Christian Scholarship and the Philosophical Analysis of Cyberspace Technologies

Article excerpt

DOUGLAS GROOTHUIS*

I. THE CHALLENGE TO THE CHRISTIAN SCHOLAR

The recent explosion of cyberspace technologies in modern culture raises some salient questions for Christian scholars who endeavor to bring a Christian mind to bear on the analysis of these computer-mediated forms of communication. Responsible Christian scholars should serve both the Church and the culture at large by bringing Biblical tools of cultural analysis to the matters at hand. We should emulate the Hebrew tribe of Issachar "who understood the times and knew what Israel should do" (1 Chr 12:32). As Christians we are commanded to "take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Cor 10:5) and to be "transformed through the renewing of our minds" (Rom 12:2) in order to know the will of God in our day. These imperatives are especially cogent for the Christian scholar, whose public role of articulating perspectives to students, peers and the population at large constitutes an important teaching ministry. Although we may not teach in a local church in an official position, Christian scholars face the challenge of sober and careful thinking, writing and public speaking, for "we who teach will be judged more strictly" (Jas 3:1).

Those who hold a Christian worldview need to discern the nature and function of cyberspace interactions in order to appraise rightly their significance, worth, and potential for the Christian cause and the culture at large. Several recent philosophical and cultural analyses of cyberspace and its culture have applied various non-Christian viewpoints from postmodernism to pantheism. One's philosophical orientation will to a large measure determine which questions to ask and what proposals to make with respect to cyberspace. For instance, Jeff Zaleski repeatedly asks the question of whether cyberspace can transmit prana, a Hindu term for spiritual energy.l For Christians who do not believe in the existence of prana (an impersonal pantheistic force) the question is moot.2

A thoroughly Christian analysis of cyberspace brings to bear the questions and imperatives that flow out of a Biblical understanding of life, such as how the Holy Spirit-not prana-may or may not operate in computermediated communication. This presents a challenge to the Christian scholar, since Scripture was written to a pretechnological culture. Nevertheless those who take the Bible as God's inspired revelation believe that it continues to be "useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim 3:16-17).

This project is multifaceted, and I will not touch on important matters such as electronic privacy (surveillance and encryption), copyright policies, on-line pornography, the nature of artificial intelligence, and so forth. I will focus on the definition and nature of cyberspace (metaphysics), how this medium shapes its message in one particular dimension (social epistemology), and how Christians should resist any cyberspace orientation that diminishes the incarnational or embodied reality of the Christian enterprise (theological ethics).

II. WHAT IS CYBERSPACE?

The term "cyberspace" was coined by the fiction writer William Gibson in his novel Neuromancer in 1984. It is a compound neologism formed from "cybernetics" ("the study of the communication and manipulation of information in service of the control and guidance of biological, physical, or chemical energy systems"3) and "space." Gibson wrote imaginatively of minds "jacking in" to cyberspace by literally entering the world of computer information through a kind of digital incarnation in which the flesh becomes data, but the term cyberspace more generally refers to the information interface between computers and humans. It is the place or space where human consciousness and computer systems meet or, in Michael Heim's words, "the juncture of digital information and human perception. …