The Sacred Groves of Cyberspace

by rthieme on July 18, 1995

The Sacred Groves of Cyberspace

by

Richard Thieme

published in .net Magazine in the UK in 1995

Religion in cyberspace? Absolutely. Traditional religious groups are rushing onto the WWW as fast as they can make a home page. But it goes beyond that: For some, cyberspace itself is a religious experience.

Let’s define “religious experience” as the sudden eruption in our narrow everyday world of a vision of a unified cosmos. Everything is … connected. Everything is meaningful. The vast dance of millions of galaxies somehow includes our path through life. We are connected. Our lives are meaningful.

Powerful life-changing experiences like that happen. But most of us live here and now, where the bullets of life are fired at us at point blank range. We need to tame those mind-blowing experiences; we need to tell stories or build frameworks to contain those powerful images of possibility and promise.

In the past, we built cathedrals out of stone, painted pictures, printed sacred texts on paper.

Now we build with bits and bytes in cyberspace.

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Computers are physical symbol systems. They arrange information in patterns. In the medieval world, churches of stone and stained glass were patterns of information that defined for parishioners who they were as community. Today the Internet defines for us who we are as community.

Think of a medieval village building a cathedral over a span of several hundred years. Now speed it up like a time-lapse film so its gets built in minutes instead of centuries … and comes apart as quickly. That’s how virtual communities come together and dissipate in cyberspace.

When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded – live, on television, at the end of January, 1986 – four members of Ecunet, an ecumenical church network, spontaneously planned and carried out an online “Memorial Service.” The effect, according to David Lochhead, a founder of Ecunet and cybertheologian at the University of Vancouver, was electric. That service gathered a community for prayer that stretched from Hawaii to Nova Scotia. It demonstrated that the physical constraints that had defined church communities in the past were gone. There was no question in the minds and hearts of the participants that they had experienced real communion in cyberspace.

Once we built walls around our villages to define our tribe. Now the entire earth is our home, and all humankind is our tribe. Virtual communities are like space stations, modular and transitory; we are the walls. When we show up on the Net, we define for each other the boundaries of a new community.

Like offworld colonies in Blade Runner, cyberspace is the new frontier. It’s where we’re going to recreate ourselves.

Some churches are trying to extend themselves into the digital world. Others are cutting loose from traditional moorings altogether to create new kinds of communities. Either way, we’re all going through the looking-glass into new ways of understanding ourselves and our place in the cosmos.

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Unfortunately, the WWW sites of most churches are like old wine poured into new wineskins. They offer fare like “churchyard regulations.” Ignoring the basic rules of interactivity, they invite visitors to e-mail if they want more information, rather than making information interesting enough to be retrieved (see the home page of the Diocese of Oxford: http://cent1.lancs.ac.uk/church_net_uk/homepages/oxford/).

When the movie camera was invented, no one knew how to use it. So they set it up in front of a stage and filmed a play. Over time, the new technology taught us how to make use of it. Movie makers explored the visual space created by the camera, and within a few decades, we had Citizen Kane. Much church use of cyberspace is still like filming a play.

Parish churches like St. Cuthbert’s or St. Mary’s, Cheadle, or St. Alban’s, Leighton Buzzard, (http://www.evolution.co.uk/leighton) have home pages, but typically, they are merely of local interest. Posting service schedules and a few pictures, they use the WWW as a kind of on-line brochure. Only committed members are likely to return a second time.

Those churches will become more global and less bound to local space or disappear from cyberspace. MOCHIN, a mailing list (listserv@shamash.nysernet.org) focused on the Kabbalistic integration of spirit and matter is on Nysernet, so a Jewish context is required — but, they add, “we are open to insights from all traditions.” They know that cyberspace is different space. They’re willing to stretch, but over time, that stretch will alter their identity.

The dynamics of pluralism and diversity are magnified in cyberspace.

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The Cyberspace Church of Christ (http://www.sky.net/”nragan/cybercoc.html) is more creative. It links the Churches of Christ and also provides correspondence courses through the Internet Bible School as well as audio clips of new CDs.

The Free Church Society at Lancaster University and St. Martin’s College (http://cent1.lancs.ac.uk/fcs/) invites prayer requests. On telephone prayer chains, those requests were transmitted one call at a time; now they’re available to everyone simultaneously. The interface of any post is the entire biomass of the wired world.

Communion in cyberspace is real. Who has not, on an IRC or exchange of e-mail, felt an extrasensory connection with another person? Telepresence is only one form of presence but it is real presence. Under the guise of building an information and communication system, we are filling the sacred wells of cyberspace.

When you approach the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem for the first time, you know you’re entering sacred space. Prayer requests on paper are stuffed into the crevices of the wall, but that’s just the outward form of prayer. Those stones have been hallowed by years of devotion.

I have not yet entered a sacred “cyberspace” in which the virtual stones — images, words, interactive scripts — crackle with such potency, but I will. One day, clicking from link to link, racing through the maze of information, I will suddenly find myself … stopped and standing still, abashed in a sacred grove.

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Traditional religious communities seem to think saying “here we are” is doing something. It must be a habit nurtured by a society into which religious institutions were once seamlessly woven. Those days are gone.

The Net is an entrepreneurial culture, no less for religious participants than others. Spiritual communities that meet people at the level of need and self-interest – communities of recovery like Alcoholics Anonymous – don’t just give information. They make available an opportunity for action.

Christians in Recovery (http://www.shadow.net/”obie/cir.html) arrives on the screen with a beautiful mandala. (Compare it to all those pictures of spires over the High Street). The Big Book of AA is there, plus testimonies, prayers, audio tapes, pointers toward an IRC group for online meetings, mailing lists and links to a BBS. The Web of Addictions (http://www.well.com/user/woa/) works the same way.

I can see the screensaver now: Before you make that first compulsive click, connect.

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The Jewish presence on the Net is noticeably extensive. Resources are plentiful. Why? Cyberspace meets a need for community. Outside Israel, every Jew to some degree lives in emotional exile. During an era of intermarriage and conversion, community is threatened. The intense need for community is met on the Net.

Other groups often excluded by dominant cultures thrive in cyberspace. The Net empowers communities of persons with alternative lifestyles by creating an electronic mansion that has an infinite number of rooms. [see sidebar].

Non-traditional groups from Free Daism to Shamanism are blossoming. Jump off from Yahoo (www.yahoo.com) into the richest religious diversity in history. But keep your sense of humor. You won’t always know what’s real and what’s a spoof.

A few years ago, This is Spinal Tap so successfully parodied the “rock concert film” that it became the object of its own satire when Spinal Tap (the group) went on tour. I felt deja vu when I checked out the WWW site of Free Daism (http://www.he.tdl.com/”FDAC/). It had to be a satire on new age religion. It was subtle and hilarious. Every cliche in the New Age book was there. Then I telephoned a disciples of Free John and found out it was dead serious.

You could have fooled me.

#  #  #

Because cyberspace makes room for every voice, heresy and orthodoxy live side by side. The new global economy is a free market system. In cyberspace too, let the buyer beware.

Most religious humor on the Net is more obvious. MacChurch is a hoot. So is the Confessional Booth (or Confessional Grove, if you’re a pagan) (http://anther.learning.cs.cmu.edu/priest.html). Yahoo will take you to “joke” religions too, as well as churches that don’t think of themselves as jokes. The First Church of Cyberspace (http://www.freenet.ufl.edu) is a taste of what happens when someone shouts, “Hey, kids: let’s start a religion. I’ve got a home page and you’ve got two ideas!”)

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The underlying paradox of electronic spirituality is obvious. We try to extend traditional structures into cyberspace, but when we do, they morph into new forms. New spiritual communities will likely coexist with traditional communities for a while, but some will become independent. The Microsoft of cyberspirituality hasn’t shown up yet, but someone, hidden away in some garage, is designing it now.

Take that confessional booth. When the penance for committing murder is “clean out your .tmp files,” it’s a joke. Still, the invitation to confess is compelling. The simple therapy program “Eliza” was designed by Joseph Weizenbaum to illustrate principles of natural language parsing. Weizenbaum grew alarmed when an employee told him to leave the room so she could consult Eliza privately. A computer can’t do real therapy! he said. But that didn’t stop her from experiencing therapeutic benefits from that very basic program. In the same way, a real cyberconfessional, inviting us to confront ourselves by telling the truth to a telepresent confessor, is a natural.

#  #  #

Real spirituality on the Net is often experienced, not in explicitly religious forums, but by virtue of our interaction with cyberspace. As we participate, cyberspace transforms us. New forms of community emerge from our connection with one another that have an implicitly spiritual dimension. The exchange of energy, information, and emotion at the speed of light creates something new under the sun.

The spiritual dimension of the Net has no markers – no symbols or rituals – to identify our experience as spiritual and call attention to it. Still, we disclose ourselves, flame and forgive each other, escape loneliness, anxiety, or fear, find consolation, sex and even love, all in cyberspace. The camaraderie of cyberspace is a mark of genuine spirituality.

On the Net, every voice can be heard. In the short run, especially during a time of radical change, you can sell anything. People wants answers, cures, and quick fixes. In the long run, what is true has always been true: the ways of framing reality that do justice to all of it, to the heights and depths, to all of the richness, ambiguity and complexity of life, will become the sacred spaces to which we journey in search of community and redemption.

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Spiritual Resources in Cyberspace

Yahoo is the best springboard:

http://www.yahoo.com/Society and Culture: Religion

Yahoo provides links to dozens of WWW sites, gopher servers, and mailing lists for Jews to Jains and Quakers to Shakers

Finding God in Cyberspace: A Guide to Religious Studies Resources on the Internet

http://www.dur.ac.uk/”dth3maf/gresham.html

provides links to guides, FTP sites, gopher servers, WWW sites, libraries, journals, lists, lists of lists, etc.

The Durham Gopher is a good example of a scholarly Anglican site that offers rich traditional resources:

gopher://delphi.dur.ac.uk/11/Academic/P-T/Theology/Computing

Wiretap in California offers a wide variety of religious e-texts:

gopher://wiretap.spies.com/11/Library/Religion

The Riceinfo Gopher is a great place to browse for everything and anything religious:

gopher://riceinfo.rice.edu/11/Subject/RelPhil

The Journal of Buddhist Ethics provides Global Resources for Buddhist Studies:

http://www.psu.edu/jbe/resource.html

The Moslem virtual world begins at the Islamic Texts and Resources MetaPage:

http://wings.buffalo.edu/student-life/sa/muslim/is/isl.html

Judaism and Jewish Resources are extensively linked at:

http://shamash.nysernet.org/trb/judaism.html

One of the links is a map of Israel that identifies every WWW site and Gopher Server in Israel:

http://www.ac.il/israel_sens.html

Theology/Technology/Interfaith is a fine collection of papers on theology and cyberspace by David Lochhead, Professor of Systematic Theology at the Vancouver School of Theology.

http://unixg/ubc.ca:780/”dml/

Virtual Communities

http://www.well.com/user/hlr/vircom/

lush resource list for exploring Virtual Community and Virtual Reality: essays, papers, MOOs and MUDs, many links – all related to the varieties of community evolving in cyberspace

Council on Spiritual Practices (http://csp.org/)

a transdenominational forum for exploring spiritual practices, with interesting links ( e.g. “The Spirit of Raving”)

The New Age Web Works – a master index of everything related to New Age spirituality from Asatru to Zen:

http://www.newageinfo.com/

Usenet Groups on religion and spirituality abound. Start looking at alt.religion and soc.religion

Hinduism Today is an on-line newspaper with good links to Hindu resources:

http://hookomo.aloha.net/”htoday/htoday.html

LUTI – an electronic lesbigay catacomb

Cyberspace is an open invitation to the banquet at the end of time. Groups marginalized or excluded by traditional religious structures find breathing room in cyberspace.

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“Lo, everyone that thirsts, come …” is the invite from LUTI, a cyberparish begun in 1992 and still flourishing. It is tended by Dr. Ann Carlson, a NASA scientist. According to Louie Crew, a founder of LUTI and Integrity, the lesbigay justice ministry of the Episcopal Church of the USA, “From the point of view of a gay Christian, the networks extend for many, many people an opportunity to meet and hear from people who would never speak up if in the same parish physically. It’s also a venue where lurkers [those who read messages but don’t participate] learn something first-hand about the meanness of others toward lesbigays. They learn how to be supportive, and much more important, they get to hear lesbians and gays sharing concerns about the full range of religious issues. It’s also a way that lesbigay Christians can share with less restraint the powerful gratitude for what God is doing in their lives.”

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Crew has compiled an E-Mail directory of Lesbigay Scholars (he teaches literature, advanced courses in computers and writing, and a freshman honors class at Rutgers University, “Surfing the Internet”). The list helps lesbigay scholars connect regarding manuscripts, conferences, and other scholarly projects. It’s a resource list, not a discussion group. Direct inquiries to lcrew@andromeda.rutgers.edu.

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