March 1997

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The Emerging Faith Communities of Cyberspace

by Charles Henderson

In the beginning was the Web... 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 after any such introduction, along with a quizzical smile. Humor, I am told, often results from the unexpected marriage of apparently dissimilar things. So there seems to be great entertainment value in the notion of finding God in cyberspace, or forming a faith community in and through the Internet. In addition to the levity involved in this project, however, there is also serious purpose to be served by this construct which becomes so easily an object of satire.

Does God surf the Internet? When that phrase appeared in a newspaper advertisement announcing a series of workshops that I was leading at a church in Montclair, NJ, one member of the congregation objected vociferously. To him, the very word "surf," called to mind 1950's beach party movies at best, and at worst, the 1960's counter culture of drugs and sex. The image of God hanging ten at the crest of a giant wave rolling in at the 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," as we Presbyterians are sometimes referred to. Let alone an activity likely to be enjoyed by God.

But wait just 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 cyberspace?

Increasingly, of course, we hear about the presence of pornography on the Internet; we read of crimes committed by computer hackers, of racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic 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 experts as well. Clifford Stoll compiled a virtual encyclopedia of the dangers which computers pose. In his book, Silicon Snake Oil, Stoll fired 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 itself is an essentially passive activity that seldom requires analytic thought. against literacy and creativity. They will undercut our schools and libraries.

  • Computer networks 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.

Interestingly enough, Stoll invokes the metaphor of seduction to describe what computers and computer networks are doing to us. He reports, how in pursuit of real time criminals he did find that a computer network is, indeed, a kind of community. But what a sleazy, sex ridden community it is. "One without a church, cafe, art, gallery, theater, or tavern. Plenty of human contact, but no humanity. Cybersex, cybersluts, and cybersleaze, but no genuine, lusty, roll-in-the-hay sex." (p. 43) So the fears of that New Jersey man who has never logged on to the Internet, and Clifford Stoll who has spent a virtual life time online coalesce. Only, in the end, Stoll objects, not to the quantity of sex on the Internet, but to the quality of cybersex. In fact, it speaks to the power of the medium that one should even notice that cybersex cannot match the "real thing." Whoever thought that it could?

Having served for nearly three decades as a leader of real faith communities, having organized an entirely new congregation online, and now as leader of that global network known as the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life, I take Stoll's assertions with equal quantities of humor and rigor.

In fact, 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; but for me what is most interesting as a person of faith: hypertext bears surprisingly close resemblance to the biblical text. Consider how one "reads" the Bible. The worst possible approach to the Holy Scriptures is to read it in one uninterrupted, linear progression from start to finish. It is far preferable to wander in circular patterns in and around and through its varied poetry, history, saga, parable and story. As one does so, one finds 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 one threads a path through the text, one finds that its images and ideas emerge and play off against each other and against the situation in which one is living. Wars in Bosnia are seen in the light of quite similar conflicts in the ancient near east; love stories of today echo the hopes and dreams of young lovers in the Bible. The human search for fulfillment and salvation that is recorded in the Holy Book suggests where salvation may be found in our world of instant communication, networks, and information overload. In other words, in reading the Bible, as in surfing the Internet, one learns to jump rather quickly from one point in time and space to another, and this happens because of the "links" that the editors of both sacred text and hypertext have constructed.

So sacred text is hypertext. Of course this sort of "reading" requires active application of the imagination. The rewards of hypertext come to those who use the appropriate search tools aggressively and creatively.

[] Anthony J. N. Judge shows an example of what sacred hypertexts may look like.

It was one of this century's great theologians, Karl Barth, who taught his students to study with the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in another. Today searching the pages of the Bible might better be done while logged on to the Internet, following the links that connect hypertext and sacred text into a seamless whole. All of which suggests a new paraphrase for the opening verse of St. John's gospel: "In the beginning was the Web."

In this context it is 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 network of, by and for Presbyterians, but also for Ecunet, which has emerged as the largest ecumenical network in the world. This coming May, Ecunet will celebrate its twelfth anniversary at a conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. The gathering will represent a reunion of friends and colleagues who have worked and played, argued and prayed, shared both joys and sorrows for more than a dozen years, crossing denominational boundaries as well as geographical and political borders. Today both Ecunet and Presbynet are becoming seamless with the Internet, and will thus increasingly become the global village which Clifford Stoll indicates is a "false reality," an "unreal universe, a soluble tissue of nothingness." Is it is, of course, quite to the point that Christians have always believed that God created the universe "ex nihilo," that is, precisely out of such "nothingness" as this.

Today in my capacity as Executive Director of an association whose membership spans the globe I can be in daily conversation with colleagues all around the world. With a Web site which provides people an opportunity to be in communication with each other twenty-four hours each day, it's fun to watch how the email follows the sun around the globe. At least twice each day I check messages which people have posted at ARIL's Web site. Activity begins in the early morning on the East Coast of North America, but as the planet turns, people in the Midwest and then the Western states join in the conversation. Long after the sun has set over the continental United States, people in Asia, and then in Europe awaken to logon, check the latest postings, and fire off their own messages or email. The electronic activity never ceases; the network is active around the globe and around the clock.

I know that computer networks can strengthen and enhance community because I am part of such an online community. It is growing; it is thriving; it is empowering thousands of us to work and share in wholly new ways. I am aware that this new medium of communication can enhance both literacy and literature 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 illustration of the happy conjunction of technology and theology. And there is every reason to believe that world shaking forces of similar proportion and power to those unleashed at the time of the Protestant Reformation are being set loose once again, and shall have equally profound effects upon the way in which people practice faith, as well as communicate with each other and with God.

Charles Henderson (, a Presbyterian minister, is Executive Director of the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life and organizing pastor of The First Church of Cyberspace.

Copyright © 1997 by Charles Henderson. All Rights Reserved.

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