John Donne Meets Google

by Dr. Kenneth W. Regan, 4/21--25/2011, finished 4/5--9/12

Preface, 8 Apr 2020: This essay was originally prompted by a particular online incident and personal connection "half-a-world away" in April 2011. The incident is not mentioned in the essay but embodied its principles. Now, in April 2020, the theme of online connection---and the resulting reduction in distance while we are social-distancing---characterize almost all the interactions we are having. Over Zoom there are no differences between someone in the next house, on one or the other coast, or in another country. This changes the meanings of "neighbor" and "communion"; while no church I know is trying to have physical Communion. I have left the essay unmodified---if anything, we are all only just learning how it might be modified. (Several links are broken but are left as they were.)

1 Apr 2021: It suffices to say that Maundy Thursday at St. Paul's Eggertsville is via Zoom. But the Good Friday service is offered "in both kinds."

John Donne, Meditation 17

...His hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another... No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind...

These stirring words have inspired millions to embrace the connectedness of humankind. First, however, they speak the need for one to be directed outwards, which is the beginning of spiritual generosity. Only then do connections become effective.

In John Donne's day, news of the great earthquake in Japan would have reached him slowly, if at all. In today's world we found the suffering on our screens within hours, and concern over the stricken nuclear reactors is apprehended by all. "Death Be Not Proud"---but death had a high click count that weekend. Meditation 17 again:

Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did...

Some may worry that all this exposure will inure us to suffering, and detach our hearts as if it were a video game. Here is a fundamental reason not to fear this: The Net brings information, and information is the necessary vehicle for caring. John Donne cannot voice a prayer for what he does not know. Whereas, not only cafeteria tables at my university but even self-described atheists blazoned Pray For Japan. Does this cheapen prayer? Not if we remember why we voiced it. Meditation 17 continues:

...for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.

I will say the same for information.

Note added in 2015: The words that follow pale beside the slaughter of Christians in Kenya and the Mideast and elsewhere just for the name, while how their substance fares may point you to better ones.

Information and Communion

Historically we have always had too little information. Lack of knowledge and understanding is the main cause of conflict after territory, while gaining them is the first task even of missionaries. We say "never judge others until we have walked a mile in their shoes." Now much of that mile can be put online, for us to walk with eyes or ears. I often read people whose opinions I am facing online, because their comments are speech not writing, and that is the least charity when the speaker's voice inflection and face and hands are absent. Most to the point, I've been enabled to take caring actions by electronic search, in which Providence has been as evident as in any other walk of my life.

Still, we must fear that our selves, our time, and even our possessions may be swallowed by the online sea. How can we mediate its action? The answer returns to my first paragraph above. A friend has expressed similar thoughts as "Disconnecting to Connect".

Let us recognize what preceded John Donne by sixteen centuries: communion. Small-c communion needs to be more than involvement with humankind---it requires an orientation of oneself. And "no man" can have an orientation as a magnetic monopole, nor even toward our fellow iron filings, but only in a field set by a reference outside ourselves. Hence I am talking about Big-C Communion.

To explain what Christ's institution of Communion has to do with the rule of information, we shall review an abstract Greek philosophical concept from B.C. times that was welded onto His Body by the opening to John's Gospel, and follow the connections in Chapters 11--14 of I Corinthians. The concept is that of logos. The etymology is Greek for "word", and the Greek word appears where we translate "Word" in uppercase, but a technical meaning prefigured the associations we rightly draw now.


As I appended to a post in the Math/CS blog I co-manage, a logos is "a means by which truth and other quantities are determined." In the post itself I described the irony that the mathematical theory of information itself needs a logos, namely a particular choice of universal machine by which to quantify the amount of information content. I outlined reasons why some desire to find an absolute best machine for that purpose, but much of the theory is known to function equally well relative to any universal machine.

Philosophers long ago perceived the same situation in life, the need for a logos by which to determine human truth. The very first purpose of John's Evangel is to proclaim an absolute choice, as the very channel of creation. This is the Cosmic Christ. What has this to do with the human Jesus whose last seder we emulate tonight, who washed the feet of those appointed to carry his words? The bridge is that He is Lord of those aspects of information that we receive as human beings apart from the mathematical definition of its content. Our knowledge of Him comes through this information, and even we who have Him upon our persons are appointed to read and hear and review the words we have been given. John Donne comes again to convey us over this bridge (the following is also sometimes attributed to Queen Elizabeth I):

"He was the Word that spake it, He took the bread and brake it, And what that Word did make it, I do believe and take it."
What we have found on the other side is the Big-C Communion.

The Body and Words

The famous passage on Love in I Corinthians 13 finds itself surrounded by a discussion of the gift of tongues that seems out of place to modern eyes. The writer has just finished describing Communion in I Cor. 11. In I Cor. 12 he moves from the Body of Christ to the body of those communing, with different purposes and talents among its members, and last the gift of tongues. Jumping over I Cor. 13 which includes saying this gift will cease, he states in I Cor. 14 the requirement that it give information in a way that is communed. From Chapter 14's summation of what has been said about tongues and love, here are verses 6, 13, and 18-19:

If I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? ... Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret... I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you; nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
The quest is to apply this advice as a parable for "reading screenfuls of text" and navigating pages of links, as being our modern analogue of speaking and hearing in tongues.

Is it crazy to mix the Big C into this talk of information? Agape love as described in I Cor. 13 is bound to Christ through Communion. So where does information enter? As John's Gospel says, it entered "In the beginning..." That is no less true today than then. And what is John's Gospel anyway? A book. What is I Corinthians? A letter. How did the early Christian congregations even know about each other, to pray and be a Body as Paul directed? Through letters and words, spoken or read.

The Mandate

I Cor. 13 sums up by saying that while certain gifts and conditions are temporary, "here are three things that last: faith, hope, and love." To these we can add two things that go 24/7: information online, and a fact related by the sermon I heard at today's (4/21/11) Maundy Thursday service:

"Every hour of every day, some congregation of Christians is about to celebrate Communion."

To continue that sermon:

"On Maundy Thursday---Mandate Thursday---we hear from John 13 two commands from Jesus, first to serve others not ourselves, [and then] the 'new commandment' to love one another."

The former is what I called the answer from Donne in my first paragraph. If you know you have been bought and paid for, and will be redeemed as a bond, then you understand what Donne is saying about 'laying up treasure', and you can do it with information as he says for affliction. The latter command is the goal. To combine these, we must enable others to love us in that way. This requires giving information, even much difficult information, as surely as the Japanese allowed the broadcasting of their loss. That the information is partial is no impediment, along lines Paul says for knowing and loving God in I Cor. 13:8--12. The point is to know enough, and this sufficed for Donne.

So What of Google?

All this comes together to say, information brings us closer. But with the Internet this is true only if we have not already been close. I've observed in particular that e-mail within a building can increase distance when people used to meet in a lounge or knock on doors. So can e-mail within a church---while my church rightly collected funds ten years ago to build a common room outside the sanctuary, which sees valuable time around services. One can even read into I Corinthians the same kind of distancing effect among groups in a church as one can find with e-mail, and note Paul's emphasis on Communion leading into his metaphor of bodily cohesion.

Christians differ on how far Communion should be solitary contact with Jesus Christ and how far it should be corporate fellowship, but all agree that Communion needs both. We can definitely say that this sacrament prevents our having church by Internet. So we may not even need the theology above to see that Christ presides over information. We cannot be e-islands. This recalls to mind Donne's most famous words at the top above, but we do not need them by now. It is enough to close by saying that while he may not have met Google, his words speak that he met the Author of our love, our books, and our connections.

Thanks to Rev. Rick Eddy for the sermon and permission to draw from it.