In a recent conversation, a professor at a school of theology told me about a problem. Her students use the Internet to research topics for papers that they write for her and then they reference web pages in their footnotes. The problem she presented was that the students do not distinguish between sources that are authoritative and those that are not. She said, "If they find it on the Web then they think it is true."
My first reaction was that this is just a print age professor who is uncomfortable with the electronic age and particularly uncomfortable with the democratization of knowledge that is possible with electronic communication. She felt uncomfortable because she liked the print age system where there was a hierarchy of experts and seminary professors were very high on the list. But I know that this particular professor is not an elitist. So I asked her, "Didn't you have the same problem when students took whatever they found written in a book in the library to be true?" "Yes, but that is different. There are some really, really crazy ideas on the Internet."
In one sense she has a very good point. When it comes to book publishing and book selection for a theological library, a group of people work together to make sure that "really, really crazy ideas" do not get into the library. If you limit your sources of legitimate footnote material to only what can be found in a theological library, then you can be sure that the students will have pre-screened resources. In electronic culture people have much more freedom to find and read material that would never be printed by a publisher and never selected by a theological librarian. The Internet contributes to this, but talk radio and late-night television are also places where ideas about religion are distributed without the approval of publishers or theological librarians.
Ever since Robert Bellah introduced the academic community to the concept of "Sheilaism" in his 1985 book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Society, scholars have seen theology as an individual project. The evidence that Bellah used, and the evidence that has been used since then, is observations about the structure of the religious belief system of individuals. Sociologists continue to find evidence that people don't fit into neat religious categories. The same person may attend Catholic mass and practice Yoga meditation.
None of this is surprising to anyone who lives in North America. It is impossible to know ten people without being aware that people put together belief systems from a variety of traditional sources. Even the most casual observer can see that this is not just the practice of the educated elite who have been taught in liberal colleges that there are many traditions to choose from. From taxi cab drivers to university presidents, everyone has an idea about what happens to you when you die and how health and spirituality are connected. Very often the theological perspective that is presented by an individual does not sound like a traditional category of religious thought.
What is missing from the scholarly consideration of "individual theology" is discussion of the way people are able to form a set of beliefs. One example is Erving Goffman's powerful descriptions of the way people construct meaning systems from the variety of social settings that they experience. Another is the work of Peter Berger and Thomas Luchmann who integrated classical theories of the sociology of knowledge to describe The Social Construction of Reality. What these sociologists (and others who have followed them) demonstrated is that what appears to be individual unique systems of belief are actually the product of social systems. Berger and Luckman talk about the "significant others" who are critical in the formation of individual identity.
Those who study the sociology of knowledge continue to demonstrate that our common sense notion about individual belief systems do not stand up to rigorous analysis. Individuals may present what appear to be unique theologies, but these theologies are always formed within the framework of their social setting. In other words, even "Sheilaism" has a social context to support it. The traditional concept of "community of faith" does not fit exactly, but it may still be helpful. The seminary professor was really talking about the faith community that uses publishers and theological school librarians to define what is not "really, really crazy."
This question of how to discern useful information for our faith development and what is "really, really crazy" is very old. It is the central theme of 1 John. The first three chapters of this letter are mostly about the importance of love in community. Then in verse six of chapter 4 the author writes, "This then, is how we can tell the difference between the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error." Most translators and commentators place this phrase at the end of the preceding argument as if it summarizes what has just been said. The previous section is an unsupported diatribe against the Gnostics. The implication is: If people agree with me, they speak the truth. If they disagree with me, they speak error. I think that it makes more sense to see the phrase in I John as an introduction to the section that follows. In that case the criteria for making a distinction between truth and error is to test ideas in the community of love.
The first interpretation of I John was the dominant method of discerning truth in the era of print dominance. The printing press technology encouraged an environment where disputation involves careful formulation of doctrinal statements. Every word can be carefully selected and then replicated on the printed page. Uniformity becomes possible because everyone can have a printed copy of the same words. Obviously, all the books in a theological library do not say the same thing. May of them were written specifically to show the errors in other books that are in the same library. Yet, taken as a whole, they represent the boundaries of theological discourse. However, compared to the variety and range of ideas that one finds on the Internet, a theological library is very limited.
All of this takes us back to the initial question raised by the professor: How do we determine whether information on the Internet is authoritative? On the Internet we don't have publishers or theological librarians to determine the limits of theological discourse. And this takes us back to the discussion of the social production of knowledge. It turns out that the community that John wrote his letters to, the community of theological education and the Internet are all environments where we as individuals participate in the collective process of producing knowledge. The central feature of that process is the community environment where that knowledge is produced. Already one can see this happening on the Internet as the authors of individual web pages create cross inks to the authors of other web pages. In this way there is a defining of boundaries. Some web authors make comments about the relative quality of the various links that they make, so that the boundaries of what is "really, really crazy" are being addressed. In other cases, links are only made to places that make sense as part of the community discourse.
I observed this development of a community of authoritative discourse recently when browsing sites related to railroads. "Official" sites of railroad companies do not offer very much information, but there are a number of individuals who have collected data about railroads. These "independent" sites are interlinked and included references to the "official" sites with comments on their accuracy. In this case the development of an authoritative community is very transparent.
Possibly a better example for those interested in theology is the interlinking of hate groups on the Internet. Racism depends on a social support system for its legitimization. In the past organizations like the KKK played an important role in defining racism and providing legitimization even for people who never attended a KKK meeting. Recently the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that between 1997 and 1998 the number of hate groups with interconnected web sites rose from 163 to 254. Taken together these web sites form an authoritative community for racism. They are distinct from the community of authority that is represented by the Poverty Law Center itself.
My argument is that during the period of transition from book-based culture with theological libraries to an electronic-based culture with the Internet, it may appear that to the systems of authority in the area of theological knowledge have disappeared. In fact, there are still communities of authority, they are just structured differently. The theological education community had become very comfortable in being able to use the library as the source of defining the limits of theological discourse. Today the nature of the interconnections of Internet sites and the communities of authority formed by those interconnections are defining the limits of theological discourse.
While I have emphasized the similarity between book and electronic culture, there are also important differences. Here the questions raised in John's letters are extremely important. The letters of John were written to Christians who were trying to figure out how authority works in a setting where religion for the first time was shattering cultural barriers. Prior to the introduction of Christianity into the Roman world, religion and culture were inseparable. Christianity brought together people from a variety of cultures and joined them in a common religion. The cultural sources of authority could not be depended on in such a situation. Today the Internet provides an opportunity for religion to again cross cultural boundaries in new says. Communities of authority can include perspectives from a variety of different cultural backgrounds. The loss of the theological school library as the authority that defines Christian discourse presents a wonderful opportunity for the development of new communities of authority that cross cultural barriers and are based on the ideals of love that are found in John's letters.