The Internet and Religion

Sermon given at Hull Unitarian Church (4th July 1999)

When Ernest (retired minister) and Marie turned up at our house in New Holland one Sunday after the 1999 General Assembly, Ernest in particular was eager to tell me about all its goings on. I don't know for sure but perhaps he thought he was delivering news of it to me for the first time. However, as he spoke, I already knew about the poor standard of meals, the endless queues for the meals, the problem of distance between sites, the discrimination against those with disability, and a disparaging comment that had been made about congregations who set out to hire retired ministers.

The reason I knew about all this was because of what is called a list system on the Internet. I am a subscriber - it is free, of course - to something called UK-Unitarian, an e-mail list managed by Steve Dick, the Unitarian minister. The list is a system where when you send a message to the list everyone on the list gets to read it. And you read all of theirs too.

Just before the GA happened, each person on the UK-Unitarian list was automatically made a subscriber to a General Assembly list. And so this list started with a lively discussion about the motions coming up for debate. Then, during the General Assembly, it went quiet, as you'd expect. And then, suddenly, after the General Assembly, there was an explosion of comment about all the problems that had taken place and what exactly had been meant about the hiring of retired ministers. Thus it was that when Ernest and Marie called, I was already informed. This was before anybody had spoken to me face to face and weeks before the Inquirer would report on it.

The list system is part of e-mail, short for electronic mail. All you pay for e-mail, to and from all around the world, is the price of a local telephone call. In other words, it costs more for us in New Holland to ring Hull that it does to contact the world.

What I want to discuss today is the spiritual implications of the Internet. I've already indicated that it was born as part of the instruments of military evil, regarding technological survival frome dreadful attack, but evil all the same. And yet now it has become an incredibly useful tool of rapid communication for everybody. What I want to ask is what is it doing to the way we see ourselves, our understanding of time, of space, of culture, of ourselves as humankind in contemporary time. But I have not mentioned the other side of the Internet yet, namely the all important web pages.

Soon after writing the sermon I put it on the Internet and the whole service itself is now on the Internet. The service exists as one large web page among many, all linked together. So the congregation for this service is rather larger than us here and they can even hear the odd hymn tune too. Ernest's final sermon as minister was put on the Internet as a web page and his voice saying his opening words can be heard by anyone in the world.

Web pages are constructed from text, pictures, sounds and vision either very simply or additionally with some programming enhancements. They can be short or long.

All sorts of people and organisations now have web pages. They are, basically, a method of doing Public Relations, advertising and marketing in general. They are presentations of individuals about themselves and their interests, and presentations by all kinds of bodies - businesses, charities, government, churches. They allow for responses from the viewers and therefore you can even shop using web pages.

The places where I work have websites; doctors now keep up with factual information and opinion using web pages; students e-mailed me, sometimes even with their work, and my web pages included my lectures on research methods. And people can read about me and my interests, they can see what I look like, where I live, what I do and have done in my CV, and see my certificates, and they can see my photography, and they can see my art - and my mother's, and they can read my academic articles. They can get in touch. They can see what is effectively a tourist brochure of Bonskeid House in Scotland. They can read about me and my religious views. My website tells other people how to make themselves a website. And so it goes on: in fact it goes on quite a lot. And they can interact with the pages as they are designed with users in mind.

I know from looking at the statistics delivered to me every week that my website has been seen in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, France, New Zealand, Norway, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Finland, Turkey and Hong Kong. Oh, and curiously, the United States Department of Defense has had a look too. And there are hits on the website whose origins are unknown.

As was explained in the reading, the Internet is simply a large number of powerful computers linked up around the world. The big computers storing web pages are called servers. They also receive and send on e-mails.

When you send an email, what you do is dial a local call number that connects you to your server, operated by your Internet Service Provider. But you put an address into your e-mail - something at something dot something - whatever. When the e-mail reaches the server, it in effect goes at the speed of electricity through the chicken wire of connections so that it finds the other person's server anywhere in the world. Then it is up to that person to dial his or her server and the message is sent on to that home computer.

For a web site it is different, because the user who wants to see a particular web page dials the local server as sual but the web page is usually not waiting there, because it has to be retrieved from the server identified by the address where the web pages are stored. So it's http:// probably www dot, then user and/ or group and/ or country and a dot or two - and the web pages then come down the chicken wire to the server and the computer. However, sometimes popular web pages are stored on a local server. Freeserve did this, for example.

I have two servers, or, properly speaking, Internet Service Providers. But my web pages and their links are so arranged the user does not notice which server pages come from. He or she just accesses the pages and all the content. But this is just one illusory aspect of the Internet.

The Internet shrinks time, it shrinks space, and it reshapes our mental maps of reality. So does it bring about a sense of "one world?" Do we, in a sense, meet more people, become more aware, encounter more reality more deeply?

Well, yes and no. The Internet's process of globalisation is accompanied by a process of localism. In the recent past television became successfully world-wide and that was certainly an homogenizing experience for everyone. Because TV produced the material itself, a worldwide reach was of largely one kind of influence. But if the Internet makes world communication easy and instant and suggests globalisation, there is then a big but. It is so easy to publish on the Internet that every localism gets a voice. Every nationalist, every racist, every warlord, any religious bigot, any pornographer, can produce material from the locality where the practice is accepted and have it seen anywhere else instantly. Of course this localism works both ways. Regimes that once controlled the media with institutionalised racism, communism, social mind control, are now undermined by 57 varieties of opinion and the values of liberal democracy (as well as capitalist exploitation, of course) pervading their national space. How postmodern, then, it is, that at the very point of globalisation comes the most expressive localism.

Sure every web page in a language other than international English has to have a spot which says click here for English. But on the other hand, web pages in Welsh can be viewed in Shanghai, and seeing a publication in Welsh in Shanghai or in Swahili in Siberia was once very unusual. How postmodern this is when English is made so predominant.

So what of truth? There is more truth then: more debate equals more truth? Well, again, there is a big but. There is a deluge of opinion but no general and dominant BBC style across-the-board attempt to find some objectivity. There is instead every subjectivity going, every passing thought and bias on the Internet. Truth is both enhanced and a casualty. How postmodern this is too!

Not only is space being shrunk, so is time. Suppose I send an article to Faith and Freedom for publication. I write it, I send it to Peter Godfrey. It may be a year before it appears. But, I'm sorry, that article can be published on the Internet as soon as it is written, and seen by more people than those who read Faith and Freedom - and at much less cost! I hear that Keith Gilley is at last on line. I wonder when The Inquirer will be on the web? Think how fast letters could be published then.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that somebody said on the radio said recently, "It's as if you're not an individual unless you have your own web page." I hope this is rubbish. But they were referring to both the further inequality brought about by the the poor who lack access to information technology and, just as important, the virtual nature of contact brought about when computers linked together. What I mean is this - if you talk to me and I talk to you, then there is real engagement. You can see my shifty eyes, my wry smile, my body posture. You suspect a lie, a con artist at work. Compare that with this situation:

Jone Johnson, a self confessed family line Humanist Unitarian Universalist minister explained this about when making a cyberfriend:

My friend without gender was different - he/she didn't pose as either, and made it clear that she/he was not going to have, in online relationships, either a female or male identity. Fascinating. It is difficult, most people relating to my friend found, to even conceive of relating to a person, rather than to a man or a woman!

This must be quite an extreme case, but the serious point is that we don't really know who we are talking to in the Internet world. People who go to my website see who I am. Or, rather, they see who I tell them who I am. And for many the sheer volume of communication from so many smothers any sense of who all these people are. Privacy, or virtuality, is guaranteed. It's rather like when Sarah of Glassy Double Glazing rings you up - you haven't got a clue who she is. You imagine what she looks like, you imagine her life. Well such it is on the Internet.

Plus all these messages flying around aren't as profound as a good long conversation or a long letter. So the Internet may well be a case of: "never mind the quality, feel the width."

Depth is quality: being reflective, being slow, evolving, unfolding, one argument leading to another. The virtual Internet is not like this. It is fast, in your face, instant intensity, at once revealing and at once gone. But it is changing humankind.

There is a theology to all this. It is not for nothing that God was called the Word, the Bible being the Words of God in the Christian tradition. Nor is it for nothing that the Enlightenment-period theologian Schleiermacher thought that God was revealed in communication between humans expressing culture. But culture is now shifting because space has flattened and time is shrinking and people are becoming their presentations. It is not for nothing, therefore, that postmodern theology speaks of the death of God into writing, or into instant symbolism. The sense of stability we once had is replaced by opposites appearing at the same time - globalism and localism, a babble of languages, a confusion of truths, a collapse of mental space, a collapse of mental time, so much contact and so much isolation both at the same time. A friend of mine spends his money on live chat on the Internet. He discovered the person he wrote to lived around the corner - he still communicates by computer!

Such is this "lightness of being" that is the world of the Internet, and there is a kind of liberation in it - that we do not have to be serious, we can be private, we can be individuals. We can be contradictory and get away with it. Because we will be contradictory. And there is more of this to come because it is going to get faster and flatten space and time more; it is going to throw up every sin and every sainthood, and it is not going away. So the only thing to do is to get on the dragon and ride it and enjoy the postmodern ride of the intense experience which has gone as soon as it appears. For to live in the flashing virtual world, where what there is is also what there is not, is like deepest Buddhism. As you flatten space and as you flatten time, as you move into virtuality, it is the experiencing that point where the wheel of sin and wheel of heaven, samsara and nirvana, are one. This truly is samsara, this truly is nirvana, and God dies into virtuality, dies into the Mass, dies into the Internet. Dead and reborn at once, just like Christianity; samsara and nirvana as one, just like in Buddhism.

Whether the Internet shall change the world completely we perhaps do not yet know, but if what follows is faster and more comprehensive the Internet has set the model for change.