I just returned from a conference in Silicon Valley hosted by Santa Clara University where we talked about what “big data” means for the Church.
We heard from a data scientist who explained that big data refers to data sets that are so large that conventional methods cannot make sense of them. Marketers analyze everything from purchase activity on your credit card to the last webpage you looked at. When you include all of the data generated by text messaging and phone conversations, the amount of information available is staggering and a little disturbing.
Data scientists are interested in finding patterns so they can build a story around consumers that will help predict and influence their behavior.
So what does big data have to do with the Church? Like many things technological, the theological implications are often hidden from view. We can probably agree that certain ethical norms and privacy laws are necessary when we talk about tracking the behavior of millions of people. But those are legal and political concerns, not theological ones.
The theological link has to do with interpretation. What is theology if not a massive exercise in interpreting tremendous amounts of information?
From the creation of the cosmos to the sins I committed yesterday, there is a narrative thread that connects all those events. A story of perfect love squandered by pride and restored again by sacrificial love. The particulars of that cosmic story are manifold, but they are intelligible. And there is a profound elegance in that fact.
There is a sequence in Terrence Malick’s film “Tree of Life” that includes a 17-minute meditation on the birth of the cosmos. The visuals are stunning as Malick paints the screen with the birth of stars, the tumult of planetary explosions and the beginning of life. All this in a film about a Texas family grieving the loss of a child.
In her grief, the voice of the mother of the deceased child whispers over this stunning display of interstellar activity, “Lord, why? Where were you? … Answer me.” God’s answer comes in the form of a passage from the Book of Job that appears at the beginning of the film:
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? … When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
God’s plans are so much grander than our minds can fathom. He is working from a data set that is perfect and complete. Our job is to remember the story that holds it all together. Rather than fixating on particular data points, recall the deeper connections — that all the life and death in the universe is under His merciful care.
Like a good data scientist, we are called to notice the deep connections that are intended to influence our behavior toward the good and the true: connections between the stories and prophecies of the Old Testament, the events of the New Testament and our own daily lives; between Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, the holy sacrifice of the Mass and the sacrifices we make each day out of love for God.
The first words given to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” is a clarion call to Catholics living in the age of big data. While companies mine our information to get to know us better (and increase profit), our responsibility is to hold on to something more prophetic. Our story, our identity, is always and everywhere rooted in the biggest story of all, salvation from sin and death through Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Church.
Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.