By Vincent Gabriel
It’s always a good thing to be interested in learning more about the Orthodox faith.
There are many ways to do this. For some people, it means buying and reading lots of books. For others, it simply means attending services or asking their priests lots of questions. Still others will make friends in their local parish, finding those at a similar place in their own spiritual journeys, sharing common discoveries.
And many more in our world today—no doubt more and more as time goes on—will turn, perhaps even first, to the Internet.
People are looking to the Internet for information about practically everything in their lives. For many of us, this happens without us even realizing it.
The “Internet of things” has made the Internet ubiquitous, a rather nonchalant or casual part of our day-to-day activities. When we search for directions to a coffee shop, research the best way to get a stain out of our clothes, or read the daily news, we are accessing the Internet. Smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktops, televisions, even refrigerators and washing machines—more and more, everything around us is getting “connected.”
So with all of those connections, how do we stay rooted in our timeless, changeless, and transcendent faith? How do we not get caught up in all the noise, losing ourselves in a dizzying array of opinions, myths, and half-truths? How do we avoid getting sucked into arguments, debates, and other time-wasting endeavors?
The Internet is wonderful, and the pooling of human knowledge has great potential. But as with anything where human beings are involved, it can also be a source of pain, frustration, and even spiritual danger if we aren’t careful.
So let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of Orthodoxy online.
The GoodThere’s a lot of good things about Orthodoxy on the Internet.
For example, all of the Orthodox churches represented both in America and around the world have websites. These sites share a wide variety of information—everything from the daily commemorations of Saints and scripture readings to question and answer pages or basic introductions to Orthodox Christian belief and doctrine.
The website for the Greek Archdiocese has perhaps the most comprehensive online calendar and chapel resource. This includes a page where you can search for Saints by name, discovering their backstory, hymns, and dates of commemoration. You can read the daily Gospel and Epistle readings (in both Greek and English), discover each day’s fasting rules, and look ahead to see when a particular feast day or commemoration takes place. There are helpful overviews of major seasons, such as Great Lent and Holy Week.
And besides official church websites, there are several offering a great way to learn more about Orthodox Christianity.
First and foremost, there is Ancient Faith Radio. Ancient Faith Radio is part of a larger ministry that includes an online web store for purchasing books, music, icons, and gifts, as well as a new endeavor called Ancient Faith Blogs. John Maddex (the CEO of Ancient Faith Ministries) reached out to me last year to help build this new network of blogs. With a growing number of contributors, there are blogs authored by laypeople, clergy, and even university professors—each with a unique focus on different aspects of Orthodox Christianity. Many of the bloggers have books or podcasts as well, providing an easy way to find more related content.
Another website with multiple contributors is OCN—the Orthodox Christian Network. There is always a lot to offer here, as well, and from a wide variety of perspectives.
And while these are great resources in their own regard, one should consult the scriptures, the fathers, their parish priest or bishop, and the services of the Church first. All of the Internet or online resources should be seen as supplemental.
Beyond learning about Orthodoxy, the Internet also provides several great websites for purchasing Orthodox goods. Whether you’re searching for an iconographer, a gift for an inquirer or catechumen, or a book to read on your next long flight, pretty much everything is out there.
Finally, you can find and participate in a lot of discussions related to Orthodox Christianity on Facebook. There are Facebook Groups for a million different topics, including many Orthodox ones. Do what you can to discern between the quality and lower quality groups, and try to find those moderated or controlled by clergy or reputable laypeople.
As with anything good, however, Facebook discussions and interactions should be something that’s enjoyed in moderation. It’s too easy to have your whole afternoon eliminated by following every rabbit trail in every discussion that takes place, so pace yourself, and always prefer a face-to-face interaction to those online.
The BadSo now that we’ve taken a brief look at what’s good about Orthodoxy on the Internet, it’s only prudent that we consider what’s bad (and even downright ugly).
Anytime you want trouble, just take a beautiful thing and involve people. While connecting with one another is at the heart of what the Internet is all about—and truly, community is a big part of what the Church is about, too—it can also be a point of contention. For people seeking to learn what Orthodox Christians believe, the Internet provides a lot of answers—and many times, those answers don’t exactly agree.
Many of us appreciate that healthy disagreement—and a wide umbrella for nuance or cultural expression—is one of the most beautiful and unique aspects of the Orthodox Church. Unfortunately, not everyone that joins (or is interested in joining) the Church feels the same way. Their baggage from a previous confession or church might lead them to believe the way their first parish does things—or the way a particular book or article describes things—is theOrthodox way, with everything else reduced to aberration or compromise.
This sort of rigidness and misunderstanding can lead to headache and even spiritual danger, as someone poorly catechized online—or apart from the life of a parish family—can lead them down a path of self-destruction, and sometimes away from the faith altogether.
One of the ways we can caution against this is to learn how to discern between a local practice, custom, or tradition, and that which is actually Holy Tradition or an official belief of the Church. Rather than getting caught up in the little things or “majoring in the minors,” we should seek understanding and unity in spite of these regional, cultural, or jurisdictional differences. At the end of the day, we are all a part of the same Church.
As noted already, it can also be tempting to get caught up in online discussions, especially in a venue like Facebook or an Internet message board, to the point that we are neglectful of the real, flesh-and-blood people all around us—and perhaps especially the people in our own local parish.
When isolating ourselves online, we have a tendency to surround ourselves with only those we agree with. The Internet becomes our own personal echo chamber, and no dissent is allowed. Rather than learning to get along with the people in our pews, we create a fantasy world of friends that could only exist online.
This makes it difficult to get to know people in the real world, while also sometimes causing us to be less tolerant of those who aren’t exactly like us in every thought or opinion.
The UglyThis identification with only those we agree with can lead to the ugly of Orthodoxy online: extremism.
Extremism comes in various shades. There are extremists on the more rigid, hyper-traditionalist end of the spectrum, and there are extremists on the libertarian, practically-anything-goes end, as well.
Many Facebook Groups and websites are dedicated to these two ends of the spectrum, and the unsuspecting catechumen or even long-time Orthodox Christian can be led astray if not on guard. Groups or organizations that claim to have the truth—claiming to know better than practically all of the canonical Orthodox churches and clergy—or seeking to undermine long-held beliefs and practices of the Church are to be avoided at all costs.
When in doubt, ask your local priest or bishop.
ConclusionThe combination of our Orthodox faith with the amazing connectivity and technology of the modern world has the potential to be amazing, and to do amazing things. Equal-to-apostolic things.
We now have the ability to share information about our Church with the entire world, and in every language. The average person now has access to a whole wealth of knowledge people of a previous generation or two could only dream of. We need not purchase priceless libraries full of printed books, spending hours reading and doing research to find simple, reliable answers to our most common questions. This is all now available in a matter of seconds online or with apps and software.
But with that access and “power” comes a need for responsibility.
We need to be responsible with our time, ensuring that we don’t waste away online. We need to be responsible with our personal interactions, ensuring that we spend as much—if not much more—time with our own parish family and friends as we do those on Facebook. And we need to be responsible with our study, ensuring we don’t find ourselves entrenched in some niche form of extremism or forming opinions contrary to the Orthodox faith.
By using the Internet with both wisdom and discernment, there are many ways it can enhance our understanding of the faith or personal spiritual development. But we need to go into it fully aware of the potential traps and pitfalls.