by Charles Henderson

The Internet provides humanity a new window through which to look upon the Infinite.

CHARLES HENDERSON is Executive Director of CrossCurrents.

In her ground-breaking study of human identity in the age of the Internet (Life on the Screen), Sherry Turkle reports that numerous computer users she has interviewed talk of their online experience in spiritual terms. In these narratives people tell her that computer networks "resonate with our most profound sense that life is not predictable. They provoke spiritual, even religious speculations." She cites one interviewee who concludes: "To me, it's God coming together with science, and computers have made it all possible."

Subsequently Turkle goes even further in an interview with a Time magazine correspondent referenced in the cover story, "Jesus Online": "People see the Net as a new metaphor for God." The reason for this, she explains, is that they experience electronic networks, like life itself, evolving by a force they can neither understand, nor control. "The Internet is one of the most dramatic examples of something that is self-organized. That's the point. God is the distributed, decentralized system." Turkle is putting together these sentences, not as a religious person trying to prove a point, but as a scientist trying to understand what is happening in the culture at large.

Just how good is the Internet as a metaphor for God? As a committed Christian, a theologian of culture, and one who happens to be, like Turkle, both personally and professionally involved every day with this new medium, I want to take a closer look at what she is observing. If the Internet is becoming so heavily weighted with sacred meaning, just what kind of a symbol is it?

For many people it may seem a stretch to connect God and the Internet in a single sentence. There are several obvious sources of this resistance. The computer is, after all, a machine. Clearly, God cannot be identified as a machine, which by definition is an object of human rather than divine origin. Further, machines belong definitively to the world of matter, whereas most people think of God as spirit -- or at least invisible, an unseen force, perhaps. Of course, a large part of Life on the Screen flows from Sherry Turkle's observation that today's digital networks are far more than simple machines connected by wires. In contemporary networks, the boundaries between the human and the merely mechanical are breaking down. As computers are able to do more and more of what was once done only by human beings, and as people merge more and more of their daily tasks into their computers (including that most human activity: communicating), computer networks will come not only to feel like a part of one's self, they will be an extension of the self. Moreover, from its very inception, the Internet seems to have been growing, both in size and function, with a force both unpredictable and unplanned. Its popularity has surprised even experts as proficient in the technology as Bill Gates. The Net shows all the signs of growing beyond the capacity of its creators to control. That may mean it has more in common with Dr. Frankenstein's monster than with the creative and loving God depicted in the Bible. If the Internet is functioning as a symbol for God, we must ask what kind of a symbol it is. Or, perhaps more important, what kind of a God would it be referring to?

In one the opening numbers of the movie, Evita, the narrator asks of the character played so effectively by Madonna: "What kind of a goddess has lived among us?" If the Internet is a symbol of God, it at first appears as far removed from traditional images of God as Madonna is from the mother of God whose name she bears. Clearly the Internet is quite a different symbol than the ones popularly associated with the deity of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In this context, we recall Michelangelo's images on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: God, the strong and creative Father, calling whole worlds and planets into being by a simple command. These images are today being refreshed in the human imagination by their presence on the Internet. In seeing these images, lifted from their context in ancient chapels and cathedrals and placed before our eyes on the unflattering surface of a computer screen, it is apparent how little credibility they retain. At a time when the institution of patriarchy is itself in question, it's not all that appealing to envision God as an all-powerful Father. At a time when communism is receding into history, as did fascism, imperialism, and monarchy earlier, it is not very convincing to picture God on a throne, even if the throne is in heaven. At a time when we are increasingly aware of the interdependence of humanity and the natural world, it appears to be largely an expression of pride to see humanity at the top of a hierarchy of being simply because humans are alleged to be the one species created "in the image and the likeness of God."

In this postindustrial society, traditional symbols and metaphors of the spiritual life have been deconstructed and rendered irrelevant to human experience. For a long time now American school children have been trained to see the world from a scientific perspective. Planets, stars, and whole galaxies are spread at random throughout the universe. What does it possibly mean to speak of heaven above, and hell below, when we know from a scientific perspective that "above" and "below" are purely human constructs? In our day and time, science has driven a sharp wedge between people's sense of how this world really works and the traditional, religious pictures of how it is supposed to work.

With the waning power of certain religious symbols, others rise to take their place. With renewed appreciation for both the beauty and fragility of nature, we tend to see objects from the natural world as having symbolic potency. Mountains, rivers, oceans speak of a power and a presence beyond themselves. Plants and animals are seen, not as objects created by God for human consumption and enjoyment, but as integral parts of a larger whole. We are all part of a web of creation.

Moreover, this changing array of sacred symbols is driven not by the whim of individual believers, but by the cultural, social, and political settings out of which they arise. Clearly, the landscape of American religion is undergoing seismic upheaval. Since the founding of the republic, Americans have lived out their religious life by affiliation with one of several denominations: Presbyterian, Congregational, Episcopal -- and these, among a few others, shaped the spiritual life of the new country as well as its constitution and government. In the last two centuries these groups were joined by a host of others, including Catholics and Jews as parallel and analogous groups, sharing in what came to be known as the "denominational system." Today these denominations, around which the history of this nation can be written, are in a state of decline -- one might better say, free fall. As the old denominations die, a host of new religious groups and expressions have sprung up to fill the void: parachurches and telechurches, the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, Campus Crusade for Christ and the Million Man March. At the same time, the native American sweat lodge and the Buddhist temple, the Muslim mosque and the New Age book store have become an integral part of what we mean by "spirituality" in America today. Rather than being shaped and nurtured within the traditional denominations, spiritual life in America is now being formed in and through a host of movements, associations, networks, ministries, and of course, the mass media itself. Chaotic though it may appear to the casual observer, this eclectic array that we would associate with the word "spiritual" actually begins to reveal clear patterns and themes as order emerges out of the apparent chaos.

If in the past God was perceived to be an all-powerful monarch, in the information age God is increasingly visible in the commonplace and the ordinary and is available in the intensity of the present moment. If in the age of empire, God ruled from a throne on high, in the age of democracy God lives within the hearts and minds of individual believers, and all creatures hold an equally important place in the circle of life. If in the age of hierarchical government, God communicated by issuing commands from on high, in a networked world God is relational; the God of the information age speaks from within the relationships and events that constitute daily life. If in the Industrial Age, God was thought of as the great Designer who invented the very laws of nature, in the chaos of the present God is seen as a Creator who is available to all people in the interstices of their personal relationships. The God of the Information Age is not the unchanging, remote, unmoved mover of old, but the passionate partner and lover who inspires us continually to grow, change, and learn -- to become the just and loving people who in fact live and move and have their being in the image and likeness of God.

If the Internet is coming to be seen as a metaphor for God, it is not because the new metaphor dropped magically from heaven, but by the same process through which most religious symbols have been born: naturally out of the everyday experience of real people. God spoke from the mountaintops to people living near the mountains; God was spoken of as King when real kings ruled the nations of the earth; likewise, in the Information age, God will be perceived as being present in and through that network which connects us with each other and with the world in which we live. In some ways that network is the Internet.

If this is so, one must ask, "Why?" And what does it mean? Why, for example, has the Internet become such a symbolically rich icon, and not the telephone? Aren't telephones also communications devices that facilitate all kinds of human relationships over a network of wires? What about television? Or the telegraph? Or the mother of them all, the printing press? Neither the telephone, television, or the printing press seem to have figured importantly in the iconography of organized religion. If these technological inventions did not become religious symbols, why would computer technologies become so sacred? Is this phenomenon simply another quick passing fad -- this particular technology's fifteen minutes of fame?

I believe that what we are seeing now is more than a passing fad. I am confident in drawing this conclusion because the evidence of history is that the Information Age has been a long time coming. The changes have been incremental and cumulative; we had not noticed the deep currents that were about to sweep us away until recently. It takes some time before events of such magnitude are noticed. As Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore put it in The Medium is the Massage: "When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the. . . past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future."

This is particularly true within the realm of organized religion where, uniquely, it is considered a virtue to hold on, sometimes ferociously, to the symbols and metaphors of times-gone-by. In the opening hours of the twenty-first century changes are happening so rapidly that even those who are most committed to the values and beliefs systems of the past are forced to take their eyes off the rear view mirror, if for no other reason than they wish to stay on the road. As we rush headlong into the Information Age, understanding where we are headed has become as important as where we are coming from -- in fact, it has become a matter of survival.

Furthermore, in looking at the past, from the perspective of the future, we begin to notice things we missed as we were passing by. One notices, for example, that computer-mediated communications technologies represent not so much a quantum leap forward as one more step along a road that has its origins in the ancient near east and the written alphabet itself. People of Jewish, Christian, or Muslim faith are coming to realize that their sacred books have been produced for several centuries now by a machine, the printing press, and distributed through networks constituted of publishing houses and bookstores. The apparently sudden appearance of these same texts on the Internet represents one more step along a path that is as long as history itself. For centuries now, Jews, Christians, and Muslims have been pleased to be identified as "people of the book." In this they have seen how their deepest beliefs -- their most intimate knowledge of God -- has been irrevocably associated with a product of human manufacture, their sacred "book." What has not been seen, although it is equally true, is the degree to which that commitment and those beliefs have been shaped by the technology that made books possible. The printing press was a tool that had a profound effect upon the tool maker. Throughout the history of organized religion, technology, for better or worse, has tended to become theology.

Sensing the magnitude of these changes, many people of faith are likely to experience a sense of anxiety, fear, or even shock. Many faith communities will react by denying the significance of the events transpiring around them. This accounts, in part, for the rise of fundamentalist movements in and among all the world's religions. Fundamentalism is a symptom of rapid social change; its sudden resurgence a sure sign of the rapidity of change, especially those changes touching the hearts and minds of the people.

It is not only fearful fundamentalists who will be alarmed by the magnitude of the changes that are transforming the spiritual iconography of popular religion. Thoughtful, well-educated people with knowledge of both science and computer technology will have some deep skepticism about the new iconography. Does the commitment of modern culture to computer technology mean there will be an ever-widening gap between the information haves and the have nots, between the rich and the poor? Does the new God of the information age care only about those persons fortunate enough to possess state-of-the-art-computers? Are computer networks evolving in the same direction that television has evolved, into a medium of entertainment rather than enlightenment, and into a technology which succeeds only when its users become passive consumers? Will the experiences mediated by the new technology represent a cheap substitute for an authentic, spiritual life? Will computers become the present-day gods and goddesses before whom people bow down, rather than continuing to seek the living Creator who liberates and empowers all? In a wired world, will religion tend to become, as Karl Marx said it would, a powerful new opiate of the people?

Ironically, of course, the very intensity of such questions is perhaps the most powerful indication that the Internet is, in fact, a very good metaphor for God. As the great theologian, Paul Tillich, pointed out several decades ago, the effectiveness and power of a religious symbol can be measured in two very different ways. In the first place religious symbols become powerful because there is perceived to be a connection between some finite object in the world and the infinite realm to which that object points. So today the Internet is perceived to be offering humanity a new window looking out upon the Infinite. Yet, said Tillich, there is also a very different and in someways contradictory standard by which the power of a religious symbol can be measured. An object from the real world can become a potent religious symbol only when its "meaning is negated by that to which it points." If then, the Internet is a good metaphor for God, it will not betray us by becoming a new, more powerful, opiate, but will continue to draw us out, beyond ourselves, and beyond whatever it is that Internet is now or ever could become, to that which actually is the Web of God's own creation. In the end, God may in fact be that Web greater than which none other can even be conceived.

Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user.

Source: Cross Currents, Spring/Summer 2000, Vol. 50  Issues 1/2.