The Future of ARIL in the Information Age

Charles P. Henderson, Jr.

Through the printing press, Christians became a people of the book.
Now, the Internet invites all believers to become a people of cyberspace.

If there is not enough humor in your life, you might try introducing yourself as the organizing pastor of the First Church of Cyberspace. "Are you kidding?" The question arises quickly, along with a quizzical smile. Apparently there is humor in the notion of finding God in cyberspace, or forming a faith community in and through the Internet.

Does God surf the Internet? When that phrase appeared in a newspaper article about a series of workshops which I was leading at my church in Montclair, N.J., one member of the congregation objected vociferously. To him, the very word "surf," called to mind 1950s beach party movies at best, and at worst, the 1960s counterculture of drugs and sex. The image of God hanging ten at the crest of a giant wave rolling in at Big Sur, while rank upon rank of bikini-clad California girls looked on in wonder and amazement, was too much to take. Certainly not a scene appropriate for a minister of God's "frozen chosen," let alone an activity likely to be enjoyed by God.

But wait a minute: isn't it rather widely accepted, not only by classical theologians, but equally well by New Age religionists, that God is, if anything, omnipresent: involved with, available to, even incarnate in the whole web of creation, including that vast, uncharted, and largely chaotic realm we now refer to as the Internet?

Increasingly, of course, we hear about the presence of pornography on the Internet; of crimes committed by computer hackers; of racist, sexist, and antisemitic content in various news groups. Fears of big government or big business invading our privacy, intruding into our lives, manipulating our opinions, and shaping our behavior in frightening new ways are equally alarming. One might dismiss all this as paranoia except that the sparks of fear are being fanned not only by neo-Luddites and computer neophytes, but by computer experts as well. Acting as a sort of devil's advocate for the print media, Clifford Stoll compiles a virtual encyclopedia of the dangers which computers pose. In Silicon Snake Oil (Doubleday, 1995), Stoll fires these bullets:

  • Computer networks isolate us from one another, rather than bring us together. By logging on to the networks, we lose the ability to enter into spontaneous interactions with real people.
  • Computers teach us to withdraw, to retreat into the warm comfort of their false reality.
  • Computing is a passive activity that seldom requires analytic thought.
  • Computers… work against literacy and creativity. They will undercut our schools and libraries.
  • Computer networks are… an unreal universe, a soluble tissue of nothingness. While the Internet beckons brightly, seductively flashing an icon of knowledge-as-power, this nonplace lures us to surrender our time on earth. A poor substitute it is, this virtual reality where frustration is legion and where - in the holy names of Education and Progress - important aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued.

Having served for nearly three decades as a leader of real faith communities, and having taken the initiative in organizing a community of faith online, I take this challenge with equal quantities of humor and rigor. As a Presbyterian, my own faith begins with the words from the prologue to the Gospel according to John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God." At the time of the Protestant Reformation, we Presbyterians and other reformers were referred to as "the people of the book." And we were so named not only because we affirmed the authority of the Bible, but equally because we understood the implications of the newest technology of that day, the printing press. Of course, Roman Catholics soon caught on and launched their own Counter-Reformation. Soon everyone understood the cultural as well as the religious significance of books. Of course, you could well ask what took Christians so long to get it. After all, Jews and Muslims have always understood the importance of text. The real point is that, for Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and Jews alike, any human invention that threatens both literature and literacy resembles a challenge to faith itself. For we are collectively a people formed around our texts.

It is from this perspective that I celebrate that new human language which is spawning such a rich and varied literature, namely, hypertext. This language involves its own ways of writing and reading; for me what is most interesting is that hypertext bears surprisingly close resemblance to biblical text. Consider how we "read" the Bible. We don't plow through it from start to finish. That would almost certainly kill any further interest you might have in studying Scripture. It's far preferable to wander in circular patterns in and around and through its varied poetry, history, saga, parable, and story. In doing so we find that one passage plays itself off against another, though they were written hundreds of years apart by people who spoke entirely different languages. And as we thread a path through the text, we find that its images and ideas emerge and play off against each other because various editors have built into various parts of the Bible references, clues, or links that refer to other parts. We thereby learn how to leap from one passage of the Bible to another, and to begin making connections with what is happening to us and around us in the contemporary situation. While reading the Bible, we find that the war in Bosnia can be understood in the light of quite similar conflicts in the Ancient Near East; love stories of today echo the fidelities and infidelities of young lovers in the Scripture.

It was one of this century's great theologians, Karl Barth, who taught his students to do theology with the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in another. Studying the Bible today might better be done at a computer terminal, since the Bible and the daily newspaper are already connected through the medium of hypertext. As envisioned by its inventor Tim Berners-Lee, now at MIT's Web Consortium, hypertext has the potential of linking together all the important documents in all the libraries of the world, connecting them into one seamless whole. Given the addition of multi-media extensions which have been added to hypertext code, we must now add to that compendium of documents, much of the music, film, photography, and painting in all the archives and museums of the world. And the breadth, depth, scope, and range of materials available through the interconnecting links of hypertext are growing exponentially.

Last fall I attended a major conference on the Internet at the Javits Convention Center in New York. It was evident, as it is to anyone who follows the business section of The New York Times, particularly on Mondays, that nearly all the major corporations in America are scrambling to figure out how to utilize this new tool, which is seen as the primary engine driving the emerging global economy. One after another, these corporations are repositioning and repackaging themselves as "information providers." Those of us who relate to the world from a faith perspective will want to look beyond the mere cataloging and communication of data. We understand that reality is not defined by the mere multiplication of bits and bytes on a computer's hard drive. Wisdom does not consist in the quantification of our knowledge or in the gigabytes of information stored in our memory banks. We still look for the underlying patterns that may emerge out of the apparent chaos of all those isolated pieces of information.

It's more than coincidental that at the very center of all this Internet frenzy there is a rather lovely image, an extended metaphor. When people talk about the Internet they are usually referring to the World Wide Web. This evocative image points to that digital construct which connects all those documents in all those libraries. The Web is the digital thread that ties it all together, what Clifford Stoll refers to when he speaks of this "tissue of nothingness." Anyone familiar with spiders, however, can tell you that a web is not a random work but follows a beautiful design. I guess there is enough of the natural theologian in me to insist that there is some correspondence between the patterns that are to be found within the apparent chaos of the Internet, and that deeper reality we refer to as the Truth. All of which suggests a gloss for that opening verse to Saint John's Gospel: "In the beginning was the Web."

In this context it is also more than coincidental that we Presbyterians, who in the age of the printing press became the "people of the book," have today become the first denomination of cyberspace. Since 1985 we've provided a home for both Presbynet, a computer network of, by, and for Presbyterians, and for Ecunet, the largest ecumenical computer network in the world. Ecunet celebrated its tenth anniversary at a conference in Baltimore, Maryland, last May. The anniversary celebration drew people from a host of different denominations from all across America. The conference represented a reunion of friends and colleagues who have worked and played, argued and prayed, shared both joys and sorrows for more than ten years, crossing denominational boundaries as well as geographical and political borders by way of computer and modem. Today both Ecunet and Presbynet are becoming seamless with the Internet, and will thus increasingly become the global village which Clifford Stoll insists is an "unreal universe, a soluble tissue of nothingness." Could this be a metaphor for the nothingness out of which God created our world in the first place?

At a practical level these particular networks have transformed my entire approach to my profession as a preacher. Thirty years ago, as a young seminary graduate and pastor of a local congregation, I composed my sermons while drawing upon reference books and other reading material in my study. Today, each week, several hundred of us gather in an ongoing, online meeting called "sermonshop." We share ideas and criticism, trade stories and illustrations, and struggle together with the text. We become more powerful preachers because we draw upon the collective word and wisdom of the entire community. In writing our sermons, we are no longer alone. I know that computer networks can strengthen and enhance community because I am part of one that is empowering thousands of us to work and share in wholly new ways.

Consider the efficacy of this new medium of communication. Two years ago my congregation sponsored with Auburn Seminary a debate touching upon one of the most difficult and painful issues being dealt with in our churches - the ordination of gays and lesbians to the ministry. We invited two scholars - Ulrich Mauser from Princeton Seminary, and Walter Wink from Auburn Seminary - to address the theme, "Homosexuality and the Bible." There were about two hundred people in attendance that night. For an educational program at a local church on a Thursday evening everyone considered this a great success. The event might have ended with that, but shortly thereafter, with the help of a few colleagues, I launched a web site under the banner of the First Church of Cyberspace. The same debate which took place in real time at my local church was now recreated in hypertext and published on the Internet as well as within the closed circle of Ecunet. Within Ecunet people were invited to respond to the original papers, and carry on the discussion online. Since October of last year there have been more than a hundred people actively participating in the Ecunet forum, reading the papers, responding to them, sharing ideas and feelings from widely divergent perspectives. There have been more than two thousand notes or comments posted within the meeting, which is, in effect, an electronic assembly of several hundred strategically placed clergy and laity from several denominations.

On the Internet the numbers are even more impressive. Every day about a hundred people from around the world log on to read these papers and others that I have posted at the web site. At this rate, without any further growth, about thirty-five thousand people will be exposed to this material after one year. More than five percent of these visitors register to be included on a mailing list. The mailing list now numbers over nine hundred; it will be about two thousand at the end of a full year. Add in a modest growth factor and I'll have a mailing list of ten thousand in short order. And I can send an electronic newsletter to these people almost instantly without the expense of postage or printing.

This new medium of communication can enhance both literacy and literature; I know because I am learning from it every day. The boundary-crossing, barrier-breaking capacities that are intrinsic to both hypertext and computer networks are a perfect demonstration that the rocky relationship between technology and theology may sometimes lead to a happy marriage. At the same time, this is a tool which can have powerful, unforeseen, and unintended effects upon the toolmaker. For better or for worse - as in the days of the Protestant Reformation - technology has a tendency to become theology. Computer-mediated communications technology will have profound effects upon the way in which people practice faith, as well as communicate with each other and with God.

Clearly the Internet is a treasure house of resources for those who make the inward journey: from the masterworks of the Sistine Chapel to hypertext versions of the Holy Bible, from groups of children engaging in conversation about God, to adults studying for a graduate degree in theology \dash all online! In fact, the diversity and the profusion of resources has become a major problem. For one can move with stunning speed from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to a topless bar; one can work out one's astrological chart, converse with a witch, correspond with Newt Gingrich, or join in prayer with a monastic community in France. The possibility of doing all of these things while sitting in one place gives new meaning to the notion of taking a "leap of faith." And while wandering from one site to another, we can spin from the creative chaos of the Internet a web of our own. Within its constantly changing dimensions, we can give shape and substance to the interior life.

At the same time, of course, constantly living with chaos can be disorienting and deeply confusing; the webs that we spin in hours of privacy and solitude can feel quite frail and insubstantial. Several commentators have suggested that the Internet is the equivalent of having the contents of the Library of Congress delivered to our doorstep, the only problem being that all these millions of volumes seem to have been unloaded by a dump truck. How do we bring a sense of order to such chaos? Without a librarian the vast resources of cyberspace seem bewildering. Or to use another analogy, when it comes to religious resources available in and through the Internet, it's like opening the door of your home one Saturday morning to find a representative from every denomination, church, synagogue, and cult group in the world camped out in your front yard, clamoring for your attention.

All of which suggests a new role and challenge for those of us ready to accept the responsibility of leadership in this time of transition from the Industrial to the Information Age. We need to join with others in creating the digital libraries, galleries, museums, and sanctuaries of the future. We need to provide the interpretive tools and critical perspectives through which people can evaluate what they read and see on all those millions of computer terminals. I believe that ARIL is uniquely equipped to play a crucial part in meeting these needs.

The Internet is no panacea. Yes, it is a great new medium of communication, but people will use it for evil as well as good. In fact, all the characteristics of popular culture are evident on the World Wide Web, especially when you focus upon the religious materials that are available. The radical right has taken to cyberspace in force. Fundamentalisms of a thousand varieties are thriving on the World Wide Web. The most offensive forms of racism, sexism, and antisemitism are quite evident. Even more to the point, within more respectable Internet sites sponsored by giant corporations - Time Warner, IBM or The New York Times, for example - religion is either ignored or dealt with in a superficial way. This may in part reflect the age and experience of those who put together lists of "hot spots," Zines, and other Web offerings. I would guess that many webmasters are unfamiliar with things "religious" or reluctant to evaluate church\synagogue\mosque-related web sites, of which there are many. I see a crying need for religious materials on the Internet that are intellectually credible, and that present religion in such depth that it can be seen as contributing to the common good. In other words there is a place in cyberspace for an organization like ARIL; it can be our role to communicate a vision of knowing and acting that is a creative alternative to much that is negative in popular culture.

Moreover, the time is ripe. At this moment it's not just the major corporations who are seeking to reinvent themselves for success in the Information Age. Traditional religious organizations, whole denominations, and local communities of faith are eager to take advantage of the new medium of communication as well. But, with ever-shrinking budgets and cumbersome decision-making processes, these traditional organizations will be slow to proceed. By developing one of the first and best examples of how the Internet can be brought into the service of communities of faith, ARIL can position itself as a resource for others.

In short, the Internet is an excellent vehicle for an organization which is itself a network, an association of people connected to each other by a common vision more than by a particular set of programs or activities. In a sense, ARIL was from the beginning a network waiting for the Internet to happen. At a time when funding is difficult, time is precious, print is expensive, and postage rates are rising, the Internet seems tailor-made to help us accomplish what we most want to accomplish - to participate in the nurturing and formation of loving communities that are theologically informed, spiritually disciplined, morally engaged, and collegially led.

Charles P. Henderson, Jr., the newly appointed Executive Director of ARIL, is an ordained Presbyterian minister and the author of The Nixon Theology (Harper & Row, 1972) and God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 1996, Vol. 46 Issue 2.