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Digital Faith: Navigating the Online Realm

The digital age has been an extraordinary blessing for religious communities. But as with all blessings, the wonders of the Internet and social media come with challenges and responsibilities.

The digital age has enabled religious communities to communicate with their people and the world to an extent that has never before been possible throughout history. His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has stated that “the digital world has become a space of discovery, especially in terms of human behavior and relationship.”

Today, communities of faith all over the world have websites where interested observers can learn not only the dates and times of worship and other events, but about the history of the community, its activities, its beliefs, its leadership, and the opportunities and services it provides. Houses of worship can provide online classes for their people in order to educate them about various aspects of their faith, and equip them to face the challenges of a complex and often confusing world.

Also available are numerous online introductions to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faiths: now the Internet user has ready at hand a wealth of knowledge and wisdom that used to be accessible only by means of years of careful research and intensive study. These online resources can help introduce people of faith to the beliefs and practices of other faiths, dispel misunderstandings, and lead to the discovery of common ground and possibilities for interfaith dialogue and cooperation.

That is not all. Leaders of faith communities can communicate with their people, and the people with their leaders, instantaneously, and enjoy full audio and video presentations of events they were not able to attend. People who are suffering from illnesses or are otherwise unable to attend worship services are able to gain access to them online and join in worship from home.

All these are just a small part of the many blessings the digital age has bestowed. Yet at the same time, challenges and difficulties must be acknowledged, for with awareness of pitfalls comes the ability to avoid them. His All-Holiness warns that the online world, for all its manifold blessings, “is also a space of danger and uncertainty.”

Just as digital media can enhance one’s experience of the faith, it also can detract from it. The online world offers literally millions of distractions that can all too easily draw one’s attention away from seeking a genuine experience of faith. There are deeper pitfalls as well. The Ecumenical Patriarch cautions that “digital-media addiction leads us to a ‘superficial relationship’ with ourselves and the world, and it promotes the identification of reality with virtual reality. On the one hand, ‘anonymity’ in the digital space lowers our self-control and our sensitivity to moral values. On the other hand, it empowers our propensity for aggression, and truly leads to an increase of violence and lawless activities in the real world.”

Virtual experience is no substitute for the real thing. While virtual worship services are a tremendous blessing for people of faith who find themselves unable to attend in person, they can never be a sufficient or adequate substitute for worshipping in the company of one’s faith community. People of faith must not succumb to the temptation to substitute watching worship for actually worshipping. Just as watching television can be an addiction, so also can use of the Internet; people of faith in particular must remember to “touch grass,” to make an effort to get up from the computer or put the phone down, and take time to seek an actual experience of the divine.

Those who do this will realize that the blessings of the digital age are an enhancement to faith, not a substitute for the actual faith experience. Yet this enhancement can be significant; people of faith should not be deterred by the pitfalls from taking advantage of the many blessings that are available to believers in this digital age.

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