Maastricht, October, 2002

John H. Van Ness (email:

What distinguishes human life from all other life forms?  What makes human life unique on this planet? 

Jane Goodall [1] , who spent 40 years studying the life of chimpanzees in Tanzania, has discovered that the chimps display many qualities that we had thought were uniquely human: personality, the ability to reason, the capacity for love and altruism as well as violence and cruelty. [2]   However only humans have developed a sophisticated spoken language.   Could it be that language and communication constitute the uniquely human quality that separates us from the higher primates?  In a remarkable study of the evolution of religion, Ewart Cousins [3] , a Catholic theologian, shows that what he calls an axial transformation of human consciousness occurred between 800 and 200 B.C.E.  That was the time of Lao-Tze and Confucius in China, the Buddha in India, Zoroaster in Persia, Hebrew prophets Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah in the Middle East, and Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in Greece.  That was also the time of the development of written language, which made possible the transmission of the wisdom of these teachers, religions, and philosophies.  Citing the work of paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Cousins declares that humanity is in the midst of a second axial transformation in which “The forces of planetization are bringing about an unprecedented complexification of consciousness through the convergence of cultures and religions.” [4]

Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson [5] recently described humanity’s new phase of evolutionary development.  Humanity began in Africa and spread out to all continents.  In isolation from each other, each group of humans developed a unique culture and language.  Each individual culture/language group became stable in its own place and became a gerontocracy – governed by elders who knew more than youngers.  But now the process is changing.  Groups which had developed in isolation now communicate with other groups.  Elders know less than youngers about relating to those groups.  Humanity now “is reassembling the entire experience of our species.” [6]   This is the convergence that Teilhard de Chardin spoke of.  Bateson wonders about the internet in this process because she questions whether people from the developing world have equal access to it.  Her husband, however, pointed out [7] that cyber-cafes and kiosks abound in cities and villages throughout the developing world, and that young people can get an email address free at hot-mail.  It seems clear that wise use of the internet indeed is fomenting a new transformation of consciousness.

In The Web of Text and the Web of God [8] , the late professor of English, Alan Purves finds that the internet is a major cause of this transformation into the post-modern world, which he calls the world of hypertext or the world of cyberspace. However he recognizes a previous transformation which took place at the development of the printing press in 1452.  When books could only be copied by scribes or monks, those scribes and monks, as well as those who controlled them, wielded enormous power over the reading public. Purves is convinced that first speech, then written language, printing, and now electronic communication have emerged as major driving forces of human evolution and consciousness.  It may seem too early to see specific signs of this transformation.  If we had asked Gutenberg 10 years after he printed the first Bible, he probably could not have foreseen any great change.  However largely as a result of that Bible, printed and distributed in vernacular German, the Protestant Reformation exploded in Europe in 1517. 

One way the internet opens us to a more complete humanity is by heightening the expression and the perception of those whom the established authorities seek to suppress.  Just as the printing press gave Martin Luther a vehicle for spreading his reformation in the 16th century, the internet is doing the same for French Bishop Jacques Gaillot today.  Because of his stands in favor of married priests, his opposition to war and prisons, etc., the Vatican removed Gaillot from his diocese of Evreux in 1995.  Apparently hoping to restrain his unorthodox views, the Vatican transferred him to the diocese of Partenia [9] in central Algeria, a diocese that has not existed for a thousand years.  So Gaillot has made the most of his “virtual diocese” by developing a website full of his ideas.   Although Partenia is in a sense nowhere, on the internet Partenia is everywhere.  Without the internet, Bishop Gaillot would have been consigned by the Vatican to oblivion.  With his website, he continues his dialogue with anyone who visits the site, unlimited by patriarchal dictates or geographical boundaries. [10]

People in other parts of the world constrained by official restrictions are finding in the internet ways of breaking out of those restrictions to learn and communicate beyond official boundaries.  In both Iran and China, the internet is becoming a vehicle for new consciousness.  According to the New York Times, the number of people in Iran on line has gone from about 400,000 in 2001 to about 2,000,000 today.  Government surveys show that 37 million people in China used the internet at least occasionally in Jan. 2002.  People can discuss taboo subjects like sexuality, dating, and marriage; exchange western styles, mp3s and movies; and criticize the government.  Liu Junning, a liberal political scientist in China says, “‘The internet has fundamentally undermined people’s dependence on the government-controlled media.   . . .  Most of all it has provided a space, although still limited in China, for free thinking and free virtual associating.’  Articles by Chinese scholars on politically touchy subjects may be impossible to publish through customary channels here’, he said, but ‘they are everywhere on the Internet.’”. [11]

A student of Sufism whom I know used internet resources to publish a Sufi cookbook with recipes from around the world as well as writings, stories, and wisdom.  The publication was being done through her own Sufi teacher.  However when she got involved in a conflict with the teacher, he no longer supported her project.  It hung around her neck like an albatross for several years until she published it herself on the web. [12]   She has had thousands of very positive comments and only 1 or 2 negative ones.  So the net has given her a unique outlet for her creativity and allowed her to transcend the restrictions of authority.

In my own experience as a psychotherapist, I have seen firsthand how the internet has broken the bonds of physical limitations of one client in particular and contributed to her continuing healing.  Linda [picture] has been homebound for several years with severe rheumatoid arthritis after an active life as a gardener, biology teacher and teacher of handicapped children. In her own words,

Since I am disabled and homebound, I spent some years being isolated from the rest of the world. Now it is readily available to me.

Last winter I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Naturally it was a very scary time and I wanted to learn as much as possible about my problem. Instead of having to go to medical libraries, I was able to research from my bed! One of the most helpful things I found was a list run by Johns Hopkins Hospital for people with my particular type of brain tumor. People share concerns, symptoms and treatments, which are very helpful.

The Internet has been a boon to my spiritual awareness. There is so much material available about the religions of the world. Without a computer, I’d have only books to rely upon – difficult for a person who is homebound. There are wonderful sources of prayers, music, sacred prose and poetry available as well as other sources to feed my soul and spirit. I’m no longer cut off from the world. [13]

Of course the internet has produced serious negative effects also.  I have had one client who was so addicted to the internet that she spent most of her waking hours on it.  People who use the internet to gamble may have a more serious problem than people who gamble in other ways. [14]    Pornography has become available to everyone. [15]   Lack of privacy is perhaps the most pernicious consequence of vast universal communication.  Michael Freeny has illustrated the most horrifying implications of the lack of privacy in his novel Terminal Consent. [16]   A long-time Buddhist meditator, Diana Winston, sees the internet filling our minds with distractions. [17]   “What do we want in our minds?” she asks, “More junk?  If so, log on.”  Overwhelmed by desire while surfing the net, she bought far more than she wanted.  “What does it mean”, she asks, “when all desire can be satisfied, when getting an object is taken for granted in the wanting of it?” 

Does the internet satisfy “all desire”?  Is getting an object taken for granted in the wanting of it really more pernicious on the internet than in the mall?  The internet provides far more choices and opportunities than the mall, but do those increased possibilities fill our minds with more distractions?   What fill our minds with distractions are fear and greed, which drive the human tendency to hoard, defend, injure and destroy.  The distractions in our minds come from within ourselves, not from the internet or the mall.  In my experience, overcoming fear and greed requires spiritual practice and discipline in the context of an ethical tradition, rather than avoiding the internet or the mall.  How the internet and its plethora of information and connection are used is the key issue.  Like all advances in consciousness, whether they be scientific, technological, spiritual, or aesthetic, increased choice requires heightened moral and ethical decision-making.  In addition to reducing fear and greed, spiritual practice can also increase moral and ethical sensitivity and mindful attention to the choices before us.  We who use the internet bear great responsibility to avoid indulging our fear and greed, and to use the net with the wisdom that can bring justice, peace, and love to the world. 

Tim Berners-Lee [18] , inventor of the world wide web, stands as a shining example of this wisdom.  He insisted from the outset that the web be available free of charge to all.  In his book, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor, he writes, “The vision I have for the 'Web is about anything being potentially connected with anything. It is a vision that provides us with new freedom, and allows us to grow faster than we ever could when we were fettered by the hierarchical classification systems into which we bound our-selves.” [19]   This freedom is not only financial freedom, but a freedom of access, communication, connection, and creativity which are inherent in the web.  This inherent openness provides evolutionary possibilities as well as immense dangers.  If we who use the web overcome our fear and greed as well as increase our moral and ethical sensitivity at the same pace as we increase our technical ability and our semantic community, then I believe that the internet does offer the potential for the evolutionary development which I propose here.

I have described several signs of consciousness transformation: Bishop Gaillot’s Partenia, cracks opening in the closed societies of Iran and China, closer human connection for the homebound.  But another dimension of the internet points even more strongly to a totally new human consciousness – a deeper consciousness of the transcendent world, of the Divine, of God. 

My homebound client described her use of spiritual sites for her own inspiration, as others have described also. [20] A unique opening to the transcendent dimension of existence is available through the variety of websites providing religious and spiritual material. World Prayers [21] displays prayers from many traditions.  Spirituality and Health [22] , a magazine and website, provides health-related material relating to a great variety of traditions.   Crosscurrents [23] , also a magazine as well as a website, describes itself as “a global network for people of faith . . .  (to) bring people together across lines of difference.”  In addition to these diverse sites that include wisdom from many traditions, other sites provide inspiration and information about teachings and places of Christian [24] , Buddhist [25] , Islamic [26] , Hindu [27] , Shamanic [28] , and many other traditions.  All these sites and many, many more are being used by individuals around the globe to enhance their awareness of the transcendent and spiritual dimension of life within and beyond the bounds of official religious institutions. 

Since Sept. 11, many Americans who knew little about Islam have sought information on the web.  I found lots of information on IslamiCity [29] and came to a link to Jihader’s Islamic Web Page [30] .  The photo of New York City at night confronted me, with the Statue of Liberty in the foreground, and the two tremendous searchlights beaming into the sky where the World Trade Center towers had been.  Over the picture is inscribed in Arabic and in English, “In the Name of Allah, The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful.”  To be sure about the nature of the message of this site I went to the link to Osama bin Ladin [31] which states specifically, “THE RELIGION OF AL-ISLAM DOES NOT PROMOTE TERRORISM IN ANY SHAPE OR FORM.” [32]   Having grown up just outside of New York City, I experienced a physical, emotional, and spiritual lump in my gut. 

Clearly many of us who have used the web in this sort of spiritual search have experienced an expanded consciousness which transcends intellectual learning about things.  We have experienced contact – relationship – with people and with the nature of transcendent reality itself.  Some would say we have encountered God in cyberspace. [33]

Some religious leaders view the internet as a vehicle for spiritual discovery and growth.  Rabbi Yesuf Kazen, an orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch [34] rabbi in New York City, uses the internet extensively in his communication with people all over the world.  When asked whether he thought networked technology is a “holy technology”, he replied excitedly, “Yes.  Humanity in the years past was glorified for war. ... And Isaiah’s prophecy is that there shall be no more war, that there shall be swords into ploughshares.  So, how does the world come to that?  My question is, in a humorous fashion, Is TCP/IP another name for God?  Because in essence, this is a way that you’re finding a unity between people. ... So yes, in my opinion this is a means toward the era of Mashiach [the messianic age].” [35]

Professor Purves, who sees the web as transformative as the alphabet and printing press, believes that we do indeed discover God in hypertext. 

“Is God the network?”, he asks,  “the hypertext itself: the set of connections among spaces as well as immanent in those spaces?  I think God is to be found in the gutters of the comic strip and in the void between the text spaces.  God is immanent in the links as well as in the webs of the transcendent spinner. . . . A key to the correct perspective is the realization in us that we are not the center of the web.  We are not the spider, we may make links and little pathways and new spaces, but these do not constitute the web.” [36]

Purves sounds like a spiritual teacher reminding us that to discover Reality, we must let go of attachment to our own self-important desires, creations, and fears. 

The anthropologist, Jean Houston [37] , has concluded that the internet constitutes one of the major causes of what she calls Jump Time, an evolutionary leap in human consciousness. [38]   Houston points out that in the study of the evolutionary development of animal species, archeologists find that fossils over thousands of years seem basically similar.  Then in comparatively brief periods of time great changes occur, which she calls jump times.  She believes that the beginning of the 21st century constitutes a jump time for humans.   She describes “a whole system transition . . . that affects every aspect of life as we know it . . . that infuse(s) new depth into psychological and spiritual growth and new purpose and responsibility into social transformation.” [39]    She finds the web itself transformative.  The transition “from serial reality – that is, the one-thing-at-a-time or one-thing-after-another, take-time-to-think world that is informed by reading – to the world of interconnected, layered matrices of information, super-imposition of images, and electric speed is giving rise to substantial alterations in the way we think and relate.” [40]   She describes her own experience:

Sometimes late at night, while tracking an idea through many websites, I am filled with a sense of sacred presence, as if there is an interchange between my seeking and a Higher Self’s response.  Suddenly, I stop what I am doing, my hand falls away from the mouse, and I am absorbed in contemplation.  My eyes close, and I seem to see a vast and shining net, which fills me with joy and a strange kind of knowing. . . . Is this what Plato knew when he spoke of the world of forms? . . . Or is it just what it is, a growing communion between the human spirit and the Cosmic Source reflected in its latest incarnation, a Net that lives and moves and has its own remarkable being?” [41]

Mary Catherine Bateson, who saw us “reassembling the human species”, Ewart Cousins, who recognized the second “axial transformation” now occurring, Jean Houston describing our present “jump time”, as well as Jennifer Cobb [42] , a computer consultant and theologian – all direct our attention to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist whose book, The Phenomenon of Man [43] stands as the monumental description of human evolution toward what Teilhard calls Omega – as Cobb described it, “... a concentration of pure consciousness and absolute unity, where ‘all is being synthesized and organized.’” [44] Teilhard himself further describes the human task in moving toward Omega.

What is the work of works for man if not to establish, in and by each one of us, an absolutely original centre in which the universe reflects itself in a unique and inimitable way?  And those centres are our very selves and personalities.  The very centre of our consciousness, deeper than all its radii; that is the essence which Omega, if it is to be truly Omega, must reclaim. . . . The concentration of a conscious universe would be unthinkable if it did not reassemble in itself all consciousness as well as all the conscious; each particular consciousness remaining conscious of itself at the end of the operation, and even (this must absolutely be understood) each particular consciousness becoming still more itself and thus more clearly distinct from others the closer it gets to them in Omega. [45]  

In Teilhard’s view, Omega does not imply any loss of individual consciousness, but heightened and deepened unique individuality, as well as increasing interconnection with all human consciousness.  I suspect that Teilhard would agree that the wise use of cyberspace animates the human evolutionary journey toward omega.  Transpersonal philosopher Ken Wilber [46]   has described three stages of this journey as moving from the pre-personal consciousness of the dawn of time, to personal consciousness during the development of spoken and written language and printing, to trans-personal consciousness which involves awareness and connection beyond the personal to all beings as well as to the Source of Being itself. [47]    Let me be clear.  This is not a development we will see in the next 10 years.  It is an evolutionary development that will be moved farther along in the next 10,000 years.  What is remarkable today is that we can glimpse new hints of who we are and where we are headed.  We might even be able to nudge it along a bit. 

The visionary artist, Alex Grey [48] , has illustrated this evolutionary development in his Sacred Mirrors [49] , which make a fitting conclusion to this presentation.

He portrays the pre-personal as many images of the physical body.  For the personal, Grey shows naked men and women of Caucasian, African, and Oriental races.  Grey presents the transpersonal human as a network of energy systems and as a matrix of interconnected energy centers.  Here is what Teilhard described as all consciousness and all the conscious

This evolutionary journey was described by the 13th century Sufi poet, Rumi: [50]

From mineral substance you became a plant,
and later a roving animal. Is this a secret?
Afterwards as a human being, you developed reason, consciousness, faith.
See how this body has risen from the dust like a rose?
When you have surpassed the human state,
your angelic nature will unfold in a world beyond this world.

The internet – its art, its text, its connections, and its community -- is driving this more complete consciousness and appreciation of “the world beyond this world.”  I consider it a rare privilege to be a part of such an enterprise; and I dedicate myself to seek and practice the wisdom necessary to contribute to its realization. 


[1] .

[2] .

[3] .Cousins, E. (1992).  Christ of the 21st Century.  Rockport, MA: Element.

[4] . p. 9.

[5] .

[6] .Talk at the Amos Fortune Forum, Jaffrey, NH., Aug. 23, 2002.

[7] . He made this point in a group discussion following Bateson’s talk.

[8] .Purves, A. (1998).  The Web of Text and the Web of God.  New York: Guilford.


[10] .Zaleski, J. (1997).  The Soul of Cyberspace.  New York: HarperEdge, pp. 1-7.  Bishop Gaillot wrote in an early version of his website, “As far as I am concerned, to go onto the internet is first of all like a dream.  It is the dream of a child who walks along a sand beach and looks at the ocean.  He feels lonely and weak in front of the vastness of the ocean.  And suddenly the wish to start a dialogue with all the people of the world who live on other shores grows on him.  To go onto the internet is also a venture.  It is a magnificent venture which offers itself to me.  I take the risk to let myself be welcomed by all women and men, whose face I do not know. 

Partenia calls to mind faraway lands, yet unknown.  Partenia is a place of freedom.” (p. 7)

[11] .Fathi, N. (2002, Aug. 4).  Taboo Surfing: Click Here for Iran . . . And Click Here for China.  New York Times, p. wk5. 

The internet in China enriches choices as “one part of a broader shift in China from an isolated and regimented place to a lively, globally connected society in which ever greater realms lie outside the grasp of Big Brother.”  When 9/11 planes crashed into the World Trade Center, “a private Chinese user posted the dire news only 17 minutes after it was flashed in the west, said Guo Liang, a researcher on society and the Internet at the chinese Academy of Social Sciences.”

Article available at:

[12] .

[13] . Personal communication, used here, along with her picture, with her permission.

[14] .Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly 14(12) 2002, cited in

[15] .One former student of mine in environmental studies and counseling psychology confessed his own fascination: “I was enthralled with porn sites for the first six months, as I know many men are (even the politically correct men of Antioch!). I don't think any presentation on the internet would be complete without addressing the huge draw and big business of porn.”

[16] .Freeny, M. (1998).  Terminal Consent.  Orlando, FL: William Austin.

[17] .Winston, Diana (2002).  Filling Our Heads and Instant Fulfillment: A Buddhist Muses on the Internet.  ReVision 24(4), pp. 4-6.  (she is founder of the Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement)

[18] .

[19] . Berners-Lee, T. with Mark Fischetti (1999).  Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor.  NY: HarperCollins, This quote is found at

[20] . In communications to me about this presentation, one man appreciated his “simple awareness of the connection with a much larger world. I don't feel smaller, as some have noted, but rather I feel a part of something much bigger.” Another man wrote, “Perhaps the net will do for religion what the printing press did in bringing the words of the Bible to the common person. Where the Bible represents a published institu­tional dissemination of God's Word. We now can get God's Word from anyone .. anywhere.”

[21] .

[22] .

[23] .

[24] . A growing number of people are discovering Centering Prayer, a meditation practice taught by Fr. Thomas Keating.  Instructions and a community of people learning Centering Prayer can be found at Contemplative Outreach, Ltd at  Those interested in visiting the Taizé Community ( ), the Iona Community in Scotland ( , or  Gothic cathedrals ( in various parts of Europe can find beautiful images and information. 

[25] . Buddhist teaching and programs can be found at Namgyal Tibetan Monastery  (  in  Ithaca, NY, which is the North American seat of the Dalai Lama and the Zen Mountain Monastery ( in Mt. Tremper, NY.   Those interested in visiting Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village (  in France will find teaching, information and programs on those sites. 

[26] . Islamic sites include the Global Muslim eCommunity at, and The Threshold Society ( , a sufi community following the teaching of Rumi. 

[27] . Yoga Journal (, Resources on Hinduism (, and the Sivananda tradition ( are just three of many resources in the Hindu tradition that are available. 

[28] .Michael Harner, who has helped many to experience and understand the shamanic tradition, has a website ( that provides resources and information. 

[29] .

[30] .

[31] .

[32] . The message went on:

“AS STATED IN THE HOLY QUR'AN: Sura Al-Maida--The Table Spread: Sura 5, Verse 32

On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person--unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land--it would be as if he slew the whole people: And if any one saved a life. It would be as if he saved the whole people..”

[33] . In  (Deerfield Beach, FL: 2000), Rabbi Joshua Hammerman describes his own moving spiritual experience at a website providing a live camera on the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a site he has visited in cyberspace and in person many times (  As he meditates in front of his monitor, he wonders whether he is there as he watches, and whether God is there.  He concludes, “To paraphrase the Lotzker Rebbe, God is wherever people let God in” (p. 17).  (Unfortunately the website seems not to be active as this is written.) 

[34] .

[35] .Zaleski, J. (1997).  The Soul of Cyberspace.  New York: Harper Edge.  p. 20.

[36] . Purves (1998), pp. 218-219.

[37] .

[38] .Houston, J. (2000).  Jump Time: Shaping your Future in a World of Radical Change.  New York: Jeremy Tarcher/Putnam.

[39] . pp. 11-12.

[40] . p. 210

[41] . p. 233

[42] . Cobb, J. (1998).  Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World.  New York: Crown.  She wrote, “The emergent dynamic found between the hardware and software in cyberspace is an aspect of divinity itself.  In other words, the cosmic force that drives the movement and unfolding of reality is the same force as that which drives the continual, moment-by-moment emergence of the world of cyberspace.” (p.51)

[43] . Teilhard de Chardin, P. (2nd Torchbook Ed.)(1965).  The Phenomenon of Man.  (B. Wall, Trans.).  New York: Harper & Row.  (Original work published as Le Phénomene Humain, 1955, Editions du Seuil, Paris.).  An overview can be found at

[44] .Cobb (1998), p. 89.

[45] .Teilhard de Chardin, P. (1955/1965),  p. 261. 

[46] .  Other websites about Ken Wilber include, and .

[47] . Wilber developed this evolutionary perspective of human development first in Up from Eden, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday. 1981.  Wilber has since developed his ideas in numerous other books and articles, the most complete being: Wilber, K..1999). An approach to integral psychology. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology,31,109-136. and Wilber, K. (2000).  Integral Psychology: The Collected Works of Ken Wilber: Volume Four.  Boston: Shamhala. 

[48] .

[49] .  Also, Grey, Alex (1990).  Sacred Mirrors: The Visionary Art of Alex Grey.  Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International. Click on this link to see flash movie, press continue 4 times until you see the outline of a person.

[50] .

[51] . Rumi, J. (1993) Love Is a Stranger (K. Helminski,trans.).  Putney, VT: Threshold Books.  (Original work published in 13th century.) pp. 72-73.