive social media usage can make it difficult to follow Christ. My problem with Facebook fasts is that they can encourage Christians to take a certain pride in their ability to unplug, without helping them to address the overemphasis of self their attachment to social media can perpetuate.

Let me explain.

Thomas Merton, in New Seeds of Contemplation believes that a contemplative must detach themselves not just from the things of this world that distract them, but also from their very sense of self. In other words, a Facebook fast is not going to help you draw closer to God if the fast does not make you think about why your sense of self depends on having 900 Facebook friends. A Facebook fast also will not help you draw closer to God if you substitute one area of self for another, i.e giving up Facebook, but making yourself more available via text messaging, e-mail, or Twitter.

So instead of doing a Facebook fast this Lent, should we all delete our Facebook accounts?

Perhaps. For some people, the only way for them to detach themselves from their sense of self is by removing all things that distract them from God. But what if we started to envision social media not as a way for us to brag about ourselves, but as a way for us to detach from ourselves and more fully engage with each other as people of God? Instead of fasting from Facebook for 40 days, what would it look like if we committed to wishing everyone a “Happy Birthday” whose birthday fell during Lent? Or if we committed to writing one encouraging post a day on a different friend’s wall for 40 days?

If Thomas Merton were alive today, I like to imagine how he would use social media in a detached way. I picture him logging in on Sunday afternoons while sipping a hot cup of tea, gleeful with the idea of loving his scattered friends with words of encouragement, birthday wishes, and inspirational quotes.

The Rev. Rebecca DePoe is pastor of Mt Nebo United Presbyterian Church in Sewickley, Pa., and can be found on social media throughout Lent. Follow her tweets at @RebeccaDePoe. She previously served as the seminary intern at Bellevue United Presbyterian Church and live tweeted her #ch47pts readings.