Fasting from the Internet

FastingfromtheInternetcroppedI’m a latecomer to the Internet. Until 1992, I did all of my writing on a 1923 Underwood Standard typewriter and handed it to a typing pool at Southern Seminary, where I taught for thirty years, to turn out flawless copies. It may startle you to hear me say it, but I believe my tardiness in joining the cybernetic crowd may have helped to save my spiritual life. I write this article with the confidence that we human beings, with God’s help, have enough resilience to withstand and recover from our culture’s subtle shaping of us in its own image.

A CLINKER FROM THE INTERNET

Lest I offend you at the very start, let me say that I recognize the tremendous gift the computer and the Internet are. My little iMac is a fabulous instrument. Although I have used it primarily as a word processor, the range of information it puts at my fingertips causes me to gape in absolute astonishment and awe: the instant connections it enables me to establish with friends in China, India, Australia; the transmission of finished manuscripts and books it facilitates; the world of art and music it sets before my eyes and ears; the games it lets me play; and a jillion other things. No one who grew up in the Missouri Ozarks, least of all I, could have dreamed of anything like it.

It puts the world at my fingertips.

So what is my complaint? What fault do I find with such a fabulous advance in human technology? As in so many things we humans invent, the fault rests in the way we use the technology rather than in the technology itself. In the Internet we have put to use something that potentially creates immense problems for the development of greater intimacy with God, with one another, and with the world around us, for it takes to the highest level the distractions that get in the way of attentiveness, which is what prayer is at bottom. The ability to pay attention is precisely what is taking a severe beating from this new technology. In consequence, God may end up perched out there on the periphery of our consciousness, of even less importance in our busy lives than God is now.

In his best-selling The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr reported this disturbing news. “Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.” (1) What is particularly disturbing and has special relevance to the spiritual life, he went on to say, is that “the Net seizes our attention only to scatter it. . . . It returns us to our native state of bottom-up distractedness, while presenting us with far more distractions than our ancestors ever had to contend with.” (2) The distractedness the Internet fosters is not diversion of the mind to weigh a decision. Rather, it’s “cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively.”(3)

I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that it is not easy to learn how to pray or to keep at it when we have learned how. Teresa of Ávila, the first woman named a “Doctor of the Church,” in the main because of her contribution to Christian understanding of prayer, confessed that she spent twenty years learning how. (4) Admittedly, she didn’t get serious in her effort to learn until a three-year illness and a near-death experience put some pressure on. What she discovered is what everyone who takes prayer seriously will discover, that prayer is, above all, response to the prior love of God. As Bernard of Clairvaux reminded his fellow monks, “. . . every soul among you that is seeking God should know that it has been anticipated by [God], and has been sought by [God] before it began to seek [God].” (5) It couldn’t happen any other way, could it? How could we mortals get God’s attention, the attention of the God of a universe of 150-plus billion galaxies. We can’t yell loud enough, build a Babel tower high enough, or send a space ship far enough to get God’s attention unless God has chosen to enter into our consciousness. If we pray, then, we have to learn how to pay attention. We have to cultivate wakefulness.

If Nicholas Carr is right, however, that is precisely where the Internet is tripping us up. Google, on which most of us rely heavily, epitomizes the problem. “Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction.” (6) To be fair in our evaluation, we have to acknowledge the benefit of efficient collection of data, but where it poses a problem for us is that it does not leave room for meditation or contemplation. “In Google’s world, which is the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the pensive stillness of deep reading or the fuzzy indirection of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed.” (7)

NOTES

1 Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co, 2011), 115-6.  Italics mine.
2 Ibid. 118.  Italics mine.
3 Ibid. 119.
4 Teresa of Ávila, The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Ávila, translated by E. Allison Peers (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image Books, 1960), 108.
5 Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 84 on the Song of Songs, 2; “Library of Christian Classics, XIII, edited by Ray C. Petry, 74-75.
6 Ibid. 157.
7 Ibid. 173.  Italics mine.

Excerpt from the current issue of Weavings, “Resilience” (Feb/Mar/Apr 2013). To get a copy of this issue or to order a subscription to Weavings, call 1.800.972.0433 or order online.

2 Responses to “Fasting from the Internet”

  1. Eva says:

    This is so, so true. It’s an addictive pleasure, isn’t it? You keep heading down Internet rabbit holes until an hour has passed- an hour that you could have actually DONE something!
    Hard to give up, though.
    Eva

  2. Paula T says:

    Being disabled, the Internet is the easiest way for me to hear the Bible, find devotions, connect with others in Faith.I is a vital tool for my Spiritual growth. For me the TV is the worse technology. It provides less ways to seek, search or interact or learn about the Glory of God with others.

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