Islands in the Clickstream:

Sex, Religion and Cyberspace

by Richard Thieme

There aren't many safe bets in the world, but here's one: things are often the opposite of what they seem.

Religion and sex, for example.

Carl Jung noted that when people talk about religion, they are often talking about sexuality, and when people talk about sexuality they are often talking about religious and spiritual realities.

Religious experience involves a contextual shift in how we understand everything and our relationship to it. We let go of the psychic center around which we have organized ourselves and our boundaries dissolve. We lose ourselves and find ourselves. Our personality undergoes a hierarchical restructuring, and we feel ourselves literally being "made new" as we organize around a new center.

The experience has nothing to do with the way people subsequently interpret the experience. That is the work of a religious community which teaches an initiate to fuse its construction of reality with an experience that in itself is beyond words. That's the work of organized religion.

The vision of universal connectedness that often attends religious experience is simply the truth about the world. Mystics are just ordinary people who see that.

Sexuality too is about losing ourselves in the deepest intimacy, our boundaries dissolving as we become present to another so profoundly that we are transformed by the experience. Sexual love in its depths is as redemptive as any sacrifice, as fulfilling as any self-surrender.

Over time we bring to the persons we truly love an attitude that is almost religious. The person to whom we come closer and closer becomes at the same time more and more an unknowable mystery. We discover a kind of piety and gratitude infusing our relationship, what some traditions call grace.

Carl Jung's one-time mentor, Sigmund Freud, said that neurosis is the price we pay for civilization. Neurosis is a kind of mental artifact, a structure we build and live in as if it is reality itself. The towers and pinnacles of our cultures are built on the bedrock of our need to simulate the world.

That means we live in our heads instead of our real experience. Our religious experience devolves into religious symbols. We relate to the symbols as if they are the things they stand for.

We do the same thing with sexuality and love. We exchange words or symbols of our intimacy -- in speech, in writing, and in pixels -- as if we are experiencing the intimacy that touched us in the depths of our being.

It IS hard to know when we're talking about sexuality and when we're talking about religious experience, isn't it? In both domains, we struggle to find a language to say what it means to lose ourselves and find ourselves. The metaphorical language of paradox is the only way. Those metaphors are powerful, often archetypal images, and we project the depths of our souls onto them so quickly and unconsciously that we don't even know we're doing it.

Sexuality is rampant in cyberspace. I don't mean the millions of explicit images but the quest of a civilization to connect with itself, to lose itself in a self-transcendent experience, to "get it together" in a new way.

It is no accident that so many cybergames take the form of a Quest, an archetypal journey in search of a Holy Grail.

It is also no accident that cyberspace sizzles with sex. VCRs first became popular after "x-rated films" were tolerated in mainstream movie theaters and middle Americans wanted to take them home. Then the home-video industry was built. Now x-rated videos account for about 25% of all rentals, and sex related sites are the envy of entrepreneurs who want to make money in cyberspace.

Where your heart is, your cash travels rapidly. Cash is the dye in the arteries of our souls.

And where there's sex and money, there's religion. Not religious experience but religion.

The virtual nights are alive with the echoing boots of the rigidly righteous, the thought police on patrol down these mean streets.

The CyberPolice are upset about sex. Naturally. It doesn't take a psychiatrist to know that people condemn the things they crave to do. Hypocrisy -- especially in the religious establishment -- has always been the first enemy of real spirituality.

The intertwined tendrils of sexuality and religion tell us what the CyberPolice fear most. They seldom get upset about hatred, cruelty, and chilling indifference. Bodies can pile up by the thousands in the Balkans with nary a peep from the pulpit, but let women begin to control their own bodies -- through contraception, abortion, or divorce -- and they're damned and denounced daily.

Better to face ourselves than rage at our heart's desire in another.

The end result of real spirituality is the growth of the whole human being, the integration of our fragmented selves and the connection of our integrated self with others and with the universe. The spiritual journey always involves confronting the truth of ourselves and welcoming it into our heads and hearts.

Luke Skywalker tore off Darth Vader's helmet and stared at his own face. In nightmares, we run from fragments of ourselves, only to be liberated when we turn and embrace them.

Cyberspace is a symbolic representation of the human soul. Everything that shows up in cyberspace is an image of ourselves.

And for what else, after all, do we hunger and thirst but connection with one another and with ultimate meaning and with others throughout the universe? The search for extraterrestrial life is nothing but consciousness in one form or manifestation striving to connect with consciousness in another. The goal of consciousness is to become aware of itself in all of the forms through which it constructs representations of reality.

Between we human beings and our own souls there are ultimately no barriers but the ones we erect to protect ourselves from the terror of self-knowledge and self-transcendence. Between we human beings and those we love, there are ultimately no barriers but the ones we erect to protect ourselves from the dizzying freefall of intimacy and self-surrender.

Those are powerful realities emerging in cyberspace.

Of course the hoofbeats of the CyberPolice come thundering at once, driven by their fear of freedom, their horror at their own humanity. But the triumph of the human heart is to seek itself and to find itself and from that quest and adventure no one can keep us.

for Shirley, on her birthday

Islands in the Clickstream is a weekly column written by Richard Thieme exploring social and cultural dimensions of computer technology. Comments are welcome.

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Richard Thieme is a professional speaker, consultant, and writer focused on the impact of computer technology on individuals and organizations.

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