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Does God Love C yberspace?

Ann Bemrose

Presented at the David Lochhead Memorial Symposium: Virtual Un/Reality: The Spirituality of Cyberspace at the Vancouver School of Theology, Vancouver, B.C. October 12-14, 2006 I got my first computer over twenty years ago. To use it, I turned on the power and then loaded DOS from a 5.25 floppy disk in the A: drive. Text appeared in a nice shade of green against a black background. If I wanted to do some word processing, I removed the DOS disk, and loaded Word Perfect 4.0. The external modem was fast120 baud! I bought my first hard drive about 18 months after the computer. It held 30 megabytes; I thought it would take a long time to fill it up. I was a student at VST when I got the computer. I knew David Lochhead was very into computers. Everyone knew that. When I told him about my computer, he encouraged me to join Ecunet, and told me how to do it. Ecunet was the beginning of computer-mediated communication for me, it was the first online community to which I belonged, and I can say without exaggeration that Ecunet changed my life. On Ecunet, I got involved in discussions about the lectionary and sermon-writing with a group of clergy who were, and are, highly creative, thoughtful, reflective and dedicated computer users. I was part of a very spirited group of people who tried to look at computer communities, churches and all manner of related and not-always-related things from a feminist perspective. My most significant theological education happened as much online as it did at VST and in the parish. Through good times and hard times, the births of my children, and moving across the country, I felt that Ecunet somehow lived inside of me. I felt that cyberspace was in my mind and heart. David Lochhead calls the computer a possibility machine.1 And so it was, and is. A staggering variety of possibilities have emerged since 1986. I write and edit in cyberspace. I also bank, pay my bills, file my income tax return, and send faxes in cyberspace. I do several kinds of research online. I use e-mail and instant messaging. I buy things online. I play games on my computer and in MUDs and MMOGs2 online. I create digital images. I have a weblog and a website. Since my cell phone only handles text messages and phone calls, and I do not have a Blackberry, a PDA or an MP3 player, I am only a moderate user of the technology. I have made some of my most rewarding relationships in cyberspace. It is hard to imagine what my life would be like without it.

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Virtual third places In his essay, Living in Virtual Un/Reality, David Lochhead said that the individualistic character of the Internet does not support community.[I]f you can settle down in a neighborhood of virtual un/reality, community may be found. But it is not automatic and most of our activities in cyberspace are not communal at all, he writes. It is very unlikely for community to prosper on the freeways of the information highway, exposed to the full force of Internet traffic.3 However unlikely it may seem, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 84% of Internet users have contacted online groups, and more than half joined an online group after they began communicating with it. The Pew Project reports: In some ways, online communities have become virtual third places for people because they are different places from home and work. These places allow people either to hang out with others or more actively engage with professional associations, hobby groups, religious organizations, or sports leagues.4 Researchers studying online games report similar findings 5 and while recent Canadian survey data did not include questions about Internet users participation in online groups, Canadians are on par with Americans in their Internet use overall.6 What works Access to the Internet has made it possible for those who have often been voiceless and marginalized in our society to be heard. Many homeless people have weblogs; in some cases their writing has helped them find a place to live and employment after traditional options failed.7 Socially isolated people can belong to communities. Online groups and forums provide information, resources, and options for participants. Aid and support for the victims of the 2004 Indonesia tsunami and of hurricane Katrina in 2005 reached unprecedented levels attributed to the use of the Internet, while weblog and podcast content providers helped connect families and friends who had been separated by the hurricane, and offered up to the minute, on site reports of the effects of the disaster.8 In cyberspace, sometimes the lame walk, the blind receive sight, captives are freed and the poor hear good news. A constructive and projective medium People are able to explore their creativity, to work together and alone, to play, and to offer information, support, care and comfort to one another in cyberspace. Surely God must love cyberspace. When David Lochhead asks, Does God love computers?9 the question is about the relationship between human beingscreated in the image of Godand human technology. He points out:

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The computer is a godlike machine because of its versatility. Because it can do many things, it can represent all machines. It is a universal machine. Because it is programmable, we use the computer to create microworlds. In this sense, the computer allows us to simulate being like the gods. Computer technology is, to use McLuhans terminology, an extension of the brain. Computer technology reflects an aspect of ourselves that we have often considered to be the most human, the most like God.10 Sherry Turkle describes the computer as a constructive as well as a projective medium.11 The computer is not only a creative medium, but because we also work within, and manipulate the computer and the software we run, it is a medium for selfexploration. Lochhead takes Turkles idea further. The computer . . . is a multi-purpose machine. It can be whatever we want it to be. The computer can become virtually whatever we project upon it. In relation to the computer, our projections can become self-fulfilling prophecies.12 In an unpublished essay, Lochhead warns: [. . .] we have difficulty understanding the games that computers play with our imaginations. It is in that inter-play, however, that the most profound effects of computer technology will be experienced.13 What is cyberspace? While we may not be able to answer the question about whether God loves computers, I think the relationship between God and cyberspace is somewhat more clear. Marshall McLuhan observed that any technology is an extension of ourselves, our physical bodies.14 Computer technology extends us into cyberspace. For hundreds of years, human beings have been trying to find reliable, efficient ways to communicate with each other across great distances. If cyberspace is at least partly a communications network, one might say that it first came into being in the form of the telegraph first used in 1792 during the Napoleonic war. The telephone was invented by many people in the mid-to-late nineteenth century; Alexander Bell made his telephone 1876. Wireless telegraphy, also called radio, also began in the 1800s. Radar use began in 1904, and television in the late 1930s. Satellite communication began in the 1960s. All of these pieces of technology, from telegraphs to computers, rely on waveson frequenciesof electromagnetic radiation. All electromagnetic waves work the same way, regardless of their frequencies, which is why physicists lump them all together under one name: light.15 Cyberspace is composed of light.

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The creation of cyberspace may have been something like this: At time t = 0, Elohiym implemented the heavens and Earth. Now Earth had low information content . . . And Elohiym said, Let there be electromagnetic radiation, and there was electromagnetic radiation. Elohiym saw that the electromagnetic radiation passed QA [Quality Assurance].16 Whether we phrase it in technical slang, or the language of the NRSV, according to Genesis 1 the first thing God does is to create light. It is essential to everything that came afterward. Light is one of the greatest symbols in Scripture, representing many good things, including God, security, safety, guidance, understanding, perseverance, life, hope, faith and witness. Human beings have discovered that frequencies of light that we cannot see can connect us to one another. We use the light to create images and ideas and to communicate them with each other. It is imperative that we remind ourselves that human beings cannot create out of nothing completely new dimensions, parallel worlds, or rifts in time and space. Our ability to create works and form relationships and communities that exist solely in cyberspace is seductive. It tempts us to imagine that we have created a realm over which we have ultimate control. Cyberspace rides on and in waves of light. Cyberspace is a human creation; the light is not. Although we created it, we are not alone in cyberspace, nor do we have ultimate control over it. Like every other dimension of creation, cyberspace finally belongs to God. Technology extends relationships into cyberspace While location, land and home are important in relation to human beings, the Bible has surprisingly little to say about Gods relationship with geography. Where our ancestors were at any time is not as significant as what they were doing. The biblical record is about the relationship between God and human beings. Similarly, if human technology is an extension of the human body, our actions are also extensions of our identity expressed in terms of our relationships with each other and with God. Since what we do in our mundane existence is important to God, what we do in cyberspace must also be of enormous interest to God. As with our forebears, what we do is more important than where we do it. Principalities and powers Cyberspace can be defined as the realm of computer-mediated possibilities. It is the place where users work, play and create with computers, and where our computers interact with each other.

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No system can be reduced to its external reality. Every entity also has an invisible, non-material dimension; Pierre Teilhard de Chardin referred to it as the inner reality, spirit, or spirituality. This inner reality animates the system and it is greater than all of its members individual spirits combined. The principalities and powers are the combined external and spiritual dimensions of systems and structures. They are part of and inseparable from every system or group. Walter Wink describes them as the necessary social structures of human life, created by God.17 To refer to the spirit, the essence, or the ethos of any organization is to refer to the principality associated with it. The powers are fundamentally good. They are neither human nor divine, but are intermediary, created for the benefit of the world and responsible to God for serving human needs. The powers exist, but they cannot act unless they are embodied in a system or group.18 The powers are also resistant to change: they have a sense of purpose and a desire to see that purpose fulfilled. Like every system, cyberspace is also a home to the principalities and powers: they are embodied in the groups and organizations we form. As with every structure, the spirituality of cyberspace is inextricably related both to the human beings who participate in the group and to the powers and principalities. Neither human beings nor the powers can function alone in any structure. It is critically important to remember that human beings are essential to the enterprises of the powers. Neither human beings nor the powers are solely responsible for things that go well, or for things that go wrong. Arch New Testament writers have many names for the principalities and powers.19 They make no distinction between earthly and heavenly powers. The terms for the powers can refer to specific kinds of power and can also be used interchangeably. 20 Arch (DP0)21 which has to do with structural order, is the power most characteristic of cyberspace.22 Arch is found in every document, every image, video and audio file. Software follows structural principles to communicate with machine language, which is also structured for running computers. Other kinds of arch are parts of files and documents. Search engines, for example, look for and report on arch aspects of files. On the Internet, the qualities of arch are limited to the interactions between software, files and computers. Apart from the functional aspects of arch, the Internet is largely ungoverned. There is no single governor (archn), who has the authority (kyriots), or the right to exercise power (exousia) over the Internet. The result is that the Web is open: anyone who has access to a computer and a modem can have a web page, write a weblog, conduct research, play games, send and receive e-mailthey can do whatever they want to do. Internet gatekeepers are rare; they tend to function in close proximity to users, such as network administrators who monitor workplace e-mail or parents who install filtering software on home computers. No one has yet been entirely successful in imposing absolute limits on or denial of

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access to the information, documents and other material available on the Internet, nor has anyone been successful in stopping the free expression of opinions online. So far, those governments which have attempted to curtail their citizens use of the Internet have been spectacularly unsuccessful. The most successful limits to online access can be attributed to the willingness of Internet content providers, service providers, and online groups to co-operate. ISPs in North America and Europe can keep track of where users of websites and resources on their systems come from. However, users can also employ anonymizing software to cloak their identity, making it impossible to determine who or where they are. Encryption software makes it impossible for anyone without the encryption key to monitor the contents of e-mail. Most commercial adultoriented websites support third-party software and related efforts to ensure that their content is not available to children. In addition, several online organizations, such as WiredSafety23, provide education, support and resources to reduce cyberstalking, harassment, child pornography, identity theft and fraud. Individuals and groups are using arch both to their advantage and to support the concept of a free and open Web. The shadow side of arch Like human beings, the powers are good, and they are also fallen. They are alert to their own interests and opportunities. And like human beings, when the powers turn aside from their divine purpose, they become idolatrous and seek to satisfy their own desires. When we lose sight of our creatureliness and finitude, becoming caught up in the delusion that cyberspace offers usthat we can be like gods creating worlds and ruling them with ultimate authoritythe powers will not correct us. They will seduce us into expanding our projections. When the powers are dominant, things can get out of hand. That arch is limited is what makes cyberspace available to everyone. Nonetheless, the shadow side of archanarchyis also strong. It is both freeing and troubling that, in cyberspace Anyone can speak, and they can often say or depict anything No voice has primacy Much communication is anonymous Few call others to be accountable for their words and images It is easy to find others of like mind, for good or evil purposes

Not all communities or relationships are good. Some exist to give voice to views and values that could not be expressed in a major newspaper, on the radio, or on television, but which are permitted by the anarchy of the Internet. Where the purpose of a group is malignant, the principalities gifts of structure and organization will enhance and encourage the group in its purposes.

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For example, when 12 year-old Jonathon Madden was murdered by his 16 year-old brother and another teen in Toronto in 2003, the killers and a number of their friends were active in the Vampire Freaks website forum. Kimveer Gill kept a weblog on the Vampire Freaks site until September 13 when he entered Montreals Dawson College on a rampage, injuring 19 people and killing one, before taking his own life. While the Vampire Freaks website is not directly responsible for what the teenagers did, the site was a supportive place for them to air their dissatisfactions and grievances. Their explicit hatred and aggression towards particular people and groups were not simply tolerated, but encouraged by other forum users. Groups such as the Vampire Freaks exist outside of cyberspace. In the offline world, freedom of speech is maintained by balancing the rights of both the speaker and the audience, and the right to publish ones opinions is subject to the laws of libel and slander. These safeguards do not exist in cyberspace. One consequence is that the spirituality of anarchy can give a voice and a presence to those who would be less likely either to speak, or to find a group of like-minded people, when arch is fulfilling its vocation to serve human needs and to be of benefit to the world. A question about ourselves Does God love cyberspace? Maybe. Personally speaking, I hope so. The invisible reality of cyberspace heightens questions about meaning, purpose, value, and relationshipsspiritual questions. In turn, spiritual questions increase our awareness of physical realities and the importance of human life. Cyberspace has opened new opportunities to do good things for our fellow humans and for the planet. It has also created new opportunities for promoting and doing evil. Surely whatever brings us together for good purposes should be celebrated. Just as surely, whatever brings us together for malignant purposes cannot be encouraged. What is certain is that God loves what God has created. God loves human beings. God loves the powers. God loves light. It is also certain that wherever we are, in cyberspace or not, we cannot be anything other than human. God understands human beings, our needs, our desires, our motives, our dreams. God also understands the powers and principalities, and what happens when they join with us. Together with the powers, we are good mortal creatures of a good God; we are fallen; and we are, and can be, redeemed. David Lochhead has shown that the question about whether God loves computers must lead us back to reflecting on ourselves, and what it means to be human beings who create powerful technology. The question about whether God loves cyberspace must also lead us back to ourselves, and what it means to live and interact with others both in the world and in cyberspace.

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David Lo chhead, Theo logy in a Digita l World (Toronto: U nited Ch urch Pu blishing H ouse, 198 8) 10.

MUD is the acronym for Multi-User Domain. MUDs are text-based, object-oriented games. MMOGs are Massively Multi-user Online Games. They use graphics rather than text, and can be played by many thousand s of users at the sam e time. David Lochhead, Living in Virtual Un/Reality. This was the opening address to the 1995 Ecunet conferen ce in Ba ltimore, M aryland. T he text of the add ress is availab le at http://www.religionresearch .org/irtc/reality.h tm as of October 1 , 2006. It also form s chapter 6 of Shifting Realities: Information Technology and the Ch urch (Geneva: World Council of Churches Publications, 1997). John B. Horrigan, Online Commu nities: Networks that Nurture Long-Distance Relationships and Local Ties. Pew Internet and American Life Project October 31, 2001. September 24, 2006 <http://www .pewinterne>. A more recent survey by the Pew Project finds that Instead of disappearing, peoples communities are transforming: The traditional human orientation to neighborhoodand villag e-based groups is movin g toward s comm unities th at are orien ted arou nd geo graphic ally dispersed social networks. People communicate and maneuver in these networks rather than being bound up in one solitary community. Yet peoples networks continue to have substantial numbers of relatives and neighborsthe traditional bases of communityas well as friends and workmates (Jeffrey Boase, John B . Horriga n, Barry W ellman, L ee Rain ie, Th e Internet a nd Em ail Aid U sers in M aintainin g Their Social Networks and Provide Pathways to Help When People Face Big Decisions. Pew Internet and American Life Project January 25, 2006. September 24, 2006 <http://www .pewinterne>).

Constance Steinkuehler, Dmitri Williams, Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as Third Places. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 11(4) 20 06. The Canadian Internet Project finds that 75% of Canadians have at least one computer at home, and 72% of Canadians use the Internet from public and private locations. Canadians average 13.5 hours per week online, and the majority of Internet users report being online seven or more hours per week. (Charles Zamaria, Andr Caron, Fred Fletcher, Canada Online! A Comparative Analysis of Internet Users and Non-users in Canada and the World: Behaviour, Attitudes and Trends 2004. Canadian Internet Project October 2005. September 15, 2006 <>).

The case of Anya Peters is one example. Ms. Peters began a weblog in February 2006, after living in her car for six mon ths in a forest on the edge of Lon don, En gland. Sh e had exh austed her op tions to find wo rk and hou sing. She h oped that h er blog migh t gain readership which, in tu rn, might he lp her turn h er life around. H er weblog cam e to the attention of the New Y ork Times, Le Monde, and the BBC, and resulted in an offer to pu blish her story. M s. Peters book , Abandoned , will be published by HarperCollins in May 2007. See <>.

The role of the Internet and new media in disaster response has been widely reported. These two articles are among many: Kris P. Kodrich, Melinda Laituri, The Tsunami and the Internet: The Role of New Media Technologies in Disaster Awareness and Relief, International Journal of Technology, Knowledge and S ociety I:3 (2005) 53-62. Fred McManus, Disaster Response and the Web 2005: The Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, Zdne t December 20, 2005. September 18, 2006 <>.

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Theo logy in a Digita l World , 39-52. Theo logy in a Digita l World , 30.



Sherry Turk le, The S econd Self: Co mpu ters and the Hu man Spirit, 20th anniv ersary ed . (Bos ton: M IT Press, 2005) 21.

Theo logy in a Digita l World , 48.

David Lochhead, Day Dreams: Thinking Theologically About Computers, unpublished typescript dated November, 1987.


Marshall M cLuhan , Understanding Media, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964)

Richard P . Feynman , The D ouglas Rob b Mem orial Lectures: Part 1 Ph otons: Corp uscles of Light, delivered at the University of Aukland, New Zealand in 1979. Feynman points out that we often think of light in terms of the visible spectrum, which is the range of colours human beings can see. However, bees see ultraviolet light, but we cannot, because it is just beyond the upper range our visible spectrum. Similarly, infrared light is beyond the lower range of our visible spectrum; we cannot see it, but pit viper snakes can. September 28, 2006 <http://ww w.vega ideo/sub series/8 >.


Genesis 1:1 -3, Technical Slang Version. October 6, 2006 <>


Walter W ink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in World of Domination (Minne apolis: Fortress Press , 1992) 6 6, citing Herm ann Sasse , kosmos, TDNT 3:894.

For simplicitys sake, I use groups to refer to communities, agencies and corporations of all kinds and sizes, whether they are the online extension of organizations that operate offline as well, or whether they only exist online.

Some of the most com mon terms are: angels, thrones, dominion s, fallen angels, evil spirits, demons, rulers, governors, authorities, and angels of the nations.

Walter W ink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984) 10-11.

The terms DP0and DPf< (arch and arch n) are used for human power arrangements in the New Testamen t. According to Wink, arch so often verges on the sense of arch n that the two may be taken together, as in Luke 12:11; Rom. 8:38; 1 Cor. 15:24; Eph. 1:21; 3:10;6:12; Col. 1:16; 2:10, 15; Titus 3:11 (Wink, Naming the Powers , 13-15 an d 151-1 56). The word cyberspace is an amalgamation of cybernetics and space. Cybernetics stems from the Greek 6L$,D<ZJ0H, (kybern tes), meaning steersman, governor, pilot, rudder, from 6L$,D<"<,( kybernan ), govern, control. Etymologically, cyberspace is governed space, space that has order or structure.

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Wire d Saf ety <www.w>.

Ann Bemrose 2006, under a Creative Commons License, some rights reserved.