From horizon to hyperlink

Posted Aug 16, 2011 | New Media Project


By Kathryn Reklis

Verity Jones answered my call for theological conversation about new media in her recent post like a good Protestant starting with what we can know about God from biblical sources. Verity reminds us that we have in scripture a starting point to orient our understandings of God, ourselves, and the universe we inhabit. She reminds us that “human life has never been particularly ordered or safe.” Global online communications create new problems, sure, but they aren’t the advent of sin and evil. Sin has been with us since nearly the beginning, and God’s grace even longer. That grace will be with us now, no matter how “new” our new media. Amen.

Imagine, though, that Verity’s description of human creatures Christianly understood was a Wikipedia article on Christian theological anthropology. Every clause would have a hyperlinked footnote or phrase, directing the reader to other Wiki articles, some of them not even relevant to the topic at hand (for example, perhaps “divine” or “spirits” gets a link). If you click one of the external reference links you leave Wikipedia and land, let’s say, on the page “I, the Soul”—which is in fact where I went when I clicked the one external link under the Wiki entry for “spirits.”

This is the crisis of authority Verity already alluded to: “Without trusted editors and curators of information who used to sort through the mess for us, we are left on our own to decide what to watch, follow, like, view, and tweet.” Or what to believe.

The question of authority, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. In the very process of clicking through dozens of hyperlinks to explore a topic, our brains are being rewired. The very substance of our human experience is changing. How do we track this change theologically?

Twentieth century Catholic theologian Karl Rahner anchored his theology in the experience of being human. He described the intimate relationship to God that grounds all human existence as a horizon of our being. Every moment of being, to put it another way, has as its precondition an awareness of the transcendent God as the possibility of any existence at all. We are not aware of this awareness in an explicit way, but like a horizon always pulling us forward, this “pre-apprehension” grounds our existence in God’s existence and draws us toward God in love.

One has to wonder if the metaphor of a horizon made a certain kind of intuitive sense to Rahner, writing as he did in the explosion of globalization after World War II. The world was flattening, extending out the view of any one place to become one hugely interconnected place. Horizons are fascinating too because of their play with depth and surface. Standing on an open plane, one is overwhelmed by a sense of flatness. But look longer and the horizon becomes a vortex, a receding depth, luring the gaze into infinity.

So what if the metaphor that will make more sense to our theological ears is not “horizon” but “hyperlink”? (Or, perhaps not “our” ears since I am still one of those hybrids that can remember the world before new media. Perhaps “their” ears, meaning all the eleven-year-olds and their children after them who will think of a non-hyperlinked world like a boy in the Smithsonian who asked his mom what “USSR” meant on a space suit.)

The metaphor of a hyperlink, like a horizon, also plays with depth and surface. Linking from one screen to another seems to epitomize surface-surfing. But we also speak of “boring into a web page.” The more we click, the further we go into a web of connections that we experience as having depth—a depth of interconnection. The more connections we make between ideas, pages, links, the thicker the experience. We emerge from a two-hour web search like coming out of a vortex, our minds swirling with ideas, and even more so, links among ideas.

Is God, then, riffing on Rahner, not a receding horizon making experience possible but the thickening web of interconnectivity, the relationship between all other relationships? What do we know about ourselves and our world theologically if the divine possibility of all our knowing can be imagined as the hyperlinked connections of our digital experience?

Kathryn Reklis, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is the Executive Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, where she also serves as the outgoing Director of Theological Initiatives.

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