Digital Humanities and the Future of Theology
Barth: “Das ist immer gefährlich, wenn die «Denkmodelle» kommen, wo dann das Neue Testament so hineingefüttert wird - so wie in einen Roboter oder wie nennt man das?” Zwischenruf: “einen Computer!” Barth: “Computer, ja. Es geht nicht gut so.”1Karl Barth, “Gespräch Mit Wuppertaler Studenten (1.7.1968),” in Gespräche 1964-1968, vol. IV, Karl Barth Gesamtausgabe 28 (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1997), 501.
Wie geht’s heute with theology and the digital humanities? The offhanded worry that Karl Barth expressed in a conversation with theology students from Wuppertal has emerged as a central preoccupation of twenty-first century humanists. Observers frequently note that religious studies scholars have not kept pace with researchers in other disciplines in the application of digital humanities methods.
Theological questions have surfaced in the digital humanities, but they have not received much attention from professional theologians. The situation may be changing. Presentations on digital humanities in theology and religious studies are occurring more frequently at professional conferences.
Where do we go from here? What potential does digital humanities have to shape the practice of theology? Are there theological questions at stake? This essay is exploratory, aspiring to identify points of contact between the digital humanities and theology. My goal is not to survey this emerging nexus, but to look at major trends and to suggest some potential applications in theology. With apologies to those who work in different media, my focus is squarely on texts. Basically, what I ask is simple: how does digital humanities promise to alter the way we read and write theology?
Problems of Definition
A problem with writing about the influence of digital humanities on theology is that both have definitional ambiguities. To sum up any discipline with a succinct definition is a challenge. In his classic photographic collection Philosophers, Steve Pyke asked his subjects, academic philosophers, to define philosophy in two or three sentences. The definitions ranged from the sublime to the mundane, including the memorable counsel from the philosopher of law H. L. A. Hart labeling the idea “absurd” and advising Pyke to “drop it.”
The difficulty of providing a comprehensive definition for the digital humanities has become an inside joke among practitioners, who have filled a spreadsheet with proposed definitions.
Caroline Schroeder, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of the Pacific, suggests that digital humanities is about more than employing computers in research and teaching; it’s also about drawing on a canonical (but evolving) set of “standards, methods, and technologies that form a kind of cultural capital.”
If we are exploring the concept of “digital humanities,” we need also to look at the other side of the conjunction. How do we define the humanities? Does theology count among them? The field of religious studies undoubtedly numbers among the humanistic disciplines, but theology does not study expressions of religious behavior or, at least, not all theologians conceive of theology in this sense. Scholars in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries spent a great deal of ink outlining taxonomies of the sciences, seeking to place theology among the disciplines.
The upshot of these reflections is that theologians aspiring to work in the digital humanities must perform a double act of interpretation. On the one hand, theologians must engage with the methodologies of the digital humanities, or at least approach them from the margins, ascertaining their possibilities and limits for theological research. On the other, they have to apply these approaches to data where nothing is straightforwardly theological and yet everything is susceptible to theological interpretation. If you want, you could term digital humanities in theology a two-fold dialectic as it requires both a digital and a theological hermeneutical leap of faith. Or, to use less fancy terminology, you might say that using digital humanities tools for theological ends requires a doubly capacious imagination.
Reading Theology Digitally
Studying theology is an act of intellectual humility. The humility arises primarily from theology’s pretension to know a God who transcends human understanding. But, more prosaically, there’s a lot of theological texts to read. The written theological record extends back millennia. While some texts have become archaic, we cannot say with surety that any are definitively out-of-date. Theological knowledge is not straightforwardly (or even indirectly) cumulative. The theological loners and outliers bear crucial witness. Theological schools that looked liked dead ends may have proved fruitful under altered circumstances. If Richard Rorty warned against adopting a “whiggish” view of science, his counsel applies as strongly to theological historiography.
Thomas Gillespie (1928–2011), former President of Princeton Theological Seminary, liked to impart the advice of his teacher, the theologian George S. Hendry, to incoming students.
It was George Hendry…who challenged us one day to visit the library and stand humbly before the five hundred volumes in the Migne collection, which represents Greek and Latin patrology up to the ninth century A.D. Perhaps our professor was sensing that we were beginning to feel our oats in our new-found knowledge of God and wanted us to see ourselves in some realistic perspective. Whatever his motivation, I took him up on the idea and found my way to the Migne collection. … Five hundred volumes of what Christians thought about God in only the first nine centuries. They compelled me to recognize that I did not and never will carry the whole ocean of the knowledge of God in my little tea cup.11Thomas W. Gillespie, “Growing in the Knowledge of God,” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin 17, no. 1 (1996): 6, http://journals.ptsem.edu/id/PSB1996171/dmd004.
I heard President Gillespie preach this sermon in Miller Chapel during my first year at Princeton Seminary. I must have taken the message to heart because, against expectations, I became an academic librarian, spending my days walking up and down rows of texts that I would never read. Humility before the Word and the words shaped me as a theologian and a librarian.
But what if we could read everything? What if we could summon texts at will and ask them questions? What changes?
Gillespie delivered his admonition near the opening of the Internet era and, at that point, no digital editions of the Patrologia Graeca and Patrologia Latina existed. Librarians already provided access to digital indexes and editions before the Internet, of course, but these were trapped in towers of CDs or served over slow modem connections, and with limited search features. Today, anyone with an Internet connection has access to better information tools than those available at the best libraries in the world when Gillespie delivered his sermon. If I’m starting out on a research project, I conduct keyword searches in Google Scholar to find relevant journal articles and Worldcat to explore the monograph literature. The Internet Archive and the HathiTrust provide overlapping sources of data. While I still read physical books, I routinely identify the information I need before heading to the library shelves.
Access to information at this scale has not, at least according to my subjective perspective, fundamentally changed theological pedagogy. Faculty continue to offer survey courses and seminars. In the surveys, students might be assigned anywhere from six to a dozen books, depending on the ambitions of the faculty member. In seminar courses, faculty generally assign fewer readings but expect students to engage with them more deeply. The most memorable courses of my seminary education focused on close readings, examining Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith, Tillich’s Systematic Theology, or a volume of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics in depth during a semester.
Franco Moretti refers to close reading of this kind as “theological.”
If you want to look beyond the canon…close reading will not do it. It’s not designed to do it, it’s designed to do the opposite. At bottom, it’s a theological exercise–very solemn treatment of very few texts taken very seriously–whereas what we really need is a little pact with the devil: we know how to read texts, now let’s learn how not to read them.14Moretti, Distant Reading, 48.
While Moretti advocates lightheartedly for this diabolical pact, taking up his challenge may prove more difficult for theologians than literary theorists. An implicit providence of reading operates among theologians, which assumes that the Spirit guides us toward the right books to read. We find biblical roots for this faith in the consumable scrolls in Ezekiel 3:1-2 and Revelation 10:9-10. The locus classicus of this theology of providential reading is Augustine’s Confessions. As we recall, Augustine was lamenting his sins in despair when he heard a child’s voice repeating “Tolle, lege” (“Pick it up and read it”) and interpreted this phrase as divine counsel. He returned to his friend nearby and, picking up the Bible, turned to the first passage he lighted on with bleary eyes: Romans 13:13-14. Reading the passage formed a crucial turning point in his conversion.
The belief that the Spirit guides us providentially to texts has become a trope among Christians, a regular feature of conversion narratives. Among modern theologians, Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) is exemplary in his adherence to a theology of providential reading. In his Confidentially (1873), which documents his conversion from theological liberalism to orthodox Calvinism, Kuyper described two spiritual episodes related to reading and literature.
In the first, he received a copy of Charlotte M. Yonge’s (1823–1901) The Heir of Redclyffe (1853) from his pious but less educated fiancée, Johanna Schaay (1842-1899).
A secularized form of this providential theology of reading persists in the concept of “serendipitous discovery.” The library to scholars and students is not viewed as a machine for organizing, describing, and making information accessible, but a space for serendipitous encounters with the unexpected, the delightful, and the provocative. In “Serendipity in the Stacks: Libraries, Information Architecture, and the Problems of Accidental Discovery,” Patrick L. Carr, Associate University Librarian at the University of Connecticut, notes the religious overtones of serendipity.
Beyond being a “special moment,” serendipity in the stacks can include a spiritual dimension. Indeed, according to Jeffrey T. Schnapp and Matthew Battles, readers throughout recorded history have shown a tendency to regard serendipitous discoveries as spiritual revelations. This perception is evident, for example, in English literature scholar Nancy Lusignan Schultz and novelist Anne Lamott’s characterizations of serendipitous discoveries in the stacks as “small miracles” and in Hoeflich’s characterization of such discoveries as “blessings.”19Patrick Carr, “Serendipity in the Stacks: Libraries, Information Architecture, and the Problems of Accidental Discovery,” College & Research Libraries 76, no. 6 (2015): 834, doi:10.5860/crl.76.6.831.
Movements toward efficiencies like digital catalogs, offsite storage, and web-scaled discovery tools may spark resistance among patrons, who fear such rationalizations will inhibit accidental discoveries. Carr worries that catering to such patrons panders to “nostalgia for a fading world in which information was scarcer and less structured.”
Digital libraries short-circuit stories of scholarly providence. In a second episode from Confidentially, Kuyper narrated his search as a student for the published works of Johannes à Lasco (1499-1560). He intended to write a paper for the prize contest at the University of Groningen, which had called for papers comparing John Calvin’s and à Lasco’s concepts of the church. While Kuyper readily found the necessary sources for his study of Calvin, he could not locate the works of à Lasco in any Dutch library. The forces of the Counter-Reformation had destroyed the large majority of à Lasco’s publications. Kuyper recounted that he searched in the libraries of The Hague, Utrecht, and Groningen and then expanded his inquiries to Paris, St. Petersburg, and London, finding no collection holding more than four publications.
To find this treasure–for me, the ‘to be or not to be’ of the contest–with a man to whom I had been referred by a good friend, who had no idea that it was to be found, indeed, who just a week earlier barely remembered the name of à Lasco and could not say whether there was anything among his precious books written by the Polish reformer… is to encounter a miracle of God on life’s journey.22Kuyper, “Confidentially,” 50.
What Kuyper regarded as wondrous is now commonplace for anyone with an Internet connection. I can search WorldCat for libraries that hold original editions of à Lasco and at least some digital facsimiles of his work at the Internet Archive and the HathiTrust, including Kuyper’s own two volume edition of the à Lasco oeuvre. The collaboration among academic libraries that makes it possible to search and retrieve this information alone is incredible, but that’s a miracle of a different order, namely, a testimony to the spectacular gains of information science and software engineering during recent decades.
Will undermining the myth of serendipitous discovery lead to a “demythologization,” so to speak, of intellectual genealogy in favor of bibliometry and related statistical approaches to literary influence? Or will serendipity reappear in new forms? As Tim Hutchings notes, reading the Bible on Facebook “shifts experience away from the voluntaristic act of setting aside time for concentrated reading toward serendipitous encounters with unexpected words inserted in the flow of everyday communication.”
The claim that we can ‘read’ a library without studying or skimming any of its books has, predictably, raised the hackles of literary critics. Stanley Fish argued in a blog of The New York Times from 2012 that the ambitions of digital humanists to view literature as an open, participatory, and nonlinear “collective” tacitly presupposes a theological perspective.
The vision is theological because it promises to liberate us from the confines of the linear, temporal medium in the context of which knowledge is discrete, partial and situated — knowledge at this time and this place experienced by this limited being — and deliver us into a spatial universe where knowledge is everywhere available in a full and immediate presence to which everyone has access as a node or relay in the meaning-producing system. In many theologies that is a description of the condition (to be achieved only when human life ends) in which the self exchanges its limited, fallen perspective for the perspective (not a perspective at all) of union with deity, where there is no distance between the would-be knower and the object of his cognitive apprehension because, in Milton’s words, everyone and everything is “all in all.”24Stanley Fish, “The Digital Humanities and the Transcending of Mortality,” The New York Times, January 2012, https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/09/the-digital-humanities-and-the-transcending-of-mortality/.
Fish contends, in other words, that digital humanists take a God’s eye perspective on textual corpora. As Boethius wrote in The Consolation of Philosophy, “… For it is one thing to be drawn out through a life without bounds, which is what Plato attributes to the world, but it is a different thing to have embraced at once the whole presence of boundless life, which it is clear is the property of the divine mind.”
The scatter plots and regression lines that typically emerge from “distant readings” will disappoint anyone who thinks that the digital humanities might evoke apocalyptic visions, however. While, as we shall see, text mining and stylometry provide new ways of looking at texts, they sacrifice the richness of close reading for abstractions. Like reading with a flashlight in a library at night, we can illumine a page or scan across the shelves; the digital humanities shines a beam of light in new directions, but does not switch on the overhead lights of omniscience.
Concerns about implicit theologies of close and distant reading obscure the down-to-earth aspirations of digital humanists, namely, to produce better readings of texts. Let’s consider some practical examples, first of text-mining and then of stylometry.
In The Distant Reading of Religious Texts: A “Big Data” Approach to Mind-Body Concepts in Early China, for instance, the authors seek to shed light on a scholarly debate about how xin (心), meaning “heart” or “mind,” relates to the body in classical Chinese texts.
Researchers in information science have likewise applied analogous statistical techniques to read and classify corpora in religious and theological studies, though without drawing on the terminology of the digital humanities. For instance, a group of Korean researchers published an analysis in 2013 of nine Korean theological journals to determine co-occurrences of terms and to map them out as a so-called ‘pathfinder network.’
Another example of text mining comes from a digital humanities graduate seminar that Dave Michelson and I led in spring 2014.
On a larger scale, Lincoln Mullen, assistant professor in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University, has analyzed approximately 10.7 million American newspaper pages from the 1840s to the 1920s for his America’s Public Bible Project.
The question of whether there is (or should be) a canon within the canon of scripture continues to prompt theological debate.
Text mining might become essential to the execution of theological research programs. Take the methodological proposal of the young Karl Barth, for instance. In his so-called Göttingen Dogmatics, a posthumously published cycle of theology lectures from 1924-1925, Barth proposed to begin with preaching when studying theology. In a chapter titled “Preaching as the Starting Point and Goal of Dogmatics,” Barth argued that Christian proclamation is the Rohstoff (“raw material”) of dogmatics.
To my knowledge, Barth carried out this procedure in a single publication, The Theology of Schleiermacher, which he delivered in Göttingen during the Winter Semester of 1923/1924.
While Barth argued in principle for this methodological approach, he did not apply it as narrowly in later theological studies. While the small-print sections of the Church Dogmatics contain citations from sermons from various eras of church history, he did not conduct any empirical analysis of contemporary proclamation. As Kevin Hector points out, the lack of empirical data makes it problematic to assign theology the critical task of evaluating the proclamation of the Word of God in light of its object. “If a theologian means to hold proclamation accountable to the word of God,” argues Hector, “it would appear that he or she had better find ways of discerning what is actually going on with such proclamation….”
Another powerful set of computational techniques falls under the name “stylometry.” Briefly put, stylometry is the statistical analysis of authors’ writing patterns. Stylometry takes an inverse approach to data-mining projects. Whereas data-mining seeks correlations among significant terms, dropping stop words and other minor terms as extraneous noise, stylometric analysis begins at the other end, searching in those superficialities for authors’ unwitting digital signatures.
Stylometry is not an invention of the digital humanities. Wincenty Lutosławski (1863–1954), a Polish philosopher, coined the term in the late nineteenth century. In a summary of a paper he presented on his “new science” to the Oxford Philological Society in May 1897, he used statistical analysis to group the Platonic dialogues in temporal order. His leading principle was what he termed “law of stylistical affinity,” namely, that “Of two samples of text of the same author and of the same size, that is nearer in time to a third which shares with it the greater number of units of affinity.”
Stylometric analysis finds natural application in biblical studies. In a brief review of stylometry in New Testament studies at the opening of his own textbook on the topic, Anthony Kenny notes that proposals to authenticate biblical authors using tokens of literary style go back as far as 1851.
Stylometry has theological applications apart from biblical studies. Matthew L. Jockers has published two authorship studies on the Book of Mormon: the first, co-authored article examined stylistic evidence for its multiple (modern) authorship
The advent of computational stylometry makes tackling such questions easier, but not necessarily more definitive. Depending on the approach, text mining and stylometric analysis may involve statistics, machine learning, and complex data transpositions. The experts in these fields publish papers full of mathematical symbols to account for their models. The average digital humanist may read those papers, glossing over the mathematical notation while picking up the gist of the techniques. If they want to try them out without much cost, they may turn to a web service like Voyant
Writing Theology Digitally
As is frequently observed, the popular history of digital humanities traces its origins back to a theological scholar, Roberto Busa (1913-2011), who worked on a distinctly theological text, the Corpus Thomisticum. As Ashley Reed notes, “his role as a Jesuit priest and professor of theology places the early years of the digital humanities squarely in the field of religious studies.”
Busa’s plan for the concordance was not novel, but the scope of the corpus put the project out of the realm of possibility for an individual scholar. Taking advantage of the international reach of the Roman Catholic Church, Busa arranged a meeting with Thomas J. Watson (1874-1956), C.E.O. of International Business Machines (IBM). The brief meeting between Busa and Watson has become “the founding myth” in the history of digital humanities.
We owe a lot to Busa’s pioneering work, but not everything in digital humanities proceeds from his example. A panel at the Digital Humanities 2017 conference in Montréal contested the notion that digital humanities has any single founding story. Titled “Alternate Histories of the Digital Humanities,” the panelists explored different vectors of scholarship that gave rise to the digital humanities, including community-engaged digital activism, feminist filmmaking, steampunk, and others.
What is the OuLiPo? The movement began in 1960 as secret literary society in Paris, bringing together avant-garde writers like Raymond Queneau (1903-1976), contemporary artists like Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), and scientists like François Le Lionnais (1901-1984). The confluence of artistic, literary, and scientific interests led the OuLiPo to explore the concept of algorithmic literature, that is, the production of literary works through ‘computational’ schemes and transformations. The relation between words and numbers, rhyme and reason,
From the beginning, the OuLiPo questioned whether computers could advance their agenda. Mark Wolff, Associate Professor of French and Modern Languages at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, relates “when the Oulipo formed in 1960, one of the first things they discussed was using computers to read and write literature.”
What if we seek not to understand a corpus but to explore its potential? In a brief survey of emerging forms of “data-driven literature,” Chris Rodley and Andrew Burrell remark that “a sense of playfulness often pervades” such experiments.
Tyler Cowen, Professor of Economics at George Mason University, argues in Average Is Over that so-called freestyle chess offers a glimpse into a possible future of human-computer collaboration.
The dream of a creative machine goes back a long way, of course. In Natural Histories (1966), Primo Levi published a one-act play titled “The Versifier” about a machine that generates poetry. Facing an imminent deadline, a harried composer of commercial verses rings up Simpson, a sales representative, for a trial of the machine. Simpson explains how the machine works.
Here’s the keyboard: it’s similar to the ones found on organs and Linotype machines. Up here (click) you put in the subject–from three to five words are enough. These black keys are the selectors: they determine the tone, the style, and the “literary genre,” as we used to say. These other keys define the metrical form.76Primo Levi, “Natural Histories,” in The Complete Works of Primo Levi, ed. Ann Goldstein, trans. Stuart Woolf, vol. 1 (New York: Liveright, 2015), 474.
Apart from a blown fuse, the machine tackles the poet’s assignments with panache–and Simpson makes his sale. Primo Levi concludes the short story with the poetical narrator addressing the audience directly, admitting that the “text you have just heard…was composed by the Versifier,”
In 2005, three students at MIT created a software program called SCIgen.
Will similar software emerge for pastors who have procrastinated until Saturday night to draft their sermons? The spirit of OuLiPo has already arrived in American evangelicalism. The satirical website Babylon Bee offers a tool that generates sermons.
In the short term, though, it is more likely that pastors will come to rely on computational tools to analyze and improve their sermons than to generate them from scratch. In analogy to freestyle chess, these tools will help pastors to avoid mistakes and blunders in their preaching while also drawing on existing homiletic corpora to guide their rhetorical moves.
Indeed, researchers are already envisioning these computational digital writing tools. In a remarkable thesis titled “Narrative Composition in the Context of Digital Reading”, Cyril Antoine Michel Bornet introduces the concept of “distant editing.”
Distant editing, as Bornet envisions it, works at a different level, shaping our perspective on how we organize ideas in literary form. As with “distant reading,” tools for distant editing are designed to push writers to a higher level of abstraction so that they can focus on the organization of their ideas rather than how they express them. “Considering texts from a distance was indeed one of the core ideas that kept coming on and on in most aspects of our work,” writes Bornet of his collaboration with a novelist. “…Given an admittedly more external reading, this artificial distance imposed by visualization tools might also exhibit features that are closer to a reader’s perception, and thus help mitigate between the idea a writer has of his text, and the actual message it conveys.”
Where to Go from Here?
The future course of digital humanities in religious and theological studies is still uncharted. While digital media have become pervasive in the lives of students, faculty, and administrators at seminaries and divinity schools, appreciation of their scholarly potential remains nascent. Also undervalued is the challenge of digital humanities to scholarly communications in theology and religious studies. As I wrap up these soundings, let us briefly look at how digital humanities reshapes the scholarly means of production.
The American Academy of Religion, the primary guild for scholars of religion and theology, has moved to increase the acceptance of digital scholarship by proposing AAR Guidelines for Evaluating Digital Scholarship
Does digital humanities have potential to reveal anything that we don’t already know about theology? A perennial criticism of computational approaches in the humanities is that, while producing flashy visualizations, they do not deliver novel findings. The validity of this criticism depends, I think, on what we expect computers to help us find.
John Updike anticipated this line of criticism in his novel Roger’s Version (1986). In that novel, Dale Kohler, a brash graduate student in computer science, seeks a grant from the divinity school at his university to model the universe computationally with the hope of finding traces of its Creator. Roger Lambert, a professor of theology, sponsors his grant application for a variety of motives, but partly to show its theological audacity and fruitlessness. Updike compares Dale’s quest to building a Tower of Babel during a pivotal, feverish scene: “…Dale still hopes–he is greedy, spiritually greedy; he is climbing his Tower of Babel–for a graphic confrontation, a face whose gaze could be frozen and printed.”
To speak in theological terms, digital humanities does not promise a new ‘natural theology.’ Digital humanists aspire to understand their disciplines better, not to evaluate their consonance or contradiction with some scientific view of the world. This sets digital humanities in theology apart from the so-called ‘religion and science’ dialogue. A motivating factor for that dialogue is to discover points of contact between science and religion in a common quest for truth. As I noted at the outset, digital humanities is a humbler affair. While borrowing methods from mathematics and computer science, digital humanists do not seek interpretative keys for the humanities in the sciences. With Updike (and Barth!), we should not expect theologians who take up digital humanities to capture the divine presence in 1s and 0s. But the light that computational tools shed on theological texts should help us become more critical readers, as well as more creative writers, of theology.
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