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The Web We Weave

By RAY WADDLE

I hear it all the time now, sounding like an unofficial national motto:

"What was he (or she or you or I) thinking?"

It's the default reaction to anyone behaving badly and suddenly facing public consequences, especially on the Internet.

I wonder how many more high-profile embarrassments (politicians who brazenly tweet, teens who recklessly sext) it will take to drive home the warning that online shenanigans are off-the-charts destructive. Racy or racist texting and other social-networking follies are proving how narrow, even non-existent, is the margin of error in the digital world.

People have always done dumb things, but today's rampaging communications revolution dares us to think we can cross the line because our invincible individualism entitles us. In a dark quiet room, online communication feels anonymous, secretive, alluring, powerful and free of consequence in the real world. Then you hit send. And the modern proverbial truth becomes obvious: you can't take it back. It's out there forever, a toxic dump that leaches into the soil of relationships and reputations.

Is there nothing -- no template of self-restraint --  to stand against the surge of Internet life or, better yet, to stand alongside with it, chaperoning it into the future, whispering sense to those who enter its roaring algorithms?

Taking a break from email and iTunes last week, I did the most un-digital, the most non-2.0 thing imaginable. I read the Old Testament's Book of Proverbs, that sober cascade of biblical instruction for living well. Proverbs is sometimes wordy or repetitive, but its meaning rings clear: seek God's wisdom and be blessed, or turn away and watch your life fall apart.

A life of abundance, it says, depends on a measure of discipline, self-restraint, simplicity, consideration of others, a healthy dose of humility. Let these God-engineered things enter your heart, and "knowledge will be pleasant in your soul," and "prudence will watch over you." Avoid those things that insult God --  haughtiness, lying, false witness, wicked schemes, the sowing of family discord, the shedding of innocent blood. It's not a long list.

God is shield and refuge against chaos and folly, the Proverbs announce. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Such thoughts, needless to say, find no role in debates about the digital future. The inhuman logic of technology says: there are no limits. What is newest and fastest must prevail. The database of faith knows something different: we are not limitless, God-like avatars.

Good health and maturity come with the knowledge that we are creatures of God, beholden to God. Denying this, we would destroy ourselves.

Ray Waddle is a columnist, author and the editor of Reflections magazine, published by Yale Divinity School.




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