The week of December 14, 2014

The church of whatever: Finding God in the Internet age

By Dylan Love

I believe in God, but it gets complicated very quickly after that.

My education has me well aware that theistic belief is scientifically dubious at best, manipulative sociology at its worst. A recording by the philosophical entertainer Alan Watts put it scary-plain for me one day: “The hypothesis of God doesn’t help us make predictions about the future.” But my own experiences and understanding have me hesitant to write off the divine.

The Internet has made it clear that there are as many ways to relate to God as there are people on the planet. Most of these relationships will fall comfortably into archetypes, whether it’s “devoted student,” “indifferent stranger,” or something in between. For many it’s “blind advocate.” For some it’s “abused child.” I find myself relating to God like a reporter relates to an interview subject. My perpetual question to the sky is “Why did you do that and what were you thinking when it happened?” This minority point of view is becoming increasingly popular as a number of emergent churches offer their own spin on the party line of being concerned “not with having the right answers, but with asking the right questions.”

I realize how unpopular it is to sound off on this stuff. People who believe in God often want to elaborate on their superior definition of human love or share a loud opinion on women’s access to basic healthcare soon after introducing themselves. But that isn’t me for a moment, nor is it a lot of other folks I know.

I’m a white Christian male from a moderate-tending-liberal religious upbringing in the American state of Virginia. God was present from an early age. My family attended church every Sunday; we recited a utilitarian yet sincere prayer before dinner every evening: “Lord, thank you for our food. Amen.” And when you’re fortunate enough to be able to discern at an early age that the world is a big, complicated place, it’s easy to play it cool by outsourcing your identity to “well-meaning church kid who’s cool with whatever.” Internally, however, I was set to get down to the bottom of whatever this is, all of it, and was glad to receive the cultural resources apportioned for doing so. The optimistic certainty of the afterlife offered by so many of the world’s faiths makes for a great outlook until you grow smarter still and discover doubt.

Religion and technology have been agents of change since words existed.

My social life got better at a pivotal age with the advent of “rebellious Christian music,” the in-your-face punk and metal bands of the late 1990s, playing on labels like Solid State and Tooth and Nail. These are bands made up of members who profess religious faith while playing music your parents are sure to hate. Any parental objections to especially chaotic music could be swayed with a quick glance through the liner notes to check for shoutouts to God. Suddenly there were good concerts to go to, $5 weekend shows in church basements where tattooed screamers exorcised their own demons. Saturday night made for better church than Sunday morning because you were free to leave raucous evidence of meaning everywhere. Sweat patterns revealed themselves through T-shirts, vocal cords were shredded, and basement toilets clogged. Silently raising your hands like spiritual antennas on a Sunday didn’t seem as sincere when you could spend 45 consecutive minutes dancing in violent communion with God on a Saturday.

I can already feel the semantics getting hazy, so let’s define specifically what I mean by “God.” He’s a Caucasian male with white hair and a thick white beard, perpetually clad in some sort of robe. Pretty much exactly the way Gary Larson draws God in The Far Side—that’s my guy: Benevolent if weird, paternal if distant (making him even more paternal to some). The notion of God is too easily an intimidating one, so I like to interact with it on a sillier but more approachable scale. We are said to be made in God’s image, so I figure the old guy can handle some anthropomorphization.

I found a far superior working definition for God from a guy named Mike McHargue, a Christian thinker, writer, and podcaster. He writes, “God is at least the natural forces that created and sustain the universe as experienced via a psychosocial construct rooted in evolved neurological features in humans.” Be sure to reread that a couple times; it’s already a lot to unpack—but this guy’s nickname is “Science Mike” for a reason. His God-positive stance comes only after years of personal atheism kept secret from his religious family and a lifetime of the most severe, childlike enthusiasm for science. McHargue makes things even more real in his follow-up sentence: “Even if that is a comprehensive definition for God, the pursuit of this personal, subjective experience can provide meaning, peace, and empathy for others and is warranted.”

My predilection for God has gotten me in trouble. In 2013, I interviewed a world-renowned scientist at a quantum physics conference in Moscow, Russia. He was kind enough to lay out the basics of quantum teleportation for me. Not only do electrons literally teleport from one place to another without external stimulus but they can move forward and backward in time, and science presently has no way of answering why this is the case. I asked what was to me an obvious question: “Doesn’t that nearly seem to have theological implications?”

The notion of God is too easily an intimidating one, so I like to interact with it on a sillier but more approachable scale.

Cued by an invocation of the metaphysical, he stood from the dinner table and pointedly reminded me that he only examines verifiable data. “If you have any more questions, you can email my assistant,” he said with most of his back already showing to me. I quite wish he had stayed so we could talk through a beautiful quote by Werner Heisenberg, the physicist celebrated for his eponymous uncertainty principle and Breaking Bad allusion: “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”

A friend has the words “solvitur ambulando” tattooed on his inner arm in Courier New. It’s a Latin phrase meaning “it is solved by walking,” alluding to the Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic. When a third-century B.C. know-it-all tried to convince Diogenes that motion didn’t exist, the lore tells us that Diogenes merely walked away from that person. The phrase gets at the idea that problems are solved by practical experimentation, that answers come after experience. It’s a more mindful way of accessing the “time heals all wounds” sentiment: Circumstances will be better when you do the work they require. So it is with matters of faith and doubt. If you’re not wrestling, you’re not paying attention.

Quite inconveniently for us, it turns out that humans are predisposed towards certainty. Scientific American calls this trait “a potentially dangerous mental flaw.” McHargue elaborated on this over the phone, saying, “People will accept certain information any day of the week. The guy who’s certain makes you feel like you have the best chance of surviving.” Compare the behavior of a snake-handling Pentecostal preacher to that of a Tuesday-morning TV weatherman. Which one seems more “certain” of the future he’s describing? What of your experiences will remind you that certainty can steer you wrong? Basically: How far have you walked?

Given the disparate attitudes, comforts, and discomforts surrounding how people tackle God, it becomes increasingly difficult to find solid, regular community with people interested in doing so with you. Within the past year, there’s been a boom of forward-thinking religious content finding distribution all over the Internet, skirting geographic restrictions in an instant.

“Instead of posting 95 Theses, she’s posting 95 tweets, and they’re echoing farther and faster than Luther’s writing.” —Mike McHargue

Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tattooed author and former standup comedian, pastors a church in Denver, Colo., while her sermon podcast has found an engaged audience around the world, especially among many in the LGBT community who struggle with matters of faith. Members of the band Emery, one of the aforementioned rebellious Christian bands that came after my time, run a successful podcast called BadChristian in which they swear like it ain’t no thang while engaging in some heavy theological lifting. My personal favorite podcast of late is Drunk Ex-Pastors, which follows two former pastors and best friends of 25 years as they manage their post-church lives. One is a practicing Catholic, one is agnostic, and they hang out once a week to hash it all out over drinks while a recorder runs. It’s brilliant.

If community can be born out of something as simple as continually wanting to hear what another person has to say, then I have found valuable (if one-sided) community in consuming digital media that has a religious bent and lives far from the beaten path. There are entire books written on the nature of religious community, but these are only read by the worst overachieving seminary students and not one gets at the open-minded revival taking place online. I’ve graduated from listening to music my parents would hate to listening to podcasts my parents would hate, and it has made all the difference.

“A podcast is the perfect form for hanging out and getting people to know you. That’s all we want to do,” said Matt Carter, guitarist for Emery and cohost of BadChristian. “I couldn’t be a bigger fan of the implications the Internet already has for culture and Christianity. It’s a bigger deal than the printing press. We are ultimately headed to a place where anyone can find out whatever they want to find out, and I think the message of the Gospel is true and real and good, and that’s going to surface.” I asked him about where the name of the podcast comes from. “You hear ‘good Christian’ tossed around all the time,” he said. “We think that’s unachievable, or a stupid thing to try for in the first place. I think it’s a great illustration of what people fundamentally want to be seen as: good.”

There’s an obvious analogy to be made between podcasters like Carter who use the Internet to seed religious thinking today, and Martin Luther, who nailed his scandalous 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg in 1517. “I certainly do think about [Luther] a lot,” said Carter. “But it also seems presumptuous to say, ‘Guess what, guys? I’m here, time to change everything!’ Revolution sounds attractive, but I’m hesitant to say, ‘Follow me.’”

I’ve graduated from listening to music my parents would hate to listening to podcasts my parents would hate, and it has made all the difference.

Science Mike agrees with that Luther analogy. “Nowadays you have 10,000 Martin Luthers trying to turn the thing on its ear, both inside and outside the church. Some even still hold him up today as the old guard and defend him with the same zeal,” he said. “In terms of what Luther looks like today, I think you look at Rob Bell, or Rachel Held Evans. Boy, is she shaking things up. Instead of posting 95 Theses, she’s posting 95 tweets, and they’re echoing farther and faster than Luther’s writing.”

Evans is as Christ-affirming as they come, but she’s incensed a number of people by advocating ideas that don’t fit into the popular (narrow) conception of most religious thought. She thinks the Lord is just fine with gay people, for example. One of her three books, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, chronicles her true-life experiences of living as a Biblically rigorous woman for a year, following every rule the Bible says applies to her. It’s tremendous.

Religion and technology have been agents of change since words existed. Today these changes might be socioeconomic (a church group raising money for a homeless shelter; Kahn Academy), unifying (some people at church can’t stand each other but get along fine every week; and OkCupid), or even spiritual (Psalm 18:6; the feeling you get when you buy a new iPad).

Technology is so transformative as to even change your brain. Science Mike says it has to do with zoning out in front of screens all day: “Our fields of vision are locked into flat two-dimensional space. The first thing we do every morning is to grab our smartphone and stare at a rectangle. Then we brush our teeth, go to work, and stare at a larger rectangle. Every time we look away from it, we glance back at our pocket rectangle. This delivers constant hits of dopamine and serotonin to the brain, exactly as if we’re drug addicts. The pleasure centers of our brains get hits of happiness as we look. Then we come home and stare at the biggest rectangle of them all—the television—which absolutely cooks your brain into a trance state. Every time it doesn’t interest us, we can look back at our pocket rectangle.” Were we changing depths of field more often, says McHargue, our neurologies would be healthier and more engaged.

“I couldn’t be a bigger fan of the implications the Internet already has for culture and Christianity.” —Matt Carter

Religion can also changes the neurological characteristics of  your brain depending upon where you fall on the continuum (if at all) between loving God and being afraid of the guy. Those who perceive a primarily wrathful God will generally exercise better impulse control at the expense of being less capable of forgiving themselves for a mistake. Those who perceive a primarily benevolent God and meditate on that benevolence (McHargue volunteered the figure of 30 minutes of prayer daily) get all kinds of perks. They see improvements in memory, active compassion and empathy centers in the brain, and an increased propensity to treat themselves and others gracefully.

“If you meditate and focus on this loving god over a long period of time, that understanding of God can become embedded in thalamus, which is like the relay center for the brain, where your sense of self lives,” McHargue said. “When that happens, the idea of a loving God is imprinted on your brain and you believe God’s love can triumph.”

I interviewed an executive pastor for a medium-sized church in New York City ahead of writing this story. At the end of a heady theological conversation in a hotel lobby, he said, “Do you ever wonder if God is merely a psychological construct implanted into your mind by your parents?”

“Yes,” I said. “Why do you ask?”

“Because I wonder the same thing myself.”

My mind was blown. Man, I hope it’s solved by walking.

Photo via William/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)