Grace in the Digital World

A couple of weeks ago I posed a question via Twitter and Facebook: “Does God’s grace extend to online/digital spaces? If so, what shape does it take?”

Or, as another way of asking the question: “We can identify means of grace in human life (Scripture, prayer, sacraments, Christian community). Are there corresponding means of grace in those aspects of human life that take place online?”

This blog is usually about faith and space exploration, but I’m coming to realize that humankind’s future in space—whatever that might entail—is going to be deeply connected to other aspects of our future, including things like virtual reality, digital communication, and artificial intelligence. In other words, space exploration and colonization won’t happen alone, but will occur in conjunction with these other developments of human life and society. Asking how we’ll encounter God’s grace in all these emerging circumstances is important for Christians now and in the future.

In particular, seeking to understand how God’s grace might enter into online spaces seems critical for Christians as we learn to navigate a world in which substantial portions of our private and public lives involve interactions with digital media and digital communication. Apparently others felt like these are important questions too, since my posts generated a fair amount of conversation.

In an effort to continue the conversation and to begin articulating some answers, here are my preliminary thoughts based on the responses I saw and my own (admittedly preliminary) thoughts.

First, an experience of God’s grace in a digital context will not be confined to the digital, but will involve the physical, real-world experience as well. This is not terribly surprising, but it’s important to articulate. Much of our lives now involves a blending of the physical and the digital. Think about how your mood affects what you post online, or how what you read online influences your mood. Think about the way our real-life relationships involve texting, or social media, or email…and how connections initially established online can lead to real-world meetings. Several folks who responded to my questions indicated that digital connections led to fruitful, real-life relationships developing, and that this is an instance of Christian community at work. We might think also of apps that enable us to read the Bible or daily devotions, or other spiritual books. Such things can occur in both digital and physical media, and I’d wager that many of us employ both. I certainly do. In a world where our lives are a blend of digital and physical realities, we might expect God’s grace to extend across both of those areas as well.

Second, many of the most readily identifiable aspects of grace online are community-centric. Most of the people who responded to my question about the shape grace takes online mentioned things like groups of like-minded people, the ability to sustain long-distance relationships, and gracious engagement in conversation as opposed to uncharitable interaction. Christian community is a vital channel of God’s grace—so much so that John Wesley once said “I know of no religion but social religion.” Since much of the digital revolution in our world involves facilitating communication and connection between people, we might expect that grace in digital spaces might take shape in relationships and community more readily than anything else.

Third, the interface between the digital and the physical seems critical to me. When we think of means of grace as relates to the digital world, it strikes me that an instance of grace might involve the decision to put down your phone and give your full attention to the person or situation in front of you. Or it might involve the decision to pick up the phone and give someone a call or text, to reach out in a tangible and personal way via digital means. God’s grace might well come at the intersection where the physical meets the digital.

Fourth, few would deny that sin is present online. We can readily think of of examples where we’ve witnessed sinful behavior or attitudes in the digital world. If we struggle to identify concrete means of grace taking shape online, we might ask where and how God is responding to sin in those areas with redemption, restoration, and deliverance. This question might help point us to God’s grace where we might not expect it, or show us where and how grace is needed and how we might open ourselves up to it more fully online.

Fifth and finally, it seems to me that it’s critical for us to keep asking this question. If the online/digital space can’t or won’t be reached by God’s grace, then we ought to reject it outright and strive to encounter it as little as possible. What possible good might it be otherwise? But if, as is more likely the case, digital and online realities are an extension of human life, whatever its character, then we can and should expect God’s grace to reach into these realities no more and no less than in other aspects of human life as well. And because these realities are so new and ever-changing, it’s imperative now more than ever to seek God’s grace there.

What are some of the means of grace online? What I’ve written here is barely a start in formulating some answers. And it may well be too soon to tell—it is, after all, so very new. We’re still trying to figure out most aspects of digital life. But perhaps the rapid development of the online world leads to, even requires, rapid sense-making and, I dare say, deliverance. If so, then the act of seeking God’s grace online, wherever and however it may appear, takes on a new urgency.

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