Connection. Connection was the pretext under which millions and millions of millennials such as myself flocked to the Internet in the 1990s. But as we have become more connected, we are becoming ever more distant IRL (in real life). This has had lasting impacts on the Church and efforts at evangelization.
The West is nearing peak virtuality. Some of our closest friendships may be with people we’ve never even met. Some are friends, perhaps exclusively, with people who represent themselves only through an avatar, such as in a massively multiplayer online game or in anonymous chat boards. This is not to say that these friendships are “fake” or themselves “virtual.” Rather, the point is that instead of allowing us to be close and connected in the way that we thought we wanted, the Internet has fundamentally changed what it means to be close and connected, and perhaps even what it means to be a friend or neighbor (cf. Luke 10:29). These changes have made it eminently more difficult to evangelize and to bring the fullness of the Church to bear in daily interactions.
Francis has talked at length about the importance of encounter and about going out to the margins where we might meet people in their suffering and pain. Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium,
The Christian ideal will always be a summons to overcome suspicion, habitual mistrust, fear of losing our privacy, all the defensive attitudes which today’s world imposes on us. Many try to escape from others and take refuge in the comfort of their privacy or in a small circle of close friends, renouncing the realism of the social aspect of the Gospel. For just as some people want a purely spiritual Christ, without flesh and without the cross, they also want their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command. Meanwhile, the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.
The essential question is not whether the Internet has offered certain advantages to the Church. It certainly has. Bishop Barron is a great example of how the Internet can be used positively in service of the Church, especially when it comes to catechesis. The real question, however, is whether the Internet and the way we are using the Internet is preventing us from being close in the way that we as Christians are called to be close, in all the ways that encourage two or more people to engage with each other on a deep level, to make themselves truly vulnerable with each other, in which difficult questions and concerns can be voiced within a shared spirit of deep love and affection–in other words, in a spirit of true freedom and friendship.
Each person will have to answer for themselves whether their Internet habits are problematic or not. But it’s important to this process of discernment to consider the extent to which one’s interactions on the Internet are wholly voluntaristic. By saying they are voluntaristic, I mean that interactions on the internet typically only occur when two or more people have agreed to interact with each other. Sometimes that agreement is explicit, and at other times just implicit. But typically the terms of the arrangement–such as the topic and the methods of discussion allowed–are all agreed upon beforehand. Whenever one person violates the terms of that arrangement, it is permissible for the other one to cut off the interaction. We have terms for this: ghosting, muting, banning, blocking, etc. There are, of course, sometimes legitimate reasons to enforce the terms of these online interactions. That’s not the point. Rather, the point is that the Internet is inherently a place where interactions can typically only occur by mutual agreement.
Why is this a problem? Voluntarism, expressed in the way in which we might drift from thread to thread, choosing only when we want to participate and whom we want to engage with, very likely denies us the uncomfortable encounters that can lead to the most productive and most beneficial discussions and conversations. One of the core principles of Christianity is that we don’t know what’s good for us. This is the story of the ancient Israelites and it is the story of each Christian in their journey of faith. Someone on the outside has to “break in” to our consciousness, to reveal to us the truth of a world that we had been missing out on. To put a finer point on it, we don’t know that we need Christ until Christ makes it known that we need him. In the darkness of our sin, we can’t just “figure out” the fullness of faith and Christian love on our own. Someone else has to reveal it to us.
However, if we are choosing to interact with others only in the ways we want to, we will be denied those encounters with other people that shape us in unexpected ways, that push us and allow us to grow. More often than not, what we think we want is the opposite of what we truly need. Christianity preaches that we can only mature to the extent that we have been given the grace to do so and that we humbly reject the sin and darkness in our life. But if we, in our sin, only engage with the world when we want to and with only those people we want to, then we will deny ourselves the gift of a broader perspective, a new way of living. Conversely, regular interactions with people we disagree with, who have fundamentally different perspectives helps to ensure that the graces, gifts, and fruit of the Spirit that we did not receive in their fullness can be nurtured and supported by the Spirit through others who did receive those gifts–and vice versa (cf. 1 Corinthians 12).
But a further point can be made here. This is not just about people different from us or other people who have different views. When we are made to encounter other people–truly encounter them–we can learn to be present to them and their whole person, what is said and what is unsaid, what they want to reveal and what they don’t. These types of uncomfortable, unpleasant, difficult encounters are the bedrock of evangelization. They help to ensure that whatever barriers one might have put up to protect themselves against the inbreaking of grace are brought down through the loving presence of one who makes them uncomfortable, who makes them question the assumptions holding up their flimsy spiritual defenses. But if we are not willing to make others (and perhaps ourselves) even just slightly uncomfortable, we will never truly evangelize. All interactions will be held on mutually agreed-upon terms, always comfortable, always easy–never in a way that challenges one to grow.
The Internet encourages voluntaristic interactions. This is precisely how social media companies can function so well. Their express aim is to continue to encourage the interactions that attract us and draw us back in, constantly offering us connections and friendships with only those people we would like to be friends with. It is sometimes necessary, then, do so something truly radical in this modern era, something that can be truly life-changing and transformative: get off the Internet. This is a necessary first step toward seeking out those uncomfortable encounters that can alter our way of thinking and being in the world–for the better.