Realm is a descriptive word usually associated with Kings of Queens, or sometimes Presidents. Those of us that live in the British Commonwealth, formerly the British Empire, are with under the ‘realm’ of the Queen, our head of state. Historically, realms are defined politically – but there is one realm in particular which now exists on a global scale that the majority of people on this planet, almost 100% of the population of the Western world most likely, have access to, is the digital realm. The realm of the internet.
Vicky Beeching posted an excellent blog post today on the issue of how real this realm is, I read it with a twinge of irony, as I’d written this post a few weeks back and had been pondering when to post it – and given Vicky has started this discussion now seemed an appropriate time.
I want to examine the issue of the reality of the digital realm – but I want to go further, and discuss how we find a healthy balance in our relationships in both the physical and digital realms, without making it an idol and letting it take the place of God – which, we have to acknowledge, is a big temptation, in the age of smartphones, i-pads and laptops, a time where we’re constantly online.
Let’s make one thing clear. The digital arena is now, officially, a realm, a medium, a place where we dwell – like physicality, spirituality – the digital realm is a place where we live, work, have relationship, have discussion and conversation.
It’s part of the rhythm of all of our lives, and it will become more and more a part of our daily rhythm, something we will all end up being a part of. In less than a generation, there will hardly be anyone in the western world who isn’t on twitter, Facebook and e-mail.
It will become a necessary part of who we are – and like anything, it can be used for great things. In the recent riots we saw the best and worst of it – organising the looting, but also organising the cleanup. And it’s absolutely vital, as Christians, that not only are we up with but ahead of the game.
We need to provide a method of navigating social networking, a way of regulating ourselves, provide rules for patterns of behaviour, and be coming up with ways of redeeming its use.
And we need to be doing it right now.
We need to be providing an alternative, better way of using them, of fitting them into our lives. Showing that they have an important, redemptive, useful place and can be positive – but showing proper perspective.
Digital allows us to bridge divides, collaboration. The digital world is a spiritual realm – there is no such thing as non-spiritual. There are different dimensions of spirituality – physical, mental, emotional, supernatural – and digital. But there is no separate spiritual realm.
In the worldview of Jesus, every act is a spiritual act, everything we do is spiritual, and if this is true then that means the digital realm is equally spiritual, God is present and at work there, and can do great work there, and we need to have our eyes open to see where He is already at work there, and to allow Him to show us ways He can glorified and His kingdom built there. It’s been said about the burning bush that it was always burning – it’s just that Moses was moving slow enough and had his eyes open to see what was always there. We need to have our eyes open. We are all creative, made in the image of God and can all be used in whatever way to participate into bringing His kingdom here, and when we bring something new into the world, we are participating in the ongoing creation of the world.
There’s one other seemingly obvious, but yet fundamentally important, distinction to make here too.
The term ‘virtual reality’ has often been used to describe the online space, the electronic realm, and is still commonly used.
But that, I would strongly argue, is completely redundant. Non-descriptive. Inaccurate.
It’s shouldn’t be described as ”virtual’ anymore. Most likely, it never should have done.
That term came into being when only a minority, the geeks of this world (of which I am one) were really into the internet and social networking, as a way of boxing them and the digital world away in a box.
TIME Magazine recently stated that now 30% of new couples meet online. That’s real couples, who go on and have a long-term relationship.
That’s a staggering percentage, considering the internet didn’t exist until about 15 years ago and the internet dating scene is younger even than that. 20 years ago it would have been 0%. To go from 0-30% in 20 years takes some doing – and the likelihood is that will only go up, probably to stablise at some level in future.
I can testify from my own experience to the power of the internet, both in terms of relationships and friendships – I’ve made several good friends and built good relationships through the internet, and had a few romances too.
And they weren’t fake. They weren’t ‘virtual’. They were very real.
You see, the term ‘virtual’ implies that the place it describes isn’t real, it doesn’t really exist, that what goes on there isn’t really true. That ‘real life’ is somehow different.
And that’s totally incorrect.
I was recently at the Christian New Media Conference 2011 (#cnmac11), and there I met in person several people who I’d had discussions with and build relationships with purely through my blog and Twitter. I’d never met them in person, but through our Tweet conversations and discussions, and e-mails, we’d built up a real friendship online, which was merely affirmed by our meeting in person. I even had the odd experience of being recognised by one of my followers on Twitter, who came up to me and said ‘Hello James’, and I had simply no idea who she was – my excuse, let me say, is that her Twitter name is not her real name and also that her avatar is in black and white, so I didn’t immediately recognise her – she knows who she is and I won’t embarrass her by mentioning her.
But because we already had that online connection and relationship, we were able to have a good laugh about it and it actually helped us connect, because there was already a foundation of trust there.
It was a real relationship, not a virtual one.
In today’s culture there are simply so many ways for us to connect – e-mail, text, Facebook, Twitter – all of these are real people engaging with each other in a very real way and real relationships have been formed this way.
I have actually heard stories of new creative collaborations that have come into being – songs & books been written, by two people from different sides of the USA who’ve never met, but yet have created something real, something new. Something has been birthed in that online space that would never have been otherwise.
Something real, something true.
Not something virtual.
However, having said all this, there is something I believe is fundamentally true about the nature of relationships. However strong the bond between two people made online, there is an added dimension when you meet physically, face to face, which even with the benefit of Skype, simply cannot be replicated online.
For example, in theory, thanks to the wonders of online dating, streaming, and sperm implantation, you could get theoretically meet someone, build a relationship, get married and even have children without ever meeting physically. It’s actually possible!
But in reality, would any of us want that? Is the online world a great way for children to interact with their parents?
Can a computer or i-phone give you the big, warm hug of a parent?
Can a machine give that feeling you got when you are in the audience when watching your child receive an award or perform something for the school or for some group in your local community – or the emotion and satisfaction they will feel from seeing you there?
Can an i-pad hold your hand when you’re feeling lonely? Or sit with you when you’ve just lost a loved one?
No. It just can’t.
I know that when I lost my mother, the most valued friends to me were the ones who came to see me, who talked to me, who spent time with me.
A Skype call at that time wouldn’t have been quite the same. It would have helped I am sure, but not as much as a hug I suspect.
There is an element to relationships which cannot be replicated online however – there is something about physically meeting someone and engaging with them which can’t be replicated online, and there are some relationships which simply just cannot be had online – husband/wife, parent/child, as we’ve talked about – and in terms of doing church, there is something about being part of a physical, local community and engaging with real people, who can provide real physical support in times of need, which again cannot be replicated in quite the same way online. I know for sure that being part of a real church community, engaging with real people in a real space each week and participating in that community in various ways, is something that could never be replicated by an online service or community. There are things people who live close and you see regularly can do for you that someone who lives miles away from you physically cannot do. And we should never, no matter how many friendships we have online, lose that aspect of physical engagement with our local community. It’s something Jesus modelled for us, and something that is good for us.
Yes, you can have a good – and very real – friendship with someone online, you can collaborate creatively online, you can build the foundations of a relationship and do coaching sessions online, yes.
But there is always something added when you meet them face-to-face.
Yes, the digital world, the digital realm, like anything, can be abused – when we have all our relationships online with people we will never met, never go out, never engage with anyone, never meet anyone, never see anyone or have a conversation face to face – we lose something from our lives when that happens, we can easily get sucked into our own minds, and lose touch with reality.
Not because the relationships we have online aren’t real, but because they are all we have, and we have no face-to-face dialogue, or engagement with the world, and lose touch and so the boundaries can get blurred.
So here we find our digital balance. I’ve talked before about how living a life following Jesus is to be walking a metaphorical tightrope, trying to find the right balance, and the same is true in the digital space.
In this case, it’s about having a balance between online friendships and physical interaction with your community, friends you see physically on a regular basis – and not having too much or one or the other.
One thing that helps this, and one thing I feel is fundamentally important to it, is taking a digital sabbath.
Ultimately, if you can’t lay down the online realm for a day, then there’s something wrong.
There are those of us who remember the time without pretty much anything digital – we weren’t created with smartphones, internet, computers, laptops or anything beginning with the letter ‘i’. Although they are all excellent, and useful tools for us, we must be willing to lay them down – if not, they become an idol, they can take the place of God, and that’s one balance we must always have at the heart of our online life.
That it’s good, useful, enjoyable,fruitful, and very real – but it’s not our god. It’s not our idol.
It is real, as are the relationships we forge there. But ultimately we can live without it, and we need physical interaction, physical relationship, in order to get a healthy balance in our life.
We must always, without fail, be making time for God.
God must always be the person, the relationship, we cannot be without in our life.
Everything else must always be held with an open hand – and although the digital realm is very real, it is because it is real that we must always hold our engagement with it with an open hand, willing to surrender it.
This is why a digital sabbath I think will become ever more crucial in living a life according to God’s rhythm, something more and more of us are going to need to consider intergrating into our lives.
We must keep examining ourselves, our digital rhythms, and ensure that we’re not making the digital realm and our engagement in it an idol.
We must never replace physical interaction with people with engagement the online realm – but rather have a balance of relationships in both the digitial and physical realms – with God as the centrepiece relationship of our lives.
That is the digital balance.
Have you found yours?
Do you agree that we can no longer call the digital world/online space ‘virtual’?
Do you have a balance between ‘digi-friendships’ and physical interaction with your local community, or do you rely too much on one or the other?
Do you use the online space as a substitute for engaging with the community around you?
How has the digital space benefitted your relationships? In what ways could it enhance them further?
How do you believe we can enhance and maximise the online space and digital world to further the causes of Jesus in the world?