The TV news was mumbling away in the background, when a name surfaced — Tim Berners-Lee.
Several decades ago, Berners-Lee was idolized. While a scientist with the CERN large hadron collider in Switzerland, he developed a system that enabled computers to talk to each other.
Officially it was called “hypertext transfer protocol” -- the “http” in internet addresses. More commonly, it’s called the Web, short for World Wide Web – the “www” in internet addresses.
The official birthday of the Web was March 20, 1989. It had a slow start. By 1993 only 1% of computers were using it. By 2000, though, 50% were. As of today, I gather, 97% are hooked up.
Queen Elizabeth knighted Berners-Lee for his contribution to world communication.
A new metaphor
The Web has not only changed communication, it has given theology a valuable new metaphor. Yes, theology, although I suspect that was the last thing on Sir Tim’s mind.
You see, ever since World War II, theologians have been struggling to express some new ideas about God.
Some talked about the “death of God.” Not that God — whoever or whatever that is — actually died. But the old visualizations of God were dying in a post-Holocaust age. God as an old man in white robes sitting on a cloud playing a child’s harp. God as an immortal Zeus hurling thunderbolts at mortal miscreants down below. God as a puppeteer pulling the universe’s strings.
But to discard old notions, you need something in their place.
In this new view, God was no longer a “person.” God was a presence -- everywhere, all at once, all the time, inside and outside.
To express this new notion, Paul Tillich coined the phrase “ground of being.” Others invoked images from the cosmos. Or spoke of Holy Mystery. Or focussed on the feeling of being loved.
God might well be love — but it’s hard to carry on a conversation with an emotion. Or with what a late friend derisively called “a vague oblong blur.”
Ways of thinking
So we look for metaphors, analogies, parallels.
Another friend visualizes God as a network, connecting all of us. But a network imposes its own limitations. In the first English dictionary, Samuel Johnson whimsically defined a network as having “interstices between its intersections.”
In simpler words, it has spaces between the places where lines cross. Some intersections are close together; others are far apart. Which negates notions of a deity equally present everywhere, at once.
I have toyed with the analogy of gravity. It is certainly everywhere. Always. And real, whether I can explain it or not.
But gravity presents its own drawbacks. For one thing, it’s hierarchical – bigger bodies exert more influence. Also, the farther apart two objects are, the less attraction they feel. Worse, gravity is utterly impersonal. It doesn’t care what it does to me.
Enter Tim Berners-Lee. His internet renders both time and space irrelevant. I can have a personal connection to a correspondent. Anywhere. Instantly. Australia and India are as close as my next door neighbour. Just the way we would like to think of God being.
I’m not arguing that the internet is God. But internet communication offers a practical and everyday way of visualizing of how an invisible and omnipresent God might operate.
Even if Tim Berners-Lee had no intention of influencing theology.
Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Can our attitudes affect what we discern around us? You had varied reactions to last week’s column, on tuning our antennas.
Tom Watson endorsed the idea that we “turn up our smile antenna.” He remembered “an elderly man who lived in a village where for six years I was a student minister. He would slouch along the street, head down, never smiling. I would meet him on the street and say, ‘Good morning, John. How are you?’
“His reply was always the same, ‘Just livink. Just livink.’
“I was never clear what had happened in his life to cause him to have such a downcast spirit, but it was a regular reminder that it wasn't a healthy approach, and certainly didn't draw people to want to spend a lot of time with him.”
Isabel Gibson agreed that “we can find things in others and the world to support any conclusion we want to draw, but I hadn't thought about how our transmitter and receiver might be linked.”
Laurna Tallman liked the antenna analogy: “You have written a helpful extended metaphor about the way humans receive and process sound frequencies. The ear is like that radio (how well I remember tuning in distant countries and languages, including the music of the US South) that has to be responsive to the available radio frequencies in order to transmit that sound to the brain.”
But, she points out, “The ear's ability or lack of ability to convey frequencies accurately and with adequate volume determines what the brain can do with its nervous systems. Pivotal to that process is the smallest muscle in the body, the stapedius, especially the one in the right ear. Depending on its strength, our wiring can connect us or prevent us from our connecting with people who process sound the same way.
“I disagree with your reader who says we ‘have an individual frequency.’ Intellectually, emotionally, physically, and spiritually we are the product of all the frequencies we have heard and still can hear and respond to. You wrote: ‘So much depends on what one’s receiver is tuned to.’ Truly. But much more depends on the kind of receiver you have.”
Ruth Buzzard “loved this column on reception. When I worked as a volunteer in the Whistler Olympic Village in 2010 we were taught to smile if we caught anyone's eye. If they smiled back, we were to say something cheerful like ‘Good morning’. If they stopped and replied we were to stop too (no matter how busy we were) and talk about cheerful things. It worked wonders, no matter the language barriers. I am still doing it!
“I am doing a lot of solo RV trips these days, driving my little trailer all over North America. People always ask me, ‘Aren't you afraid?’ And I reply, ‘Afraid of what?’ I have never had a bad experience, and have experienced kindness all over the place. I think it is the Olympic training.”
Steve Roney agreed that tuning one’s antenna matters, but cautioned, “This easily segues into the current postmodern idea that truth is subjective: the idea that you can create your own reality. But being unrealistically optimistic is just as harmful as being unrealistically pessimistic. The goal should not be to be optimistic or pessimistic, but realistic.”
Steve then gave a number of examples from history, ancient and modern, where optimism was overly optimistic.
“The notion that we can critically affect by our own attitude whether good or bad befalls us also has the terrible side effect of blaming the sufferer or victim. Whenever someone does encounter suffering: it must then be their own fault, they had the wrong attitude. If a woman is raped, she must by her attitude have somehow invited it. If a child is abused, he must have merited it. And the Jews must have had it coming.
“In the end, believing that we can control our own destinies with the right attitude also gets into assuming godlike powers.”
The Revised Common Lectionary suggests Isaiah 12 as this Sunday’s Psalm reading. It’s a short chapter, in which Isaiah plays with the image of a well, a source of life in the desert. But it occurs to me that there are more arid deserts than the Sahara.
My soul has dried up.
I am a bell without a clapper,
a well without water,
a heart without feeling.
Where can I look for hope?
When hope swirls down the drain, how do I call it back?
I have faith that I will have faith again.
The holy mystery of life will bubble up within me again,
like an effervescent spring rising out of the rocks,
like the morning sun rising over a darkened world.
Joy shall come, even to the wilderness.
It has been so in the past;
I believe it will be so in the future.
I can only hope…
For paraphrases of most of the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, email@example.com.
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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have blocked my posts because they’re suspicious of some of the web links.
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)
ALVA WOOD’S ARCHIVE
I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)