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  • Writer's pictureRyan Panzer

Learning How to Listen in a Digital Age

I recently read Timothy Egan's "A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith." The travelogue depicts a multi-leveled journey. On one level, there is a physical trek through contemporary Europe. A a deeper level, there is a spiritual trek through Europe's Christian heritage. As Egan walks, he grapples with his own beliefs and faith commitments. Full of honesty and candor, Egan sets out to hear the voice of God amidst the frenetic pace of his experience. The book is captivating, raw, and poetic.


As he starts his walk from England to Italy on The Via Francigena, he encounters the first directive in The Rule of St. Benedict: "Listen." It is to be the watchword of his journey.


Again and again, Egan recalls the importance of listening to the Christian faith. Drawing upon the scriptures and the rules of St Benedict, the writings of the apostles and the teachings of Pope Francis, the book emphasizes how utterly essential listening is to a life of faith.


As I read Egan's memoir, I am struck by how he managed to re-connect to his faith. It was not through reason or logic as Augustine might instruct, nor through tradition, as some clerics might teach. He does not find his spiritual footing through attendance at mass or worship (in his memoir, he opts to skip such services when invited). Rather, the author found spiritual sustenance through silently walking the lonely passages of the Via Francigena. Clearly there is something to be said about how intentional, active listening makes us more likely to notice what God is up to in our midst.




Is it any wonder, then, that one's faith often feels contested in this digital age, a time defined by more noise, fewer conversations, and constant context switching?


Even when I try to be completely intentional about my listening, I am interrupted by texts and emails, Slack notifications and news alerts. I find it challenging to listen to members of my own family - let alone the voice of the divine!


But it's not just interruption that inhibits our willingness to listen.


It's that digital technology actively takes away opportunities to practice listening to one another. As digital tools for collaboration become more sophisticated and AI advances, I am able to work asynchronously and independently with increasing ease. The conversations and interactions I would have once required to solve a problem can now be solved through interaction with AI. The alignment I need with collaborators and co-workers can now be solved through updates and notifications on apps like Trello, JIRA, and Asana. Thus my week involves fewer actual discussions, fewer opportunities to listen.


Listening is also made more difficult by the expanding items on our to-do list. As AI and digital workplace tools make us more productive (at least in theory), we are expected to take on a more expansive set of commitments. If these tools reduce the weekly hours required for Project A from 40 to 20, then the supervisor will soon add Projects B and C to our list. And while these projects might not add more hours to our workweek, they will certainly add to our cognitive load. That's because a wider set of tasks on my list requires me to rapidly change contexts from one deliverable to the next. The pace of work in the digital age might not require us to work more hours. But it always requires us to pack more into the hours we work. This way of working depletes our capacity for focus and listening.


This isn't to say we shouldn't use AI or digital collaboration tools. These resources can remove much of the drudgery of our work lives, freeing us up to spend less time on mindless, rote tasks. If using an app like Monday.com or Confluence means I get back the hours I spend in tedious project update meetings I will gladly partake. If digital tools allow me to work remotely, to spend more time with family, than I'll gladly accept their requisite pings and dings. Simple unplugging is not the solution to the challenge of listening in contemporary culture.


Instead, we should return to Benedict's command to Listen.


I've heard it said that listening involves both "listening to respond" and "listening to understand." The former is a faster, more common form of listening, while the latter is more empathetic and relational. Yet I would suggest that these two levels of listening are not enough for what the life of faith demands.


Faith in a digital age is about listening to discern. That's the type of listening that Timothy Egan discovered while hiking the Via Francigena. And while most of us won't attempt a trans-continental pilgrimage, this type of listening afforded by the pilgrimage or other forms of contemplative practice can be a balm to the distracted souls of the digital age. Perhaps, then, growing in our faith isn't about believing more ardently, or praying more consistently, or attending church more regularly. Maybe its simply about learning how to listen.

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