Saturday, April 01, 2000

Lost in the sea of change?

We have always been confined to six landmasses and separated by oceans. But ingenuity and our passion to communicate has driven us to bridge distance and time. In fact, our means of delivering messages have been getting better and faster; and more so in this century. It started with Bell’s telephone, followed by the digitization of data, a worldwide computer revolution and putting satellites in orbit. All these set the stage for the greatest leap forward in humankind’s age-old pursuit for community. And that great leap is the Internet.

Today the Internet has pervaded every aspect of life and it is in accelerated evolution. What we mastered yesterday is outmoded today. Yet, we are called to understand our world and to discern God’s call in such times. Amid this new globe made of servers and fiber-optic networks, we need the right lens to see and figure out how we should live. We need a Bible-based framework to comprehend the great evolution before us. Then only are we able to engage this cyber-civilization to uphold all of God’s beauty, truth and goodness in it, while guarding against threats against humanity and the Kingdom. I can think of four characteristics that may help us frame this entity we call the Internet. It is: transcendent, convergent, dynamic and human.

Transcendent. The Internet transcends conventional barriers of time and space. Information gets relayed within milliseconds across any distance around the globe. ICQ, for example, allows two or more people living in India and Greenland to type out messages to each other in real time. “The Internet will become transparent to us,” said a Los Angeles computer science professor, quoted by The Associated Press. “It will be everywhere, always available – just like electricity.” Voice and video conferencing, and virtual reality not far from reach, will further augment the immediacy and closeness we feel with each other. These days, we are only limited by time zones and our circadian lifestyle.

The Internet also transcends boundaries of ethnicity, ideology, gender and age. On the ground, we are segregated based on whether we’re fit or frumpy, rich or ragged, and where we eat - in The Royal Selangor Golf Club or the Ramly burger stand in Gombak. Class and cross-cultural relations add even greater stigmata. All these inhibit us from interacting freely. In cyberspace, while personal prejudices and preferences will remain, we have greater freedom to interact with whomever we desire.

Convergent. Our pool for interaction is almost anyone who logs onto the Internet. People are finding it far easier to share a common idea or interest, and thereon discuss and learn. Communities inevitably form when people find acceptance and commonness in small or large groups. Ultimately we see people come together simply because of wider opportunity to encounter others who think the same way.

Dynamic. With communities and discussion groups thriving on the Internet, so much more expression and debate takes place. This encourages discovery and affirmation of views. Eventually new ideas are born and new directions are taken. More communities will form – some will merge while others diversify, and people will rally around different causes. And so, on the Internet rapid change and growth is happening. It’s not surprising that many new trends and thoughts are emerging from this worldwide collaboration of minds.

Human. All things considered, this great digital corridor is inescapably human. The millions of web pages and bits of information are not void of values and human interpretation. Even large amounts of seemingly meaningless data serve a purpose. In any expression on the Internet, we inevitably bring our personalities to bear. We interpret, we assimilate, we respond, we tell our stories, we hope to achieve something. Humanity is expressed. This cyberspace at its very core is the Mind Space of everyone on it.

In this billowing sea of progress, the Man of Galilee calls us to sit in His boat and look to Him to still the waters. We look to the true Navigator for the protocol by which we should operate. Thomas Kelly reminds us: ‘A practicing Christian must above all be one who practices the perpetual return of the soul into the inner sanctuary, who brings the world into its Light and rejudges it, who brings the Light into the world with all its turmoil and its fitfulness and re-creates it.’

Four Kingdom Values on the Internet

Some thoughts on how we, as God’s people, can engage the Internet.

Presence. Practicing God’s Presence is crucial. Firstly, it prevents us from worshipping the Internet. Because the Internet is such a great leap forward and offers a promising new dimension of living, it becomes all too easy for us to trust in it for life and serve it with unproportionate attention -- then it becomes a false god. Secondly, practising God’s Presence is to know that God is absolute and unchanging while we live in a relativistic and unpredictable world. We are not to be shaken or forced to conform. And we can eventually offer truth and constancy to a world that is crying out for reality. The Internet is not the answer to humanity’s needs. God is.

Community. As humanity converges in this mind space, it is ironic that we may become not more connected but more dissipated and fragmented. The Internet brings people to together but they may log off more lonely and filled with animosity. The Internet does not promise peace. Since we ourselves are restored to the Father, we are interested in restoring relationships. Henri Nouwen, in his book Reaching Out says that our vocation is “to convert … the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.” He adds: “Maybe the concept of hospitality can offer a new dimension to our understanding of a healing relationship and the formation of a re-creative community in a world so visibly suffering from alienation and estrangement.”

All of us need people who will listen and offer others a ‘free and fearless space’ to be. When we accept each other and affirm God’s unconditional love, we can discover and pursue our true needs with confidence. Only then can we all make choices and commitments that are right and true to our heart’s cry.

Guidance. In cyber-civilization, new ideas and causes will tug us in every direction. More than ever, we must know what and Who guides us. Then we can pursue what is right and resist godless purposes. We are reminded that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our being, and then to love others as ourselves. It may be good to measure our steps by that token – are my actions glorifying to God, a blessing to others, and meaningful to me? In particular, we are drawn to keep “in step with the Spirit.” Instead of running ahead or lagging behind, we are called to fix our eyes on Him moment by moment and to live as we are led.

Compassion and Conversion. The Internet is human. It is shaped and driven by forces that govern humanity. How do we view and respond to all that we see or hear in the Internet, good or bad?

Henri Nouwen in Here and Now marvels at the Dalai Lama of Tibet, who remained free from hatred or bitterness toward the Chinese who ravaged his land and murdered his people. He (the Dalai Lama) says : "They too are human beings who struggle to find happiness and deserve our compassion." May we allow multimedia broadcasts of pain and suffering to reach the depths of our hearts and there be transformed by His love, to compassion.

The challenge before us is to look at the events of our times not as incidents and accidents that have little to do with us, but to see them as a call us to the conversion of our hearts. Jesus, when he heard reports of rebellious Galileans executed by Pilate, replied: "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” Luke 13:2-3 (NIV). Jesus gave us not a political interpretation but a spiritual one. He’s saying, what happened invites you to conversion! This is the deepest meaning of history: we are constantly invited to turn our hearts to God and so discover the full meaning of our lives.

We will continue to look and listen to the Internet to understand people’s longings and needs. We also listen intently to the Word and His Spirit within us to know how we should respond. To the transcendent highways of the Internet, we offer God’s rooting Presence. To the converging forces, we open our arms in hospitality to recreate community. To its dynamic cauldron of ideas, we offer the light of His guidance. To humanity in the Internet, we offer compassion and invite a turning of our hearts to God.


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