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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. 

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11 Responses

  1. Marthe Lépine says:

    I am wondering if there is a mistake in the first sentence of the 3rd paragraph before the end of the article: “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 expected ways, that push us and allow us to grow.” Would you, by any chance, have meant “encounters with other people that shape us in “unexpected” ways”? Or is it that I am the one with a problem understanding the sentence?

  2. Yaya says:

    The Internet is a valuable tool but like everything else we have, it can be addicting, isolating, a destroyer of peace. I remember when I was on all he time, everyday, neglecting important duties and people. I regret that now by trying to put real life and people first rather than the fantasy that the internet can become.
    I do learn lots when I come here and when I read certain articles on Crux or videos put out by Bishop Robert Barron. I like the Rome Reports and Current News videos on YouTube as well. Quit Instagram and Facebook and certain Catholic websites that I found distracting and negative.
    So I relate to your comments regarding, “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.”

    Having been called a heretic and a liberal online by certain folks for defending our Holy Father Francis helped me realize it was time to cut back and cut off those websites/people because they were not building up my faith in Christ but tearing ti down by tearing down the Vicar of Christ.

    I will continue to frequent your fine website though because yours is a refuge for one such as myself who struggles to stay on the Royal Road to heaven.

    God bless you all!

  3. chris dorf says:

    A friend organized a Chicago Media Watch conference sometime in the 90’s and he told me how the participants were all fixated on the internet being the change maker for truth in governance and corporate power. Matt Stanton had none of it, as he saw it as a fools gold to these people.
    Latter, Douglas Rushkoff became the go to guy on how the internet would save humanity, and he quickly changed his beliefs on that matter. He penned Life Inc. and Present Shock and numerous other books explaining the false hope of the internet given by people.

    https://rushkoff.com/

  4. M. says:

    Brilliant, and so true. The problem is that here I am reading this wonderful article, on my preferred site, with the people I agree with…on the internet. What is the answer?

  5. Faith says:

    This is great. Chris, I’ll look up that recommendation. Cal Newport’s books, especially “Digital Minimalism” and “Deep Work” echo a lot of the concerns listed above by Daniel.

    • Faith says:

      Also, Amiri’s article gives quite a good argument for attending your geographical parish. Oh, dear.

  6. Christopher Lake says:

    Spending far too much time on the internet can be a serious temptation, to say the least, for a man with a physical disability who uses a wheelchair and is unable to drive (i.e. me). Not very long ago, I would easily spend hours on Facebook each day, always *intending* to spend a much shorter amount of time there. In late 2016, I decided to “take a break” from my daily checking of my Facebook feed– and the longer that I stayed away, the more peace, calm, and serenity of heart, mind, and soul, I experienced. The change in my life was so radical, and wonderfully so, that to this day, I have never signed back into that account.

    One additional way that I try to limit my time on the internet is by making the deliberate choice to not have a Smartphone. People can laugh at me, or try to pressure me, about it all that they want. I have no desire to have the internet on my phone. Whenever I leave my home to go out into the world, I want to be *truly out in the world, consciously with people*, and I know that I could not truly experience that if I were regularly checking my phone or thinking about checking my phone. My cell phone does have texting ability, and other than making phone calls, that’s basically it for me. When I am spending time with people, in-person, I make a serious effort not to text, and I try not to check my phone for texts, unless I am waiting on genuinely serious news from someone.

    I still struggle with spending too much time on the internet at home. It’s an ongoing dilemma for me that I really do want to get together more with people, but most of my friends are so busy with jobs, spouses, and children that the times we can actually get together are rare. Making new friends in one’s mid-40s? In my experience, that is not easy at all, especially when one can’t drive and is largely dependent on buses and trains for transportation.

    Sometimes, I do really long to just go out, even if I am alone, and be a witness for Christ in my community, in some very clear way that is more than just simply “being a nice person”– because, in my experience, non-Christians can easily attribute basic niceness to many sources *other* than Christ. At the same time, I don’t want to just sit in my wheelchair, in a public place somewhere, and freak out complete strangers by intrusively seeking to have conversations about Christ with them in an obnoxious, disrespectful way. Oh, Lord, give me discernment on how to be a better, more clear witness for You in the world!

  7. M. says:

    Dear Christopher, you are witnessing here. There are those that are called to witness in the online environment, perhaps. Imagine the internet with no one like you online, it would be a very sad place for the young indeed!

    But I hear your need to socialize and evangelize in real time, in real places, and face to face. Your disability can aid you in this, because you can be a witness for the value of life in our society. There are lonely people everywhere, friend. Keep your eyes open, and offer them your friendship. It’s a treasure the world needs. I’ll never forget my encounter with a severely disabled man whose body was so wracked with whatever his ailment was, that wheelchair bound he found it quite difficult to speak. He was at McDonalds. The workers there were chatting with him, trying to understand him, and he was chatting with great effort to everyone who came in who would be willing to stop and talk to him and try to understand his words. He made a huge difference in my life because he was smiling at everyone, wishing them well, and trying hard to communicate to all how wonderful life is, despite how difficult it was for him. I asked him his name and won’t forget it soon. “Stupendous Steve.” An every day hero and probably a saint. I’m not saying that’s what you should do, at all- that was his calling. But there is something for you friend, some definite purpose the Lord has in mind. Keep praying, it will become clear. (You have marvelous writing ability!)

    • Christopher Lake says:

      M.,

      Thanks so much for your (continued) encouragement to me, my sister in Christ! I do hear you that I am a witness online, and I try to remind myself that that reality is *not* negligible. Often though, it seems that, online, I am either “preaching to the choir,” (i.e. people who already believe what you and I believe, regarding Christ and the Church), or, I am trying to reason with disaffected Catholics who are simply so convinced of a particular narrative (such as an anti-Pope Francis one) that nothing I can say can *disabuse* them of that narrative.

      In both of the above cases, I am “witnessing” to fellow Catholics, fellow believers in Christ, which can have its place, but I long to be out and about, physically, in the places where I know that people who don’t believe in Christ tend to be in the geographical region where I live– in the late-night bars, at the raucous concerts, and so on… but the hours when people tend to *most often be* at such venues, in this area, are often far past the times when public transportation runs here. The concerts that I mentioned, for example, often start around 9 or 10 pm and *end* at 1 or 2 am. This means that, in many cases, I *might* be able to take the area’s buses, or the subway, *to* the venue where I am hoping to “be a witness” (in whatever form that might take in God’s leading), *but* I would have no way home… and believe me, the areas where the late-night bars, and the raucous concerts, are, are *not* places where anyone wants to be stuck, using a wheelchair, and without a way to get home.

      This quite literally *physical reality* in my life has long been a tough one for me– not only in terms of trying to be a witness, in the flesh, to people who need to know the love of Christ, but also in terms of realizing professional aspirations, when I was younger. For years, it was a strong desire of mine to be a serious “culture commentator/critic,” writing on music, movies, plays, etc. I spent years, both in college, and in my personal, private time, building up the knowledge that would enable me to be a serious writer on these subjects… only to finally move from the very small, isolated town in which I was born and raised to a major American city and hub of all things cultural… where I came face-to-face with the bitter reality that, due to the facts of my disability and not being able to drive and having to rely on public transportation, I could not even realize my professional aspirations *even here, in this large cosmopolitan city, full of so much culture that I would love to see and enjoy in-person*….. if only I did not have this disabled body with which to contend. Ahh, well. Such is life.

      It has taken years, decades, even, but I think that I’ve come to a sort of terms with the reality that I simply cannot have the kind of life that many physically able-bodied people take for granted. Even with the fairly good public transportation here, I still cannot really go where I want to go and do what I want to do– and that’s just my reality. It’s far what I wanted, and hoped and dreamed for, for years, when I was living in that small town and itching to get out to “the big city,” where I truly thought that my life would be so radically different. I was very mistaken about that. It still stings sometimes, not so much because I still have dreams of being the aforementioned “culture critic,” but because being in this body means that I can’t even simply go out to, and get back from, so many places and events here, where I would love to show desperately hurting people the love of Christ… so, it seems, I just have to do that how and where I can– which is, largely, online.

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