Facebook and techno-theology

11 Nov

I am breaking up with Facebook for now. This is an ambivalent decision. I have tried retrenchments and retreats before and have inevitably failed to restrain myself for very long. Truth is, I am a chronic user. It’s sort of funny to me that I have become one since I initially resisted joining the site for so long.

What I like about Facebook: I like the camaraderie and the networked friendships. I like meeting people virtually before I meet them in person. I like the interesting articles and videos people post. I love the instantaneous response and rapid-fire conversations. In some ways it’s an introvert’s social paradise. As one who can hardly manage being in a group of five or more, it is easier for me to maintain frequent contact with many from a distance. I like being able to have a virtual Rolodex (and this is the only reason I will not completely delete my account–for now–but only deactivate it) of all my contacts and friends with whom I have no contact otherwise.

What I dislike about Facebook: When I am not feeling well about myself, Facebook acts as a stimulant and a depressant,  temporarily boosting my ego before I despond again. I keep returning because I want to stay in touch with people. Whenever I begin my inevitable retreat from Facebook, I fear that I will be hurting someone’s feelings when I disappear from their friend list. Like it or not, virtual relationships have the emotional ties of friendships maintained in person. Those ties are real and important and something I take seriously. Then there’s the time spent. It consumes my mind in an unhealthy way and becomes an easy excuse not to think about more important things. It takes time away from healthy human relationships and personal growth in other areas. So, I am quitting for now. Buy me a patch for social network withdrawal (blogs are another form of social network, which I will ignore for the purpose of finishing this post).

The fear of missing out (FOMO), is what Wes Avram, a Presbyterian minister, suggests is perhaps the power driving Facebook, even more than the desire for social connection. His article “Connecting with a Theology of Technology” is featured in an issue of Reflections, the YDS magazine, a copy of which came for me by post. The entire issue is on technology and its implications for Christian ministry. Avram is asking for critical engagement with the ways that technology is influencing us, rather than simply accepting developing technology automatically as the status quo. And, of course of interest to me, Avram asks about its theological implications and the cost to religious life. Avram writes,

Hasn’t the religious vision of spiritual maturity always staked at least part of its claim on the value of “missing out”? Hasn’t it cherished the experience of deep exploration, of closing off options, focusing attention, and accepting limits? Hasn’t spiritual wisdom demanded patience, forgiveness, a grace that is shaped (not data-banked) by memory? And haven’t the disciplines of restraint, choice, concentration, humility, and focus been essential to the work of prayer? Can these questions be asked today without appearing hopelessly naive? (7)

 Of that increasing rarity privacy, he says, “What comes, then, of the theologically rich notion of the private, upon which all possibility of commitment and love through the course of suffering is based? Do not ethics require a healthy distinction between private and public, an orderly way of guarding the eye and deliberately missing out? And doesn’t a healthy soteriology require the same, whereby we allow the One who searches us to be a Loving Other (Holy Spirit) and not a piece of impersonal software[?]” (7-8) The last is a particularly interesting question, and Avram elaborates, speaking of the Spirit’s searching of us to fill and quiet our fear of missing out, searching our hidden thoughts and desires to shape them “and transform our fear of missing out into a desire for love” (8). Avram wants to know if that possibility changes with this latest technological revolution.

I don’t think technology and spirit are mutually exclusive, of course. He does, however, have a powerful point that I see manifest in my own life. Seeking to fill my immediate need for social fulfillment comes at the expense of asking God to fill that need in me. This article largely affected my desire for a hiatus or exodus from Facebook. The cost to my religious life, to thinking and being deliberately in the world, is real. If every time I need to seek God I ignore that yearning and click my way to therapy, I will have missed out on God’s healing balm, which requires work and submission and the transformation of the soul. 

My favorite excerpt from the entire article contains Avram’s hope for the future: “I’ll hope that we can still preserve a pre-internet, pre-cloud memory of a living hope mediated by prayer and not by hyperlink. I’ll keep hoping in a heaven that is less gnostic and more incarnational, less digitally powerful and more peaceful, less about access and more about acceptance. I’ll keep hoping that we can help a new generation remember something that technological innovation cannot give them, and hope that in so remembering they will find their FOMO healed” (8).

In October General Conference, Elder Adern offers his own techno-theology in “A Time to Prepare,” which urges technological restraint but also hints at the potential costs of resorting to technology instead of resorting to God. “How sad it would be if the phone and computer, with all their sophistication, drowned out the simplicity of sincere prayer to a loving Father in Heaven. Let us be as quick to kneel as we are to text.” And, Elder Adern hints at that incarnational heaven on earth that Avram seems anxious to preserve. “Electronic games and cyber acquaintances are no lasting substitute for real friends who can give an encouraging hug, who can pray for us and seek after our best interest. How grateful I have been to see quorum, class, and Relief Society members rally to the support of one another. On such occasions I have better understood what the Apostle Paul meant when he said, ‘Ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints.'”

True religion is found in human relationships, and although electronic communication can enhance those relationships, ultimately we are called to minister among each other, which, for me, requires some unplugging. If I do find a need for Facebook in the near or distant future, I will try to be more judicious in my use, looking Godward instead of screenward for the fulfillment of my deepest needs.

5 Responses to “Facebook and techno-theology”

  1. Jan November 11, 2011 at 2:06 pm #

    Great thoughts, Elizabeth.

  2. DLewis November 11, 2011 at 2:26 pm #

    Very interesting, Liz. Welcome to the world of “On-Facebook-but-a-non-user.” You might find this interview interesting:

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/julyweb-only/geektheologian.html

    • Ben S November 11, 2011 at 4:15 pm #

      Identifying and reading about FOMO elsewhere (Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School has been useful to me in helping me step back from some things. In some ways, Facebook is a drug.
      On the other hand, I’ve been able to use software to block it, whether temporary (SelfControl and Freedom, which are time-based) or permanent (K9, and I have someone else set the password).

      I’ve had some very positive things come from Facebook (and blogging) that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, but it still proves problematic from time to time.

  3. Ben S November 11, 2011 at 4:16 pm #

    Dropped a closing parenthesis there…

  4. LDS Anarchist November 15, 2011 at 7:01 pm #

    I’ve been counting down to my Facebook deletion (not deactivation) day: 17 November. I’ve alerted all my FB friends to save whatever comments they want to save, because once I hit the delete button, all of my posts and their comments, as well as all of my comments on other people’s posts, and all my notes, pics, etc., will go missing.

    Also, today I deactivated my Twitter account.

    I feel good about these moves, but I’m not leaving the online scene entirely. I still have my blog, email, Skype, Messenger and a presence on Wireclub.com. So, people will still be able to contact me via the Internet.

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