Today I found that my blog was mentioned in First Things, a journal of religion, culture and public life, and it seems that there has been a small spike in visitors over the past week. Some parts of the article "God and the Internet" (by Jonathan V. Last) struck me as profound, and I thought I'd share a few thoughts on them.
Last speaks of how Steve Waldman, the founder of online religious supersite Beliefnet says that "distancing of the self from the religious act can be helpful" (speaking of a new form of 'interactive, online faith'). Waldman relates the new exploration of potentially embarrasing religious matters in the privacy of one's home on the Internet to the "same phenomenon that has led to pornography spreading." Last then asks:
"Doesn't that metaphor give you pause? Is a technique that has made pornography into the Internet's number-one business really a good idea for religion, the Internet's number-two business? The failure of anonymous online pornography to be real sex is also the failure of anonymous online churching to be real religion: In both sex and religion, incarnation—the physical body—turns out to matter a great deal."
Last's words make perfect sense; how can anyone expect to receive true spiritual satisfaction through use of the Internet? It is better to get up from your seat and walk to the nearest Eucharistic chapel to sit in the Lord's presence, humbly asking for assistance in your spiritual life, or to go to Mass every day, than to spend hours a day reading blogs or online religious articles.
I have witnessed many examples of the 'consumerization' of Religion on the Internet. And there are many online bloggers who use religion as a mask for 'preaching politics.' There are also other problem areas in incorporating our Faith into the Internet. There is one important aspect that Mr. Last did not approach in his article, though, that is one of the more important considerations Catholics must make when deciding how to incorporate the Internet into their evangelization.
I have been a member of the first 'computer-networked' generation. I know firsthand the importance of the Internet to my generation and, I am sure, to the Internet-connected generations (at least, in first-world countries) that will follow. Today's students almost always perform research for papers using the Internet and online databases of articles and texts. I have done so for almost every paper I've written since eighth grade, and I will continue to use the Internet as a primary source of information throughout the rest of my life.
Many students don't even have the will to go to a library and find a book that they may have found in an online bibliography in order to enrich their own understanding of a topic, or, even worse, they are intimidated by the way in which libraries organize their information. And there are many texts in this world which are not online. This causes a problem: what happens to knowledge and writings that are not accessible to future generations as easily as those which are on the Internet?
This is the reason the Catholic Church must come to realize the importance of the Internet in the future. Many kids are spending hours on end watching television and 'being online'; disconnecting from family, friends and society in general, and connecting to new, evolving social networks on the World Wide Web. These children are indoctrinated by what they view—and they typically don't spend their time viewing religious or philosophical material. As a seminarian, it is my goal to try to help evangelize through the Internet and other forms of media, and the Church is trying to do so as well. It is important to have as much information about the faith (including the many wonderful texts on the Vatican website, the Catechism, the Bible, etc.) easily browseable and readable on the Internet.
Of course, the Church sees a person as something much more than a simple 'online being.' The Church must also find ways to make a person who is searching for Religion and Truth seek out the real-world Jesus. You cannot experience Jesus, fully and truly, on the Internet. The Church must make that clear. We must make that clear. The Church has such a deep well of spiritual resources in it's many thousands of ministries, and She must never forget the most invaluable resources of all: the Sacraments—given to us by Christ himself! What joy a person finds by participating in the most awesome mystery of faith, the Eucharist!
This is why we must encourage the lost souls we encounter on the Internet to seek guidance in their spiritual lives from their local parishes, priests and faith communities. And we ourselves must do the same. As Last states at the end of his article, "Isn't religion supposed to enrich the world around us...? Shut off your computer. Take a deep breath. Go to church."
Please pray that the Church may discover the proper use of the Internet in its mission, and may do so in the most Christocentric way—directing all to Christ, never forgetting what is most important in this short life on earth.