The National Catholic Review

In anticipation of moving to Argentina, I asked people about access to the Internet. The response was the same: Computers are everywhere. Every city block in Buenos Aires has at least one locutorio, a place with public telephones and computers, and many of these have close to 100 computers. I live in Argentina now, and it is so. Just outside my front doorand just about everybody else’s, I expectis a place where you can browse the electronic new world for just a few pesos.

But the public omnipresence of computers is not really as much a sign of economic health as one might think. In the United States most people who want access to the Web buy a computer and subscribe to an Internet service providerand the Web reaches right into their home. The economic crisis in Argentina makes buying a computer beyond the reach of all but the wealthy. Though computers are too expensive to buy, using one is cheaponly 1.5 Argentine pesos (50 U.S. cents) an hour. This makes computers accessible to all but the poorest.

I write about the Internet from Buenos Aires becausethough I had been using a computer for almost 20 years in the United StatesI’ve always used one in my house or at my work in an academic department, out of the sight of others most of the time. Here I daily see immense electronic caverns filled with humanity at keyboards, people with bluish, transfixing glows illuminating their faces and reflected in their glasses. I see people as they start and maintain relationships with other peoplewhether in the same city or on another continent, it matters notwhom they might never meet. Such a sight is not so common back in the states; there, unless you ask someone about it, you don’t usually know who uses a computer or who does not, for this is usually done behind closed doors.

In Buenos Aires we sit in a huge, wired room with other real, live and potentially loving people, yet we have no interaction with the enfleshed people to our right and left. We chooseday after day, Web site after Web site, chat room after chat roomto engage in unincarnated human relationships, that is, in relationships without fleshan electronic love. As physical, interactive social skills atrophy from lack of exercise, people may become less able to have face-to-face, body-to-body relationships. They just may not know how to have them. I expect that people will be ableperhaps even better than in the pastto chat about their relationships with one another, but they will not live them out as full persons, as persons with bodies.

Our bodies and societies will always prompt us toward interaction with others, certainly, since the exigencies of who we are will not disappear, but we will not experience one another as persons graced (and burdened) with flesh. The difference is apparent here because the Argentines are generally very physical, tactile and social people. Coming here from the Midwestern United States, it took me a while to get used to receiving kisses from servers in restaurants, from lifeguards at pools where I swim, from the guy who cuts my hair, from people I meet for the first time and from complete strangers during the greeting of peace at Sunday Mass.

I may sound alarmist when I say that the Internet is leading people to a new manifestation of an ancient heresy, a new form of Gnosticism. Gnosticismfrom the Greek word gnosis, knowledgewas a very early Christian heresy, popular among those who did not think that Christ lived in the flesh. Gnostics were and are those who think salvation happened in Jesus and happens today without the medium of the human body. It was condemned then, and Christians again need to be reminded that living as if one did not have or need a body thwarts the path of God’s grace. The Internet is the new medium of the thwarting.

The Church and the Internet

So what is a computer-using Christian to do? You probably did it when you were baptized. There you were inexorably wedded into a human community, in which your senses and body were a necessary part of the experience. The community bathed you for initiation, and you continue to be reminded of that baptism when you dip your hand in the font as you enter the church each week. The church’s bishop signed your body with oil at confirmation, and the church continues to feed you bread and invite you to a steady supply of wine to sustain your adherence to and inebriation, if meager, by the joy of the community. Who could ask for anything more as a way to avert oneself from a heresy? Unlike time spent in a chat room, the sacraments are predicated on the presence of at least one human body other than your own. The Gospel of Matthew does not say, Where one, two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst (see 18:20).

In the community of the Gospel of John, in the late first century, there was an explicit aversion to Gnostic Christians, who were like many Internet users of today. These were gatherings of people with leanings toward the fleshless heresy toward which the Internet is leading us. One can hear the aversion to such relationships in the writings from the church of John in the post-Resurrection narrative of Doubting Thomas and at the start of the First Letter of John. When Thomas says to his apostolic peers, Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe (20:25), Jesus steps up to erase the doubt when he says to Thomas: O.K., so just put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side (20:27). How audacious, how sensual, how sacramental!

The First Letter of John is no less sensuous in its opening proclamation: We declare to you...what we have looked at and touched with our hands (1:1). For those who were still not convinced, the author repeats: We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have communion with us (1:3).

Human Bees in Their Own Cells?

Used in moderation and not merely to displace people with machines, computers can be good things. Surely some of the people I see in the locutorios use the machines to sustain relationships when physical proximity is not possible, but always knowing that it will be realized. Moreover, the Internet provides unimaginably democratic access to information and to much of the world, a wondrous medium of communication. But if we can judge from past human invention and the inevitable inheritance of original sin, technology surely has some bad tendencies. Remember Adam and Eve in the garden? (If written today, Gen 3:6 might read, So Eve logged onto Yahoo, and typed to Adam, Hi, honey. Want a bite of my apple?’)

My awareness of this tendency while living in Argentina does not mean that the same sinful, reclusive and isolationist tendency does not plague the use of computers in the United States. If anything, the situation in Buenos Aires is healthier, because at least here people are in a room with other real people. In the United States most peoplekids, grown-ups, elderlyuse their computers alone.

The church has not been silent about the gifts and dangers of the Internet as a new medium of communication. The Pontifical Council for Social Communications issued Ethics in Social Communications in 2000, and among the radically new consequences the Internet might bring, it lists a certain discouragement of interpersonal relationships. Considering the Internet’s potential to separate and isolate, an inescapable question arises: Will the audience of the future be a multitude of audiences of one? A strong metaphor describes those who use the Internet for much of their work and communication: Might the Web’ of the future turn out to be a vast, fragmented network of isolated individualshuman bees in their cellsinteracting with data instead of with one another?

Sacraments as Saving Grace

This teaching is the church at its prophetic best, with its heart deep in the ancient traditions, but with its eyes attentive to the world in which it lives, moves and has its being. The teaching raises a grave question about the quality of human relationships when shared electronically: What would become of love...in a world like this? Its insight is keen when it highlights the fact that communications media have changed the world, but they do not make the reaching out of mind to mind and heart to heart any less fragile, less sensitive, less prone to fail.

Given our fragility in this new electronic world, we can be thankful that the sacraments are never mediated through a wire or a phone line. The sacraments are predicated on human relationships at their most incarnate, as manifestations of the suffering and rising Jesus Christ. Coming together to worship week after week until the end of time will be a guard against the heresy of Gnosticism, against all heresies. The sensory foundations of our sacramental life are as fundamental as was the coming in the flesh of Jesus in Mary’s womb. The tangibility of the members of the assembly greeting one another, exchanging the kiss of peace and receiving the body of Christ is an important measure against which we can consider the experience of using the Internet. While we might learn a lot about the sacraments with the help of the Internet, a computer will never make someone a member of the body of Christ. Only the church as the people of God assembled for the sacraments can do that.

Martin Connell teaches liturgical studies in the School of Theology at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.