Toward a Theology of the Internet: Place, Relationship and Sin
by Lynne Baab
Published in Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices and Futures, edited by Pauline Hope Cheong, Peter Fischer-Nielsen, Stefan Gelfgren, Charles Ess (New York: Peter Lang, 2012).
In a 2002 Theology Today article, Graham Ward observes that a number of conceptual categories are undergoing modification in our time, including space and materiality, as well as relational categories such as community, friend, contact and acquaintance. He also notes that boundaries are being blurred, including the boundary between the real and the virtual (off-line and online) and between human and machine. He maintains, as many scholars do, that new theological reflection is necessary in the light of these changes. In the past decade, most articles and books linking the Christian faith to the internet have focused on practical, not theological, issues. As McDonnell (2009) points out, when theologians have tried to make connections between Christian theology and the internet, they have usually focused on the ethical and psychological consequences of new media. Some scholars and theologians, such as Charry (2004), have used the phenomenon of the internet to illuminate theological principles. Generally, however, theological reflection about the internet remains in its infancy, and in this chapter I have endeavored to make new connections between three major areas of theology – theologies of place, relationship and sin – and the rise of the internet in human communication.
The internet is increasingly viewed as a place where people spend significant amounts of time; it functions like a library, a place for interchange of information, a casual gathering place and, for some Christians, a place for ministry. Therefore, the first area of reflection is theology of place, which has been a minor but significant strand in theological reflection throughout Christian history. Secondly, theological discussion about human relationships is necessary because the internet presents unprecedented opportunities for connection with others. Humans enthusiastically take advantage of these opportunities because we were inscribed at creation with the drive for connection. We were made in the image of a relational God; we use whatever means are available and convenient to nurture relationships. Yet electronic communication encourages individualism, self-determination and objectification of others, so the internet, like much of rest of life on earth, is a place where God can work but also a place where self-focused and addictive behavior can easily emerge. Therefore theology of sin is a third area of fruitful reflection.
Theology of Place
The biblical narratives in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament put significant emphasis on God’s work in specific places. Abraham was called by God to leave his home to go to a new land. His descendents lived there for only a few generations before being enslaved in Egypt for several centuries. The Exodus from Egypt involved a generation spent in the wilderness, a place where God worked mightily with the people of Israel. The conquest of a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8 and many other passages) followed. In the early years in the land, numerous towns and other specific locations were named for a miracle or action of God that occurred in that specific place. Stones were used as markers of places where God had helped the people of Israel (e.g., 1 Samuel 7:12). The pain of the exile in the sixth century was particularly profound because of the people’s removal from the places where God had worked in their lives: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. . . . How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1, 4, NRSV). The incarnation of Jesus Christ occurred in a particular place, and the spread of the Gospel around the world began in Jerusalem with the sending of the Holy Spirit on a specific group of believers in a specific place, with the understanding that the disciples would be witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NRSV).
Jesus’ words to the woman at the well in John 4:24 about worship in spirit and in truth could be seen as indicating that God’s work in specific places would be superseded by an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in all places. However, even though the New Testament testifies to this new reality that God’s presence and activity goes far beyond the land of Israel, the incarnation itself gives weight to the significance of action of God in human life on earth, which occurs in specific times and places. John Inge, in A Christian Theology of Place (2003), affirmed that the notion of place retains “vital significance in God’s dealings with humanity, since places can be thought of as the seat of relations, or the place of meeting and activity in the interaction between God and the world” (p. 58). T. J. Gorringe (2002) expanded on this specificity of human existence:
To be human is to be placed: to be born in this house, hospital, stable (according to Luke), or even, as in the floods in Mozambique in 2001, in a tree. It is to live in this council house, semi-detached, tower block, farmhouse, mansion. It is to go to school through these streets or lanes, to play in this alley, park, garden; to shop in this market, that mall; to work in this factory, mine, office, farm. These facts are banal, but they form the fabric of our everyday lives, structuring our memories, determining our attitudes (p. 1).
Gorringe went on to argue that theological reflection on the specific locations of human life involves “a discernment of God active in God’s world” (p. 7). He noted that the Christian church is, first and foremost a local community (p. 185), but that challenges for a theology of place in our time come from the postmodern reality that “individuals no longer have a single location, but many have several, and that rather than the city being a mosaic of spatially discrete worlds, there are multiple grids within which identity is formed” (p. 186).
Inge (2003) traced the history of theological reflection on place. He noted that the theological significance of place remained significant beginning in the Old Testament and continuing through the medieval period, as is evidenced by the medieval emphasis on pilgrimage and the Crusades. However, theologians during and after the Reformation placed more emphasis on the significance of time rather than place. Inge cited Wendell Berry as one of the few contemporary theologians who discuss in detail the significance of place. Inge argued that undifferentiated space becomes a place for us when we become familiar with it because our perception of reality is shaped by what we do, think and feel in specific places (p. 1, 26). He advocated for a “relational view of place” because “any conception of place is inseparable from the relationships that are associated with it (p. 26, italics in original). Jeanne Hallgren Kilde (2008), after having discussed issues of power as they occur in sacred places, affirmed: “The material world is far from neutral; indeed, as we have seen, it is through physical spaces and material objects that many of the power relations we have witnessed are articulated and maintained” (p. 199). Thus Kilde and Inge joined Gorringe (2002) in asserting that, even though in many ways God’s work, after the coming of the Holy Spirit, transcends place, we remain created beings who live and move and experience relationships with people and with God in specific places.
Can the internet be considered to be one of those specific places? “Place” has traditionally been linked to particular locations or spots, but in our time, people talk about the internet in ways that resemble discussion about particular locations: “I met my boyfriend on the internet,” or “I like to spend time with my friends on Facebook.” Using Inge’s (2003) description of what makes undifferentiated space become a place, the internet has become familiar to many people because of the time they spend there and because relationships are experienced on the internet. Using Gorringe’s (2002) descriptions of how places work, the internet is a place where, for many people, identity is formed, memory is structured and attitudes are determined. As Gorringe has noted, people today live in multiple locations, and one of those locations can be said to be the internet. For some Christians, the internet is a place where God is active and ministry is accomplished. Many churches view their websites as places where their congregational ministry in enhanced and expanded. Many Christian bloggers hope to stimulate reflection, discussion and growth in faith through blogging. Christian online discussion groups and special interest websites provide a place for Christians to connect with each other around specific issues. Some Christians experience worship in online congregations. On Facebook, I see people promising to pray for their friends in crisis times. These actions play a part in a growing perception that the internet is a place for connection with others and with God, as well as a place to find information.
One way to understand the internet as a place is to consider the concept of a “third place,” a term coined by Oldenburg and Brissett (1982), who cited the coffeehouses and public houses of Europe, particularly in previous centuries, as examples of a third place. Neither the home nor the workplace, a third place provides a location for sociability and nondiscursive symbolism, which Oldenburg and Brissett described as idiomatic, spontaneous, colorful and freewheeling conversation, steeped in stories and emotional expression, in contrast with conversation that is instrumental and pragmatic, used to give directions, solve problems, buy merchandise, write contracts, and talk with clients. A third place can host a spectrum of kinds of personal involvement, and is often a site for informal connections between people of different ethnic or socioeconomic groups. North American society in the late twentieth century had very few third places.
The internet is a place for communication that gives directions, solves problems, purchases merchandise and involves communication with clients, so, in some of its forms, the internet has qualities that are instrumental and resemble the workplace. However, with the rise in social networking, increased opportunities for extended discussions on blogs and news websites, the possibility of lingering over friends’ photos posted on photo-sharing websites, and the ability to play competitive games online while talking with the other players, the internet functions in many ways as a third place, a place where a variety of colorful and freewheeling interactions can take place. In addition, the internet’s growing role as a source of information on a vast array of topics makes it increasingly like a library. Thus, the internet functions like a market place, a library, and an informal gathering place where a wide variety of activities take place.
Many have argued that the internet is an inferior place for these activities to happen, citing the disruption of geographic communities, increasing tribalization, one dimensionality, and the marginalization of people with limited internet access (Edwards 2000, Evensen, 2010). However, for good or ill, the internet functions like a place for many people, and theological reflection about God’s presence in human places can be extended to a consideration of the internet. The benefit of considering the internet to be a place, and as such, a locus of human activity and God’s engagement with us, lies in the possibility of stepping away from the highly dichotomized discussion of the internet that is so common, with some writers and thinkers viewing the internet as evil or approaching evil, while others view it with an almost utopian enthusiasm (Lawson, 2001, summarizes both sides of the way Christians frame the argument). If the internet is a place, then we need to spend time considering how to bring forth the best kinds of human activity there just like we would explore that question with any other place. We need to confront human sin on the internet, just as we would confront it in other places. In addition, we need to explore the ways God is working there, in much the same way that God is working in other places.
The idea of a utopian paradise is relevant to this discussion because of the highly dichotomized views about the internet that are so common. Alessandro Scafi, in his 2006 book Mapping Paradise, notes that throughout history, human beings have looked for paradise. The utopian language in some of the early literature on internet communication stands in that long tradition of hoping that here, at last, we have found the place where relationships will be free from the taint of role, class, gender and status (Herring, 2001; Dean, 2000). I recently conducted interviews for a book on friendship in the Facebook age, talking (in person, by phone and email, and on Facebook) with dozens of people ranging in age from 12 to 85. I heard a wide range of opinions about relationships with a significant internet component. Some interviewees were very negative, mirroring the many articles in print and online publications that view social networking as dangerous or even evil. However, some interviewees were uncritical about the ways they communicate online with friends, some of them verging toward a kind of utopian optimism. Some interviewees believed that staying connected with friends as much as possible, through means such as Facebook, instant messaging, Skype and cell phone texting, makes good relationships happen almost inevitably. To them, the tools for communication that are found in this place, the internet, are uniformly helpful and will certainly build good relationships. The word “utopia,” coined by Sir Thomas More in his 1516 book with that title, comes from two Greek words meaning “no place,” and More used the word in a fictional construction indicating his belief that paradise on earth is not possible. As Scafi (2006) points out, the search for paradise or utopia on earth has always failed, and the complexities and challenges of the online world make it clear that the internet is already failing as a place for utopian communication. This will become increasingly apparent as we turn to consider further the question of human relationships, beginning with the image of God in human beings and moving on to human sin and the fall.
The Relational Trinity and Human Relationships
Throughout Christian history, the idea that humans are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26) has precipitated much thought and analysis. Theologians over the centuries have proposed numerous answers to the question of what exactly the image of God in human nature consists of. In the twentieth century this question came back to the forefront as a part of the renewed interest among theologians in the nature of the Trinity. These reflections on the Trinity, and the implications for human relationships, shed light on the way we understand relationships with a significant online component.
Stanley J. Grenz (2004) used the words “renaissance” and “rebirth” to describe the rise in interest in trinitarian theology in the twentieth century (p. x). His own work included three books that focused on the relational nature of the Trinity and the connection to human relationality, and the titles themselves are illustrative of the theological trends related to the Trinity around the turn of the century: Created for Community (1996), The Social God and the Relational Self (2001) and Rediscovering the Triune God (2004). The nature of personhood and the roles of the three persons of the Trinity were often explored by theologians in the last century, and one recurring theme was the roots of human relationality in the Trinity. Grenz (2004) summarized this theological movement:
By the end of the twentieth century, the concept of relationality had indeed moved to center stage. In fact, the assumption that the most promising beginning point for a viable trinitarian theology lies in the constellation of relationships among the three trinitarian persons had become so widely accepted that it attained a kind of quasi-orthodox status (p. 117-118).
Grenz, in his 2001 and 2004 books, surveyed the twentieth century theologians who contributed to this relational emphasis, noting that the stage was set by Karl Barth and Karl Rahner, developed further by Jurgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg and Robert Jenson, and then a whole host of other writers followed (Grenz, 2001, p. 118).
Calvin and Luther contributed a great deal to trinitarian theology and our understanding of human beings created in the image of triune God, and contemporary theologians drew on the Reformers (such as Grenz, 2001, p. 162-170), as well as even earlier sources. John Zizioulas (1985, 1991, 2006), writing from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, had a great influence on Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars in the area of Trinitarian theology. Zizioulas cited the writings of the Cappadocian Fathers, such as Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus and Amphilachius of Iconium, who lived in Asia Minor in the fourth century. Zizioulas argued that the Cappadocian Fathers help us understand that the image of God in humans does not relate to our nature, because we cannot become God, but to our personhood. This personhood is best understood as mirroring the relationships between the persons of the Trinity. “True personhood arises not from one’s individualistic isolation from others but from love and relationship with others, from communion” (Zizioiulas, 2006, p. 168). Only love, Zizioulas asserted, can generate personhood, and this is true of both God and humans. In fact, relationship is so constitutive of personhood that relationship is not a part of being but is being itself (Zizioulas, 1985, p. 101, and Zizioulas, 1991).
Kathryn Tanner (2001) noted that it is not enough to say that we as human persons are constituted by our relationships with others. We must also describe what human relationships should be like. “Their shape must also mirror the incarnation and Trinity” (p. 79). Millard Erickson’s (1995) words echoed the same idea: “There is mutual submission of each of the members of the Trinity to each of the others. Thus, the type of relationships that should characterize human persons . . . would be one of unselfish love and submission to the other” (p. 333). The longing for deep and loving connection was wired into human beings at creation because of human creation in the image of a social God, whose three persons are characterized by love and mutual submission. Even though God’s image in humans is marred by sin, the longing for connection is still there. This longing manifests itself in the relentless efforts to connect personally with others that are visible in many areas of everyday life, including the internet.
The early years of the telephone and the early years of the internet have some interesting parallels that illustrate the human propensity for personal connection with others, originating in the creation of humans in the image of a relational God. Alexander Graham Bell envisioned people chatting personally on telephones. However, for the first two decades of the twentieth century, when telephones were beginning to become common in homes in North America, telephone executives emphasized the telephone’s effectiveness for accomplishing tasks, such as getting information or placing orders with shops. Personal conversations were branded as “trivial,” “frivolous” and “unnecessary” (Fischer, 1988, p. 48, 49). Surveys that observed patterns of telephone use showed that people were increasingly using the telephone for personal relationships as well as accomplishing tasks, so by the mid-1920s advertising and sales strategies shifted toward an increased emphasis on sociability (Fischer, p. 58). In much the same way, email came on the scene in the 1970s for the purpose of allowing researchers to send data to each other (Shannon, 2010). Within a few years, those researchers found themselves sharing personal information and asking personal questions as they shot data back and forth. This move from the functional to the relational resulted, in the 1990s, in the increasingly popularity of personal email, online groups, forums and bulletin boards, which made possible a variety of personal connections online. In the early years of the twenty-first century, social networking provided even more ways to connect personally online. Leonard Kleinrock, a UCLA computer engineer who was involved in 1969 in the creation of ARPANET, the precursor of the internet, said on the fortieth anniversary of its creation that the broad appeal of the internet was something many of its inventors never predicted. “I am surprised, and totally pleased, at how effective the Internet has been in allowing communities of people to form, communicate, exchange ideas, and enter their daily lives in so many ways” (Than, 2009).
David Cunningham (1998) expressed reservations about the use of “relationship” in reference to the Trinity because he believed relationality implies separate entities or individuals, and this cannot be said to be true of the three persons of the Trinity. He focused on the virtues of Trinitarian existence, which God has as a part of God’s being and which we receive by grace. Cunningham identified one of those virtues as participation: “What I want to stress about the Three is not that they are related to one another . . . but that they participate in one another to such a degree that any attempt to understand them as independent existences is undermined” (p. 10). In the interviews I conducted about friendship in the Facebook age, some people expressed deep gratitude for the connections they are able to nurture with friends and family members far and near using email, Skype, Facebook, special interest websites and online groups. Several of my teenaged interviewees talked with enthusiasm about the way that online communication, particularly Facebook with its options for chat as well as for asynchronous connection through reading friends’ updates and looking at their photos, coupled with frequent cellphone text messages, provided them with the opportunity to stay connected all day long with their friends. They said they are able participate in their friends’ lives frequently and thoroughly. Cunningham’s words about participation “to such a degree that any attempt to understand them as independent existences is undermined” has striking resonance with the way teenagers, as well as many people of all ages, talk about using electronic communication to stay in constant contact with their friends.
Numerous people who have used social networking talked to me in interviews about being overwhelmed by too much information about people’s lives, making them feel a bit like voyeurs. One man in his thirties talked about his Facebook connections with friends as being “too convenient” and “compartmentalized.” Others talked about Facebook as a double-edged sword, with the capacity to nurture healthy connections with others, yet coupled with an onslaught of information that encourages consumerism and individualism in relationships.
Zizioulas’s (1985) view of the significance of the sin and the fall sheds light on the compartmentalized, consumeristic and voyeuristic aspects of online connection. Human personhood is constituted by communion, he argued. We are not persons with an individual identity first; our identity comes from our relationships with God and with others. “The fall consists in the refusal to make being dependent on communion” (p. 102, italics in original). This switches the order of things: if we are not willing to be dependent on communion for our being, then we become autonomous beings or objects, who view the world as full of objects like ourselves. We may still try to connect with others, but we do it as autonomous beings rather than as people who know we are constituted by relationships. Zizioulas, writing in 1985, a decade before email was widely used and two decades before social networking became common, argued that this results in “fragmentation, individualization, conceptualization” (p. 106). His words are strikingly similar to the ones I heard in the interviews I conducted with people who use social networking and who expressed their concerns about it. Human sin, then, in Zizioulas’s view, turns human beings into objects, and the internet as a communication tool is unprecedented in human history in its ability to encourage the objectification of others. To retain an awareness of “being as communion” (the title of Zizioulas’s 1985 book and the main thesis of that book and much of his other writing) requires significant intentional effort in the midst of the barrage of information about other people available online, often unconnected with personal interactions with them.
I heard story after story from people who are exercising intentional practices to nurture healthy and life-giving connections in relationships with a significant online component. They “listen” to what their friends and family members say online, they respond with compliments, words of love and commitments to pray for the concerns they hear. They share their own thoughts and feelings, and they affirm their friends and family members when they do so. They place a priority on face-to-face connections and view online connections as a way to stay up to date with the details of their friends’ and family members’ lives so they can reconnect easily when they see each other. They do not treat their friends and family members as objects; instead, they treat them as precious gifts. All of this requires intention and commitment in any setting, and congregations can and do nurture that intentionality in many ways, including Holy Communion, small groups for prayer and Bible study, prayer for people in need and a commitment to hospitality. In online settings, the challenge is great because the barrage of information encourages objectification. Zizioulas’s (1985) view of being as communion encourages internet users to slow down in our consumption of information about others and to do everything possible to place a priority on loving relationship with God and with others.
Theology of Sin and Addiction
Theologians have described sin and the consequences of the fall in many diverse ways, and some of those views shed light on the issues around internet use. As noted above, Zizioulas’s (1985) understanding of the fall has provided one way to understand human sin: humans turn into objects, which encourages fragmentation and individualization, a phenomenon clearly visible in the online world. This objectification results in rupture of relationships, a common way theologians talk about sin. LaCugna (1991) described sin as “broken relationship” and noted that sin “disorders and fractures our capacity for communion” (p. 284). In a similar way, Grenz (1996) described sin as “a failure of ‘community’” (p. 90). He described the process:
Because we are alienated from God, sin alienates us from other humans as well. God designed us to enjoy wholesome, enriching relationships with each other. But we find ourselves exploiting and being exploited. We jostle with each other for power, influence, and prominence. Or we allow others to rob us of our dignity and sense of worth (p. 100).
The online world has enabled many forms of exploitation and alienation, including rude or verbally abusive blog posts or responses to blogs, online bullying, and sexual predation. These and many more subtle negative forms of online communication result in loss of dignity and sense of worth. Personal websites and blogs all too often seem to take the form of jostling “with each other for power, influence and prominence” (Grenz, p. 100); readers don’t need to look far to find arrogant self-focused boasting, often accompanied by rude responses that rely on personal attacks and vicious put-downs to make their points. Haskell (2010) points out that the world of the internet follows the pattern of Genesis 1-3: the desire for beauty and perfection, so apparent in virtual worlds and idealized self-presentation, yet with human sin visible and vivid online as well, in the form of broken relationships, fractured community and other manifestations of selfishness.
For Tanner (2001), God’s love comes to us as a life-changing gift. One aspect of sin, according to Tanner, is that humans want to be ourselves and to be perfect in ourselves, independent of God’s gifts to us (p. 46, 77). The online world provides novel opportunities for self-presentation and self-marketing through such means as personal websites and blogs, personal pages on social networking websites, and photo-sharing websites. Self-presentation of identity online morphs easily into the creation of identity, a phenomenon that was studied by many early internet researchers (e.g., Chandler, 1998; Baym, 2000), and which is now accepted as a common aspect of life online. This creation of identity by ourselves for our own purposes has overtones of Tanner’s view of sin as human independence from God’s gifts, a lack of receptivity for the good things God gives to us. We define who we are quite apart of God’s view of us and God’s gifts to us. LaCugna’s (1991) comments about the different forms that sin takes among men and women also relates to this creation of identity online. She wrote, “It is a staple of Christian moral theology to define sin as prideful self-assertion . . . [but] temptation to sin for women is not the same as for men. The typical sin of women in a patriarchal culture is self-abnegation” (p. 311). I frequently see prideful self-assertion, as well as self-abnegation, in online constructions and representations of identity. It would be interesting to examine whether these opposing patterns of online identity presentation and construction are related to gender. It would also be interesting to reflect on the ways that the online environment provides opportunities for people to present themselves as creatures made in the image of a loving and relational God whose abundant gifts to us define our identity.
The growing literature around internet addiction contributes an additional connection with the theology of human sin. Division of the will is one characteristic of addiction, according to Christopher D. H. Cook in Alcohol, Addiction and Christian Ethics (2008); a person desires to continue the addictive behavior but also desires to stop it. Many of the comments posted on Facebook about Facebook reveal the presence of this division of the will. “I spend too much time online!” is a common post. Deeply addictive behavior, with its attendant powerlessness and damage to family and work life, is increasingly visible in some internet users and more frequently is a topic for books and articles (e.g., Struthers, 2010; Young & Klausing, 2007). This deeply addictive behavior includes engagement with internet pornography and internet gambling. In my dozens of interviews about friendship, four individuals used the language of addiction to refer to their internet use. One man, 19 years old, described quitting an online game that he had been engaged in for many months. The game and its attendant online relationships with people all over the world were getting in the way of face-to-face relationships with his dorm mates and family members. After he quit, he pondered the connections between his behavior and his understanding of other forms of addiction, such as addiction to work or to alcohol. Two other university students, both women, talked about the individuals in their circle of friends who have left Facebook because they can’t limit its use; they functioned like addicts. Another individual, a man in his thirties, described what he called his addictive personality. He found that Facebook triggered his addictive and competitive urges and he found himself checking it many times a day, trying to accumulate more Facebook friends than other people had.
Gerald May, in his landmark book Addiction and Grace (1988), noted that the “presence of addiction should be suspected whenever interior human freedom is compromised” (p. 31). He described the condition:
Addiction exists wherever persons are internally compelled to give energy to things that are not their true desires. To define it directly, addiction is a state of compulsion, obsession, or preoccupation that enslaves a person’s will and desire. Addiction sidetracks and eclipses the energy of our deepest, truest desire for love and goodness. We succumb because the energy of our desire becomes attached, nailed, to specific behaviors, objects or people. Attachment, then, is the process that enslaves desire and creates the state of addiction (p. 14, italics in original).
The objects of attachment, he noted, become preoccupations or obsessions that gain too much power in our lives. In effect, the objects of attachment become idols. Thus, May sees addictions as a direct outworking of humanity’s ongoing willful rebellion against God. Functionally, addictions are the enemy of love because the addicted person focuses intently on the object of attachment, to the exclusion of other aspects of life including God and God’s priorities. Even when the object of attachment is a person, the relationship is not a true love relationship but instead a relationship with a selfish or ego-based agenda.
May’s (1988) view of addiction, relevant to many levels of internet addiction, bring us full circle back to Zizoulas’s (1985) understanding of the fall as the objectification of human beings. Addiction focuses the addict on an object of attachment, whether that object is a behavior, a thing or a person. Freedom is lost because the focus on the object is compulsive and obsessive. Being as communion is ruptured, and loving relationships are compromised. May believed that addictions are enemy of love and can also bring us to our knees in humble acknowledge of our powerlessness (p. 4). In fact, he argued that all humans have a propensity to addiction, and that facing into our addictions can draw us back into relationship with God, the One who Tanner (2001) identified as the God who pours out abundant gifts on us.
The Need for a Nuanced Approach
Engaging with the internet as a place where people spend time with their friends and look for information enables the internet to be considered as one of the many places on earth where humans engage with each other, where we sin in multiple ways like we do anywhere else, and where God works. Many Christian congregations have adopted this philosophy, at least in part, as they seek to make their websites and blogs places for ministry to members and to people outside the church, places where people can turn for information, spiritual nurture and connections with others. Many Christian congregations have dived enthusiastically into Facebook and Twitter as ways to get out information about activities and to nurture connections between individuals, and some congregations encourage members to participate in worship online. As Haskell (2010) points out, while some congregations and congregational leaders view the internet as a tool for effective ministry, others hold negative views that paint electronic communication as impersonal and detached, completely unable to nurture the kind of relationships that honor God. The three theological perspectives in this article – theologies of place, relationship and sin – would indicate that a more nuanced approach is necessary. The internet enables access to remarkable amounts of information and vibrant connection with people across the miles. The internet can also encourage objectification of others and compartmentalization of relationships, and it can enable behavior that is profoundly addictive and destructive. These two disparate realities about the internet coexist, and navigating these two realities will require creativity, discussion and exploration in congregations.
Because electronic communication is embedded in everyday life for most people, a phenomenon that appears to be magnifying rather than declining, it will increasingly be impossible and ineffective for congregational leaders simply to denounce the internet. Guidelines for effective and appropriate use need to be articulated, taking into account the benefits of the information and relationships that can be nurtured online, alongside the challenges of objectification and addiction. What kinds of support are needed for people who use a computer all day at work and who find internet gambling so seductive that they lose all their savings and go into debt? How can a group of Christian friends, who tend to stay connected with each other online, support people in their midst who find that Facebook arouses all their competitive and addictive instincts and who desire to quit using it? How can congregational leaders talk realistically about the compartmentalization and objectification that can happen in online friendships, while also affirming that many find the internet to be a place where healthy relationships are nurtured?
Kathryn Tanner’s (2001) emphasis that the shape of human relationships “must also mirror the incarnation and Trinity” (p. 79), and Millard Erickson’s (1995) similar emphasis, rooted in his Trinitarian perspective, on “unselfish love and submission to the other” (p. 333) are relevant to any discussion of human relationships, online or face-to-face. Our online relationships and practices need to be characterized by the kind of love we experience in the Triune God, in the same way that we strive to reflect God’s love in face-to-face settings. I believe Christian leaders need to speak, preach, teach and write more specifically about what love looks like in all settings of life, offline and online. A realistic perspective about the kinds of sin associated with the internet – particularly objectification and addiction – need to be addressed. We need to grow in our ability to think creatively, theologically and practically about the challenges presented by this new means of communication, this new place, which is embedded in everyday life for so many people and where so many people spend significant amounts of time.
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