Sunday 13 July 2008

Truth & the Internet 2

In the latest edition of Case magazine I explore the topic ‘Truth and the Internet’. Does the Internet change the way we learn and acquire knowledge? Does it pose a threat to truth? What are the implications for how we engage with and use the Internet for God’s purposes?

Above: Could they have had any idea of what was to come? U.S. Army Photo, number 163-12-62

In a previous post on this blog (here) I commented on the challenge of discerning the difference between truth and falsehood and the special problem that children have on the Internet (e.g. the challenge of a tree dwelling octopus!). And in an earlier post (here) I discussed the impact of new communication technology and the benefits and opportunities of the Internet for communication, learning and evangelism.

I’m a keen user of the Internet and appreciate that it is a useful tool that has great benefits for learning and communication. But I also know that it also poses threats to God’s truth and to the very definitions of truth and knowledge that shape our worldviews. In my Case article, I suggested that there are a few things that are critical if Christians are to make the Internet our servant, not our master:
  • We need to rely on God’s word and give it first priority as the source of knowledge and truth about our God and his eternal plan for his people.
  • We need to understand the interpretive communities (virtual and real) that we negotiate each day. We need to enter and participate in virtual communities with the same respect, purposes, enthusiasm and preparation with which we enter any physical community.
  • We need to test the validity, accuracy and truth of anything we find on the Internet.
a) Avoiding being shaped by the Internet

There is a danger that in embracing the Internet we may be shaped by it. The postmodern thinker lives in a world of openness, doubt and uncertainty. The Internet as a platform for information exchange is a tool that sits comfortably with relativistic and postmodern thought. Meta-narratives like the Christian gospel can so easily be dismissed as just one telling of humanity’s story, just one possible truth amongst many, or perhaps even just one story amongst many stories.

It seems obvious that a key priority to avoid being shaped into the world’s mould is for the Christian to continually place a priority on God’s word. We should use the Internet both to strengthen our faith and to share it, but we need to do so with a healthy understanding of the varied epistemologies that we will encounter. Don Carson (in The Gagging of God) rightly suggests, that in a world dominated by radical hermeneutics and deconstruction, it will take diligence to fight against the tendency to accept that all interpretations of texts are equally valid.

The Christian needs to rely on God’s word as the ultimate test of what is right and true. Christians are people who “guard [their way]” according to God’s word, “storing up” God’s word in their hearts, “meditating on” and “delighting in” his statutes (Psalm 119:9-16).

b) Take care in, and show respect for, the Cyber communities we enter

Just as we must take care with the networks of people we join in the physical world, we must take care with the cyber communities we enter. The insight that interpretive communities and status hierarchies shape the understandings and beliefs of the individual is not a new one. Jesus himself asked the religious elite of his day, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44).

We need to understand the interpretive communities we visit, and engage in them with full understanding of the foundations on which they share their experiences and insights. Just as Christians share common beliefs based on their reading of God’s word and their understanding of it developed in interpretive communities (e.g. families, churches, Bible study groups etc), so too non-Christian networks and groups share common understandings gained as part of interpretive communities. The atheist, the Rotarian and the sceptic all share common views of the world within their communities. What is different is that Christians claim a shared understanding of the Living God and our confidence in this comes from the truth we see in God’s word. The Bible claims that God is the foundation and author of all truth and that this is focused on the person of Jesus who claimed, “I Am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:1). This truth stands above and shapes all other ‘truth’.

c) Test the validity, accuracy and truth of anything you find on the Internet

While the Internet can be useful for communicating truth, readers need to be able to assess information to judge if it is true. I continue to be amazed just as much by the inaccuracy of Internet, as I am by its comprehensiveness. Even an Oxford Press published book by a leading international scholar is to be questioned. How much more carefully should we read with discernment the words of an unknown person, representing an unknown organization, with unknown qualifications? As Howard Rheingold has pointed out, "the responsibility for determining the accuracy of texts shifted from the publisher to the reader when the functions of libraries shifted to search engines". This is not inherently bad; in fact, I see much that is good about this shift. Both children and adults need to ask themselves more questions of the content they encounter:
Who wrote this piece? What is the author's claim to expertise and knowledge in this area? From where does the writer derive his or her sources and how well regarded are such sources? What is the purpose of the writing? What are the underlying assumptions, ideology, values and worldview of the writer? How do the claims of this text match the claims of others?
Summing up

The Internet offers new possibilities and also threats. John Stackhouse points out in his excellent book “Humble Apologetics” - “If we are going to defend and commend our faith, we must do it in a new mode: with a different voice and in a different posture. Our apologetics must be humble.” This is a great challenge to me personally; both as a reader or lurker in numerous virtual communities of which I am part, or as I seek to invite others into one of my own virtual communities, such as the readership of this blog.

Above: Just one more connection! US Army photograph

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