Catholic.com -- Surfing for salvation

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Article Spirituality

Nearly 40 years ago Soviet Cosmonaut Yury Gagarin was shot up into the heavens and reported back that he could see no signs of God in space. Judging from some of the satellite photos sent back from later missions, one might be tempted to suggest that Gagarin suffered from a severe lack of imagination. At any rate, if the colonel had been piloting his vessel in cyberspace instead of outer space, even as unpoetic a soul as he, it seems, would have been forced to report very different results.

Although much of our current conversation about the Internet tends to focus on the dangers of cyberporn or the mushrooming presence of hate groups on the Web, the truth is that there is an awful lot of God-talk going on. Religion, at least in America, is going online.

Cast your search engines out on the Web today and you'll get plenty of loaves and fishes. A typical search will turn up about 1,948,000 hits for "Christ," 2,100,000 for "Jesus," and 3,675,000 for "God." There are hundreds upon hundreds of religious bulletin boards, thousands and thousands of chat rooms, and every sect and denomination-from the techno-phobic Amish to Zen Buddhists-has a couple of homepages on the Web.

And in spite of what you may have heard about the church and Galileo, Catholicism is proving to be no slacker in the race to cyberspace. The Vatican, in fact, has one of the most ambitious sites on the Web (being run on three computers nicknamed Raphael, Michael, and Gabriel), and the search engine Yahoo! displays over 1,500 Catholic Web sites alone. Indeed, dozens of Catholic dioceses and religious orders in this country currently host Web sites for vocation recruitment, and Bishop Paul Loverde, the chair of the bishops' vocation committee, noted that "If he were walking this earth now . . . I'm convinced Jesus would have an e-mail address and be on the Web."

Casting nets for Jesus
A good deal of this mushrooming harvest of religious Web sites is because mainstream-and not so mainstream-denominations and churches are tapping into the Net to reach new converts or to stay connected with their online constituencies in a changing world. Concerned that they not lose touch with their computer-literate congregations, or see the faithful evangelized away from them by more technically adept preachers of the word, more and more pastors and dioceses are building homepages, bulletin boards, and chat rooms. Many are professionally designed hi-tech products, replete with all the interactive bells and whistles that we've come to expect from glitzy corporate homepages, while others are simpler, more home-spun postings with about as much charm and polish as a mimeographed parish bulletin.

But preaching the gospel to the ends of the earth is a bit different in cyberspace. As many have learned before us, adopting new technologies can often affect the content as well as the form of our message. Bibles were the first books to roll off Gutenberg's printing press, and within a century Martin Luther was using the mass accessibility of scripture and other printed religious tracts to fuel the Reformation.

In our own time the Web brings pastors and popes another evangelical tool for reaching their flocks. It also affords many parishioners a degree of freedom, access, and voice unlikely to be found in their pews.

In particular, the Web offers religious browsers three advantages long attractive to Americans-choice, convenience, and a chance to speak one's mind. Because Web sites are so much cheaper to build or staff than cathedrals or even roadside shrines, and can survive with the tiniest of congregations, even the smallest group of believers or zealots can now afford to build and maintain an electronic church.

With an endless number of ecclesial options on the Web, space is afforded to a wide variety of unofficial sites for Catholics and Protestants who may feel marginalized by some of their church's policies or teachings. In cyberspace we can find the exact faith or community of our choice, surfing for that ecclesia (gathering) of like-minded souls with whom to break bread. And in a land where both our cereal aisles and channel changers tend to overwhelm us with bounteous arrays of choices, we have every reason to hope (or fear) that we will soon have a lot more than 57 theological varieties to choose from.

Spiritual advantages
The convenience of the Web results from three factors.

First, like a parish with perpetual adoration, it's open around the clock. Church isn't limited to the Sabbath, or to the early-morning hours when retired folks and other good souls head off to daily Mass. As we chow down breakfast in the kitchen we can join Pope John Paul II as he recites his Angelus prayers, check out a theological electronic bulletin board while taking our coffee break at work, or drop into a chat-room discussion on meditation in those wee hours long after Jay Leno's gone to bed.

Second, no matter where you go in cyberspace, your favorite religious Web site is always as close as the nearest phone jack. Reminiscent of the days when you could walk into the same Latin Mass anywhere in the world, the online faithful can currently access their church's home page from the warmth of their den, the cabin of a 747, or any igloo with a modem. Cyber-space has brought the mountain to Mohammed.

Finally, in cyberspace we don't just have text, we have hypertext, and readers can bounce back and forth between biblical texts, commentaries, and ancient maps, accessing an encyclopedia of resources at the touch of a keypad.

Browsers can compare biblical passages with sections of the Koran or look up various translations and see what sorts of interpretations differing churches and preachers have brought to certain texts. The Web has brought one-stop shopping to our spirituality. Still, it is probably the chance to speak back that is most attractive to many who go online for their religion. In most mainstream churches, the faithful-like good sheep or children-are to be seen at worship, but not heard. One voice rings out from the altar or pulpit, even though it may speak in the first person plural, and the rest of us are invited to say "amen" or to chant ritualized responses. We can raise our voices in song, but rarely in discussion, particularly not when the matter at hand is critical or hotly controversial. Thus it's easy to understand why lots of folks are drawn to discussion groups where they can join in candid, if sometimes heated, conversations about religion. In cyberspace one hears a lot of folks yelling about all kinds of things they don't get a chance to talk about in church.

Certainly one of the most interesting examples of "talking back" in religious cyberspace has to be the Web site of Partenia, a vacant stretch of sand in Algeria and the titular (the Catholic equivalent for virtual) diocese assigned to the controversial liberal French Bishop Jacques Gaillot after he was dismissed by the Vatican from his post in Evreux, France three years ago. Refusing to go quietly into that dark night of ecclesial exile, Gaillot had a Swiss firm design a Web site for his titular diocese, and now cyber travelers visiting www.partenia.org find themselves welcomed by the bishop of the "diocese without borders."

Don't forget the real thing
In The Soul of Cyberspace: How New Technology Is Changing Our Spiritual Lives (HarperCollins, 1997), Jeff Zaleski suggests that the Web's very structure encourages browsers to make connections, peek over walls, and visit different sites, thereby building up a respectful understanding of other religious traditions and a grasp of the common values, practices, and beliefs which so many major faiths share. Like earlier generations that overcame rigid denominational boundaries through intermarriage or shared membership in unions and neighborhood organizations, the cybergurus that Zaleski cites believe that browsing will help tear down the walls that divide us.

One of the most extraordinary claims of Zaleski's book, however, is that the global connections afforded through the Web will lead to the formation of a new and universal human consciousness, with our various e-mail and online networks functioning as giant synapses and neural relays in a worldwide mind. According to these folks, the Web is going to accomplish what Catholicism, communism, and Coca-Cola have so far failed to do: making us truly one, joined in a great and unifying vision. Religion or spirituality is about being assimilated, and I don't envision community as 5 billion people plugged into their individual terminals. Talk about private altars!

Real and lasting connections can be made or sustained through cyberspace. I've had enough experiences of profound intimacy via interactive technologies like letters and phone calls to know that two people can be joined in such moments, even when these meetings don't occur in the same real-time.

But I am also just Catholic enough in my imagination to be afraid of leaving our bodies behind at the portals of cyberspace, Catholic enough to worry about the long-standing temptations to a dualism that reduces real presence to mental presence. While the Web has advantages, providing believers with a good deal about their own tradition and the doctrines and practices of other communities, it's hardly a replacement for the embodied presence of a community celebrating its sacramental life-any more than watching Mass on TV is the same as joining a real congregation. Cyber-space is a nice auxiliary to real space, but engaging living and frail human beings as we struggle to form communion with one another is what it's all about.

Real presence beats virtual reality any day.