Ten years ago, I sat in a college classroom listening to a professor argue the importance of theology—the study of God. Of course it’s important, I thought. But what blew me away was how much work it seemed to require: buying textbooks that were thicker than the Yellow Pages, learning how to use various commentaries and concordances and encyclopedias, becoming fluent in Greek and Hebrew and Latin and Aramaic, reading the complete works of Plato and Aristotle and Descartes and Aquinas and Augustine and Barth and every other notable philosopher and theologian who ever lived on the planet, and, finally, making sure to pick the right Bible translation (out of the hundreds available).
He was trying to encourage us to delve deep in the knowledge of God—but the whole package process seemed to difficult, too painful for the average person to take on.
Why not leave the expert work to the experts?
And that’s what we did for a long time. Theological study, debate and dialogue were owned, constructed and maintained mainly by academic institutions. Sources of information were restricted to professors, classrooms, seminars and—sometimes—dry textbooks.
But then came the advent of the Internet. Today, the web has become a burgeoning forum for theology. The study of God is no longer restricted to universities and churches but is open to anyone who has an Internet connection. This has caused a dramatic change in the landscape of teaching, learning, discussing and experiencing theology. Whether we like it or not, our theology is now influenced by the Internet more than any other form of media.
And while there’s plenty of negative digital side effects, there’s also a bounty of advantages when it comes to learning about God with the digital-sphere at our fingertips.
1. It’s all-access.
Theology has never been more accessible, nor more interactive, than it is now. This vast accessibility—for free!—is the Internet’s greatest theological achievement. We no longer have to attend expensive conferences, buy an author’s book or pay enrollment fees in order to hear what theologians are saying. The information is ours, right now, with no strings attached.
Today, professors and theologians not only teach online, but they have their own websites and social networks. They spread their ideas through blogs, podcasts, video clips and Tweetable quotes. Not only are the most brilliant theologians more accessible to the public, but they’re also more accessible to each other, allowing us to witness the dialogue of the world’s leading minds without having to leave the comfort of our home.
2. It’s immediate.
This has been the second greatest gift the internet has bestowed upon our theologies: speed. We are forced to constantly test our beliefs, realign ourselves, ask new questions, face new challenges, shift our positions, adapt new ideas and adjust—or not—accordingly.
This fast-paced version of theology has also allowed us to engage with current events and cultural issues on a daily basis. Our dialogue is now happening in real-time, and we’re constantly engaging with the most important breaking news, viral trends and pop-culture phenomenons of our era through a theological lens. The conversations shift with each new headline, changing not just by the hour, but by the minute.
3. It’s interactive.
The Internet has the powerful ability to unlock a person’s inner voice. Whether through social networks, blogs or the comment section, people use the web to interact and spread their opinions. It may be as subtle as “liking” a Facebook post, as provocative as taking your friend to task for a personal belief on their wall, or as simple as reposting and passing along a popular image.
The cyber world is a wild place, and your belief in God will be ridiculed, humiliated, detested, attacked, questioned and denied. Comment boxes and the ability for people to communicate anonymously allow for some pretty harsh, mean and hate-filled reactions. Websites sometimes feel like battlegrounds where you might not come out unscathed. But you will also learn, grow and mature—this is what theology is all about.
In many ways, online observation and interaction is one of the best ways to learn theology. The classical version of learning theology often consisted of sitting within a classroom and discussing God with like-minded peers who often came from identical socioeconomic backgrounds, within the confines of strict denominational or academic restrictions, in an effort to determine a non-heretical “right answer” to please your professor.
Yet reality is messy, and the theological questions, rebuttals and doubts raised online can help expand your perspective and create a more well-rounded and confident worldview.
The rise of online theology certainly has its dangers. For every good and reputable website there will be hundreds of horrible ones, and unless you have a solid faith foundation to begin with, simply trying to create a theology—without any foundation or accountability—using Google can be a very dangerous thing. Discernment is required—and practice as well. Because whatever is learned via a computer screen isn’t worth much if it’s not translated into our physical, daily lives.
Yet no one can deny the power of the web in its ability to communicate, test, and sharpen ideas. It’s a powerful channel, that can be used poorly or well, if we choose.
So choose to use the Internet to join today’s theological discussions, share your own convictions and think critically about how you and others view God. There are no prerequisites, required reading or scholarly merits needed. Are you willing to be vulnerable and take criticism? More importantly, are you open to allowing God to use the medium of the Internet to change, shape and impact the way you live out your faith? If so, welcome to a whole new world—the Internet.
Stephen Mattson blogs at stephenjmattson.com and you can follow him on Twitter @mikta.