The spring of 2003 was a magical time for me. I was living at the height of a conviction that I was called – at all costs – to confront evil and wrong ideas with powerful eternal truths. About to graduate a major state university with a degree in Philosophy of Religion, I was quite comfortable atop my religious high-horse built for war. From those lofty intellectual heights, I could survey the lesser kingdoms of secular humanism, Buddhism, New Age pantheism, animism and all other inferior “isms”. And, like all good warriors for Christ, I was ready to decimate every wrong thought and belief with divine authority effective and powerful for the tearing down of strongholds.
One Friday night I went out on a raid looking for vulnerable agnostics or maybe a talkative new-ager to “minister” to. What I found this night was a massacre in the making. I stumbled upon a large group of smelly hippies gathered in Old Town Square. They had congregated around the charichture artists selling charcoal portraits of Jimmy Hendrix, Jerry Garcia and various other depictions of Grateful Dead concerts they had attended. As I passed the impromptu drum-circle, weed-slurred dialogue caught my attention. I tuned in and heard spiritual topics of oneness and unity being slowly discussed… very, very slowly. My night just got interesting.
Too Intellectual to Love
I was warmly received when I joined the circle and nobody seemed to mind I didn’t smell like petchule. I quickly discovered many of these free-loving folks were members of a community called The Rainbow Family. They had gathered from across North America in the federal forest land thirty miles north of my hometown for one of their many annual “Gatherings”. This gathering was, to my untrained ears, about sex, drugs and drum circles. But a small crew had escaped to the city to resupply and were now discussing spiritual matters
I listened quietly to the different ideas being shared about oneness, emptiness, the circle of love, unity, and wholeness. When I said I was “listening” what I mean is: I was quietly de-constructing each new spiritual insight offered and categorizing it using my vast mental Rolodex of world religious concepts. After twenty minutes of this, I was ready to debunk everyone who dared open their mouth. I was fixing to drop the hammer and lead the heathens to Jesus, when, just as I began to speak, a drunk, toothless Native-American man stumbled into the circle. This gentleman sat down next to me reeking of cheap vodka and introduced himself – we’ll call him Qaletaqa. Qaletaqa, however, didn’t wait as long as me to address the circle of spiritualists.
After only a minute or two he felt he needed to contribute two cents. Flashing his three remaining teeth, Qaletaqa began to cuss his way through a testimony of Jesus. He told everyone that it wasn’t “oneness” but a relationship with [bleeping] Jesus that would make the difference. He told them how [bleeping] Jesus loved them all and wanted them to be happy. He told them that religious people didn’t have it all right but [bleeping] Jesus was still real. Every time he used the word Jesus it was preceded by a swear word. I was mortified! I had been upstaged by an irreverent addict who clearly did not have the rhetorical skills necessary to turn the hearts of these deprived souls.
But, in the midst of this most unusual evangelistic presentation, I could feel the spirit of the group begin to shift. I started asking the Lord if He wanted me to say anything – a spiritual practice I highly recommend and rarely followed in those days. I remember feeling like I was supposed to stay quiet and listen. As I did I watched something amazing happen. As Qaltaqa testified about [bleeping] Jesus, the group began to embrace Him. They heard a very simple gospel message of God loves you and you can know Him by knowing His Son Jesus. There was an openness to these very raw and simple ideas and the group consciousness was elevated. I don’t remember most everything that was shared that night, but, after Qaletaqa had radically shifted the topic to Jesus, I do remember how I felt. I felt connected. Connected to my fellow men who were all seeking a life and hope beyond themselves. Connected to a vast array of different ideas about God; a connection which was somehow held together in a shared experience of unpretentious dialogue amongst equals. Connected to Jesus who I think had been honored by sincere hearts. Thank God I didn’t open my mouth and ruin it all.
Charger for War
After an hour more I had enough and stood to leave the circle. When I did every person stood to bid me farewell with an awkwardly long hug. I had just sat silently for 90 min while horrifically inaccurate theological ideas were shared; but, as I stood there hugging hippies, I could feel self-righteousness melting away. These men loved me with a love and openness I didn’t yet posses. If they only knew what I had come there to do! I walked into the circle on a religious charger for war but left humbly riding on an ass – my foolish dumb ass.
As I mounted my bicycle to ride home tears began to stream down my face. Everything I’d heard that evening was “wrong” and “irreverent” and I hadn’t corrected any of it! But I felt loved, strangely known and deeply connected to something much larger than my petty ideas and Philosophy degree. This feeling didn’t make sense to me. I’ll always remember the loving words my heavenly Father spoke to me as I peddled home: “Never get so intellectual you forget to love.”
All of creation is deeply connected. There is an ancient Hindi proverb that says, “I sneezed and wiggled the moon.” God created us for connection. From the very beginning, God crafted mankind in the garden and saw it was “not good” for Adam to be alone. He could not find a suitable helper. Important note: “helper” does not mean “woman who cooks and cleans so Adam can drink beer and watch football”. No, helper is the Hebrew word ‘ezer and it is used 21 times in the OT. Over eighty percent of these references refer to God as a “help” in times of need or trouble. (See especially Psa. 20:2, Psa. 70:5, Psa. 121:1) This help from heaven began in the garden when God saw humanity needed connection, not only with Him but with each other. Humanity’s need for connection has not stopped.
Berne Brown describes connection as, “The energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from their relationship.” This universal pursuit of connection exploded into the 21st century through social media. What was birthed as a novel idea in a university dorm room turned into the first great social experiment of the digital age. People on opposite sides of the globe could now “connect” to each other by passing short bits of information over the Internet. It is a seductive and enthralling idea to be seen, heard and valued by millions of anonymous strangers. Soon thousands of online services popped up promising the same solution to our universal problem of disconnection. It was a solution is old as humanity and produced at least nine billionaires in under a decade. The solution? An attempt to establish connection – being seen, heard and valued – through sharing information.
Is Information Connection?
Those who used AOL in the early dial-up days of the Internet know what it feels like to wait for connection. I will never forget the noise my computer made while it worked to establish a connection. This glorious auditory payoff pierced the doldrums of my disconnected bedroom. I was on-line, and this new connection meant one thing: information. Lots and lots of information. I could now find out what was happening to the endangered marsupials in Bangladesh, who had the highest shooting percentage out of NBA small forwards in the Western Conference or what exactly a cat looks like falling off a TV. Even better, I could receive an electronic piece of mail that gave me information about something I’d never been interested in but suddenly was. Connection brought information and information promised connection.
It’s an interesting fact that all of this information is created and transmitted by arranging 1’s and 0’s in an infinite number of ways and passing something called a “packet” (bits of binary code) from one computer or process to another. So, essentially, the thing we all are so hungry to access on the Internet is translated bits of binary code. But why doesn’t a Facebook video of your daughter’s first steps feel like binary code? Deeper still, why have endless information and unfettered WiFi access not produced a happier, healthier Generation C?
The truth is, human connection is built by sharing more than bits of information about yourself. Human connection requires substantive, tactile, physical encounters. And while human connection can be initiated or sustained for a time via a digital medium, there must always be a point of real, physical, substantive connection. The two billion dollars a year online dating industry does not advertise its products with commercials depicting some creeper in his jammies sitting behind a computer surfing profiles. They sell you on human connection; on a chance to go on a date with a real person; on incarnation. (Latin for “in the flesh”) What you pay for is access to a digital database of information but what you’re hoping for is incarnation, human connection. Because, as much as we love to be connected, we hate disconnection even more.
Part one in a multi-part series on theology, technology, and connection. Read part two here.