What Would Thomas Merton Have Thought of Facebook? On Being Unplugged in a Digital Age

I would have really liked to have gone to the recent Catholic Media Conference which took place in Sydney last week, but a few different commitments made that impossible.  I’ve heard a few reports from friends who went, which were largely very positive.  And it got me thinking…

As a Catholic priest who blogs regularly (well, semi-regularly) I am clearly an advocate of the Church’s presence in the new(-ish) world of social media.  To say that the Church shouldn’t be a presence on the Web is to turn our back on one of the key places that people gather today.  As Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out, the new means of social communication are one of the new areopagi – one of the new sectors of society – that ought to be the focus of the Church’s new evangelisation.  We don’t want to disregard the potential of a wonderful tool for the communication of the Gospel.  In fact, the Church simply cannot ignore these new means of communication, because like it or not, this is the way people today will want to communicate with us.

At the same time, we cannot afford to be naive about the various concerns and questions raised by the new media, including matters of privacy and safety and the narrowing sources of our information as we are increasingly selective about what and who we read.  I’d also like to highlight a different concern.

In a world where everyone is always online and always connected, the Church may be, in fact needs to be, a ‘place’ where people are able to experience community ‘unplugged’.  I’m reminded of a comment by Thomas Merton, who suggested that watching television was the antithesis of contemplation. The gaze that the television produces is the polar opposite of the contemplative gaze.  What would Merton have made of Facebook?  I cannot help think that he would have thought that  it was an ersatz form of the community that is produced by the contemplative gaze.  Connecting all the time with friends on Facebook is like people forced to drink chicory in deprived, post-World War Europe.  Sure it’s a drink, but it isn’t really coffee.  Facebook isn’t a substitute for embodied relationship, or what we simply used to call friendship and community before the advent of ‘friends’ whom you never see face to face.

The link between contemplation and genuine community is critical, and being online for hours on end militates against both.  And without wanting to deny the human being’s virtually endless capacity for distraction (I’m recalling Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death here) I truly believe that the ersatz form of community to be found online will ultimately prove to be as unsatisfying for people as chicory substitutes for coffee.  Which brings us to a magnificent opportunity for the Church… to be the Church.  To be a ‘place’ which provides a space for genuine contemplation and which produces genuine community.  Our necessary presence on the web can and must meet people in their ‘world’, but it needs to invite them into a different one: the world that is opened up by the Gospel, that is incarnated especially in liturgy, and which produces an alternative and distinctive way of being human.  I’m completely aware of the apparent irony of using a blog to make this argument, but it is only an apparent irony.  It actually reinforces my point that we should make extensive use of the new media in order to connect with people, but we will do that in order to direct them to the contemplative and embodied community of the Church.

In particular, this means that we need to be careful of uncritically importing the practices of the new media into our lives and into the Church’s life.  Let me offer one example: the Facebook timeline encourages us to offer a chronology of our lives online in words and pictures going right back to the moment of our birth.  I am sure there are parents who are even now diligently adding to their infant’s Facebook page, getting them ready to present to their child when they are old enough to read or even see the pictures.  The timeline concept clearly raises questions about privacy, but the deeper reality is that it is also a liturgical practice in which we tell ourselves who we are – we form our own identity – through what we post about ourselves.  The Church offers another kind of liturgy, which cannot compete with the Facebook timeline for being slick, glossy or initially attractive.  But the liturgy of the Church and the other practices of faith like contemplative prayer offer a different account of who we are: that our deepest identity is that we are the beloved of God.

This does not mean dispensing with the exciting avenues that the new media offer for proclaiming the Gospel.  It means recognising that these avenues are subordinate to the Gospel and not the other way round. The evangelical task for the Church is not to mimic the practices of the new media, but to be authentic to her own identity as the community that is formed by gazing at the face of Christ, who is the face of God.

Posted on May 6, 2012, in Culture, Evangelisation, Liturgy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Excellent post! (And with that, I should now shut down the computer!)

  2. I like you post Fr Chris but you can’t just make up words – ersatz?!

    Also agree with the thrust of your post but recognise we live in a different world today. Blogs, facebook and twitter are the water wells, market places and centres that people used to meet and have conversations and discussions. It’s weird it isn’t in person and of course can only ever be an amendment to real contact. I think maybe it is just a really good extention of our connections.

    Having said that the contemplative world of Thomas Merton also becomes even more radical and alluring than ever. I think that’s part of the reason why I shut down my facebook. Its just too around the clock and all invasive.

    Twitter on the other hand I have totally fallen in love with. Its is an incredible way to evangelise and catchise. Its literally changed my life with the articles, links and comments I have read. Including this one.

  3. Well said Chris. Ive been waiting for a good article from a Catholic perspective that steps back and looks at the medium of social media rather than just what it can do.

  4. Denis Goodwin

    Drinking hickory? Are you quite sure you did not mean chicory, doc?

  5. I did! The errors of posting too quickly! Thanks!

  6. Thanks on your marvelous posting! I definitely enjoyed reading it, you’re a great author. I will make sure to bookmark your blog and will eventually come back in the foreseeable future. I want to encourage you to definitely continue your great work, have a nice morning!

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