RULES OF THE NET
& THE SOUL OF CYBERSPACE
OR GIVE ME THAT ON-LINE RELIGION

MARCH 1, 1998
R.M. FEWKES

 

"We did not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves." (Chief Noah Seattle)

The story of Jesus telling his disciples to cast their nets on the right side of the boat if they wish to find some fish appears in two places in the Gospels: the earlier version occurs in LUKE (in slightly altered form) and comes at the beginning of his ministry as he calls Peter, James and John to follow him and he will make them fishers of men; the later version occurs in JOHN at the end of his ministry as a resurrection appearance after which he challenges Peter to feed and tend his sheep. Both versions you might say contain an evangelical imperative to expand his ministry of healing and outreach. Just as their nets suddenly became full to bursting with fish so would their future ministry in his name bring hundreds upon hundreds into the Christian fold. It was no accident that the symbol of the early church became the fish which was drawn on catacomb walls and on the doors of those who gathered in their houses for worship.

To paraphrase a verse from ECCLESIASTES, "Cast your net upon the waters and it will return to you after many days full to overflowing with fish." If you change "days" to "centuries" you have a description of the growth of the Christian church into perhaps the largest of the major world religions next to Buddhism and Islam. In the course of those centuries the church played a significant if not dominant role in fostering the culture of the west. In the 16th Century the Gutenberg press created a major information revolution that eventually transformed western culture and helped to bring about the democratic form of government. The first thing that Gutenberg published was not a newspaper but a Bible in the language of the people. That led to the Protestant Reformation and the decentralization of spiritual power in the Christian church. The pope was no longer in control of the far flung realms of Christendom. There were too many Protestant sects and churches that were emerging, growing and flourishing , each of which had their own views of authority, leadership and doctrine. They did not want a centralized church hierarchy telling them what to believe or preach or practice. They could decide for themselves based on their own reading and interpretation of scripture and tradition, and in consonance with their own reason and conscience.

One of the sects and denominations that emerged out of this stew of Protestant decentralization was our own Unitarian Universalist heritage which took the principle of freedom of religious belief and conscience for all adherents, and the use of reason in religion, extended it to the nth degree, and created a form of church governance that was completely democratic at both the local and denominational level. All of this would have been inconceivable apart from the information revolution that was unleashed with the invention of the Gutenberg press and the publication of the Bible in the 16th Century.

Today we are at the threshold of another information revolution at the close of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st Century. We might call this the cyberspace revolution brought about by the information explosion fostered by the creation of the Internet and the World Wide Web. It will have far reaching implications, both religiously and culturally, and on a far wider scale and much more rapid pace, than Gutenberg could ever have dreamed. Today it is estimated that there are between 35 to 40 million persons around the globe linked into the Internet and that by the turn of the millennium, only two years away, there could be as many as 500 million.

It is simply staggering to contemplate. And it was all brought about, wouldn't you know, by a Unitarian Universalist. His name is Tim Berners-Lee, a British, Oxford-trained physicist, now a member of one of our New England UU congregations. According to my colleague, the Rev. Bruce Southworth, minister of the Community Church of New York, Tim Berners-Lee had "something of a poor memory. As a computer programmer, he devised a way to keep track of various research projects in different databases and especially how to link them to one another. Thus, the World Wide Web came into being." Berners-Lee had the option of commercializing and patenting his work, and thus accumulating vast wealth and fame, but he chose instead to share it and promote it as a creative and expressive tool for cooperation and sharing of information.

When Jesus asked his disciples to cast their fishing nets on the other side of the boat as a metaphor for gathering more adherents into the Christian fold he had no idea that there would ever be such a thing as the World Wide Web and Internet which could be used as a tool for further evangelization. But that is exactly what is happening. The problem now is when you cast your net of faith into the sea of the World Wide Web you no longer catch only Christian fish, but a vast array of oriental and other varieties--Hindus, Buddhists, Druids, Pagans, Taoists, Zoroastrians, Gnostics, Sikhs, Mormans, Jains, Twelve-Steppers, New Agers, far-out cults, even the Church of the Mighty Gerbil, you name it--they're all out there on the Web--and moreover you run the risk of being changed and getting caught in someone else's net. A lot of folks are fishing out there. In the reading from JOHN 21 the disciples haul their net ashore full of large fish, and although there were so many of them, it is reported the "net was not torn." And so it is when you go fishing on the Internet. You can bring in vast amounts of information, a lot of big fish, religious and otherwise, but what do you do with it? There's no way all this information can fit into a Christian boat or Hindu boat or even a UU boat, although we have a lot more room for varieties of religious fish.

Years ago Canadian sociologist, Marshal McLuan, wrote a book entitle THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE. He was referring to the shift from a print culture to a visual culture via the television medium. It was McLuan who coined the term "global village" to describe the instantaneous linkages that this communications revolution had brought about. He died before computers, screens and the Internet, joined the two cultures--print and visual--together in a vast web of connections across national, cultural and religious boundaries.  Think of it, I can dash off a note to the Vice-Bishop of the Romanian Unitarian Church, informing him of our proposed itinerary for our forthcoming trip to Transylvania, and receive a reply in less than 24 hours. It used to take from ten days to a month or more to complete the communications link with our friends in Romania by snail mail only five to six years ago.

The message of this new medium of communication is that information is free, there is no central control or hierarchy that can restrict the flow of information on the Net, no one owns the Net, it belongs to anyone who chooses to link-up, you can go anywhere you want, talk to anyone you want, process any information you want, share any information or opinion you wish, and make up your own mind what it is you wish to do with whatever information you take in. You can throw some of the fish back into the sea if you don't want to keep them, or you might even try to create a new interspecies version by joining one to another. As a medium the Net is anti-totalitarian, anti-hierarchy, pro-democratic and pluralistic, and even a bit anarchistic in the sense of unrestrained individual expression. For governments that are totalitarian or dictatorial in nature, or religions that are authoritarian and highly centralized, this is not a friendly medium for promoting a message that is completely antithetical to the medium which it is using.

Let me cite a recent example. In the early 1990s Bishop Jacques Gaillot of the diocese of Evreux, in Normandy, ran into trouble with the Papal hierarchy because of his views on priestly celibacy, homosexuality, and the ordination of women which ran counter to the official line from the Vatican. In 1995 the Pope removed him from his post as bishop of Evreux and reassigned him to the diocese of Partenia. Partenia, for all practical purposes, is a nonexistent diocese. It "lies in Algeria, on the slopes of the Atlas Mountains", and is embraced by the Sahara desert. There are a lot of scorpions, lizards, and flies there, but not many people, the few that live there are Muslims. The Pope thought he had silenced the bishop for an indefinite period. But Gaillot got permission to go on-line and to create a virtual diocese "by moving Partenia into cyberspace, onto the World Wide Web." (from The Soul of Cyber Space by Jeff Zaleski) Now he is reaching more people than he ever could when he was confined to a single geographical location in Normandy.

About his new post as Bishop of a virtual diocese on the Net, Bishop Jacques Gaillot says:

"As far as I am concerned, to go onto the Internet is first of all like a dream. It is the dream of a child who walks along a sand beach and looks at the ocean. He feels lonely and weak in front of the vastness of the ocean. And suddenly the wish to start a dialogue with all the people of the world who live on other shores grows on him. To go onto the Internet is also a venture. It is a magnificent venture which offers itself to me. I take the risk to let myself be welcomed by all women and men, whose face I do not know. Partenia calls to mind faraway lands, yet unknown. Partenia is a place of freedom."

Gaillot declares his intention, while still in communion with the Church, to bring "the Good News to the poor. The Gospel", he says, "is a message of freedom and love. To proclaim God, today, is to fight for people's freedom." Gaillot's message is certainly in line with the philosophy and practice of the Internet. But is it in line with the centralized authority of the Vatican? Can the Vatican keep the free exchange of ideas and views, which the Net promotes, from impacting upon its own views and outlook? If not in this century, then what about the next, which is just around the corner?

Jeff Zalesky, in a marvelous book, The Soul of Cyberspace, describes the impact that the Net is likely to have upon the thinking and views of organized religions:

"Anywhere and anytime, anyone with Net access can now learn something about Catholicism, or about any other religion. How will this ease of access to the universal store of sacred knowledge reshape the spiritual life of our species? Will religions keep their belief systems and their body of believers intact in a virtual world where it takes only a click of a mouse to jump f from one temple, one mosque, one church to the next?....Even as the Web carries organized religions into cyberspace, it allows a worldwide hearing of every voice within these religions. And online, not only can every voice be heard, but all voices are equal. Online, the words of the Dalai Lama look no different than those of an everyday Buddhist practitioner. How will this potential eroding of hierarchy change the way we worship?"

It is clear, I would think, that the Internet is much more suited to a free an open faith like Unitarian Universalism which, in the words of Channing, "welcomes new light and truth as an angel from heaven." The UU Christian Fellowship, which promotes a liberal or free Christian point of view within the UUA had as its headline for its most recent Newsletter: "Give me that on line religion." Scott Wells, the writer of the article, notes that UUs "have been especially prodigious in producing web pages." In fact, even though we are a small denomination, "Unitarian Universalists have in absolute numbers more congregational web pages than (almost) any other association or denomination." If you go to the UUA web page at uua.org you will find references to scores of affiliate organizations--UU Christian Fellowship, UU Buddhist Fellowship, UUs For Jewish Awareness, Covenant of UU Pagans, the Fellowship of Religious Humanists, UU Psi Symposium, etc.--indicating we are already an interfaith religious movement--which makes it an easy fit for us to surf the web for many and varied sources of religious truth and inspiration and not have to give up our UU identity to do so!

I for one have been pleasantly surprised that the First Parish Norwell web page has touched at least one soul in another nation and culture, Greece. I have received two letters from one Tryfor Papatryfon who was attracted to our web site by the Greek revival style of our church meeting house. Now that he has read some of the sermons posted there, including the one about Emerson, he says that he shares our approach to the "practice of a free religion, always questioning things and persons and believing in a never-ending search for an ever-changing truth." If he were living in the US he says he'd rather be a member of a UU congregation. In any event he promises to "be a faithful reader" of my "writings on the Net." I am both delighted and flattered. We can now say that First Parish Norwell has truly gone global!

Teilhard de Chardin was a Catholic Jesuit priest and paleontologist who believed that the evolutionary process of life on earth was one which moved toward higher levels of consciousness in conjunction with organized biological complexity. Where was this consciousness headed? Teilhard hypothesized that it was moving towards a point of human and cosmic unity which he called the noosphere, the spiritual thinking layer of the life force that links each to all and all to each. There are some who relate what is happening with the development of the Internet and World Wide Web as a movement towards Teilhard's mystical vision of unity. Thomas Mandel in his book on The Rules of the Net, refers to the Internet as "the first free and global republic of the mind", which "maps the human mind and soul", while Zaleski says that "cyberspace mirrors us in our entirety, including our souls. Our soul is its soul." This is not exactly Teilhard's vision, but it is certainly a nod in his direction.

In Hinduism there is the mythic image of Indra's net. As described by Sir Charles Eliot in Capra's book The Tao of Physics, "In the heaven of Indra, there is said to be a network of pearls, so arranged that if you look at one you see all the others reflected in it", a kind of holographic intuition that posits the whole of reality in the smallest of its constituent parts. Is the creation and growth of the Internet a movement towards the unity of mind and reality envisioned by Teilhard and intuited in Indra's net? Certainly not yet, but the possibility towards greater human unity and understanding has been increased manifold by the advent of the World Wide Web. No religion and no nation or culture will ever be the same again because of it. In the years ahead we have a lot of fish to catch and information to process. To paraphrase Chief Noah Seattle, "We did indeed weave the World Wide Web, though we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves."