What do you get the Internet for its thirtieth birthday? What do you get a — what? system? — that has everything.
Or, that contains everything.
Those were my feelings this morning as I learned that today is the thirtieth birthday of the World Wide Web.
It would be impossible to list the ways that the internet has had an impact on contemporary religion. Just the idea that you can stream a worship service, and instantly touch millions of people beyond the pews, was revolutionary — and in some ways, problematic.
We still have not entirely discerned what the Internet has done for — or, to — our sense of community, and our sense of relationships. Is Facetime the same as, well, face time? Has the ability to send texts simply another way of sending short notes? Has it revived the epistolary form of communication? Do emojis substitute for true emotion?
As one of Israel’s greatest thought leaders, Micah Goodman, has said: the Internet has reduced our sense of human empathy. Many of our young people are having more screen conversations than “human” conversations. When we gain screens, we lose empathy. We are accessible, but not present.
I say this, knowing that in recent days, I have been the surprised beneficiary of the internet. In the wake of my father’s death, hundreds of tributes flowed in my direction through Facebook and emails. It was a form of comfort that did not exist thirty years ago, and I am grateful that it exists now.
(Are those people “really” my “friends?” It turns out that the internet is getting us to re-think the meaning of friendship itself.)
We have not entirely figured out what the Internet has done for — or, to — what it means for people to access knowledge, or information, or….
Because that is the key intellectual challenge of the Internet. Is accessing information the same as learning? In a more or less level playing field of information, in which the amount of information quintupples almost every second, how do we evaluate that information? When information is coming at us with that kind of speed, how do we even begin the task of thinking about what it means to be thinking?
In fact, thinking takes time. Or, it should take time. When we reduce everything to convenience, and when we encounter the proliferation of choices that the Internet places before us, how do we even begin to make rational decisions?
Finally, we have not yet discerned how the Internet might even affect our theology.
I ask our synagogue’s young people: imagine going back in time forty years ago.
Could you explain the internet to someone?
They hem and haw. They realize that they have no vocabulary that they could possibly use that someone back then would understand.
I interpret their hemming and hawing for them. “This is what it would be like to try to define or explain God.”
They get it.
I continue. “So, where is the Internet, exactly?”
“It’s everywhere,” they say.
“Right,” I say. “Kind of like…”
“Right. But, how do you know if you are connected to the internet?”
“Well, you have to log in.”
“How do you do that?”
“Most of the time, through WiFi.”
“Right. How do you do that?”
“You need a password.”
“But, it’s all the same Internet, right?”
So, this is what they now know:
The Internet is (like) God. For the first time since I don’t know when, we actually have a new metaphor for God. It turns out that “God as Internet” might be more effective for some people than, say, “God as Shepherd” or “God as King/Queen” — or even, “God as Parent.”
You need a password to get access to the Internet. Just like you need a “password” to get access to God.
What are the passwords?
- Every faith tradition has its texts, stories, symbols, rituals, poetry, that are the “passwords” to God.
- Every faith tradition has certain passwords that they use at certain seasons of the year.
- Every faith tradition has certain passwords that accompany personal life cycle rituals.
- And, some faith traditions believe that the sacred “WiFi” works better in certain places than in others. We call those places sacred places. (In the ancient Celtic tradition, they are sometimes called “thin places”).
Some people don’t like the whole religious password system. They would want to abolish all “passwords” to God. They just want direct access.
We call those people mystics.
Some people discover that their passwords, and the cultures that have created them, no longer work for them. They find “better” passwords.
We call those people religious seekers.
Some people think that their password is the only right password.
We call those people fanatics.
We can always use new ways of thinking about God. The Internet is but one of them.
Happy thirtieth birthday!