The Internet for the Non-teetotalers

The recent comments by the OCA bishops on social networking and the Internet as well as a few criticisms they proffered of the Internet at the All American Council give us all reason to consider the value of the Internet.   Today Mark Stokoe announced he was suspending publication of, something he had been privately talking about for a very long time.

Perhaps the bishops will rest easy now; we will see how the antagonists of react themselves since they justified their own publications as needed to counter OCAnews.   Will the end of OCAnews bring an end to Orthodox Internet wars as all parties declare the cessation of publication?  Or will some ideologically driven folk carry on with their ad hominem attacks?  Time will tell.

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is prudent.”   (Proverbs 10:19)

Disagreement in the Church is nothing new – we can read about disagreements among the apostles while Jesus was still with them (which one of us is greatest?).    Disagreement is not always bad as it can help to clarify issues as certainly was done through the great theological debates which culminated in the Seven Ecumenical Councils.

The Internet itself has become a jousting point for the Orthodox – an issue arguing over the means by which we can communicate.   Certainly part of the issue, which many would say is the very goodness of the Internet in dealing with despotic dictators, is the inability of the few to control the Internet (as well as who speaks, or how many speak, or what they speak about).  The Internet’s threat to democracy is also there as we can see in the presidential campaigns where lies, fabrications, disinformation and distortions about various candidates abound.  The Internet can challenge the despot’s control of information, but it can also flood people’s email boxes and minds with useless, wrong and harmful ideas.  So the good and the bad of  using the Internet are not readily separable.

Abraham Lincoln in a speech in 1842 dealing with temperance waxed eloquently about whether drunkenness arose “from the use of a bad thing” or rather “from the abuse of a very good thing.”

The same question is being asked about the use of the Internet by Orthodox Christians.   Some seem to want to make the Internet a bad thing from which ‘others’ should abstain.   After all, the Internet seems to be as addicting to some as alcohol is, and certainly it can lead to verbally abusive behaviors.    Yet Orthodoxy has not forbidden the use of alcohol to its members, even though its negative effects have been well known since the time of Noah.

The Internet itself is nothing more than a powerful tool for conveying information (or disinformation) to a large number of people, quickly, efficiently and often over great distances instantly.  Tools can build up the world or destroy it; they can be used to create beauty or make a mess of things.

Lots of people are killed in automobile accidents and yet our society is so structured that we can hardly survive without cars.   The Internet itself is often imaged as another highway, one which conveys information.  Highways are not without danger.  Parents warn their children about the danger even of crossing the street.  Yet we do not ban autos or highways or streets, for they all also are tools serving a purpose.

Perhaps the development of the Internet is something like  the discovery of the new world’s tobacco as described in the recent book by Charles Mann,  1493: UNCOVERING THE NEW WORLD COLUMBUS CREATED.  Tobacco was hailed as something marvelous, enriching, and even healthy by Europeans and Chinese, leading to the addiction to the plant of millions and also to their early deaths.  It took many centuries for humans to come to a belief that the drug effect of tobacco was dangerous to our health.

Tobacco’s stimulent effect was at first largely thought of as quite useful, especially for soldiers.     The Internet is not quite the same as tobacco, it is a far more powerful tool that remains outside of our bodies.   In the hands of a carpenter, a hammer can be effectively used to build beauty.  In the hands of a murderer it can bash someone’s brains.  So too with other tools, the whittler’s knife, the doctor’s scalpel or the laborer’s shovel which can dig a well or a grave.

But the Internet remains a tool in itself neither good nor evil, but capable of being used for both and either.  Some might think it both the use of a bad thing or at best the abuse of a good thing.    God in His own wisdom endowed humans with free will and has put into our hands, hearts and minds the ability to create beauty, to co-create the world with Him, and to procreate life.   We also have the ability to choose rather to destroy and to bring about death.   The Internet does not change humanity.  We invented it and we are the ones who will use it for good or ill or both.  As Christ taught us:

 “The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”  (Matthew 12:35-37)

The Internet is a tool, it is humans who choose good and evil.  The good among us will make good use of the Internet.   The evil will make use of the Internet as well.   We will know them by their fruit.  And we will see as with tools, sometimes swords are made into plowshares and sometimes the reverse happens.  The same material can be used for helping bring forth life and for taking life away.  In this world we also are aware that sometimes swords are needed.

There is still much for us to learn about the Internet.   It is obvious that Internet etiquette has not been embraced by some Orthodox.   Some find it easy to hide behind anonymity in order to attack others, accuse falsely, and abuse people.

It is also true that the wrong reading of Scripture can lead to heresy, yet we do not ban Bibles nor their study.

Unfortunately, as some of the Patristic Fathers noted about commentaries on the Scriptures, sometimes writers demonstrate exacting precision (Greek = akrebeia) about how they interpret the text, but their conclusions are purely wrong despite their interpretive precision.    So too on the Internet people can be inaccurate in what they write even when they are saying precisely what they intend.

“My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.

For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”  (Ecclesiastes 12:12-14)

The Internet’s use requires much wisdom and discernment not to mention humility and love.  In the hands of the fool and of the wicked it will wreck sin and evil.  But it also can convey beauty and truth to the many.

6 thoughts on “The Internet for the Non-teetotalers

  1. My personal feeling is the bishops of the OCA are missing a wonderful opportunity to evangelize via the internet. They wish to demonize the internet and say that it is the cause of the problems but they are missing the mark. People are using the internet today for everything and the Orthodox need to be there as well. If we are not someone else will. We need to bring the truth to this medium or we will wither and die! Just my 2 cents.

    1. Fr. Ted

      I do agree with you. We are supposed to be the Church which means we transfigure and transform the world. The Internet is part of the world which is redeemable and can be used to transfigure and transform lives.

      We cannot allow ourselves to become nothing more than the church which is against everything or the church which is afraid of the 21st Century.

  2. I agree with both of you on this issue. I have been fortunate to have lived a long enough life to remember the days before the Internet existed. I even had the opportunity to work in the Department of Energy realm where we were active participants in the development and deployment of the Internet (beginning with DARPANET). Since my life has been in the information technology arena for 35 years I have seen the evolution of what is today’s Internet and most of the computer based tools that we all take for granted.

    The Internet is a tool and only a tool. As you (Fr. Ted) so aptly put it, every tool can be used for either good or bad. As a missionary working in Haiti now the Internet has been my main tool for informing the supporters of our ministry about our activities and needs. Our ministry, and consequently the people of Haiti, have been impacted positively by the appropriate use of this powerful tool. As a church I believe we have the responsibility to use this, and any other tool created by man, for the glory of our God and building up of His kingdom. We cannot do this by hiding behind aliases and striking from the shadows or condemning the tools because we do not know how to use them.

    Keep up the good fight!!!

  3. The Bishops should consult with Fr. John Peck. His websites (Journey To Orthodoxy, Preacher’s Institute, Good Guys Wear Black) are outstanding and of great benefit to Orthodox and those still seeking.

  4. People will eventually learn that Internet communities will not be tamed through threats, but rather through mutual collaboration and community involvement.

  5. While I’m blessedly ignorant of most of the “Internet Wars” being referred to (in the OCA, that is) I do have to agree with Fr. Ted about the Internet as being a medium of information, and nothing good or evil in itself. For my part, I’d never have known about Orthodoxy at all without the Internet. It allowed me to bring up sources, ancient and modern, that I probably would never have found in print…if I’d even known to look for them.

    While it’s increasingly used as a medium for entertainment, it *can* be used as an exceptional though unfiltered medium of information. What it so often lacks, though, is any context that can help to transform that information into knowledge…and certainly not into anything resembling wisdom or experience. The irony is that, while it *can* open people’s minds to all sorts of new perspectives (good or bad), it increasingly seems to be narrowing the field of information to only that which we wish to see. You, I, or anyone else with an i-gadget can instantly subscribe to sources that confirm what we already believe and block out anything that disagrees with us. We can use our liberty to transform an information “democracy” into a dictatorship of our own making.

    Still, on the whole I have to think the Internet has brought far more good than ill to us. It’s also made car shopping much easier :)

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