July 17, 2008
Left Behind or Left in Cyberspace?
— Noreen Herzfeld
As a teenager, when a friend first told me about the rapture, in which Christians will be miraculously transported to heaven while sinners remain on earth to suffer a variety of tribulations, I was quite sure that, sinner that I was, I was destined to be the one member of my family and friends who would surely be "left behind." My psychology teacher later assured me that considering oneself the "chief of sinners," as the apostle Paul did, was a normal response, since we each know our own peccadilloes far more intimately than we know those of others. Apparently, however, not everyone shares this proclivity. For forty dollars a year, those who are relatively assured of their own salvation can now leave a final e-mail to less fortunate loved ones who might be left behind during the rapture. A new web site, Youvebeenleftbehind.com, allows users to compose a final message that will be sent to up to sixty-two recipients, six days after the rapture occurs. These messages might be used to pass on information, such as bank account numbers and passwords, but the site stresses the opportunity to leave a letter begging those who remain to accept Christ, a last chance with one's loved ones to "snatch them from the flames."
This raises a host of questions, both practical and religious. Is it safe to store sensitive financial information on such a website (answer: no)? Would the web still function after the rapture? Why not play it safe, save the forty dollars, and simply leave a stack of letters on your desk? Youvebeenleftbehind.com is one of the latest attempts to market religion in cyberspace. Sites abound hawking a variety of religious books and wares. Beyond the crassly commercial, there are web sites for a wide variety of religious faiths and denominations where one can access religious texts, share experiences and prayer requests, initiate new spiritual friendships, or engage in ecumenical dialogue. As a resource for finding a quick answer to a religious question, the Internet is unbeatable. Web cams let one make a virtual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Wailing Wall, or Chartres Cathedral. Avatars in Second Life build virtual churches and synagogues and participate in religious rituals with one another. Each of these draws on the strength of the Internet as a medium that overcomes distance or physical limitations. The computer enlarges the neighborhood, giving opportunities to connect with or learn from a wide variety of people and traditions.
However, what computer technology gives to religion in terms of speed and broader access, it takes away through lack of physical presence. The sacramentality of the Christian faith, for one, calls us to move away from our keyboards and into the real world. In this world we cannot dismiss those with whom we disagree with the click of a mouse. We are asked to taste and feel and smell the world around us in its elemental richness. We learn what is, not what we wish were. Cyberspace is, in the end, an ambiguous place. We do not know if people in chat rooms are who they say they are. We do not know if an e-mail will really get forwarded on. As philosopher Albert Borgmann points out, "ambiguity is resolved through engagement with an existing reality, with the wilderness we are disagreed about, the urban life we are unsure of, or the people we do not understand." Computer applications may seem like a simpler alternative, but they are rarely as satisfying as the real thing.
So I think I'll save the forty dollars. A sealed envelope in my desk and power of attorney documents will cover my much more likely demise from natural causes. And as for worrying about myself or others being "left behind," Jesus' promise that "I will never leave you nor forsake you" is far more reassuring than any web site.
Noreen Herzfeld is professor of Theology and Computer Science at St. John's University, Collegeville MN.
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