Internet Theology?

Becoming Orthodox in Spite of the Internet

by Richard Barrett, The Word, May 2005, Volume 49 No. 5 : Page 17

The Internet provides an unprecedented amount of information on virtually any topic, all at the click of a mouse. Fly-fishing, comic book collecting, the history of woodcarving, how to knit sweaters for your dog – it’s all out there. Some of it is even useful. Not only that, it so happens that there are a huge number of websites out there devoted entirely to Orthodox Christianity. Sounds like a wonderful thing, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not. The Internet has the potential to be the biggest stumbling block over which an inquirer might trip. As somebody who was recently received into the Church after a two-year period of inquiry and instruction, I certainly found this to be the case.

I still recall my first time in an Orthodox church, and my reaction to it. It was St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Seattle, Washington – a seventy-year-old building, with a very tall and ornate iconostasis, candles and icons covering virtually every space on the walls, and decades’ worth of incense permeating everything. As a liturgical environment, it was like nothing I had ever experienced before, and it all added up to a very tangible awareness of the presence of God. You could have knocked me over with a feather. My reaction came in three stages. First, while still in the nave, I felt compelled to light candles. Second, before leaving the premises, I dropped about $50 at their book counter. Third, as soon as I got home, I did a Google search on “Orthodox Christianity” and browsed through the hits.

Sound familiar? And why not? That’s how we’ve been trained, in this age of the Information Superhighway. When I was a little kid, if a new topic of interest made itself known to me, the first thing I would do was to go to the library and look it up there, but the Internet makes it so that you don’t even have to leave your home. Googling “Orthodox Christianity” gives you lots of interesting-looking web pages right off the bat: the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese home page, the Orthodox Church in America home page, something called “orthodoxinfo.com,” the Orthodox Christian Fellowship site, another page called “Orthodox Ireland,” a document called “Celtic Orthodoxy – the Celtic Orthodox Christian Revival”… hmm. And here’s a site run by something called “The American Orthodox Church” that claims to be the “Voice of American Orthodox Catholic Christianity.” A note on the page says, “The American Orthodox Church was originally established in 1927 with the blessings of the Holy Patriarchate of Moscow. No other so-called ‘Mother Church’ or jurisdiction has been in existence until 1971 972 and this is why we are the true Mother Church in the USA and Canada.”

And herein lies the problem with the phenomenon of “Internet Orthodoxy.” There is no barrier to entry with respect to posting pages on the World Wide Web; anybody with a computer and a phone jack can publish anything they want and make it accessible to anyone using a search engine. (Or, as UC Berkeley computer science professor Robert Wilensky puts it, “We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.”) There is a lot out there that the wide-eyed inquirer can easily encounter, which he or she simply will not have the spiritual maturity to deal with. At least two of the sites listed above are going to be controversial for people within the Church; how in the world is an inquirer who might not even have attended a service yet going to make any sense of it.

Which brings us to another issue – no amount of information and no amount of reading is going to make one Orthodox. Knowledge will not bring one into the Church; the Holy Spirit has to do that. That sounds like a horrible thing to say in our rational day and age, but the books and websites are, plainly, no substitute for prayer, going to services, establishing a relationship with and receiving instruction from a priest. I truly wonder how today’s inquirers would do with the early practice of catechumens knowing nothing of the Mysteries of the Church until after their baptism – and not even being told exactly what was happening to them in their baptism until after it was already done!

The Church at that time held that knowledge wasn’t going to do one a lot of good until he was already part of the family and could put that knowledge in context. Perhaps, in this I time of unrestricted, instantly available information, there’s something we can learn from that. In this “do-it-yourself’ world, the truth of the matter is that you cannot teach yourself to be Orthodox, regardless of how good the instructional materials seem to be. A close family member of mine is undergoing her own inquiry right now; we recently had a conversation where she told me about having spent three-quarters of her day reading things on the Internet, but she hadn’t yet been to a service. I gently suggested that the next thing she needed to do was to go to a Divine Liturgy, and that perhaps she had better not read anything more until she had done so. If you want to learn more about the Church, go to church. It’s that easy, and that difficult.

Something else that one is likely to encounter on the Internet: chat rooms, discussion groups, mailing lists, newsgroups, whatever you want to call them, proclaiming to be places where one can discuss Orthodoxy. I spent a lot of time in these early on in my inquiry, and for my part, I found the tone of most of these to be as un-Christian as one could get – petty, contentious, often with the overall message of “my jurisdiction is holier than your jurisdiction,” and frequently becoming dominated by arguments over secular politics. What also would inevitably occur is the appearance of non-Orthodox and sometimes non-Christian posters who weren’t truly interested in honest discussion, but rather just being gadflies. Even in some of the milder of these groups, where, in theory, jurisdictional discussions were off limits, it seemed that folks had a tendency to be on a fairly short fuse, and exchanges could turn into yelling matches rather quickly. I reached a point where I realized that these groups were distracting my catechesis; they were in no way contributing to it. It was so much “godless chatter,” of which St. Paul counseled avoidance (1 Timothy 6:20).

Are there good uses of the Internet for the inquirer and catechumen? Of course. The home pages for the canonical Orthodox jurisdictions, as well as for most individual parishes, provide a lot of wonderful information, and the outside links they provide are, in general, quite trustworthy. There are excellent resources out there with respect to the Orthodox approach to prayer, liturgical texts, setting up the home icon corner, as well as a wonderful database of the writings of the Church Fathers. Other websites have made the acquisition of previously not-so-easy-to-find liturgical items a fairly simple matter – prayer books, icons, prayer ropes, incense, home censers, candles, recordings of the music of the Church, and so on. At the same time, it is also true that many of the suppliers of these items are themselves of a questionable status; that’s not to say they’re off limits, but the inquirer visiting some of these online establishments must exercise caution and discernment about where they venture on these sites. Perhaps, if a local parish has an ordering relationship with an established supplier, the inquirer is better off going that route – and that way, the parish will benefit. Ask your priest, once you have a relationship with one.

For my part, I can honestly say that I became Orthodox in spite of the Internet, rather than because of it. It wasn’t until I decided that I would limit my exposure to those sites run by a canonical jurisdiction or to online shops, and avoid nearly everything else, that a lot of things became clearer for me on my road to conversion. At most, an inquirer’s Ortho-surfing needs to judiciously supplement, rather than supplant, their attendance at services, prayer, and talking to a priest. If you want to know more about the various historical and doctrinal issues, your local parish has either a good library, a well-stocked book counter, or both, and the priest can suggest which books to read. Books are still no substitute for going to church, but at least it is more likely that a book by a reputable author and publisher will have been carefully vetted in a way that a website probably will not have been.

Unfortunately, the signal-to-noise ratio with respect to what’s out there on the Net is so low, the wheat will sit right next to the chaff and most inquirers – and frankly, most Orthodox laity – won’t be able to tell the difference. If you still want to attempt to use the Internet as a resource, a search engine is only going to give you a list of hits that will be, at best, confusing once you start working your way through all of them. Better to start out with the home pages of the canonical jurisdictions, and take note of the pages to which they’ve linked.

But hey, a Google search is still great for figuring out how to spin thread from cat hair.