“The Internet is My Religion” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – October 30, 2011
*Call to Worship – from Ayn Rand – Margaret Weis, ministerial intern
“Whether it’s a symphony or a coal mine, all work is an act of creating and comes from the same source: from an inviolate capacity to see through one’s own eyes . . . which means: the capacity to see, to connect and to make what had not been seen, connected and made before.” – Ch. II, The Utopia of Greed, Atlas Shrugged
excerpts from Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau – Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.
We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man…. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon.
“Unitarian Universalism and the Web” from Tim Berners- Lee
When you look at the way Unitarians feel society works, and the way a lot of the Internet and the Web works, it might be fun to draw some comparisons. Let’s take this all with a pinch of salt. People, after all, are people, and machines are machines. Unitarians do not have a peer respect for machines! But let’s do it as an exercise.
“We have no kings or presidents. We believe in rough consensus and running code.”
There is very little structure. There is the idea that society can run without a hierarchical bureaucratic government being involved at every step, if only we can hit on the right set of rules for peer-peer interaction. So where design of the Internet and the Web is a search for set of rules which will allow computers to work together in harmony, so our spiritual and social quest is for a set of rules which allow people to work together in harmony.
I don’t know who formulated the principle of tolerance in Internet circles first as “Be conservative in what you do and liberal in what you expect”. I have heard Vint Cerf quote it. It is a guiding rule in internet protocol design. Always say “http:”in lower case, but in practice understand “HTTP:” too.
Unitarian Universalism is famous for its tolerance. UU people don’t generally go around trying to convert other people. They respect those who believe in some sort of a God different from theirs (if they use the term). Recently I heard a UU remark
“I have always been an argumentative type – always tending to play devils advocate and skeptical of everything. I was quite expecting to be thrown out of this church like I’ve been thrown out of everywhere else. I was staggered to be accepted. I was even more surprised to find that in fact, the place was full of people just as argumentative as me!”
UUs perhaps share the view that “If there is one thing I can’t stand – it’s intolerance!”. They fight racism and inequality. They get really upset when people are killed and tortured because they don’t belief in the One True God or the One True Anything.
UUs actually believe in love. But that doesn’t seem to bear analogy with computers!
A lot of people ask me whether I am disappointed that the Web has taken on such a lot of commercial material, rather than being a pure academic space. In fact, I know it could not be universal if it did not allow any form of communication. It must be able to represent any thought, any datum, any idea, that one might have. So in this way the Web and the UU concept of faith are similar in that both serve as a place for thought, and the importance of the quest for truth, but without labeling any one true solution. The quest for the truth is always accompanied by skepticism of anyone claiming to have found it.
The is one other thing that comes to mind as common between the Internet folks and the UUs. The whole spread of the Web happened not because of a decision and a mandate from any authority, but because a whole bunch of people across the ‘Net picked it up and brought up Web clients and servers, it actually happened. The actual explosion of creativity, and the coming into being of the Web was the result of thousands of individuals playing a small part. In the first couple of years, often this was not for a direct gain, but because they had an inkling that it was the right way to go, and a gleam of an exciting future. It is necessary to UU philosophy that such things can happen, that we will get to a better state in the end by each playing our small part. UUism is full of hope, and the fact that the Web happens is an example of a dream coming true and an encouragement to all who hope.
Sermon – “The Internet is My Religion” by Mark W. Harris
When I was visiting Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago, we drove by a Baptist Church. It had the old familiar fundamentalist beckoning call on a sign out front– “Honk, if you love Jesus.” You may recall the UU bumper sticker response to that invitation from some years ago – “Honk if you’re not sure.” Popular jargon has to change with the times, so this Baptist church had an updated sign – “Honk, if you love Jesus; Text, if you want to meet him.”
So I guess I’ll never meet Jesus, as I have never, and perhaps never will send a text. My teenage boys have unlimited texting on their cell phones, but alas, I don’t have one of those either, and when I borrow my son Dana’s to go on trips, I barely know how to use it. I probably have a reputation in this congregation as a bit of a technological idiot, or even Luddite; one who hates technology and wants it all to disappear so that we can go back to communicating by smoke signals, but that is not accurate at all. In fact, I love technology. I would take email as a preferred way to communicate any day. I often use the internet now to help research a sermon. You heard my confession a few weeks ago that I sometimes google myself. I am even on Facebook, but I mostly have no idea how to use it. I couldn’t even wish our First Parish member Johanna Swift Hart a happy birthday recently even though I tried, and the picture on my Facebook page was posted by someone else because I didn’t know how to do it. Yet I think communicating like this is vitally important, and that we as a church need to take our website seriously. It is simply amazing what you can see, hear, or learn over the internet. You can listen to an old favorite song, find a newspaper from 1870, or order virtually anything imaginable. But you already know that. Sometimes I struggle with technology. I admit I can have a brief mental breakdown trying to use it, like when I am asked to create yet one more password, but once someone (namely my wife) shows me how to push all the right buttons to choose the virtual bicycle tour I want to take at the Y, then I am off to inhabit what is truly an incredible world. I love it.
So is this thing I love my new religion? Not exactly. The title for today comes from a You Tube video of a speech by Jim Gilliam called “The Internet is My Religion.” Last fall, Kyle Morton bought me at the annual service auction, and when any parishioner pays for a personal sermon, they can have their topic of choice. In his speech Gilliam talks about the importance of faith in his life. As a young person he was a born again Christian, who worked in a library. Then he contracted cancer. Next his mother was diagnosed with cancer. He survived, but she did not. This shattered his faith in God. Eventually his cancer came back, and he needed bone marrow surgery. After this he became a movie producer, working on a film about Iraq. He found that through his promotion of the movie he could be connected with others, especially activists who used the internet to help change attitudes about the war. This helped renew his faith in people, and how they could be connected with and influence each other.
But then Gilliam became sick again. He needed a lung transplant, and found the surgeons unhelpful at first. He began to blog. He connected with a lot of people who were enormously supportive of him, and soon they were all fighting electronically to get him on the surgeon’s list for the transplant. The long and the short of it is that he made it to the list, had the surgery, and lives today because he has someone’s else lungs. He owes his life, he says, to countless people he will never meet who fought for him and supported him because they emailed, and connected with each other, and with the people who could help him. Gilliam got religion again as a result of this experience. It is not the God of his childhood, but rather a kind of internet God, for Gilliam says that God is what happens when humanity is connected. Part of his realization of connectedness is that we owe every moment of our lives to countless people we will never meet. He may see this partly as internet friends who supported him and fought for him, but it has implications for every second of every day, for every one of us, even if we give a moment out of a day to express our gratitude for all those who grow our food, plow our roads, or defend our lands. Furthermore, Gilliam would have us remember that we are all creators who contribute to each other’s lives and the world, and together we create a new world, we are the creator, we are God.
Giliam’s experience and the speech that reflects that experience have much to offer. Does that mean the internet itself is a religion? Probably not in the sense of being an organized religious movement, but if we take the literal meaning of religion, as that which binds us together, or that which reconnects us to life and what makes it meaningful, then he has found God or religion, not in a traditional divinity that acts upon the world, but in a kind of humanism, latent in each of us, where we can embody divinity in our lives, when we connect with each other.
Yet there are potential dangers in all these technological wonders. In Walden, Thoreau fears the coming of the railroad, and ponders whether we would ride on it, or it on us. We must remember that with the internet and other electronic devices, we make the choice of who is riding whom. They are amazing tools, useful machines to learn, communicate and connect with, but they are just that – tools – the medium is not the message, but the medium does make a profound message possible.
Like any exciting device, the internet is seemingly always there to offer more opportunities for exploration. But explorations for what and with whom? Not long ago I heard a story about a high school girl who gave a commencement address called “Look Up.” She wanted every person to pay attention to their surroundings. She said, “Too often human beings are being ignored because people are trying to connect. This week I met with my ministerial study group. Many of us are old friends who only see each other twice a year. During check in, we share how things are going in our lives. This year one of us became upset because instead of paying attention, several members had their phones on or their computers open, and they were either checking messages, or trying to manage details of work. If the machine determines how much time we give to others, and how present we are to each other, then it hardly fulfills Jim Gilliam’s vision of divinity. God dies in the details of our work, our brain’s propensity to be diverted, and its inability to multitask. We are most religious when we focus on one thing at a time, and are not caught in the midst of insufferable, unending clicks. Now there is some evidence that the brain is being transformed into a continual state of distraction. When Thoreau was on his deathbed, and someone asked him to comment on the other side, Thoreau wisely responded, “one world at a time.” If we want the internet to be our world, then we must use it in its own time and space, and most especially not in the presence of others, so they don’t’ have to say, “Look up.”
The machine can easily dictate our use of time, and be addictive. I notice this in the summertime at the ocean’s edge. Even in the midst of vacation, the availability of a computer to log in to so that I can check email is compelling. But it also can divert and distracts us from playing a game or talking with a loved one as evening dusk rolls in, or taking a walk on the rocky shore to skim stones across the water or look for sea glass. Using a smart phone may result in more frequent communication exchanges than actual conversations with human beings. While Siri’s voice may be pleasant, if we take a lot of time coming up with new questions for our little devices, then you have to wonder if these machines that are suppose to serve our needs have become our relationship substitutes, and thus serve to induce loneliness and isolation, or as my son Levi said, “it is a little strange to let a machine manage your life.”.
So the challenge is always how do we strive to maintain the connections that the web invites so that we don’t become machine like, or substitute something virtual for the real. We have faith that people connected can create a new world. Sometimes we forget how recently the internet has come into our lives. The internet was not introduced until 1991, and most of us have only been connected for a decade or so. Contrary to rumor, it was not Al Gore who invented the internet, but rather a Unitarian Universalist named Tim Berners-Lee, who was raised in the Church of England, and now resides in nearby Lexington. In 1992, there were 26 websites. By 1995, there were 19,000. The internet, as is obvious by these statistics alone is a phenomenal communications revolution that is occurring in our lifetimes. It is as important historically as the printing press and Gutenberg’s famous Bible. We often draw parallels between the ability to print thousands of Bibles in the language of the people, and the extension of literacy, where many could read and understand and interpret the texts for themselves. It helped foster the Protestant Reformation, as the priesthood of all people became the words for all with literacy leading towards democacry and modernity.
There must be something in Unitarian DNA that makes us want to communicate with one another. While we may extol the personal and individualistic journey of Thoreau, and the love of nature in Emerson, the major communication devices of modernity, including the telegraph, the telephone and the internet have all been created by UU’s with UU energy, initiative and drive. The enduring value of our faith, beginning with congregational polity, is that everyone should have a voice, or a vote in what we do, that we are stronger in community than we are as individuals. The power of what modern communication devices are enabling is seen through the revolutionary spirit that is giving rise to the people’s demand to be heard. The internet allows a vast number of people to be heard. Just as many people could support Jim Gilliam in his fight for a lung, so community based political activity, can be a powerful connective force in the spread of democracy. The web is designed to run without hierarchy and bureaucracy intervening at every step, and so its emphasis on giving voice to the people, and giving everyone a chance to be part of that voice means a faith that is open to all, wants to hear from all, imposes a minimally invasive structure of power and ritual and truth, and wants its power, ritual and truths to come from the lived experiences of the people. We are the perfect internet religion.
Tim Berners-Lee also points to the emphasis on tolerance in our liberal faith. For us that often means that different perspectives on truth are valued equally. I know I experienced tolerance in my teaching by merely conducting a class online for ten years. In a online classroom where everyone can have a voice merely by posting their own opinion, and no one can judge based on race, sex, age or class because that may be unknown to us, we can became purely tolerant to whatever the person has to say. This became true for me when I met the woman I always considered my best student ever. One day at General Assembly a few years ago, I saw her familiar name on the standard name tag, but she was my stereotype of a Southern belle, with a drawl, a flowing dress, and a wide brim hat. I scoffed at myself thinking what prejudicial judgments I might have made, which would have prevented her from being the most insightful voice in my class. The internet can give people of all ages and conditions the opportunity to have power and credibility, something a competitive, judgmental culture often does not provide.
So the Web is a creative force in giving everyone a voice and can potentially provide a fuller, richer process for learning or creating a new community.. It is an open way to communicate – building bridges of shared truth irrespective of barriers such as geography, or class or ability. Together it enables the cross fertilization of ideas leading to potentially richer solutions to problems. Its truth, as Berners Lee suggests is that there is no one truth, that applies to all, but that in that open quest we must make a place for many perspectives. I recently spoke to a friend who had tears in his eyes describing how computers and the internet had saved his grandson. The boy who had Aspergers Syndrome suffered with the worst social skills imaginable, could not get a job, and sat in his room all day without friends or even the ability to interact with anyone. Recently, the young man found a position working on programming, has a shared apartment, a steady job, and a community where he is thriving and welcomed. He once laid on his bed and stared at the screen all day. He still stares at a computer, but now he stares for a purpose, and with compatriots. The truth, as Unitarian Samuel Gridley Howe stated long ago is that everyone deserves a chance to be educated and employed to their fullest ability. There is no truth but the truth of connection bringing meaningful work and relationships into our lives. This young man now has that truth.
Does this approach bring hope? All faiths can corrupt, be perverted and even destroy human lives. The internet can distract and addict. We can ride the machine or it can ride us. The internet does not change our faith as Unitarian Universalists, but as you can see by the foregoing, in many ways it is a methodology that reflects much of what most of us find meaningful within the pathway we call liberal religion – democracy, individual creativity, tolerance, hope and the unending search for truth. What is profoundly changed for all of us is the way we do church. Many churches have already begun to address this. For preachers, it is the question of how we will communicate the faith in the future. Ever since those days of Bible meeting printing press, we have been a religion of the word with texts and printed sermons. Now religion is moving to the explication of story through images. It could mean that all living churches in the future will live stream their services, or will use images much more in worship. When my colleague in Rockland, ME reads a children’s book now it is one he purchased electronically and it is projected on a screen. Today I have preached my sermon from a laptop. The text gives way to image. The Bible allowed more access for more people. We are in the midst of another revolution, and we must get on board, as clergy and as churches. Last year I gave a chapel at the UUA in Boston. The service was live streamed throughout the country. When it came time for the joys and sorrows, I heard a man express a concern from his home in Iowa asking that we light a candle for his son who was going in for surgery. So our hearts must reach further out to those who would be part of our compassionate community no matter where they live. Because I am older it is easier to feel like a has been, or that a new day is rising. But I must tell you I find the internet and its role in the future of religion very exciting.
In many ways the faith that is built on web based experiences is perfect for us. For centuries there have been far too many Unitarians, without knowing it. We can now be evangelical with the push of a key. Traditional ways of understanding God and truth are released to a greater freedom on the web, and for those who are looking for a faith where God is seen as that connecting force between people, or who find Jesus to be a teacher of love and compassion not a God, or a Bible that is a worthy book to study but not the absolute truth forever and ever, they will find us, but we must stay relevant with the tools we use to express the faith. Finally, it will all come down to relationships between us all. While the web seems remote and anonymous and impersonal, it is built to connect us with each other. Our theology has always expressed a belief that an underlying oneness connects each of us with all humanity, and all are worthy and equal participants, capable of expressing that creative force when we live in love with each other. The internet brings that force out in each of us as its honors each person by giving them a voice, and we can share all kinds of resources. We all have something to give to create an amazingly diverse community that can offer its members a new, interconnected faith and church.
Closing Words – from Jim Gilliam
“God is what happens when humanity is connected. Humanity connected is God. [E]ach one of us is a creator but, together, we are THE creator.”