To surf or not to surf? – Is that the question?
Late in 2009 a group of twenty-one Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Rabbis published a letter in three religious newspapers. They wanted to warn people against the spiritual pollution awaiting anyone foolish enough to plunge themselves into the world of Internet surfing. Their message was clear and uncompromising: those who entered the murky waters of the World Wide Web ran the risk of becoming cast adrift in an ocean of virtual depravity from which they might never return. At the time of writing they ominously observed that 'many Jewish souls have already fallen into its trap.'
But what was the evidence for their claim? The Rabbis went on to state that even sites manned by the strict Haredi community – torch bearers of Jewish religious and moral conservatism - had been guilty of spreading 'forbidden slander, gossip, lies, terrible impurity and abominations.' Intended or not, their readers were pushed toward one inevitable conclusion: abstinence rather than participation is the spiritual response to the intoxicating lure of the Net. Stay offline if you want to stay holy!
But are things ever as black and white as this? Are followers of God duty bound to ditch the broadband and recycle their modems if they want to get serious over the pursuit of holiness? And is the only other option we have one of shameless indulgence; plunging ourselves into the virtual world without caution or reflection? To surf or not to surf? Is that the question?
An ongoing debate
In a sense, discussion about the vices (and virtues) of the World Wide Web is a part of a broader debate that has vexed the Church for several centuries. It is to do with the believer's relationship to modern technology in general. By technology I mean that sphere of human activity in which scientific knowledge, and skill, are used to creatively shape the world we live in. Frequently this technological innovation is seen in the inventions churned out by commercial industry, such as cars, computers and mobile phones. These, and other man-made products, progressively shape and structure the culture we inhabit, encouraging a standard of living in which people depend on their presence to function well.
Because technology can sometimes appear to make society unnervingly complex, introducing previously unheard of (and mind-boggling) ethical dilemmas, it is easy to see why many view its impact as deeply controversial. In fact, ever since the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, and the later rise of the industrial revolution during the eighteenth century, the moral and social impact of mass production machinery has sharply divided opinion.
Some Christians view modern technology as essentially good. It can enable people to live lives which are comfortable, efficient and enlightened. Human technical advances have created cures for deadly diseases and made it possible for us to travel great distances quickly through the invention of the car, train and plane. This in turn has led many people to broaden their horizons by investigating far flung cultures. Who in their right mind would complain about these gains?
Still others tend to see much technological advancement as bad. It can rob people of a simplicity of life that is difficult to retrieve once lost; sow unprecedented levels of moral and spiritual temptation which harm society. Those who take this latter position cite the Internet as an example of this. Just look at the rise of online porn and gambling for instance. The benefit that one form of technology produces is eventually neutralised by the equally significant trouble it generates.
A Theology of Technology
Taking these things into account it becomes clear that, before we can approach a Christian view of the Net, we must develop a wider theology of technology. Is it good or is it bad? What role, if any, should it play in our lives? What does the Bible have to say on these matters? Once we find answers to these questions we will be better placed to review our main subject in a balanced fashion.
A creative God
Our initial starting point for developing a biblical theology of technology is Genesis 1. It is here that we first encounter God and learn about the nature of the world He has made. Perhaps what is most striking in this account is the dynamic way in which the LORD is portrayed. We learn who He is by what He does.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)
The depiction of God that we find in this verse is one of an Almighty Creator. Indeed the whole of Genesis' opening chapter is a dramatic showcase of His creative power unleashed. We read of Him bringing a whole universe into existence through the powerful supernatural energy of His spoken commands (v.3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26). These verses also give insight into the great wisdom, precision and skill the LORD deploys at each stage of His work. He is the ultimate master designer, maker, shaper and developer all rolled into one!
And what of creation itself? Even when the universe is finished it is not fixed and static. In particular, the world God makes is programmed for ongoing growth and development. Its soil is loaded with seed for future harvest (Genesis 2:8-9); its crust rich with precious stones to be mined (Genesis 2:10-12). Over time planet earth will yield fresh blessings which, at the point of creation, remain largely hidden from view. God's world is not made to stand still but to grow and realise an exciting future potential. And it is here that we come into the picture.
A creative mission
For God's world to yield its riches, someone will need to develop skills and technology appropriate for the task. Of course, God could do this Himself, but instead He delegates this duty to the human race. Hence, after creating Adam and Eve He gives them the following life-mission:
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)
Adam and Eve's Divine job description is to populate the earth in order to manage and develop it. They are to work on God's behalf, unlocking the potential of creation through their own industry.
Interestingly, in Genesis, the family of Adam and Eve (like the LORD) are identified less by what they look like, more by what they do. And what they do is technologically orientated. Adam and Eve are agriculturalists (Genesis 2), Enoch is a builder (Genesis 3:17), Jabal specialises in cattle farming (Genesis 3:20), Jubal is a professional musician (Genesis 3:21) and Tubal-cain starts up a successful metal-working industry (Genesis 4:22).
These descriptions are significant. People are made in God's image (Genesis 1:27). And one of the ways in which that image is reflected is by mimicking His creative nature. Technological enterprise aids this process.
The goodness of technology
As we reflect on the evidence of Genesis, it seems clear that God wants us to view technology as a good thing. There are two apparent reasons for this. First, when men and women strive to produce new technological advances they are expressing the Divine image in themselves. Just as the LORD showed Himself to be the great Creator at the start of time, they show themselves to be mini-creators in the process of time. They are, if you like, demonstrating their unique relation to God by mirroring His actions, albeit on a smaller scale. This is valuable because it has the potential to draw glory to His name.
But, secondly, technology is good because it enables society to unlock the full potential of God's excellent creation. How will we reap the ground's harvest without agricultural tools? How will we build the homes, offices and places of worship which give structure to our lives without bricks and mortar? How will we mine the earth's riches without drills and heavy duty machinery? Without developing such implements humanity would fail in its divine life-mission to manage God's planet effectively. Technological prowess is essential if people are to fulfil the call of God on their lives.