Onward into the Blogosphere
But, now, into the breach has come Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi who is co-responsible with the Council for Social Communications for setting up a “bloggers” conference on the day after Pope John Paul II’s beatification. Roma blogata est?
I did, though, attend the Tony Blair Faith Foundation’s conference yesterday on Religion and the Internet, a more modest blog and tweet fest, but with a strong academic presence, and a lot to take away. The big message was that the internet has not yet created something radically new. What it has done is to enhance, amplify and broadcast forces and tendencies already at work globally in different societies. It is effectively a powerful echo chamber.
It challenged traditional hierarchies that were already being challenged in an age which declined deference.Netizenship - how long before the Oxford English Dictionary succumbs? - did result in a blurring of the public and private, but the popular press had done a thorough job on that already too. It created new patterns of socialisation but it more importantly encouraged a networked individualism for an individualistic generation. For diasporas it reconnected migrants with their old communities.
Where the analysis did point to the new medium having a new message was in an account of the idiom and core content of religious participation in the blogosphere. This was at its most characteristic a dialectic between the assertion of individuality and the quest for a transformative account of a globalised humanity. Or put the other way round the quest for a singularity of personality in the context of transformative stories about humanity facing some kind of 21st Century crisis. It promised in the short-term to transform the social construction of identity, but in the long term to entrench individualism.
Much of this suggested that historical humility, a sense of rootedness in communities of meaning as bearers of tradition, was under attack and the communications revolution opened up a new front. So it came as a relief and a surprise to listen to a Benedictine nun describe how her tiny aging community was sustaining a vibrant, interactive, often therapeutic, conversation with hundreds of participants in cyberspace as part of their application of the Benedictine rule to their contemporary mission. You could go on a cyber-retreat with them for a modest fee. I was tempted. Someone who starts a conversation: “you can call me Dame or Catherine” is not going to be boring.
Professor Lorne Dawson from Waterloo University described the internet as presiding over a quiet revolution in religious sensibilities”. The trouble is that this revolution carries in its wake not just cyber confessions, Muslim avatars, and a virtual hajj for non-Muslims to Mecca, but the self-made, self-awareness of a Terry Jones, promoting burning of a Qur’an, instantly transmitted around a world prepared to believe anything. Or you can have Ayman-wa-Zawahiri in your bedroom explaining at great length how my 6-month old granddaughter in Oregon is a legitimate target for violence in the name of God.
As the American Ambassador to the Vatican, Miguel Diaz, underlined, the internet is a tool for human agency. But it is a tool with a powerful potential to undermine, manipulate and captivate young, impressionable minds wanting belonging, sometimes seeking utopian dreams, more often just playing.
The real take-away from this conference is that getting the interfaith message into the internet, the invitation to dialogue particularly for youth, is absolutely essential. Miguel Diaz spoke of the American dream E Pluribus Unum as the religious task at hand. A small Faith Foundation has more modest goals. As Lord Harries has described it: dialogue “has to improve the quality of our disagreements” and as Nick Adams called for, we need to foster partnerships of difference”. And the internet has a big role to play in both.
By Ian Linden
Director of Policy, Tony Blair Faith Foundation.