The following essay first appeared in the July 1997 edition of "Cutting Edge", the journal of the Sheffield Chaplaincy for Higher Education.   "Cutting Edge" publishes articles on theological and educational issues, and theology applied to local or current issues.   It costs £3.00 for three issues each year.   Further details from:  The Chaplaincy, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield S1 1WB, UK.

New technology is challenging theology in ways that were unthinkable even 20 years ago. Whilst pure science and theology have frequently interacted, applied science has always been more concerned with ethics than theology per se. Now that computers have crossed the boundary from technical automata to social, domestic and business communications media, their impact on the way we think and interact requires careful analysis. In the past, the word of God seemed to be a different order of knowledge from the technical word, and it is only now that the huge implications of mass use of computer mediated communication is posing questions which theologians must face creatively or be declared redundant in a computerised society.

Modern secular humankind has profound problems engaging with the Kingdom of God. We have been taught to trust our physical senses to investigate the world we live in. We use empirical investigation to unravel the mysteries of creation, from the molecular structure of DNA to the structure of the universe. A conceptual cosmos which exists alongside normal life, but about which we only have personal testimony and documentation of doubtful reliability is increasingly hard to swallow.

It is a curious fact that computer mediated communication offers us a paradigm for the kingdom of God for contemporary society. There is nothing behind a computer screen except a cathode ray tube, and the processor contains nothing more complicated than some precisely engineered electrical equipment. The modem and phone line deal only in electronic signals. And yet, anyone who has switched on a computer and logged into an internet service provider will maintain that the conceptual world of cyberspace is as real, in its own terms, as normal life. If technological humankind can conceptualise cyberspace, the possibility of the Kingdom of God is equally within grasp. If we consider a computer as an ikon, a window into another conceptual world, the possibilities are endless. Cyberspace is a world where we can act and interact, and see and evaluate the effects of our actions without requiring any supernatural explanation or risking our immortal souls.

This is all very well as far as it goes, but cyberspace is a good deal more than a contemporary paradigm for explaining the nature of the Kingdom of God. It is a place where people meet, communicate, perform actions and affect one another’s lives. If God is present “whenever two or three are gathered together”, then God must certainly have a presence in cyberspace too. It is very tempting to transfer our tried and tested theology lock, stock and barrel into cyberspace, and indeed there are plenty of organisations and individuals who do just that. Most “Christian” newsgroups, for example, have written sermons posted to them regularly. The individuals who use the internet in this way, are simply using electronic means of transmission instead of verbal or written means, and apart from speed, the one offers no advantage over the others.

To communicate the word of God in an electronic world, we must take into account the special qualities and limitations of cyberspace itself. Firstly, it has no physical manifestation. There is nothing to touch, taste or smell: even the best multimedia computers have limited powers of sound production and visual stimulation. The vast majority of what goes on in cyberspace is text based: email, newsgroups and bulletin boards, mailing lists, relay chat and interactive games (MUDs). This is both limiting and liberating. In any form of interpersonal communication, cyberspace removes all the visual and oral/aural clues which we use to supplement our understanding of the actual words used. Deprived of any opportunity to see or hear the person with whom we are communicating, the words themselves take on much greater importance. Even a normal letter carries certain physical clues - the quality of the paper, the handwriting or use of a typewriter, the way it is folded and the shape of the envelope. But text based computer communication is almost exclusively carried out in fixed width fonts on identical backgrounds which are determined by the reader’s browser.

Furthermore, text based computer communication is endlessly reproducible, and at the same time, totally ephemeral. I can read a message which has never had any physical form, and then delete it so that there is no trace of it ever having existed. On the other hand, I can send an identical email to literally hundreds of thousands of people at the same time: not one original and many copies, but endless numbers of identical originals. And an archived email can be stored without any risk of decay, and accessed as easily as a newly written one.

The theological implications of this are terrifying. The word, logos, is central to our understanding of God. In the incarnation the word became flesh, but in cyberspace, flesh only exists as a word - flesh is and only is a word. Incarnation as a concept in these terms becomes meaningless. Even if we could overcome this problem, we are left with the fact that the word in cyberspace is both totally ephemeral and endlessly reproducible. God can be deleted or multiplied at the will of the human being at the keyboard.

A further issue we have to address is one of identity in cyberspace. I said above that cyberspace is also liberating, and it is particularly with reference to identity that this is so. In real life, anything I say is judged partly on its own merits, and partly on the impression I as a person make on my hearer or reader. It is true to say that when it comes to theology, a middle aged mum of 5 is considered rather an unlikely source of wisdom, and I am rarely taken seriously in theological discussion except among my academic peers and tutors. On the internet, identity is constructed with words: I need give only as much information about myself as I choose, and that information I do give may be misleading or false. Getting to know a person in cyberspace is therefore something of a guessing game: one has to decide if a person is who he or she claims to be, and construct an image out of verbal clues. This liberation from stereotyping means that individuals can (and do) experiment with identity, gender and age. Whilst it is true that someone who is semi-literate would have problems convincing others online of academic prowess, most forms of computer mediated identity are not verifiable. This leads to the conclusion that in cyberspace, identity is not the fixed point of reference that it is in real life. “I have called you by name” just does not take into account the fact that I may have five screen names, none of which refer to my baptismal or given name in real life, and all of which I can change at the click of a mouse.

If the notion of fixed identity cannot exist in cyberspace, then talking about God presents something of a challenge. We are accustomed to talk of God in terms of absolute superlatives, all of which assume a fixed and unchanging quality of excellence. Computer mediated communication just does not support this sort of God-talk. In cyberspace, it is not only the identity of individuals which is contingent, but identity itself.

What we appear to be left with in cyberspace is a pretty pitiful God: a contingent identity who has no way of escaping, or extending beyond, the logos. The still small voice is nothing more than a lower case fixed width font, which can be used to produce insults and profanities as easily as it can be used to offer blessing or prayer. And God cannot even communicate on the internet, since such communication depends on the physical input of data.

In spite of all this, or perhaps because of all this, theology is more urgently relevant to computer mediated communications than to any other area of life. Psalm 139:7 hints that there is more to God than humanity can perceive. If indeed I cannot go anywhere where God is not, then God is as present and as powerful in cyberspace as in any other part of life. What is wrong with the presence of God in cyberspace described above may be -and I would contend is - that we do not yet have a language or metaphors for God that work in the context of cyberspace. Centuries of slowly evolving use of language have engraved certain images and metaphors about God on our consciousness to the point where we do not recognise them as the product of language. The opening up of cyberspace with its paradigm shift towards a new use of language offers theology its most exciting challenge ever: to find a form of God talk that works in the computer age.

This endeavour may well be painful. Sacramental theology, for example, is particularly vulnerable when material existence is devalued. There just is no way of handing out consecrated wafers on the internet! As internet communities form, drawing in people who are separated geographically and culturally, theology will be forced to reconsider notions of Church and authority. We will have to address the problem of sin in cyberspace: is it possible, and how can it be explained and dealt with? Can the physical suffering and death of an incarnate God affect the consequences of sin in a non-physical world?

It may be that Christians will have to come to terms with living in two theological domains, each with different language and paradigms. In real life, things will continue in the same way as they always have, whilst in cyberspace, a new way of thinking and talking about God will evolve. Perhaps we shall find that in years to come people who are atheists in real life are cyberchristians or vice versa. We may devise online rituals to mark rites of passage: a family death will be marked by a virtual archiving ceremony, and a birth by the invention of a new screen name.

What is clear is that theology cannot ignore the internet, nor can it assume that cyberspace is just an extension of normal life. We must find a cybertheology with a digital hermeneutic that can address the complexity and the subtlety of computer mediated communication in its own terms. We already have a starting point:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God...”

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