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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Faith on the Web

The Baltimore Sun reports that faith on the internet (registration required) is growing strong. Apparently, the emphasis lies in the concept of pluralism - with organizations who maintain a broad focus and an expansive concept of faith receiving broad support. If you understand that people approach faith from many directions and for many reasons, then you begin to understand why a broad approach is needed.

Being useful to a broad range of visitors - Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, Jew and non-Jew - is an important goal of, says Paul Roitman Bardack, chief executive officer of the two-year-old Web site.

Nor should it be assumed that such interaction is taken lightly:

"A great deal of data seems to indicate that people that are isolated for whatever reason find connection to religious information online to be a good source of satisfaction and can lead to the creation of religious communities over the Internet," said Donald Braxton, a religious studies professor at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa.

Interesting - a church without walls, without boundaries to keep people out and only the faith that they find to hold them in. It's a very different concept of faith than the one in which I was raised. It also seems more in keeping with the example of Jesus' life.

Jesus only rarely, according to the Gospels, spoke in any organized worship service. Rather, his teachings were ad hoc - with him standing in a boat or on a rock on the mountain and facing the crowd. That did not mean they were any less grounded in solid theology - in fact, they were so strongly rooted in the meaning, rather than the literal word, of his religion that it revolutionized faith from his life forward.

But Jesus was only one man - and he became dependent on others to spread his words. Those people then deputized others, who deputized others, and a few along the way actually wrote a few things down. Very few people actually got to interact with Jesus, though. The records we have of his question and answer sessions are very slight.

Not to put myself, or anyone else around to day, on the same level as Jesus - but the interactive nature of the internet provides a means of both building broad interaction and challenging authority. This creates a much better crucible for defining and building faith. In other words, it breaks down barriers.

"It is removing religious information from its isolation," he said. "It becomes easier for a practitioner from one religious tradition to learn about the practices of another. ... Certainly, there is a larger awareness of the cosmos of religious choices that they face."

Moreover, the internet reaches people that otherwise would have no access to this information:

Describing some who use the site, Morris Rodenstein, the help-desk representative, said he has heard from an Episcopal priest who had landed the part of the rabbi in a local production of Fiddler on the Roof, a tribal chief in Papua New Guinea interested in learning about Judaism and a 70-year-old Jewish rancher in Montana who is more than 200 miles from the nearest synagogue.

Yet what can tear down walls can also raise them up. There is no shortage of divisive rhetoric available on the internet. Nor is this necessarily a bad thing - after all, Christians are taught to be in the world, but not of the world. We are to be fully engaged with what happens around us, yet we are not to forsake our guiding principles and values. We can understand each other and study each other's cultures and theologies without losing that aspect of our own culture and theology that makes us unique. Learning about and respecting others does not mean losing ourselves.

That is, I believe, the great fear of the Religious Right. For some reason, they seem to fear that allowing others full expression of their faith will somehow lessen their own ability to proclaim conservative beliefs. I know I've heard and read statements to that effect. That stems from a Malthusian outlook that sees only a limited amount of room for expression. Allowing new voices necessarily reduces old voices because the public arena is a zero-sum game. For me to gain, you have to lose.

There are some things that are like that. The public arena for discussion is not, though. Allowing Blacks and women to vote in the United States, for example, did not push the voices of White men out of politics - and judging from the continued preponderance of white males in influential positions, it hasn't even diluted their voice substantially. Allowing a more diverse Christian voice, along with Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Pagan, and other voices, will not destroy the conservative Christian voice, either. Nor should it seek to.

The goal of the Progressive Faith BlogCon is not to silence the right - nor even to be reactionary against them. It is merely to enlarge the public arena and engage more of the public in open and frank discussions about their faith, regardless of what heritage it is drawn from. We seek to make the public voice more inclusive - to add to the family of faith.

Come, let us reason together.


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