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The digital vā: Teu le vā in online spaces

Published onJul 09, 2021
The digital vā: Teu le vā in online spaces
Teu Le Va in Digital Spaces

Stephen Garner & Terry Pouono
School of Theology, Laidlaw College, Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand


Political scientist, Stephen Monsma (1986), once remarked that technology is the very environment in which we live, so much so that we often don’t notice its effects or think about how we might live life in a different way. While we might think of some counter-examples to that, on the whole, most aspects of our lives are, to varying degrees, wrapped in media and colonized by technology. The pervasiveness of digital technologies and media is not necessarily even across all individuals and communities both globally and locally, but in one way or another it does form part of the matrix that shapes how we see ourselves, how we interact with others, how we work and relax, and in times when we have had to self-isolate often the primary way we have continued to live our lives as normally a possible.

In response to these everyday experiences, and the challenge set by Monsma to think differently about technology, this paper begins a conversation engaging digital technologies and media from outside the typical Western context of theological reflection on digital culture. The perspectives used draw from Pacific contexts that see persons as persons-in-relationship and concern for relational space, articulated here in the Samoan concept of the vā, the negotiated relational space between people and their environment complete with patterns of unspoken expectations and obligations. Awareness and care of the vā forms part of an everyday life that seeks the flourishing of individuals, communities, and the wider world.

In this paper, we propose engaging with digital spaces through the lens of 'teu le va' — the maintaining and cherishing communal relationships — offers complementary notions of online community to stand alongside, and in dialogue with, work more focused on the autonomous individual in negotiated community. We do this in dialogue with the discipline of digital theology, primarily through the work of Phillips et al (2019) and their four-fold categorization of digital theology. In doing this we wish to open up genuine dialogue within the discipline so that insights from others may sit alongside those we offer here in order that discussions move toward becoming truly global. This attention to a wider global context is particularly important for theological reflection on the interaction of Christianity as a world religion and digital cultures, looking towards the promotion of faithful, human flourishing.

Digital theology as a discipline has developed much over the past thirty years, alongside and informed by the parallel discipline of digital religion. While the digital religion community tends to consist of sociologists, anthropologists, and media studies scholars looking into a religious community’s negotiation of digital technologies, media, and cultures, digital theology is typically performed by members of a religious community reflecting on how digital media shapes their own religious life, faith and practices (Campbell, 2017). Digital theology has developed primarily in Western contexts including North America, the UK, some parts of Europe, and voices from Australia and New Zealand (Campbell & Garner, 2016; Garner, 2020; M. E. Hess, 2005; Horsfield, 2015; Lewis, 2018; Oliver, 2019; Ott, 2019; Phillips et al., 2019; Schmidt, 2020; Soukup, 2017; Spadaro, 2014; Stoddart, 2008; Ulshöfer & Wilhelm, 2020), there are a growing number of voices in the Global South and Asian-Pacific contexts that need to find a place at the table.

To these and other voices we wish to add our own contribution from a Pacific perspective, to sit alongside other contributions from the wider Asia-Pacific. In doing so, our starting point is a cultural one rather than a theological one. We consider this endeavor a form of contextual theology in the first instance, engaging with indigenous cultures from the Pacific and Aotearoa New Zealand, as well as the context of digital theology. As such, it might be located within Stephen Bevans (2002) anthropological model of contextual theology, which starts first with culture and moves toward theology. The result of this is a form of talanoa (telling stories, giving space) which provides for the giving of grace and space to others to tell their stories, to be heard respectfully, for hospitality to be offered, and justice secured (Halapua, 2008).

Defining the vā

In considering the vā, a number of preliminary comments must be made concerning how Pacific peoples will be referred to in this paper. There are various different descriptors that have been used to name Pacific peoples including Pacific Islanders, Pacific peoples, Pacific’, and Pasifika (Anae, 2016). Each of these is contested in various ways and none, for good reasons, satisfies everybody. In this paper we will use the term, Pasifika, to refer to the breadth of Pacific communities but recognizing that while there may be common themes and cultural elements between communities there is also significant differences between and within communities, with complexities added when diaspora communities are included. Similarly, this paper recognizes the work that Māori communities and academics are doing with developing appropriate methodologies and approaches in Aotearoa New Zealand for research and scholarship by and for their communities. We do not speak for these peoples and communities but are enriched, critiqued, and informed by their work.

Samoan anthropologist, Melani Anae (2016), in her work developing indigenous Samoan approaches to research and scholarship identifies that the “Samoan self is described as reliant on relationships that are occurring in the va, or space between”. It is this vā or relational space in the Samoan context, and which Anae broadens carefully to include other Pacific peoples, which forms the core understanding underpinning how life is to be lived for the flourishing of the community. In this dynamic, the self is not seen as an autonomous, disconnected individual but rather part of a wider social and environmental context, a person-in-relationships, with the nurturing and maintenance of those relationships as key to the flourishing of people and the environment.

To highlight the place of the vā in this, Anae (2019) quotes Samoan poet and writer, Albert Wendt’s, reflections on the vā:

Va is the space between, the between-ness, not empty space, not space that separates but space that relates, that holds separate entities and things together in the Unity- that-is-All, the space giving meaning to things. The meanings change as the relationships/the contexts change.. . . A well-known Samoan expression is . . . “teu le va.” Cherish/nurse/care for the va, the relationships. This is crucial in . . . cultures that value group, unity, more than individualism: who perceive the individual person/ creature/thing in terms of group, in terms of va, relationships. (Wendt, 1996)

It is this notion of the vā that we will draw from in our engagement with digital theology, noting that it connects with both the vā tapuia (sacred space) and the agency of teu le va — caring for the vā — in academic, individual and communal contexts.

Digital Theology

Theology is often described as the systematic study of ideas, beliefs, and practices within a particular religious tradition or more broadly as “thinking about questions raised by and about the religions” (Ford, 1999). More specifically within Christianity, a common definition of theology is that of Anselm of Canterbury’s (c. 1033-1209), who saw it as “faith seeking understanding” (Latin: fides querens intellectum), developed in Anselm’s own medieval context, and re-expressed and reworked by successive generations seeking to relate faith and practice to the socio-historical-cultural situation of their day.

Pete Phillips et al take a particular definition of theology and then explicitly use that understanding to underpin their reflection on how theology sits within digital cultures and contexts and to describe the emerging discipline of digital theology. Their assertion the theology is “the critical study of the nature of God, or of God’s interaction with the world, or of the world’s exploration of the mystery of faith,” leads them to locate theological agency within a four-fold typology categorizing that theological agency as primarily: mediated education; digitally-enabled research; theologically-resourced engagement with digital culture; and theological ethical engagement with digital technology and culture (Phillips et al., 2019).

This particular categorization is helpful for us in our task of thinking about how different cultural perspectives and locations might speak faithfully into the interaction of faith, digital culture, local and global expressions, as well as noting key points of difference or critique. One of Stephen Bevans’ key assertions in his definition of theology as a contextual enterprise was to note that all theology is done within particular cultural contexts and it is expressed in ways that are loaded with the values, language, and culture it is shaped within (Bevans, 2002). Thus, while Phillips et al articulate a helpful series of categories, we need to remember that those categories, definitions of theology, and even understandings of the gospel and what is the good news in digital spaces, are shaped by the particularities of their British and American influences. This is not to say that those influences are wrong or incorrect, but that they sit beside others that must also be taken into account if theology is to be genuinely relevant, generous, and life-giving to more than just one particular dominant community. As missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin, put it:

Every statement of the gospel in words is conditioned by the culture of which those words are a part, and every style of life that claims to embody the truth of the gospel is a culturally conditioned style of life. There can never be a culture-free gospel. Yet, the gospel, which is from the beginning to the end embodied in culturally conditioned forms, calls into question all cultures, including the one in which it was originally embodied (Newbigin, 1986, p. 4).

Canadian contextual theologian, Douglas Hall, reinforces this with his understanding that the good news is always engaged with as a process of discovery, where Christians seek to not only inherit what has gone before or come from other places but to appropriate and contextualize that good news in a way that opens up faithful human flourishing and meaning-making in our own contexts and to humbly offer that back to others for both their enrichment and their critique (Hall, 2003). So, in the following sections, we take each of Phillips et al’s categories and bring them into dialogue with cultural contexts from Oceania and the Pacific looking for ways in which we might engage in genuine dialogue and enrichment. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the last word in this matter, but the beginning of a conversation to which others around the world might be invited into and from which we can learn and grow.

Digital Theology and Mediated Education

In their initial category, that of digital theology and mediated education, Phillips et al focus on the delivery of the traditional academic study of theology through forms of mediated communication for all or part of the course of study. They note that the content of teaching, learning, and assessment will most probably not engage the digital context specifically, with digital technology is being used as a utilitarian, functional tool to mediate that theological content and assessment to distanced students.

They note that this development is located in a movement away from in-person residential seminary or divinity school training to allowing some or all of that training to take place in digitally-mediated distance synchronous and asynchronous contexts. This movement is not without its critics with one of the most common push-backs to this kind of training as the supposed paucity of spiritual formation that happens in this mode of educational delivery. Within the Australian context, this has been commented on in the significant review of theological education across Australia carried out by Charles Sherlock in 2009. In that report, Sherlock notes:

There is general agreement in the theology sector that face-to-face mode remains an indispensable element in learning with a formational orientation—some colleges therefore regard this as the only acceptable form of preparation for the Christian ministries for which they prepare students. To the churches, many colleges say, ‘we want to keep them in college’, but the churches respond, ‘we want them out there quickly’. How communal and formational learning is sustained for distance education theological students remains a significant challenge. In theological education, ministry preparation and spiritual formation are viewed as part of the whole learning experience: how is this encompassed in online mode—what is equivalent to opening a class in prayer? (Sherlock, 2009, p. 122)

This question of formation in residential and distance theology students was investigated directly by New Zealand educator, Mark Nichols (2015, 2016). In his research into this, Nichols found that formation took place in both contexts – residential and distance – but each provided different challenges and opportunities for theological studies. In summary:

The findings of this study indicate that there is, statistically, no real difference in the formational maturity or spiritual growth trajectory across on-campus and distance theological education students. However, there is evidence that part-time students are advantaged, as their spiritual formation activities are more rounded than those of their full-time counterparts. It is likely that this is because part-time students study within a richer, real-life setting that gives them better opportunities to participate in service and stewardship.

Those critical of the formational potential for distance theological education tend to discount the spirituality students bring with them into the study experience, and the opportunities their real-life and local church contexts provide them for spiritual growth. Students self-selecting for distance theological education tend to already have a level of spiritual maturity motivating them to participate. Critics also tend to focus on the formational potential of the formal education experience in isolation, overlooking the very real spiritual development that takes place in church fellowship and life experiences alongside formal education. When formation is considered holistically—that is, in the overall context of a student’s experience rather than restricted to the contribution made by theological education in isolation—it seems distance education students are advantaged in terms of their spiritual maturity. Students studying part-time tend to be more active in their local fellowships, evidenced in this study by significantly higher levels of service and stewardship activities. (Nichols, 2015, p. 133)

In relation to Pasifika learners engaging in online teaching, learning and assessment due to COVID-19 isolation in 2020, one might expect that those who are seen to be part of highly relational communities would struggle in this context to succeed in and engage with what has been portrayed as a highly, individualistic mode of educational delivery. However, Dion Enari and Jacoba Matapo, both Pasifika academic researchers, challenge this assumption in a number of ways. Firstly, they look to the opportunity presented in this situation to argue that:

This is a time to show the innovations and persistence of our people, particularly in traversing education and the various new modes of distance learning. Through the sudden shift towards digital, virtual education, we are reminded of Pasifika education pedagogy and research, which spans over 30 years in Aotearoa and which engages Indigenous Pacific epistemology as the core of educational frameworks. This synergy is conducive to relational intersubjectivity and positioning the learner as a relational being at the heart of learning. (Enari & Matapo, 2020, pp. 7-8)

While much of the literature around Pasifika learnings focuses on in face-to-face, in-person physical presence with other learners and teachers which provides a context which is learned from as well as from the content being taught, Enari and Matapo argue that the traditional relational vā can be enriched through the development of a digital vā that indigenizes “the digital environment to embed cultural ways of being and knowing” and acknowledges that “the digital space must not impoverish, distil and strip the rich cultural significance of Pasifika ways of knowing and being” (Enari & Matapo, 2020, p. 8).

At the heart of Enari and Matapo’s development of a digital vā is the notion that communal learning must not be lost in this process. Communal learning sits at the heart of Pasifika cultures, with the relational networks of learners with the wider community connecting to indigenous epistemologies and ontologies. For the wider Samoan family, the aiga, the initial Samoan language nest is the home, involving face-to-face instruction with the parents as holders of traditional knowledge. Another significant site is the Samoan church where the Christian teachings in Sunday School are disseminated in the Samoan language. These places of activity are coined by John Dickie as ‘educative sites’ that promote the instruction of the Samoan language, customs, and cultural values (Dickie, 2001). Enari and Matapo observed that during the online delivery during COVID-19 lockdowns, in spite of assumptions that this would isolate students, they often found the opposite happening because online sessions also had parents, cousins, and other families present, watching, learning, and building wider relational spaces.

Additionally, with Covid restrictions, there has been a gradual sense of awareness of the significance of digital technology in making connections across the global social space. With travel restrictions in place globally, significant communal gatherings and events such as the opening of a new church, birthdays, worship, sermons, bible study, and even funerals are recorded and uploaded on social media for all to see. In the traditional context, the rites of passage are witnessed only by those present in that space. With digital technology, the social space draws on the attention of many outside the focus group. In a multi-faceted world, the traditional village context makes way for the global village.

This development and maintenance of a digital vā, entwined with the traditional vā, makes itself known not just in the formal classroom, but in the wider network of relationships and recognition of persons-in-relationship across a range of teaching and learning situations. Much is made of creating communal and welcoming spaces in online education, promoting community, and reducing learning isolation, and this is particularly the case in theological education where alongside academic success, spiritual and personal formation is meant also to be taking place. Perhaps the way that Pasifika communities have navigated recent online environments in creating aspects of the digital vā can be something offered back to other locations and communities within theological education reemphasizing communal elements of personhood that perhaps have been lost in non-communal, competitive educational environments.

In addition, learning from the creation of the digital vā, as well as how indigenous and distinct identities might be preserved within the globalized information culture might connect not only to formal theological education, but also to non-formal education, discipling, catechesis, and the use of digital media for storytelling and photography that are starting to emerge in various contexts (Crowley, 2014; da Silva, 2019; Garner, 2019; M. Hess, 2019; M. E. Hess, 2014).

Theological Research and Digitally

The second category of digital theology activity that Phillips et al highlight is the way that theological research is affected by digital culture and tools. In particular, they pay attention to the way digital media changes the way scholars interact with sacred and scholarly texts, the growing data sets that can be used to track and investigate theological, ecclesiological, and sociological trends, the scope for digital communications to facilitate collaborative research and scholarship, and the increased ease of access to texts and other materials that in the past may have been limited by geographic location and time limits on access. In addition, these materials are now also more available to a wider body of scholars, laypeople and the wider church community, leading to new avenues of theological reflection taking place outside of the traditional “gated communities” of privileged scholars.

While part of their discussion locates this theological research and scholarship within the wider context of digital humanities research, there is less detail on how this might affect or change the research methods and methodologies used by theological scholars in carrying out their work. Obliquely noted are some comments that skills and approaches related to large dataset analysis might be helpful, as well as methodologies that might be appropriated from the related field of digital religion, but digital communications and media open research and scholarship to a global community of researchers and scholars who may wish to engage with theological research in ways the tie back to their own cultural locations, indigenous epistemologies and ontologies, and relational perspectives for both the purpose of that research and scholarship as well as how that is done appropriately and authentically within their own contexts.

Within the wider Pasifika and Oceanian communities, including Aotearoa New Zealand, indigenous approaches to research and scholarship continue to develop including Māori approaches using Kaupapa Māori, Samoan approaches such as teu le vā, and others which bring together different communities and their methodologies for a common good, such as the Vā-kā methodology developed jointly by Māori and Pasifika researchers (Anae, 2010, 2016, 2019; Smith & Wolfgramm-Foliaki, 2020; Walker, Eketone, & Gibbs, 2006).

These various methodologies promote forms of relational ethics by bringing to the forefront a range of relational dimensions that support indigenous communities but also speak into wider research communities. In the teu le vā research methodology used by New Zealand Samoan anthropologist, Melani Anae, the emphasis on maintaining right relationships between researchers, the communities involved in the research, and attention to appropriate indigenous references including a space for the sacred in methodology speak to the need to recognize and value both individuals, communities, and the relationships present within those. Anae describes this as:

In our research relationships, Pacific researchers can teu le va in general by exposing, understanding and reconciling our va with each other in reciprocal relationships in the research process and for engaging in dialogue with all research participants at all levels. A person, as an independent being is both separate from others (independent) and connected to others (dependent) at the same time. A relational personhood, an interdependent personhood fosters rather than assumes autonomy. Thus the role of the Pacific researcher is to facilitate continued dialogue between research participants, colleagues in the research team, funders, policy-makers, and communities to ensure debate and continued dialogue over time. Where there is tension or disagreement, to teu le va means to soothe, mute and/or attenuate these, in order to correct or realign priorities to ensure the dialogue is kept intact and moving forward (Anae, 2016).

By constantly being aware of the presence of these relationships, Anae speaks to the way in with relationships and relational spaces, the vā, are nurtured, valued, and maintained. The sacred dimension to the vā, the vā tapuia, connects to either or both the traditional Samoan web of Gods and creation, as well as to the Christian God and Christianity expressed in Samoan culture. This incorporates the idea that relationships have a sacred essence or dimension to them that feature in ethical and methodological concerns in research. In recent years we have seen this sacred dimension expressed significantly in Christian theological engagement from Pasifika and Māori scholars, leaders, and communities along with methodologies such as teu le va being used to conduct theological research and scholarship (Halapua, 2008; Havea, 2013; Maliko, 2012; Pouono, 2016; Setefano, 2018; Tate, 2012; Tuwere, 2002; Vaai, 2014).

The attention to maintaining right relationships alerts us to cultural complexities that might be generalized or overlooked, such as treating Pasifika, a contested term, as a blanket for describing that all Pacific people conform to an abstract ideal, rather than highlighting and celebrating both the similarity and diversity within those peoples and directing us to do the same in our own local and global contexts. Methodologies like teu le vā continue to keep us focused on the relational dimensions of our theological research, and in particular to stress how important it is to maintain sacred and human dimensions to it as we explore digital cultures and spaces, where the temptation is to reduce everything to disconnected autonomous individuals or to assume that all people present are the same as us. In doing this, we must keep our own hermeneutical location clearly articulated and reflected upon in engaging digital theological research. As Anae puts it:

Relationships are the essence of humanity. The PRE (Pacific relational ethics) of teu le va in Pacific research context allows us to define a moral and ethical relational space for discovering knowledge about others through dialogue and sensitive interaction for positive outcomes in all our relationships with research communities. Teu le va is a spiritual experience. It is about relational bodies literally affecting one another in the va and generating intensities between and across human va, discursive va, thoughtful va, respectful va, and spiritual va (Anae, 2019).

Theologically-resourced Engagement with Digital Culture

The third category of digital theology that Phillips et al posit is that of a rich engagement with digital culture underpinned by dialogue between theology, other disciplines and digital culture itself. This, they describe, as a reflexive relationship where,

[t]he relationship between theology and digital culture works bi-directionally: theology as the lens through which to analyze digital culture and digital culture as the lens through which to analyze theology; theology as guiding principles with which to participate in digital culture and digital culture offering guiding principles by which we participate in theology (Phillips et al., 2019, p. 39).

It is here that the elements of systematic theology, biblical studies, church history, and moral and practical theology are examined in light of digital culture. A part of that is looking for how that theological tradition might speak into this digital environment credibly and intelligibly to both religious communities and the wider world. Another part is looking at how the digital world might make us think deeply about our theology, how it is articulated, and what might need reappropriating or adapting. Key to this is guiding principles, persons, and communities that shape how that happens, whether there are certain things that a fundamental or non-negotiable in this process, which people can help with this, and a respectful awareness of the communities involved.

At one level this process might look for particular analogies or metaphors from the digital world to explain or connect to particular aspects of the biblical text or theological doctrine. This is an area that sociologist, Brenda Brasher, has in the past claimed that institutional religions may struggle with, not the least because of translating now unfamiliar agrarian imagery from sacred texts such as the Bible into a modern, technocultural context, particular religious emphases such as physical embodiment in Christianity, and a general unwillingness for some communities to engage in reinterpreting their symbols and assumptions in light of digital developments (Brenda E Brasher, 1996; Brenda E. Brasher, 2004). That said, we already see past examples of how analogies and metaphors have been used in the past to help bridge between past and new contexts with respect to faith - whether that be in terms of using the scientific analogy of light as both particle and wave to explore the contents of Christ’s simultaneous humanity and divinity, of the Bible functioning as God’s Internet “home page,” and of various reflections on robotics and personhood as a way of exploring theological anthropology and ethics (Foerst, 2004; McGrath, 1999; Riddell, 1998).

What is apparent here, and this is not just in the case of Phillip’s et al’s paper, but the kinds of people who are identified as dialogue partners, such as theologians, scientists, artists, coders, computer scientists, sociologists, entrepreneurs, digital humanists, designers all tend to fall into the categories of scholars, professionals and located geographically and socially Western cultures. This is a fairly broad generalization, but given theology and digital culture intersect with expressions of each both locally and globally across the face of the world, where is the space for those who don’t fall into those categories or who, perhaps, are seen as not doing “real theology?”

For Christianity, as a world religion with most of its current growth and population in the Global South, this is a pressing concern, not the least because of the impact of digital technology and globalization upon local communities and identities. It is all the more pertinent because it is in the Global South, and in marginalized communities in the West, where the work of contextualizing theology for an authentic expression of the gospel in response to both past and present situations is being carried out and carried out well. While the contextualization of theology that Pacific communities are doing with metaphors and analogies such as the coconut for the gospel (Palu, 2012), of exploring the nature of God through the analogies of moana (sea) (Halapua, 2008), revisiting the doctrine of the Trinity in Pacific context (Vaai, 2014), or deep engagement with the land (Tuwere, 2002) may seem odd when wanting to think about digital culture, there is much to learn about from other’s insights and observations looking in from outside that might see things we’re blind to or to highlight things that are in common.

In this context, something like the Samoan notion of the vā and relational space may offer something unique to discussions of theology and digital culture showing how to negotiate digital culture by maintaining a focus on relationally that is at the heart of the gospel and authentic human life. What this might offer, in tandem with theological reflection, is a lens through which to engage with social media, virtual geographies, authentic identity, and the notion of true personhood and community. Furthermore, what might alternative understandings of space and time have to complement our explorations of digital geographies and experiences?

In their work weaving research approaches from Pacific and Māori perspectives into the Vā-kā methodology, a title that literally means igniting/empowering relational space, Hinekura Smith and ‘Ema Wolfgramm-Foliaki, argue that in Western thought space and time can tend to be thought of as static or separate in everyday life, whereas in Māori and Pasifika cultures the words for space and time (wā in Māori) embrace both as one and the same. In digital cultures where space and time are constant sources of anxiety, stress, and tension, maybe an alternative view on those might be a way to unpack or start to think about how we might live well in our own time and place while reflecting on the theological significance of those in digital environments.

Theological Ethical Reflection

The final category in the digital theology typology proposed by Phillip’s et al builds in the previous category and focuses that theological engagement more explicitly upon the ethical dimensions of digital technologies and culture. This ethical focus is two-fold looking toward both religious communities and also towards wider society. In the case of the former, this might be in relation to the use of digital technology and media in the context of worship and community life, questions arising about using technology wisely and ethically in everyday life, and thinking about how digital technology might shape faith in both positive and negative ways.

The focus on wider society brings theological and interdisciplinary thinking into a dialogue with the impact of digital technology and culture on human flourishing and societal wellbeing as public theology that seeks to offer something gospel into the public square for the good of society in ways that are intelligible and comprehendible to the wider, non-theological public. As Phillips et al note this might include reflection leading to the shaping of public policy in relation to surveillance and big data, investigating the impact on the workplace of emerging technologies, as well as questions concerning being human in technological society, and how discrimination might be identified and addressed in digital cultures. Part public theology and part ethical reflection, this category seeks to offer both church and world phronesis, a kind of practical wisdom, for living well in digital and media cultures (Campbell & Garner, 2016; Delicata, 2015; Garner, 2020; Lewis, 2018; Ott, 2019; Stoddart, 2014).

Into these discussions, alternate voices serve to raise issues that may be invisible to those who are unaffected by them, particularly in the way in which digital systems can dehumanize or marginalize persons and communities, homogenize and assimilate cultures and identities, promote particular understandings of personhood and community, and maintain power in the hands of certain groups at the expense of others. Alternative understandings of relationally, such as that found in the vā, reframe those ethical matters in a way that promotes relationally and value of individuals and communities that can then inform our theological insights here. It may simply be that different cultures can offer nuances on the understanding of loving one’s neighbor and neighborhood, through to a view of doing justice, loving-kindness, and walking humbly with God in relation to digital culture from a different perspective. For example, Anae articulates her Samoan perspective on relational ethics as:

Standard ethics discourse goes some way in coming to know and attend to the bones of the person, in a general, objective context. In relational ethics, however, we are called to put a'ano (flesh) on the bones of personhood in a way that recognises and demands respect, attentiveness and responsiveness to our commitments to each other in the humanity of relationships (Anae, 2016).

In terms of specifics, educationalist Cresantia Koya-Vaka'uta (2017) weaves together notions of the vā in the context of social media. As previous noted, the vā is both simple and complex, providing a framework for understanding how things relate to each other in the world, and this shapes identities as well as social engagement between people. Digital media challenges and reshapes the notion of space, place, and time which impacts upon traditional understandings of the vā, including religious and spiritual dimensions of that found in the va tapuia (Samoa) and teitapu (Tonga). In thinking about the way online digital media reshapes understandings of space and time, she notes that:

Tausi Ie Vā (Samoa) and Tauhi Vā (Tonga) carry with them beliefs and attitudes towards the cultural values of compassion, respect, reciprocity, restrained behavior, service, love, humility, wisdom, patience and unity. These values imbue the manner in which relationships play out in the socio-cultural context. It is significant in the Samoan and Tongan cultural space-time continuum that cultural relationships which were once solely nurtured and maintained in 'physical geographical place and real time' are now enabled through 'cyberspace' in cyber-place and cyber-time. (Koya-Vaka'uta, 2017, p. 68).

Key to all of this is the active dimension of teu le vā which continues to value, nurture, and act on sacred and secular spaces for the promotion of the wellbeing of others, and which might provide insight for digital theological ethical reflection through the identification of relationships nurtured and stymied by digital technologies to sit alongside the insights of other communities.


As digital theology moves to become a truly global discipline space needs to be found to different voices from around the globe to sit alongside, speak into, and learn from each other. In this paper, we offer a starting point for this happening from the perspective of Pasifika voices and concepts being woven into that discussion using the notion of relational space, the vā. We assert that by bringing the vā into respectful, faithful dialogue with different aspects of digital theology and creating space for genuine talanoa – the giving of grace and space to others to tell their stories, to be heard respectfully, for hospitality to be offered, and justice secured – we might offer something unique and constructive into that global conversation, while also learning from others around the world.


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