Modern science has done much to intrude on the previously construed notions of God and heaven, at least for those who give serious considerations to scientific development.
Science declares that space is, in fact, infinite, thus displacing the possibility of heaven having its own distinctive place. This presents a dilemma for popular spirituality because how then, can God be located in heaven if logically such a place cannot exist?
Theologians attempt to deal with this reality by proposing the existence of a spirit world that lies beyond common space or the notion of “sacramental space” within this world or within the Christian community where God’s presence is real and could be felt.
The digital environment, nonetheless, has presented new opportunities to enrich one’s search for God and imagine how God may be present in the world. Lavinia Byrne notes that the universe comprised of observable atoms which cluster together to form things is no longer the only kind of universe which one might hold in conception. With cyberspace comprised of nonphysical digits, we are presented with new dimensions that exist alongside the world of atoms.
She asks: “If this digital world is so accessible to our computers, then why not a spiritual equivalent? Suddenly God fits because there is a place for God to live. The idea that angels may indeed dance on the head of a pin gets re-instated, for there is more to space and time than can presently be seen and communicated.”
According to Peter Singh, the digital world provides a metaphor for God’s presence and “ways of imagining things in a new sense of time and space where digits inform our situation,” thus overcoming the challenges presented by science. This metaphor thus presents fresh insights into the question of “Master, where do you dwell?”
Although the digital environment with its newfound possibility may help in overcoming former limitations imposed by science, it does not promise that one’s search for God is necessarily simpler or easier.
In the past, people came to figures of authority such as priests and religious for questions related to God and spiritual matters as well as some non-spiritual issues. This is due to the fact that the priest was not only seen as an authoritative figure in such matters, but was probably one of the most educated, if not the most educated person in the town or village.
In many parts of Asia, especially in the rural areas, this is probably still largely the case. However, people, especially in developed countries, are increasingly turning to the internet, television, and other media in order to look for the answers that they need.
In the digital era, the role of institutions and individuals functioning as authoritative entities are becoming less prominent. At the same time, there is an excessive amount of information on the internet that can cause one to be overwhelmed by what comes up before their eyes.
A search on Google using the keyword “God” results in over two billion and a half entries. Searching the word “พระเจ้า”(Thai) renders nearly 17 million entries, and “Thiên Chúa” (Vietnamese) also results in excess of 41 million entries.
Upon making an image search for God, pictures of the Judeo-Christian God and Jesus appear on the screen alongside deities of other world religions, but also graphics of video games. The phenomenon of being bombarded with excessive information has been called information overload.
Antonio Spadaro comments: “The problem today is not to find the message that makes sense, but to decode it, to recognize it on the basis of the multiple messages that we receive.”
Consequently, despite the plethora of information, ironically, in the digital era, one’s search for God could become an experience that requires a lot of patience and sifting through all sorts of data in order to find what one needs. Even then one cannot be sure that what one landed upon is authentic and spiritually nourishing.
As Pope Benedict remarked: “Often, as is also the case with other means of social communication, the significance and effectiveness of the various forms of expression appear to be determined more by their popularity than by their intrinsic importance and value. Popularity, for its part, is often linked to celebrity or to strategies of persuasion rather than to the logic of argumentation.”
As a result, one’s perception of and relationship with God could very likely be shaped by a blog that one follows rather than the Church’s officially sanctioned websites whether it be from the Vatican or of the local parish. Internet applications, however, have modeled a way for us to be more focused in the search for God.
While Google is essentially what is known as a syntactic search engine, which conducts searches based on specific words within the text and can render innumerable entries, a semantic search engine works from a different logic.
A semantic search engine takes into account the intent and the contextual meaning of the terms being used. It attempts to interpret the thinking of the person requesting the search and provides the information that they might need. For example, when one types the words “Who is Jesus” in the Google search engine, the websites that appear on top are those that most match the keywords employed.
However, when the same thing is done using WolframAlpha, a semantic search engine, the result that appears is not a list of websites but a picture and a series of information about Jesus, such as date of birth, place of birth, date of death, and place of death. From the information available on the Web, it also lists important events in the life of Jesus.
Unfortunately, while Google often gives too much information, the semantic search engines cannot always provide the searcher with an answer at all. When entering the question “Where can I find God?”, the application comes back with a notice, “Wolfram/Alpha doesn’t know how to interpret your input.” No answer such as “You can find God in heaven” or “You can find God in your heart” can be found. Likewise, asking the question “Does God exist?” results in the following answer: “I’m sorry, but a poor computational knowledge engine, no matter how powerful, is not capable of providing a simple answer to that question.”
The logic of these two types of search engines models different ways that one may go about searching for God — an effort that is either random and depends largely on happenstance or one that is intentional, concentrated, and focused. Unfortunately, in one model, there can be information overload; but in the other model, there is no information at all.
The reality of the digital age, thus, reminds us that the search for God in this milieu can be exciting as it is bewildering. A fruitful journey in searching for God seems to depend on one’s ability to find the balance between leaving everything up to chance and asking questions that are too narrow, thus hindering possibilities for serendipitous discoveries.
The digital age not only can help with new ways to envision how God may be present in the world, but also provides the means to search for God in ways that do not limit the seeker to simply the traditional channels (i.e. the hierarchy or the local parish priest).
In context of Asia, the internet facilitates the search for God and understanding about God in richer ways beyond the local parish priest or traditional religious figures.
In Asia, Christianity forms a tiny minority of the population, constituting only 4.5 percent. Catholics make up 3 percent of Asia’s population, slightly over 115 million. Over 63 per cent of all Asian Catholics live in the two countries of the Philippines and East Timor, while in many Asian countries, Catholicism makes up less than 1 percent of the population. In Thailand, there are about 300,000 Catholics out of a population of 67 million while neighboring Cambodia has a little over 20,000 Catholics out of a population of 15 million. In Asia, searching for God and maintaining close relationship with God is not only challenged by the limited means of the local Church but also greatly affected by cultural and religious milieus within which Christians find themselves.
Having access to the internet allows for this search to be facilitated and relationship with God to be nourished in new ways beyond what is immediately available. Catholics in a small remote village can find spiritually beneficial materials beyond the repetitive homilies given by their parish priest, especially the ones who take time in Mass not only to preach but also to lecture on all sorts of matters in the parish.
During the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in Vietnam, when churches were forced to close, Vietnamese Catholics of all age groups had to watch Masses online. As it turned out, in rural areas, many old Catholics, who were accustomed to attending daily Mass in their village church got the chance to watch Mass online for the very first time either on a smart phone or a smart TV. Apparently, many did not just watch Masses broadcasted by their local parish priest or local diocese, but from other parishes and dioceses as well.
Besides giving Catholics in small villages the opportunity to be exposed to more spiritual materials, the internet can also help priests, religious and seminarians with additional resources for their ministry.
In the library of the major seminary in Laos, for example, there are extremely limited resources for scriptural and theological studies either in English or in Laotian. Seminarians who need to study or prepare spiritual reflections to share with villagers in their ministry can now turn to the internet for assistance in these matters.
In Thailand, many Buddhists and potential converts to Christianity turn to Facebook groups as well as a web forum set up by a layman to ask questions about matters of faith.
With the help of the internet, God potentially becomes more accessible and immediate while the images of God to which we are introduced become more rich and diverse. Thus, how Asians search for, perceive, and maintain relationship with God may greatly be influenced by the modern digital environment which facilitates these activities.
However, this does not mean that searching for God in the digital age promises easy access to the truth when a smorgasbord of information is available online, and not all leads one in the right direction or provides the necessary nourishment for one’s faith life.
More than ever, the search for God and maintaining relationship with God requires self-initiative, prudence, and patience. One’s image of and relationship with God can no longer be dictated from above as in the past; in the digital age, one must be more responsible for this spiritual quest, and by virtue of their presence and participation in the digital environment, contributes to how God is seen and understood by fellow searchers.
This is a slightly edited excerpt from the book Religion and Society in the Digital Age: Interreligious and Intercultural Contexts by Father Anthony Le Duc SVD, PhD who is a member of the Society of the Divine Word. He holds a doctoral degree in religious studies. He is currently teaching at Saengtham College/Lux Mundi National Major Seminary of Thailand, and serving as the Deputy Director of the Asian Research Center for Religion and Social Communication (St. John’s University, Thailand), where he is also the chief editor of the center’s scholarly journal, Religion and Social Communication.
The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.